Betty Anne Waters: Hilary Swank’s Conviction real-life inspiration

Oct 19, 2010 at 5:54 p.m. ET

In Conviction, Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts woman whose brother was wrongfully convicted of murder. Betty Anne Waters’ brother was sent to jail for life without parole and after all of his appeals were unsuccessful, Waters took it upon herself to get her bachelor’s degree and head to law school with the dream of freeing her brother. Now that Hilary Swank's Conviction has arrived in theaters, Waters tells us she is ready to hear more heartwarming stories of those wrongfully jailed being set free.

Betty Anne Waters and Hilary Swank

Waters phoned us from her Massachusetts home to talk about her inspiring true story as well as what it means to her to have a double-Oscar winner in Hilary Swank portray her in the Oscar-buzzing Conviction.

Betty Anne Waters: the real Conviction story

SheKnows: What are your emotions when a movie about your life has hit movie screens?

Betty Anne Waters: I don't know, it's amazing to me. I still don't know what happened, it's surreal.

SheKnows: How has the entire process been for you from first hearing it was going to be a movie to them actually shooting it? Were you on the set at all?

Betty Anne Waters: I was on the set a lot. First of all I talked to the writer Pam Brady for the longest time and [director] Tony Goldwin. They came to my house and by the time I was done I thought I was in therapy for two years [laughs]. You talk about everything you can even remember in your childhood right through -- for years nothing really happened! My whole focus was on my brother before, so this movie was not something that I was looking forward to, or even thought was really going to happen. I wasn't thinking about it for years, and then all of a sudden they show up along the way. Then I found out Hilary Swank was going to be playing me. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" If I had picked someone I would have picked Hilary Swank to play me. And Sam Rockwell, I didn't know about him. I don't see a lot of movies but I did see him in The Green Mile. He was this scary guy in that movie! I thought, "I don't know how that's going to go over. He doesn't look like my brother." My brother is a big guy, but Sam is just a regular guy. But I met Sam and I saw how much he cared, how he wanted to play this part and to get to know who Kenny was. I was on set a lot and watching him for the first day -- I was blown away at how he really portrayed my brother [laughs]. My brother is not a one-dimensional person. He got it, he totally got it. I don't get how they can do this, it's amazing to me.

Betty Anne Waters on Hilary Swank's stellar performance

SheKnows: I've talked to authors before who've had their books made into movies and they all say that it is kind of surreal that what was once in their head is now on the big screen. You've lived this, Betty Anne. Was it ever surreal when you were on the set?

Minnie Driver and Hilary Swank in Conviction

Betty Anne Waters: Yeah, it really was -- especially the prison scenes, they were awful to watch. Horrible. Because I was never in those prison scenes. Those were horrible. Every once in a while I would see Hilary Swank acting and I'm watching her in the other room on the monitor, what a great actress. Oh my god, she's me! It's unbelievable, that's how it was. She had to talk like me, the poor thing.

SheKnows: She got that Massachusetts accent down! Seeing her capture your nuances, that must have been a bit weird too.

Betty Anne Waters: She did a great job. She sent her dialogue coach to my house and taped me for two hours. We talked about everything -- my kids, the cat, the dog, and my trip to Ireland -- all kinds of things for two hours. One night after shooting for hours, Hilary jumped in my van. She usually has her own to go to after working hard all day. She jumped in my van. I had my nieces and nephews in it and she's talking, repeating everything that was on my tape. My nieces and nephews are like, "Why is my aunt talking like that? Why is she talking about Ireland and the dog?" [Laughs] They soon realized it was Hilary talking, they thought it was me [laughs]. That happened more than once -- she was talking and people thought it was me.

Betty Anne Waters: What kept her Conviction?

SheKnows: This story is so inspirational, I'm just curious, as you went through the entire decades-long process, were there moments when it was too much? What kept you going?

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in Conviction

Betty Anne Waters: It was always too much. If I looked at the whole picture from the beginning, I don't know if I would have done it. I guess I still would have done it but I just never looked at the whole picture. I looked at one step at a time, one hurdle at a time, starting with a GED. My brother kept me going. And it wasn't my idea to go to law school, it was his. It's a movie, so they take certain liberties and it's not sequential but all the feelings on that film, I felt them. It's amazing. But what really happened was after my appeal failed, he tried to commit suicide.

SheKnows: Oh no.

Betty Anne Waters: We're on the phone. I hadn't talked to him for a month and I usually talk to him two days a week at least. I couldn't find him. I knew he was depressed because I knew his appeal failed but I didn't know what happened until I found out that he tried to commit suicide. At that time, I lived in Florida and I said Kenny, "Why?" He said, "I can't live in prison. I did not do this. If I was guilty I could do it. I'm innocent, I can't live here for the rest of my life, Betty Anne." Then he said, "But if you go back to school, you go to law school, you become my lawyer, I can do this." I said, "Kenny, I have a GED." He said, "I don't care, Betty Anne, if you promise me that you'll go back to school and you'll do this, I'll stay alive." Somehow my brother had so much faith in me, it didn't come from me, it came from him. I didn't believe I could become a lawyer but he did believe it.

Betty Anne Waters as inspiration

Betty Anne Waters rocks at the Conviction premiereSheKnows: In some ways, it's such a testament to you and your family as well and I was just curious that once the movie hits the screen if you're prepared for a wider audience to look at you for inspiration.

Betty Anne Waters: Not really. I'm a very quiet private person. I'm a grandma now and I'm just going to go home and be a grandmother. That's all I want to do.

SheKnows: It's a true inspiration and the world will appreciate you also sharing your story through this movie.

Betty Anne Waters: Thank you so much. This is why I do it too. Like I said, I'm a quiet private person but the Innocence Project means so much to me and they helped me. Now I get to help them and if it means I won't get to have privacy, that's okay as long as I can help other people in the same situation that my brother was in. It means the world to me and to him and I would be so lucky if I could help other people.

SheKnows: Your story, everybody is going to be touched by it. We're going to keep hearing about it all year through Oscar season, I bet.

Betty Anne Waters: Hopefully people will look at the justice system and make it a little better. We don't have a bad system, but we can make it so much better. I live for the day that I get a call that somebody says because of this movie another innocent person went free. That would make my world.