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A poignant goodbye lunch, then a scattering of stars

By lunchtime on the Monday of last month's Toronto International Film Festival, the director Tony Goldwyn and his cast - Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell and Juliette Lewis - had spent nearly 48 hours talking up their true-life drama, Conviction (which opened in regular theatres yesterday.) So when they gathered in a swish hotel penthouse for a final meal together before scattering to their separate lives, it took a while for them to relax.

Swank arrived first, enveloped in a cloud of female handlers who kept dabbing gloss on her full lips and spritzing her already-perfect hair. Her salmon was ready, but her handlers asked the waiter to set it aside because they were adamant that Swank not eat until she'd been photographed.

In fact, "no pictures of anyone eating" was the only rule imposed on this hour. I could write what I wanted, but fire would rain down if anyone was photographed with a mouthful.

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Rockwell arrived next, and began eating immediately. "Sam, can we shoot you before you eat?" one of the handlers asked. "Sure," he replied. Then he ate some more.

Swank and Rockwell's dynamic was clear from the start: She was the Girl Scout, with gleaming teeth and a set of well-rehearsed, earnest answers about heroism and inspiration. He was the wisecracker, though his eyes missed nothing.

They were both eerily like their characters in Conviction, Betty Anne and Kenny Waters, working-class siblings from Massachusetts whose lives were derailed when Kenny was sent to prison for a murder he didn't commit. Betty Anne devoted 14 years to getting him out, putting herself through law school at night while raising two kids.

"Betty Anne is my real-life hero," Swank said. "This is a woman who's completely selfless. Her story gets into your heart, your psyche, your mind. Meeting her changed me, hopefully for the better. It made me more open-minded, helped me see the world in a way I just didn't see before. What a blessing."

"I think we drank some delicious beer, too," Rockwell added.

Lewis and Goldwyn arrived.

"Are you taking pictures without me?" Goldwyn asked, feigning hurt. He's a well-spoken, self-possessed guy, an actor ( Ghost), a film and TV director, and a Hollywood scion (his grandfather was the G in MGM). And Lewis - who plays a bitter ex of Kenny's who uses the witness stand for revenge - was a hoot, making all kinds of trenchant observations in her husky, slightly stonerish drawl.

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They talked about how hard they battled to get the film made in a studio system that resists adult drama.

They talked about research: how Swank listened to hours of Betty Anne's interview tapes (the script incorporates actual transcripts); how Rockwell heard audiotape of Kenny and read his letters from prison. "And Betty Anne's stories were very ... vivid," Rockwell said, an obvious understatement that cracked everyone up.

They talked about acting and rejection: "I'm in a different place now than I was in my 20s," Lewis said. "Back then I was trying to get my name out there. Now I'm more into collaboration. And now I know that when you get rejected - when someone says you're not dangerous or sexy enough, or whatever - you have to go, 'That's for that person's taste.' " "Because for everyone who loves you there's someone who hates you," Goldwyn added. "You have to get okay about that."

It started to feel like a party. Rockwell found a chess set and he and Swank played. She stole cucumber from his plate, and French fries from mine. Then Betty Anne herself came in. Everyone greeted her effusively, but she kept to the edges for a few minutes, sizing up the situation.

I asked how she felt when she heard Swank was to play her.

"Thrilled," she replied in a Massachusetts accent as rich as baked beans. "I knew a little bit about her background, how when she first came to Hollywood she'd lived out of her car. I felt a bond with that. I felt she wasn't going to be this big, glamorous, Hollywood person who wouldn't understand someone like me."

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"Hilary and Betty Anne both approach life with an incredibly open heart, and they're both loving, passionate people, and that's what drives them," Goldwyn said. "Yet there's a steely determination to both of them that stems from having struggled so much early in life. They're accessible, warm, humble - but don't get in their way."

Everyone laughed again. Briefly, the talk turned to who among them might possess Betty Anne's selflessness.

"I have a brother who's eight years older, who was in and out of my life; he was in military school," Swank said. "We're close now. But I've asked myself many times if I could do this for him. Unless you're in the exact position, you can't know. Do I love someone enough to do that? Would someone love me enough?"

One by one, they started to leave. First Swank, back to L.A., to her boyfriend, his kids and their many pets. Then Rockwell, to show off his freshly shaved face (he'd sported a mustache for months, filming 2011's Cowboys & Aliens); and Lewis, to begin promoting the comedy Due Date, out Nov. 5. Goldwyn had to get back to Broadway, where he was doing the musical Promises, Promises. "It's great, I've seen it," said Betty Anne, ever encouraging.

As I watched them hug goodbye, I thought how this lunch was like the movie in microcosm - like any movie, really. A bunch of strangers come together and devote themselves with passion and sacrifice to a noble idea. They fall in love with it, and with each other. But sooner or later, they bomb off to the next thing, their dirty plates the only evidence that they were here.

Betty Anne was the last to go, which was fitting: She lived this story long before the others arrived on the scene, and she's the only one who'll go on living it, tomorrow and forever. "I hope this [movie]doesn't change my life," she said. "I'm a private person. I like my life the way it is."

Reel life was fun. But she lives in real life, where somebody has to do the dishes.

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