The true story of Cameron Todd Willingham and Elizabeth Gilbert is told in the new film, Trial By Fire. Directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory), Trial By Fire stars Jack O'Connell (Unbroken) as Willingham, a man on death row for allegedly murdering his children in an arson fire. Laura Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert, who learned of Willingham's trial and advocated for him, insisting he never got the fair trial he deserved.
Trial By Fire is an uncompromising look at the humanity of two people, as well as an uninhibited indictment of the criminal justice system, especially in Texas, a state infamous for the number of incarcerated people who have been executed there. Many believe that the death penalty is an irresponsible and unethical punishment; Trial By Fire shows the true human stories behind cold newspaper headlines.
During a press day for the film, Screen Rant spoke to stars Laura Dern and Jack O'Connell. The two actors discuss the responsibility of playing real life figures, and the inspirational nature of someone as kind and selfless as Elizabeth Gilbert. Laura Dern also points out the inherent hypocrisy of the recent wave of abortion legislation across America; how can anti-abortion legislation exist alongside pro-death penalty laws?
This movie, Trial By Fire, is based on a true story. It's a movie about justice, and it's a movie about a person who saw someone who had been done wrong by the justice system and decided that, even if she didn't know whether or not he was innocent or guilty, that he deserved a second chance. What is it about Elizabeth that made her see that in Cameron?
Laura Dern: I think, one of the most beautiful aspects of getting to know, all of us getting to know someone like Liz, is that she's a reminder that a very simple gesture, a small act of kindness, can affect change, not only between the two human beings who share it, but the ripple effect. We're all here because of that story. Anyone who affects change with one person is impacting a community. She, with the help of those who worked on the case... I know she has such heartbreak when she sees the film, about what happened. But she did, in fact, save other lives with this fire science. Others have been exonerated based on Todd's case. I'm really blessed to be touched by someone having this kind of connection.
Jack O'Connell: The way she puts it, it kind of sounds so obvious, her point of view. I guess the change that she's trying to affect just sounds very obvious. It's kind of hard, it's quite tedious to witness the kind of stoppages she comes up against, in a way.
It's heartbreaking to see, in the movie, people cheering when Governor Rick Perry talks about how many people he and his state have executed. It does seem obvious, but how do you change that way of thinking, that it's good to kill people?
Laura Dern: I think the state of Texas is doing an interesting job. They just said they do not believe in killing human life, which is why they just put into effect this abortion law, that it is illegal, with the threat of murder, or, potentially, if it goes through, the threat of the death penalty, if a woman has an abortion after six weeks, which most pregnancy tests would not even show. So then, I guess they're abolishing the death penalty as well? Because they seem to care deeply about protecting human life? I think we have to get our stories in order. I mean, if our goal is "thou shalt not kill," then we have a lot of rewriting of law to do in this country. I'm hopeful that smart people can figure it out if everybody comes together and gets thoughtful about human respect and consideration.
Can you tell me, briefly, about the responsibility about playing a real person and how it's different for both of your characters?
Laura Dern: (to Jack) I'll let you... For him, it was a different challenge.
Jack O'Connell: In a way, yes, but also, it felt like it... I'm trying to think of the most polite way of saying this, like... It doesn't feel like Todd himself is probably not a household name. People aren't necessarily familiar with how he talks, how he sounds like and what he looks like. For me, I felt like I had an opportunity to invent, a fair bit. I don't know, was that any different for you, Laura?
Laura Dern: I think it's the same. I think there is some invention in it. But, given that Liz was with us and going to see the film and cared so deeply about getting it right, I think there is a sense of obligation I know we both felt. At the same time, you know, we have to create the language and the connection between these two people, but we did have their letters. So it's like she gave us this extraordinary roadmap, and there is the invention to try to create an understanding for an audience.
Jack O'Connell: We had plenty to play with. I feel like there's always a danger of trying to imitate too much. You run yourself around in circles a bit, just trying to be the person. If he exists, it's kind of impossible, isn't it?
Trial By Fire is in theaters now. For more on the true story, watch the 2011 documentary, Incendiary: The Willingham Case.