Haley Bennett’s been long overdue for acting accolades. Consistently arresting in smaller roles – like her turn in “The Girl on the Train” – she just needed to find a leading role meaty enough to showcase her range. Then, in 2018, it appeared: Bennett signed on to play Hunter, a disaffected housewife who eats inanimate objects in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s debut film, “Swallow.”
In the film, which opens in limited release March 6, Bennett gives a pitch-perfect performance, shifting effortlessly between humor and gravity. The role won her the Best Actress award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where “Swallow” debuted. It also marks an important shift in her career, as she transitions, like Hunter, from mere decoration – an actor whose opinions matter little – to true collaboration. “Swallow,” which she executive produced, is her first production credit, a film that, in her own words, is her “favorite thing to talk about.”
So, talk we did. During a frenzied LA press day, Bennett and I unpacked everything behind this extraordinary film, from women’s liberation and unresolved trauma to why filming while pregnant is a total bummer.
What made you take this role on?
Well, I think it’s a rare piece of writing, first of all. After I’d read the script, I was shocked and intrigued and beguiled by Carlo’s writing, and this woman, and this condition [pica], and how the condition related to female emancipation. Because there truly is a revolution within this woman. I’m always interested in those moments in life where you have to endure something in order to learn and to grow – something that feels, you know, shameful or humiliating or painful, and the quest of your life changes because of it. And for Hunter, that comes in the form of pica.
Is there anything specific you were tapping into to get to that place mentally?
Well, yeah, I mean, for me, the film was a very controlled act of rebellion. What’s so great about the film is that it tackles some really difficult issues surrounding women’s rights and patriarchy, and control over women’s bodies. But I think it’s a universal story as well, of rebellion against the status quo.
But also, I have spent the majority of my acting career feeling that my value is based on – you know, basing my values on other people’s opinions of me. I was never really encouraged to voice my own opinions, and when I did, I felt patronized. “Swallow” represents me finding my voice as a collaborator in this beautiful medium, and I served as executive producer on the film. And so I really felt ownership over the film in a lot of ways. The film was distinctly from a feminine perspective. There was an amazing team of women behind the scenes, bringing a story to life. Like 70% of the production was controlled by women, and that was really, really exciting. We had Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie as producers, and our cinematographer, Katelin Arizmendi, and our production designer, Erin Magill, and our costume designer, Liene Dobraja.
And Carlo, of course, directed with such aesthetic confidence and passion to tell the story about his grandmother, Edith. She was in an unhappy marriage and was inevitably institutionalized and lobotomized against her own will. And so I think that this film is for Edith, for breaking free of the holds that would hold us, which was a quote that I obsessively would repeat to myself from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” I think when you see the film, that is the thing that resonates. While it is this provocative and bold psychological thriller, it’s also extremely personal and intimate.
As an expectant mother at the time of filming, how did it feel to play Hunter, a woman who is newly pregnant and quite afraid and ashamed?
I mean, it was a bummer that I was pregnant because there was such a fun cast and I didn’t get to hang out with anyone. And then from the other vantage point, it was really interesting to be having the same experiences as my character. But there was something really comforting about feeling like I was really in the right place in my life to be having a child. Because there was so much chaos in Hunter’s life, and I had such confidence about becoming a mother. I feel like it gave me solid ground to create from. I felt really rooted in my decision and I felt really proud of that, and I also felt a deep sadness that this character didn’t have that experience. It was kind of a yin and yang, in a way. I felt really proud that I had the right to choose when I wanted to have my child.
There’s an interesting moral issue at the heart of the film that is revealed later on, and a lot of it has to do with questions that we’re grappling with as a culture— How do you forgive hurtful people, and should you? What is your take on the ending?
Without giving anything away, there’s more to the film than meets the eye, just like there’s more to Hunter than meets the eye. Hunter has this unresolved trauma that she has to face, and then there is the catharsis of that. And one moment, at the end, where she’s finally really facing it head-on, she has to reckon with it so that she can reclaim her life.
“Swallow” is in select theaters and VOD on Friday, March 6.