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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 thing."

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 went on."

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 physical experience."

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 friend."

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