The fact that truth can often trump fiction is certainly confirmed by the story of Betty Ann Waters, a high school dropout who fought her brother’s conviction on a murder charge by returning to school, getting a law degree, and finding the evidence, long thought lost, that secured his release. The unlikely tale is dramatized in the new movie “Conviction,” and Waters, director Tony Goldwyn and actress Juliette Lewis, who has a small but pivotal role in the picture, visited Dallas recently to discuss it.
Waters, a gregarious, down-to-earth woman, explained that she’d made her pledge to return to school in effect to save her brother’s life. “My conversation with Kenny was on the phone, after he had lost his appeal and tried to commit suicide,” she recalled. He was in solitary confinement for a month, and I was frantic. I was upset with him for doing that, and in the conversation he said, ‘Well, Betty Ann, if you’ll go back to school and become my attorney, you’ll get me out of here, and I can make it.’ And I said, ‘Kenny, I have a GED.’ And we made a promise that if I enrolled in school, he’d stay alive. And I took it one step at a time. I had to do it to keep him alive. And I kept thinking, I’ll find something along the way.”
When Kenneth Waters, who was convicted in 1983 of the murder of a neighbor, was released in the spring of 2001 on the basis of DNA evidence his sister had found that cast doubt on his guilt, the story made news and caught the attention of Goldwyn. “I found out about the story years ago,” he said. “When Kenny was released, my wife saw a piece on ‘Dateline’ about it and was yelling at me across the house, ‘You’ve got to hear this story.’ I was absolutely mesmerized by it. Yes, I thought it was a great story, but more than that I was affected by this woman spending eighteen years of her life on an act of faith in her brother, when he could easily have been guilty. What’s that about? What’s the bond that these two people had such belief in each other? That’s what drew me to it, that sibling love story.
“For me this movie is about the transcendent power of love. Whatever life throws at you, if you have that, you have everything. First and foremost, the thing that I want people to take away from this movie is looking at the people they love in their lives, and how expressive are they of that. Or might they be taking it for granted, for so often we do.”
Goldwyn explained that it had taken nearly a decade to get the script—much of it based on actual transcripts and recordings—right and to secure the necessary financing, but that once all was ready, assembling an extraordinary cast proved easy because of the quality of the material. Waters said that she was honored to be played by Hilary Swank, whom Lewis called “a force of nature,” and spoke most poignantly about Sam Rockwell, who plays her brother. Did Rockwell get it right?
“Yes, and you know, that’s not easy,” Waters said. “Because Kenny is not a one-dimensional character—he has many sides to him. How is he going to play my brother? He’s small in stature, and my brother is a huge guy. They don’t look alike. But when Sam came by the house and I saw how much he really wanted to get it right. And when I saw him on the screen, I knew that he ‘got’ my brother, he got the many sides of my brother.”
One small role, involving only two scenes, was especially important—that of Kenny’s ex-girlfriend, whom a cop persuaded to give damning testimony against him but later recanted. “She’s such a fabulous character, I couldn’t believe it,” Goldwyn said. “I thought, this is such a great part, I hope whoever plays this part will appreciate what a brilliant role this is. And I thought, the right actor will.
Goldwyn remembered his meeting with Lewis. “I was thinking about Juliette for another role, but when she left the meeting, I thought, we should offer her this one,” he said. “And my casting director said, ‘Do you think she would do it?’ And I said, I think Juliette Lewis will appreciate what a great part this is.’ So we made her an offer, and within a day or two heard back, ‘I’m interested.’ She’s the only person I ever considered for the part, and obviously I couldn’t have done better.”
Lewis, who wears heavy makeup in her big recantation scene, explained that she loved the transformation. “I didn’t start making movies to play myself,” she said. “This is actually a unique role for me in that I’ve never transformed so completely and was absolutely nothing like me. Some compliments I’ve been getting are like, ‘I didn’t even know that was you.’ That’s a big compliment to me. I guess my parents raised me in a nice way—I didn’t grow up with a whole lot of vanity. I just was not conditioned as an actor to think ‘Will they like me or not?’ or ‘Will I be pretty or not?’ I don’t think in those terms. I think it has a lot to do with my dad [Geoffrey Lewis] being a character actor. I always knew from him that you can do it all, and everything’s possible.”
Lewis recalled the effort she put into preparing for the role—including working with a dialect coach. But she added, “All that work at the end of the day when you’re doing the role, you want it to disappear. I don’t want the audience ever to think about my accent, or my skin—they changed the tone of my complexion, and the teeth and the hair. I want to integrate it all and make it an organic and seamless character. And that’s the challenge for me. And that’s where the director, Tony Goldwyn, came in, because I relied on his eyes to make sure that I was landing in the right place.
“It was really strange to do a role so small but had so much in both the scenes. I often joke that it would have been interesting enough to play an alcoholic who’d never left her trailer in ten years, but I was playing someone on top of that who’s a criminal and who lives in a world of her own fiction. And there she is, faced with her nemesis, the person she wronged the most. That was intensely interesting, and I really wanted to get a sense of that personality. I just wanted to get into the skin of that kind of destructive personality. It was my job to explore what a damaged, destructive soul looks like. I wanted to vibe the audience out.”
Another aspect of “Conviction” has to do with Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, whose work with DNA evidence has helped to exonerate some 260 inmates, including twenty convicted in Dallas County alone. Waters, who secured Scheck’s help in her crusade to free her brother, continues to work with the project. “Barry is my hero,” she said. “I mean, I helped my brother because he’s my brother and I love him. He helps people he doesn’t even know.”
Goldwyn seconded that. “Beyond that [the personal story], was the opportunity to shed light on the fact that there’s so many people in prison for crimes they did not commit. Too few people know about the work of the Innocence Project, and it’s something about which our consciousness as a nation has to change.”
Its makers hope that “Conviction” can help.