TNWU recently had a chance to talk to Hilary Ward who can be seen starring as Coretta Scott King in HBO’s “All The Way” alongside an impressive cast comprised of Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo and Bradley Whitford. “All The Way,” which will premiere May 21, 2016, is the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play of the same name by Robert Schenkkan. The film captures the first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency after Kennedy’s assassination catapults him into the White House and he takes on the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam. Hilary has been making a name for herself on the indie film scene with recent film festival films “Like You Mean It” and “Other People” which opened the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was one of the most talked about films this year. She has loved all of the roles that have contributed to her success but really loved her stage role as Yelena in a tiny production of “Uncle Vanya” in LA, she had been thinking about, reading about and wanting to do play for over 10 years.
Is acting something you’ve always wanted to do?
You know, it is. I think it took me a while to get honest with myself about it. I don’t know… you live in the Midwest and I grew up in Indiana and so you know acting just wasn’t something that people did for a career. People would be in a play in town or a local commercial or you might go to college to be a teacher and then do things with the kids in high school. So I took a circuitous route actually thinking I’d be a doctor, but I was always performing in choir, I was always in dance club, I was always in drama classes and I was good at it.
I got a lot of encouragement but it was always with the caveat of ‘oh well, this isn’t what you’re really going to do, you know, this is something that you do for friends’. I graduated from college with a degree in English and a minor in Theater and basically sat down and said, ‘now what am I going to do next?’ My brother and I were meeting in New York and we found somebody to crash with until we found an apartment. I’ve been acting ever since.
That’s pretty cool and it’s interesting to me that you got your degree in English since it seems as though a lot of people I’ve spoken with who have ended up in the entertainment industry hold degrees in English.
I think it makes sense, yes with the language, but also with the storytelling. Again, I never pictured myself necessarily working on TV and film. My first exposure to acting was through theater, which you often are exposed to at first by reading it. I was reading August Wilson, Shakespeare, and O’Neill before I saw it or was old enough to play any of those roles or even necessarily understand some of the plays that I was reading. I think that those skills translate – the skills of breaking down a script and examining a character – they translate from the analysis that you have to do when you’re breaking down a text in a lit class. I think it makes a lot of sense.
I think it does too and it’s funny, but the next thing I was going to ask you was if you felt your education was helpful in moving into your career as an actor and I can see now how it was helpful.
Yeah, and I even went back, I ended up getting my Masters of Fine Arts. I spent three years in the actor training program – voice, speech, movement, the business – all of it because it felt like I wanted as many of these unique tools in my toolbox as I could get so that I could really go after it.
It sounds like that gave you a great foundation from which to launch your career! You’ve now done some theater and you’ve had roles on TV and on film, do you have a preference for one of these?
Oh gosh, you know, my first love is really theater because of the process. You just get to spend time in the room with all of the other actors really digging into a part/play and really mining it for everything that it’s worth. Discovering with other artists and working off other artists and I really like that incubator of the rehearsal process; which on film and TV is not practical.
On TV and film, you’re actually cast for other reasons, you’re cast because they trust that you’re going to do the preparation on your own; they’re bringing in all the other elements for you and it’s just about preparing as much as you can and working off the actor who’s working with you in the scene, in the moment. So, that’s the beauty of film, they are able to catch all those little accidents whereas in theater we rehearse, we discover things but you get yourself into a rehearsal group where you know the basic shape of how things are going to go from night to night.
I think what’s so lovely and magical about TV and film is that the camera captures… it picks up every little nuance, it picks up on impulses and thoughts that you weren’t even aware of that just don’t ‘read’ in the theater. So it’s hard for me to pick which one I love the most, they’re just very different!
I think I understand and something that I’ve learned talking to others and actually being in a few plays in high school, I was terrible (laughs), is that by the time you get to a performance you know the play backwards and forwards, you know everyone else’s lines as well as your own and there are very few surprises come opening night. Whereas in film/TV, and correct me if I’m wrong, you don’t get to necessarily be involved in the entire process until you get to sit down and see the finished film or episode.
Yeah, yeah – exactly; I’ll know what was in my script for my role and I’ll know how I did my preparation, but I don’t know how it was cut together! So, I’m going to get to find out with everybody else when I see the film.
Which is kind of cool, but also kind of scary – right?
(laughs). It really is – yeah! I’ve had those experiences, like on Modern Family not too long ago where we shot, you know, so many funny bits and I think that only one thing ended up in the final cut, which is how they handle a show with so many storylines and so many people. They shot stuff, enough stuff with just me and the other actor I was working with, that the entire episode could have focused around me but that’s not the point of their storytelling. You can’t take it personally, you just have to understand that it’s not about your work necessarily, but it’s just how you fit into this big puzzle that the director is trying to put together.
The way I see it, in theater you are involved with every step of the production from start to finish and in TV/film, you get to be surprised by how your contribution ends up being used. I find the process of it all so fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to discuss these details with me.
Actors love talking about this stuff! (laughs). No one ever asks this stuff, it’s always ‘how do you memorize all those lines’, and that’s really the easy part. These questions are great.
Your bio was really interesting to me, particularly in regard to the project that you’ve just finished, since your family was so involved with the Civil Rights Movement. It felt like, as I read your bio, that your family really lived this history in a way that many people have not, which really resonated with me. Particularly with your great-uncle writing for the Washington Post and your grandparents being directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement at the time. My question here is that what do you think they would say to you about your portrayal of Coretta Scott King?
Oh my goodness, first of all, I think that they would be immensely proud. I was very, very lucky that I was raised with a family that valued hard work and education. While putting equal emphasis on arts and music and poetry so instead of it seeming silly or frivolous to want a career in the arts, it was very much encouraged and celebrated. I have a huge extended family and they are my biggest supporters, always on Facebook talking about my latest… anything, a commercial or an episode on TV and they’re really excited that I’m playing this role.
The other thing that I took away from my family’s own history… my family, my great-grandmother, Willa, she just died a couple of years ago. She lived to 109 years old and she remembered jumping up and down on a feather bed with her grandmother who was born into slavery. She was the offspring of probably rape by one of the sons of her owners. So it makes the issues of slavery and Civil Rights so potent – this person in my life knew a slave! So these things are very… I feel very close to them and it doesn’t feel like it’s the far away past and so I see the relevance to our lives today.
In playing Coretta, the beautiful Coretta Scott King, I just wanted to honor her humanity and the fact that this is not an idea; that this is a real person who had real fears and hopes and dreams and disappointments. I think my family’s connection and realizing these aren’t of the past, they’re right now, helped me feel like I had the permission to let my imagination wander through all those parts of her life. Not just what we saw in books, not just what we saw in front of the cameras.
Did portraying Coretta Scott (King) give you any new insight the woman she was? She seems to me to have been the embodiment of more than one of the facets of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yes, she had great ambition. She was a great musician and she had planned to become a professional singer, a professional performer. When she met King he made it pretty clear that he didn’t necessarily approve of his wife working outside of the house and she made a choice. She made a choice to become a woman who worked from home; she found ways to still use her talents as a singer to support the movement, but she was really the one… There was a scene in the movie and I’m not sure if it will make it in, but there’s a beautiful scene between King and Coretta where he gets to just take off that mantle, take off the burden of leadership for a second and just show how much it was costing him personally and emotionally and just how hard it is and she was right there.
She was probably the only person who understood that side of him when he wasn’t showing the public face and was able to support him and keep him going. He was traveling 27 out of 30 days a month by the end of his life and I think, when I was doing research on him I ran across another actress who had portrayed Coretta and she gave a really great insight about this time in their lives. Coretta was probably realizing that the possibility of losing Martin was very high; the threats were getting more and more violent and frequent. The attacks showed that the stakes were going up and I think that focuses your energy in a very specific way when you feel like your time with your loved one might be limited.
Certainly any threat of death, even a terminal diagnosis, does change the dynamic of a relationship quite profoundly. When your time is limited, because you have been given an expiration date to your relationship we then narrow our focus on certain things and I can see where this may have led Coretta to plan what she needed him to know…
And what do I need my children to know about him?
What do I need to put into place to be able to protect my children and continue to raise my children? What a strong woman she was to have been able to face this kind of difficulty in such a tumultuous time. She certainly is a role model for the strength that women have always been expected to have in times of great stress. It is traditionally women who hold our families together when faced with adversity.
I think that there are so many women at that time that were doing the same kinds of things. In the film, you see Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Lady Bird. She is very much serving that same purpose, seeing her support her husband – these women, their lives could have been over when their husbands were gone instead they kept moving forward and kept working. They’re really incredible.
The entire decade of the sixties brought such an amazing transformation to our country from the way we tended to segregate people into different roles to opening up those same roles to everyone. “All The Way” is offering a snapshot of some of the most pivotal events of the 20th century, outside of the two great wars, but certainly for life in general across the board; so building on this, was there any kind of feeling on set relating to the immensity of the events taking place in the film?
I can say that the feeling on set, at least my feeling of it, was so positive… so problem-solving. Jay Roach (director) really does create the most peaceful, productive environment that I have every worked in. I have to say that what was extraordinary to me was that I would walk on to the sound stage or on to the location and find myself constantly surrounded by the most incredibly gifted people in each of their areas; whether it was the impeccable wardrobe that Daniel was handing me, or Margot doing my wig for me every day or my incredible makeup artist. You have so many tools at your disposal, the art direction, all of it. You really do feel like you’re stepping into another time. You see all of the extras hanging out with their perfectly 60’s hair and makeup listening to their iPods (laughs) so it’s this great – you really are immersed in this other world when you get on set and then to have Jay Roach at the helm who just has the calm, positive energy – very quiet leadership and just keeps everybody moving and on track.
I was just talking to my manager the other day and I feel like I personally am a little bit younger than some of the other actors working on the project and my impression of LBJ was very much shaped by the movies that my parents were watching when I was a little kid or their experiences with Vietnam. I feel like all through the 80’s when I was a very little kid it was all of these awful portrayals of Vietnam and I’d hear ‘LBJ’s Vietnam, LBJ’s Vietnam’. It didn’t occur to me all of the other really progressive and incredible things he was able to accomplish in just a very short time in office. So for me it was a great learning experience, especially coming up on the 50th anniversary of a lot of the policies that he put into place.
It’s always nice on a set when you’re working on something that actually matters, that’s important. I don’t mean to belittle other projects, but some are just for sheer entertainment. You’re watching a cops and robbers show with lots of cool car chases and shootouts, but it’s not necessarily teaching an important lesson to the world or enlightening us about ourselves. Whereas, every day on the set, seeing these people portray… going back and seeing the characters and the great craft that each person put into their individual contribution… I just remember feeling that it was so wonderful to be a part of something that matters – which the world needs to know about.
Was there any one person’s performance that particularly impressed you?
I mean, where do I start! (laughs). You’ve seen the cast, they’re incredible, they’re all equal. I was laughing when I got my call sheet the first day and I saw Frank Langella, Bryan Cranston, Anthony Mackie, Hilary Ward! It was just insane.
I will say, of course, most of my scenes were with Anthony, and he is lovely. He’s not only a really good actor; he’s just a funny, generous guy. There was this one day, it had just been a hard day on set and things weren’t going well. The extras were just cashed, they didn’t get to eat and everybody was grouchy and tired – it was just one of those days. It was only a half day for me so I was showing up late to do my coverage and then I was going to go.
So we go in and do the scene and I’m sitting in the crowd while Anthony is giving this speech as King and he’s doing a great job, he gets through all of his takes and then we’re going to turn the cameras around so they’re on me and the extras surrounding me and it’s not going well. The extras are just really, really tired, they’re over it. I think one person in my shot was actually asleep! The poor AD was like ‘OK guys we really need to see some enthusiasm, I know it’s been a long day’ and Anthony got up – the cameras weren’t even on him – he got up in front of the crowd and got them laughing and got them to stand up and stretch and jump around and woke them up. Then we got the cameras going again and we did my coverage in one take – it was done!
I was just so grateful; that was such a generous thing to do. His work, his scene was done and he could have just hung out and if my coverage was bad, my coverage was bad and they would just keep the camera on him, I’m not the important thing in this scene. It speaks so much to the person; he’s successful for a reason. He’s a team player; he wants the project to be as good as possible. I wanted to give him a big hug that night, it was really great. It was a wonderful thing for him to do.
What would you like to say to our readers to convince them to watch “All The Way” when it premieres?
I would say that especially in what has proven to be a really volatile election year that understanding that your civic duty matters; that these policies that people are making can affect your day to day life matter and also understand exactly what people went through in order to be able to vote.
It’s easy for it to feel far away, but when you’re seeing people literally being beaten and jailed because they just want to go and cast their vote, it’s very moving, it’s really important and it helps people to understand that this doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes the tremendous effort of people of principle and grit to keep this big machine – the United States going. So while I think it’s obviously entertaining and it’s full of great performances it also speaks so clearly to us today about why we need to be involved in the life of our country. I’m so proud of it.
We call our website Talk Nerdy With Us because we all fly our nerd flag proudly. The word nerdy, however, can mean different things to different people. So, with that in mind what about you would qualify you to “Talk Nerdy With Us’?
Ooohhh, I studied Shakespeare, Isben, Shaw, and Chekov… I think that’s pretty nerdy! My other, one of my favorite things to do is organize which I just realized is super dorky (laughs) but I just love it. It gives me such a sense of satisfaction when things are tidy.
*Featured image photo credit: Bobby Quillard
Don’t miss “All The Way” airing May 21 on HBO. You can follow Hilary on social media at: