How Caregiving Prepared Hilary Swank for the Role of a Lifetime

The cast and crew of What They Had share how their personal caregiving experiences shaped the film.

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- Posted on Oct 17, 2018

Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank in "What They Had"

What They Had, a new movie releasing October 19 in limited markets and nationally November 2, takes a deep dive into the world of caregiving, an experience intimately familiar to the film’s director, Elizabeth Chomko, and stars Hilary Swank and Blythe Danner.

The movie follows a family coming together when matriarch Ruth (Danner), who has Alzheimer’s, wanders out of her house and into a blizzard. When she is found, family members disagree about the best course of care. Burt (Robert Forster), Ruth’s loving husband, believes he can continue to manage her care at home. Their son, Nick (Michael Shannon), is adamant that Ruth is getting progressively worse and needs to move into an assisted living home. Swank plays Bridget, Burt and Ruth’s daughter, who is torn between the two.

It's a story that will strike a chord with family caregivers. The film contains strong language, but mature viewers will appreciate the nuances and realistic potrayal of how caring for someone with Alzheimer's affects an entire family. 

Danner told AARP, "It's about a family. It's about what normal people are dealing with–so many people are taking care of parents."

The movie hit close to home for many of the actors and creatives involved. When Danner’s husband, Bruce Paltrow, was diagnosed with oral cancer, she became his primary caregiver. After his death, she became a spokesperson for the Oral Cancer Foundation and now runs the Bruce Paltrow Oral Cancer Fund.

Swank also has caregiving experience. She put her film career on hold to move her father into her home after he had a risky lung transplant.

“I drove him to hospital appointments; he’d have breakfast—that was my workout time—we’d have lunch; I’d make his dinner,” Swank told AARP. “There were a lot of scares, but this was our life.” 

Swank says becoming a caregiver changed her permanently.

“There were moments when I was taking care of my dad where you’re not confident, when you know that in helping make a decision, (it) could be good or bad—and that was something you were going to have to live with, no matter which way it went. So it was scary,” she told USA Today.

What They Had is one of the first film roles Swank has taken since becoming a caregiver. Her father recovered from the transplant and is relatively self-sufficient. He lives with Swank and her husband. 

Chomko wrote the movie to fill a gap she noticed in the portrayal of caregiving and Alzheimer’s on film. Her grandmother had Alzheimer’s and her family’s caregiving journey was formative.

"I really wanted to show how Alzheimer's impacts the whole family,” she said at the premiere of the film. “All the complications it brings up, how witnessing someone lose their memories can make you look at your own memories more deeply, and maybe bring up old wounds. People can get so blindsided by all of those complications, they lose the joy of the last years you have with your loved ones.”

What They Had is in theaters everywhere November 2.

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