Q&A : Erin Gruwell
If you doubt the ballsiness of teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) in the film Freedom Writers, you obviously haven't met the woman herself. In town recently to promote the film, the non-stop talker -- who turned around the lives of her at-risk students in post-Rodney King L.A. -- squeezed in visits to local high schools that have adopted her methods of diary-keeping and storytelling. Gruwell's the real deal.
Did it feel bizarre to see a big chunk of your life story up on the big screen?
It's surreal and fantastic. I'm an English teacher, so I usually feel that books are better than movies. But I thought this captured the spirit and emotional impact of the book.
How did it feel to be portrayed by a two-time Oscar winner?
She's amazing. Because (writer/director) Richard (LaGravenese) had just finished Erin Brockovich, he had lots of A-list actors vying for the role. In the last six years, I've been courted by Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson - you name it. But Hilary, who was my first choice, nailed the role. She studied my mannerisms and wore replicas of my clothing, dyed her hair the same colour as mine. And she spent lots of time with actual students.
In the film, your character didn't know what she was getting into. Were you as much in the dark as she was?
I was shamelessly idealistic. Every day I was a student to the students. I had to be humble and realize I didn't have all the answers. I learned that if I wanted to teach them Shakespeare and Homer, I had to learn who their icons were, so I listened to Tupac and Snoop Dogg.
Some elements in the film seem unbelievable - for instance, the fact that the high school had new books just sitting on shelves, unused.
That's a reality across the world. Even here in Canada, lots of teachers covet supplies and fear students will steal the books. If you treat people with integrity, they'll respond well. I love the scene where the students smell the new books.
Linking your students' experiences and the Holocaust was brilliant. How did you come up with it?
It's just as it was in the movie, with the found caricature. It became one of those unexpected teachable moments, when I could draw a parallel with anti-Semitism. If you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it. And I thought I'd better show my students the worst examples of intolerance.
The film doesn't shy away from discussing the breakdown of your marriage as well. Were you nervous about exposing that?
It was painful to see. But teaching is something you can't turn off - it permeates your entire life. I think the film attacks gender stereotypes, particularly for women who are driven. Lots of women who've seen the film say they experienced the exact same situation. But their husbands weren't played by Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey).
FREEDOM WRITERS' (Richard LaGravenese) Rating: NNN
Freedom Writers shows real-life teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) using hiphop lyrics and The Diary Of Anne Frank to get her warring L.A. students to chronicle their own brutal lives. Obstacles to her scholarly sainthood include gangs, snobbish faculty members and one unsupportive husband (Patrick Dempsey).
It's all a bit familiar, but the focused Swank, an unpatronizing script by LaGravenese (Erin Brockovich) and some fresh new talents as the students make the movie watchable and even somewhat inspiring. Bring an open mind - and some kleenex.