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Hilary Swank on Technology, Political Polarization, and ‘I Am Mother’

“I Am Mother” depicts a future in which humanity has been nearly wiped out and robots are left to pick up the pieces. The thriller, which debuted on Friday at Sundance, sounds a cautionary note about the perils of automation. It’s a message that resonates with Hilary Swank. The Oscar-winning actress who stars in the film as a woman fighting for survival doesn’t need to be pressured to put down the iPad or iPhone.

“I’m so old-tech that I think of gadgets as a hole puncher or a cheese grater,” she told Variety in an interview on the eve of the film’s premiere. “I’m not a technical person. It took me forever to figure out Instagram. I don’t know about apps. I don’t surf the internet. I don’t spend time on my computer. I prefer reading a book to looking at a tablet.”

That’s not the case with Grant Sputore, the film’s director, a self-described “gadget head.”

“I’m not a ‘beware technology is Frankenstein’ kind of person,” said Sputore. “It’s clearly made all of our lives so much better. I just think we are entering new terrain where machines will likely be smarter than us and we should be mindful of that.”

In “I Am Mother,” a robot has raised a young girl since she was an embryo. Growing up, the child (Clara Rugaard) is lavished with attention and told that she must live in an underground bunker because of an ecological catastrophe. The relationship between the girl and her surrogate parent is tested when Swank’s character appears at their hideout, bleeding out from a gunshot wound and carrying a devastating secret. Swank said the part was physically grueling, requiring her to be in a state of panic and near collapse throughout the shoot.

“Over the entire movie I’m sweating and panting and trying to overcome this pain,” said Swank. “She’s completely feral. She doesn’t know who to trust and she’s just trying to survive.”

As tensions mount between Swank’s character and the robot, Sputore drew on films such as “Alien” to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. He also insisted that an actor wear the robot’s suit (Rose Byrne provides the voice), instead of relying on a green screen to bring her to life. Sputore notes that “Alien” director Ridley Scott employed a similar approach to creating the Xenomorph in that 1979 horror classic.

“Sometimes it’s the practical effects that contain more magic,” he said.

Swank is reluctant to describe the film’s message, but she thinks that it has lessons that are applicable to today’s fractured political environment.

“We want people to think about morals and manners and ethics,” she said. “That’s timely when you think about how polarized we are as a country. We want people to agree to disagree with more kindness.”

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