As it turns out, Hilary Swank’s dog is named Kai, which is why she was so befuddled when people on the street kept yelling, “Do Cobra Kai” at her. After winning two Oscars – for Boys Don’t Cry, which was somehow 20 years ago already, and Million Dollar Baby – yes, perhaps her early role in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid isn’t the first thing that pops into her head.
This week Swank appears in Netflix’s I Am Mother, a sci-fi film that received strong accolades at Sundance. In I Am Mother, Swank plays a mysterious stranger who shows up at a sterile, post-apocalyptic bunker where a robot (voiced by Rose Byrne) is raising a young girl (Clara Rugaard) in an effort to repopulate Earth. It’s striking to see Swank in a role like this because she’s not done a lot of sci-fi in her career (other than 2003’s The Core, a film Swank says she did because it had such a strong cast), and Swank admits she’s not a huge fan of sci-fi in the first place but loves fantasy films, which leads to a spirited debate about what sci-fi is in the first place. (Eventually Siri has to get involved, and she wasn’t that big of a help.)
Swank also looks back on Boys Don’t Cry 20 years later. A role that still defines her career in a movie far ahead of its time, but acknowledges that it’s a role she couldn’t play today.
Should I sit in that chair? There’s a phone on it.
Oh, is that Claire’s phone? Did she leave her phone?
I thought that was a gift.
I left a little gift for you.
I get a new phone, this is great.
You go wherever you want to go. I’m sitting here and you have three chairs, your choice.
I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time. I even saw The Next Karate Kid in theaters.
Oh, thank you.
It would be funny if I didn’t know anything between then and now. “What have you been up to? Any accolades?”
That would be funny, but then I would hope you have a lot of time.
I really enjoyed you being in a sci-fi dystopian movie…
I can’t remember you doing anything like this. I guess maybe The Core? But this is a very different movie.
One hundred percent, yeah, that was the only other similar genre to this that I’ve done, and it’s mostly because I’m not a huge sci-fi fan. But for me, within this story, I saw something that was really thought-provoking in it, not that sci-fi’s not. But it’s not in the that far future, I think, where we’re going to have a lot more AI around us. And what does that mean? And the idea of can you be taught empathy? Is empathy taught?
So what you’re saying is the robots are eventually going to kill us?
No, I hope not.
I feel there’s been joking about AI taking over for years, ever since probably the first Terminator. Like, “Oh, Skynet.”
And some robot is going to pick up this interview off your phone and go, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
You mentioned you’re not a big sci-fi fan, why is that?
I’m just not that into it. I mean, the idea of things that are shiny and cold. It’s what it feels like to me, sci-fi. It’s shiny and cold. I don’t know why. Just the idea of suspending disbelief in that arena feels sometimes cold to me. I don’t know how else to say it: like suspending your disbelief of magic bunnies floating the air. I’m just making that up, but you know what I mean? Like The Wizard of Oz, or where you sing and little things come out of the trees. You know what I mean?
You don’t like The Wizard of Oz?
No, I love it. I’m saying it doesn’t feel warm and fuzzy like that.
Oh, I see.
Sci-fi feels cold, or it doesn’t feel warm. I wouldn’t call The Wizard of Oz sci-fi.
There could be an element of sci-fi to it.
That’s a magical realm. Is sci-fi a magical realm?
I think it can have traits.
I guess it depends on what we’re defining as sci-fi.
I mean, there are flying monkeys in that movie. That’s science fiction, right?
But to me, that’s suspending disbelief. I don’t know. Let’s see, sci-fi. Let’s look up the definition of sci-fi. Should we, on our device?
[Swank takes out her phone] Siri, what’s the definition of sci-fi? [Siri gives the definition of Wi-Fi instead.] No, Sci-fi. See, I’m not good at this. I meant sci-fi, not Wi-Fi. Are you worried about me now?
No, this is great.
“Short for science fiction.” That’s all it says.
Okay. Well, that doesn’t really help us.
Science fiction to me is not monkeys flying.
But we established you do like The Wizard of Oz?
I love it, it’s one of my favorite movies.
Is that because of growing up in the Midwest?
No, that’s because the idea of looking for something outside of yourself that’s really inside of you, and that we all do that, thinking that we’re going to find our answers elsewhere.
I think of the Wizard’s palace. I feel like there were a lot of futuristic things in there, like the big head and everything. He needed some sort of technological advancement to do that.
I’ll give it to you if you think that.
No, no, I’m letting you decide. If you say it’s not, we’re going with it’s not.
I say it’s not, but we should let your audience decide. Let’s have them vote in on that.
How did you avoid then Star Wars taking over the world for our entire childhood?
Look, I mean, there’s a lot of heart in that first Star Wars, right? And with what’s his name being the father, Darth Vader, there’s heart in that to me. So I think if there’s the idea of heart within something. I’m just not someone who wants to see two, three, four, five, six, seven of the extensions of things. I like it to be in a tight little story.
You’re not a sequel person?
Have you ever been offered a sequel?
This (I Am Mother) could be a sequel.
I mean, I guess your Karate Kid is a sequel…
This could be a sequel, I think. I think that would be cool.
Yeah, I think so, too.
I Am Mother didn’t really start as that, but as we worked on the script, it became something that could. There could be a sequel to it. I’m not opposed to a sequel here.
You’re one of the few actors that seems to have eschewed the franchise thing.
Yeah, I’m open-minded, like I said. If I read something and I was like, “Oh, I really like this character… ” I like suspending disbelief, getting back to that definition, I really like that. To me, magical realism is something I love, whether it’s in a book or in a movie, so I love that aspect of it. It doesn’t have to be grounded in some type of realism, just so we’re really clear. I mean, in my next project I’m playing an astronaut, and the idea of the unknown and space travel is fascinating. The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut.
In the next movie you’re going to space, and you’ve been to the center of the earth, too.
I’m doing it all.
The Core has been on cable a lot lately.
Oh, that’s funny.
They strangely don’t make movies like that anymore, those kind of mid-budget action movies with an amazing cast. Stanley Tucci’s in that movie.
I know, right? Aaron Eckhart! I was the last to be cast. And I thought, “If this cast loves this movie, I’m going to do a sci-fi.” And well, here we are. There might be a reason why they don’t make mid-level movies like that anymore.
It’s been 20 years since Boys Don’t Cry. That movie is so ahead of its time. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.
Especially now, we’re finally in an era where people are paying attention finally to transgender rights.
Do you think about that?
Oh yeah. I mean, I think it’s probably some of the most important work I’ll ever be a part of. I think that I was a part of something that started a conversation when no one was talking about it and shining a light on hate crimes. But we still have a long way to go.
Yes, because people are actually trying to take rights away now, which is where we’re at…
From a lot of people. It’s from a lot of people, it’s not just one community of people. So that’s something that we always have to stand united on, to help people have equality and to be able to live their life the way they see fit for themselves.
Also, looking back 20 years ago, I can’t imagine anyone else playing that role. I mean, it’s such a defining role. But now, I don’t think today you could be cast in that role, and I was wondering your opinion on that.
Yeah, I think it’s exciting that we’re at a time right now where people in that community are finally being cast in their own stories. I mean, at that time, the gay and lesbian community wasn’t even inclusive of the transgendered community. They said, “We’re not one and the same. You’re not one of us,” and would call them names. So it was a different space and time. Now, it’s wonderful that we’re being more inclusive, and we need to continue to do more.
And you’re probably going to poo-poo this, but if you did a walk-on as Julie Pierce in The Karate Kid series that’s back on, people would go nuts.
Oh, is that Cobra Kai?
Oh my gosh, it’s so funny. I didn’t even know what that was and I kept getting people going, “When are you going to do Cobra Kai?” I was like, “What are they talking about?” My dog’s name is Kai, so I’m like, ”wait, what?” And then I finally got it. But I mean, the amount of people in a day that ask, “Are you going to do Cobra Kai?,” is pretty fascinating.
People just want to see you and Macchio finally have the showdown.
Oh, yeah, the showdown!
‘I Am Mother’ will begin streaming via Netflix on June 7. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.