Danner and Swank: Using Caregiver Experience in “What They Had” Roles

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When Ruth (Blythe Danner) slips out in the middle of the night to wander the ice-cold Chicago streets, we know something isn’t quite right. But we aren’t sure what it is. It’s a scenario that anyone who has taken care of someone with dementia is intimately aware of. Her son Nicky (Michael Shannon) is frustrated by what is happening with his mother, and he quickly calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) in California, letting her know what is going on back home. Bridget quickly flies home, unaware that her life is about to be changed forever.

Real Life Experience

Danner and Swank’s real-life experiences taking care of loved ones helped inform their roles in “What They Had,” a 2018 film that tackles Alzheimer’s in a touching and respectful way. Danner was married to St. Elsewhere producer Bruce Paltrow for 32 years, and served as his primary caregiver during the last few years of his life while he battled oral cancer. And just a few years ago, Swank heard that her father was about to go through a painful and dangerous lung transplant. Without thinking, she invited the man who had been absent throughout her life to stay in her Los Angeles home while she took a break from work to take care of him full-time.

“What They Had” directed by Elizabeth Chomko

In “What They Had,” both Danner and Swank touch on these experiences and more in order to effectively and accurately depict the role of both the patient and the caregiver in a tough situation. Director Elizabeth Chomko, who based the film on her own experiences with a family member dealing with Alzheimer’s, was particularly excited to get Danner and Swank in “What They Had” for precisely this reason.

In a wide ranging interview with AARP, Danner, Swank and Chomoko weighed in on just how impactful it was to have actors who have experienced caregiving and loss and what it meant for each of them to draw on their own experiences for the film. 

“I was just blown away watching them become this utterly believable family,” Chomko said. “Blythe had the spirit I’d seen in my grandmother — childlike, playful, funny, haunting, turning on a dime. And she misses her husband, Bruce, which she beautifully drew upon.”

Though Danner herself didn’t have experience with Alzheimer’s to draw upon for the film, she spent a lot of time studying film of Chomko’s grandmother in order to memorize her faces, mannerisms and personality. This research, plus Swank’s direct experience as a caregiver facing difficult conversations and decisions at every turn, results in a film that treads lightly when it comes to serious topics, but does it in such a way that feels very real for those who have dealt with these specific scenarios. In a nutshell, “What They Had” is about as real-life of a depiction of the relationship between a dementia sufferer and their caregiver as you’ll get.

Remembering the good times

Danner recalls the time she spent caregiving for her husband fondly, and says that the positive memories have stuck with her all these years, especially as she draws on those experiences for film.

“Bruce was so damned funny,” Danner said. “I once made macrobiotic cookies and said, ‘Honey, these are so good for you.’ He bit into one and went, ‘It’s like biting into the New York Times.’ We cracked up!”

It’s an important point that shouldn’t be overlooked: Despite the traumatic experience of finding out someone is seriously sick and being tasked with being their primary caregiver, many positive memories can come out of it. Swank felt the same way when she started getting back to work.

For her, it makes sense that this was the first role to put her back on the map after losing her father. After going through such a traumatic, emotional and important caregiving experience with her own father, being able to play that role in a new film seems like one positive to come out of the situation. While caregiving was a difficult experience, it helped her perform in “What They Had” in a very realistic way.

Swank mentions that, for her, caregiving “was kind of a time that I didn’t get to spend with my dad as a child and did get to spend then. Caregiving changed me for real and forever,” she said. “What I used to stress about was silly and inconsequential. All I’d done since I was 15 was act. Taking that away gave me space to recognize I’m so much more than this thing I define myself as.”

In “What They Had,” Swank is faced with the difficult decision to agree with Nicky (Shannon) and send their mom (Danner) to a memory facility or to keep her at home to take care of her herself. Swank’s experiences with her father over the last several years surely played a part in her ability to fall into the Bridget character seamlessly.

“Remember not to take things for granted,” Swank said. “You’re not always gonna be able to pick up a phone and call a loved one, so do it now.”

Sources

AARP The Magazine, October/November 2018, Tim Appelo

“What They Had”, a 2018 movie directed by Elizabeth Chomko.  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6662736/