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Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank's 'What They Had' tackles the complex emotions of family dynamics

Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank's 'What They Had' tackles the complex emotions of family dynamics
Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play a brother and sister often at odds over what to do about their dementia-suffering mother in "What They Had." (Bleecker Street)

In the early morning, before the sun can cast its warmth, Hilary Swank opens up with honesty in her voice that makes the 2,500 miles between us disappear. “This is one of the times I felt the most vulnerable as an actor,” the two-time Academy Award-winning actress says in a phone interview, referring to her role in “What They Had,” from first time writer-director Elizabeth Chomko.

There’s a reason why we haven’t seen Swank on the silver screen the last three years. Her father underwent lung transplant surgery and she made the decision to be by his side. Now 44, Swank’s latest explores family hardship and the painstaking decisions made to move forward.

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Playing Bridget — a role the affable actor viscerally connected to immediately — she finds herself in an unhappy marriage living in California and mother to a troubled teenage daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). When Bridget’s mom, Ruth (Blythe Danner), disappears in the middle of a Chicago winter night, she rushes home to discover her mother has entered the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Holding the power of attorney, a sympathetic Bridget must decide what transpires next. Her brother, Nick (Michael Shannon), who stayed in Chicago and looks after their parents, suggests specialty assisted living, while their fervent father, Burt (Robert Forster), fights to keep his wife at home under his own loving care.

“Bridget is a woman trying to figure it out and trust her instincts and honor what she knows is right and be brave in all of that,” says Swank, who served as an executive producer and further developed the character alongside the scribe. “Elizabeth captured family dynamics and the love of family dysfunction so well.”

Chomko cherishes the fact that she and Swank shared a deep connection during their first meeting. “I wrote this story from a very personal place inspired by my own family,” says the director. “Bridget is an extension of myself, and the more the character is like you, the harder it is to pinpoint. With Hilary, we were able to cultivate that narrative together and push each other to be unafraid.”

With the script ready, producers reached out to Shannon, someone Swank notes she’s wanted to work with for over a decade. The two got together at a dinner the night before shooting.

Hilary Swank as Bridget and Michael Shannon as Nick in "What They Had."
Hilary Swank as Bridget and Michael Shannon as Nick in "What They Had." (Bleecker Street)

“I never met Hilary in my life. I was nervous cause I really respected the heck out of her. She came walking in and over to me like we’ve known each other since we were kids,” says Shannon, who found his affinity for acting in the Windy City and still has roots there as a co-founder of A Red Orchid Theater in the Old Town district.

As Bridget’s often blunt but likable brother, the toll of caregiving weighs on his shoulders. Wrapped up in those problems are subplots of his own personal issues; a rocky relationship with a woman being one of them.

“It’s very much like life,” says Shannon. “You see him so focused on his parents but he has his own problems. It’s something that all the characters are dealing with in the movie; that they forget about themselves.”

Scenes between Bridget and Nick magnify the dichotomy of their personalities but with an energy only siblings share. One moment they’re calling out each other’s character flaws, the next they’re laughing at the absurdity of their mom’s slip-up when she hits on Nick, thinking he’s a single stranger.

Emotions enlarge further in scenes with their father — scenes in which Forster gives his most bravado performance to date. In one candid conversation, they try to convince him assisted living is a “solution worth considering,” but he questions if they’re “out of their minds” and wants no part in it.

Shannon says those confrontational yet heartfelt moments can come to life because there are no repercussions.

“When you argue with your real family, you have to deal with the terrible burden the next morning at the breakfast table trying to figure out if you’re going to apologize. With the movie, you can have that juicy argument and then just walk away and not be overwhelmed with shame. With Robert, we love being around him. He has such a strong paternal energy about him.”

Swank shares a similar sentiment about the closeness on set: “This movie is so beautiful and I think everyone will find something to relate to it.”

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