People of the Plains
A 19-year-old mother loses her three children to diphtheria in a matter of days.
An immigrant woman watches her mother die and is forced to leave her body on the
frozen plain to be eaten by scavengers. A hardworking farmer's wife, devastated
by the failure of her cattle and crops, murders her newborn baby. When each of
them becomes unable to handle reality, no man in their isolated prairie hamlet
will step forward to escort the women across the Nebraska Territory to safe
haven in Iowa. Only Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman with a successful homestead
of her own, volunteers to make the journey.
To the list of indelibly drawn, unconventional heroines created by Hilary Swank,
a two-time Oscar winner for her work inBoys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby,
we can now add Mary Bee-indomitable, resourceful and "plain as an old tin pail,"
in the words of her neighbors.
"It's wonderful to work with Hilary Swank," says Tommy Lee Jones. "She read the
script very rapidly and understood it almost instantly. She was always prepared
and very creative. She was ready to go at the beginning of every single day.
It's a joy to know Hilary and a greater joy to work with her."
The Homesman's moving story of fortitude and courage resonated with Swank,
particularly in its depiction of the simplicity and beauty of deep human
connection. "This script was impeccably written. Sometimes when I read a script
there some things missing, but here, it was all on the page."
Mary Bee has prospered where others go mad because of her resilience and her
faith, according to Swank. "She is not afraid to say what's on her mind, which
is often simply, 'Don't do unto others what you don't want others to do unto
you.' What I love about Mary Bee is that she always tries to do the right
Transporting three highly unstable passengers from Nebraska to Iowa, Mary Bee
runs up against a string of hardships including frightening encounters with
Native American warriors, incursions by other settlers, unpredictable late
spring weather and acute loneliness.
She volunteers to go out of simple human compassion, notes Swank. "Mary Bee had
a wonderful, loving mother who was a great mentor," says the actress. "Seeing
these women struggle reminds her of that relationship. In a way, it is a kind of
a healing for her because by helping these women, she's helping herself. Living
in such isolation, at least 20 miles from her nearest neighbor, allows her to
empathize with the struggle these women have had. She also understands the
insensitivity that they have endured from the men they are around, because she
has experienced it herself."
But The Homesman is not just Mary Bee's story, says Swank. "It's about the
spirit of the people in this tiny Midwestern town who live a very simple life
and are there to help one another. It's actually heartrending to witness. The
words and the music within the scenes just got richer and richer as the shoot
For Swank, the difficult physical conditions of the shoot were a constant
reminder of the travails faced by early settlers. "When you work the whole day
outside in the snow, in the rain, in the wind and the sun, you realize that the
weather changes pretty much hourly in the spring," she says. "At the end of the
day, I got to go home to a bed, a hot bath and warm food. You think of these
characters: day in, day out, for weeks crossing that prairie, never having the
advantage of getting out of the elements. That gave me the foundation for the
Faced with the treacherous and lonely ordeal of escorting three madwomen to
safety, the stalwart and devout Mary Bee knows she will never be able to
complete the journey by herself, so she enlists the help of an unlikely and
untrustworthy ally, a grimy scoundrel going by the name of George Briggs.
Classically mismatched companions, the forthright spinster and the inveterate
schemer learn as much as about themselves as they do about each other during
their weeks on the trail.
"It is a great pairing," says Swank. "You have this woman who is all strength
and compassion and then there's Briggs, who shares a lot of those qualities, but
not on his sleeve. He has quite a humorous side and says many things that make
me laugh. The respect the two forge through the journey is really beautiful. One
of my favorite scenes is when Mary Bee wakes Briggs up and asks him what he is
going to do after they get to Iowa. It is a very heartfelt and emotionally rich
scene between the two characters."
Tommy Lee Jones added playing George Briggs to his already demanding roles as
director and writer. "Working with Tommy and seeing his nuanced performance is
something I will never forget," says Swank. "I don't know if I can fully express
my respect for him. He has a way of getting across to each member of his crew
and to his actors exactly what he needs for them to bring to the film and to the
story. He always knew just what to say to me. I am sure that his decades of
acting make him the brilliant director that he is. I was exhausted at the end of
the shoot just acting, and he was writing, producing, directing
and starring-that blows my mind."
Jones was able to find a curious nobility in Briggs. "He is a fearless man, a
claim jumper, an army deserter and an independent man of rather low character,"
says Jones. "But he is also the only one willing to help a woman who believes
she can get across Nebraska in a wagon with three insane women as passengers. He
knows, even if she doesn't, that she would never be able to make it on her own.
The truth is, he agrees to help her out only because she rescues him from a very
dangerous situation, and so he is indebted to her."
George Briggs and Mary Bee Cuddy are an original and unlikely team, and much of
the pleasure of the film is watching them bump heads as they learn each other's
value. "They sure don't like each other at the beginning of the story," Jones
says. "But they learn that they can rely on each other, depend on one
another-until somehow they finally begin to understand each another."
Jones was able to put together a top-flight supporting cast for the film,
including John Lithgow as a small town minister, Tim Blake Nelson as a
treacherous pioneer and James Spader, who makes a brief but unforgettable
appearance as Aloysius Duffy, a heartless frontier entrepreneur. "Spader is a
very fine movie actor and he's very good company," says Jones. "He's a congenial
man and we always had a lot of fun, whether working or playing. Happily the
character he brings to the screen has nothing to do with the real James Spader."
Hailee Steinfeld, an Academy Award nominee for her role in True Grit, returns to
the frontier as a young woman making her own way in the world. "Hailee is a
complete actor, skilled beyond her years," says Jones. "She has a small part in
this film, but a very important one. She plays it perfectly-very simple and very
direct to the material. She is able to observe and play in a way that made
perfect sense to the narrative."
To play Altha Carter, the minister's wife whose offer to take the three lost
women under her wing prompts Mary Bee and George's arduous journey, Jones turned
to his former co-star Meryl Streep, who turns in a finely wrought cameo. "Meryl
Streep needs no praise," says Jones. "She's got plenty of it. She's one of the
finest movie actors in the history of cinema and I'm very happy to call her a
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