A heartbreaking scene unfolds in the new HBO film Mary and Martha. Hilary Swank (as Mary of the film's title, opposite British actor Brenda Blethyn's Martha) witnesses a grief-stricken mother leaving a South African health clinic with her deceased toddler, who is wrapped from head to toe in a white bed sheet. Malaria has killed the child, and a parent's dreams have died, too.
This tragedy plays out much too frequently, almost 660,000 times each year -- every 60 seconds in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of Asia and South America. Most of these deaths are among children age 5 and under -- all victims of a preventable disease.
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Two-time Oscar winner Swank, 38, is no stranger to roles that pack a powerful social-message punch. After moving to Los Angeles with her single mother from Bellingham, Wash., in 1990, she made many under-the-radar appearances on television and in the film The Next Karate Kid. She broke out 14 years ago as the transgendered Brandon Teena in the heartbreaking independent film Boys Don't Cry, for which she won her first Academy Award in 2000.
Hilary Swank's Social Conscience
In the years that followed, Swank played a suffragette (Iron Jawed Angels), a poor woman who tackles legal injustice (Conviction), a famously feminist pilot (Amelia), a teacher of at-risk kids (Freedom Writers), and a female fighter in the male-dominated world of boxing (Million Dollar Baby), which earned her a second Oscar in 2005.
Do her acting choices reflect an underlying social conscience? "When you put it like that, it's true," Swank says, laughing. "To me, more than finding some big, important message, most of [my roles] come down to love and relationships. But the trajectory of the choices I've made over the years -- they do have those core values. As a moviegoer and an artist, I'm drawn to the kind of work that says it's our responsibility to help others. There is an important theme [in Mary and Martha] that shows how we can make change in the world, and how we can save lives."
And what of that terrible scene? Is she aware that British screenwriter Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually fame) penned it from personal observations?
"I knew there were moments in the script Richard had experienced," Swank says. "He's vocal about eradicating malaria. This is not a true story: It's fiction, but it's harrowing to think things like that really happen. [The narrative] is not related to one specific person, but to millions. We could wipe malaria from the face of the earth today if we wanted to -- it's a wake-up call."
Curtis has been involved in malaria fundraising for years through Malaria No More and other charities. "I go to Africa quite often," he says. "That scene is almost a direct quotation from a real-life scene I witnessed. ...There are big statistics out there about malaria's mortality rate, and we're terribly aware of the tragedy of one child dying. But when you have so many dying every day, it somehow has less impact. With the film I wanted to make the statistics more painful...the children in Africa are in agony and in danger."