Tommy Lee Jones says The Homesman isn’t a Western, just a film about American history from his point of view.

Tommy Lee Jones said at The Homesman’s press conference in Canes that he had been looking for the right actress to play the role of Mary Bee but that it took him as long as five seconds after meeting Hilary Swank to understand she was perfect for the role physically, mentally, emotionally — “she’s from Nebraska, not afraid of the horse or the mule,” the director quipped.

The leading lady thought at first that the most difficult thing about the shoot would be riding horses and plowing with mules, but “it was actually braving the elements that [they] were working in”. Jones agreed: “the difficulty was the weather, not the people”.

Swank added: “It was positive because it allowed us the opportunity to understand what these characters, these people were living day in and day out. I was an extraordinary challenge to say the least. It was cold and it was freezing. When it was windy you had hand sand in your ears, in your nose, in your mouth… We didn’t wash our hair because those characters didn’t wash their hair.”

The producer Michael Fitzgerald said he approached Tommy Lee Jones for The Homesman because he understands this world. “I knew that he would love the character of George Briggs. I knew that he would understand the landscape and I knew that he would love it. I hoped he would love it,” Fitzgerald explained.

Jones doesn’t like to be bound by the label Western. The team tried to make the best movie they could, with a history of western expansion. “We didn’t have to think about Westerns or genre or anything other than making a movie about American history from our point of view,” he said.

French producer Luc Besson added that it is important to see where the American Dream started. “It’s a vision of America that we don’t know so for me it looks like a Kurosawa film. It’s very exotic you know. I didn’t know it was so hard and so difficult,” he said.

Of the international cast, Jones noted that the United States has been, is, and will continue to be a melting pot, that its inhabitants come from everywhere. “It’s not unusual to have people from other parts of the world there in the 19th century in the West.”

When he was asked what Tommy Lee Jones the director thought about Tommy Lee Jones the actor, he answered “As I director I can tell you I did everything I tell myself to do! As an actor I wasn’t very careful…”

This press conference also touched a topic much discussed here in Cannes over the last few days: women. It was pointed out in the press notes that the subtext of the film is what marriage and children mean for women today, “I don’t think there’s a woman in this room who hasn’t felt objectified or trivialized because of her gender”, Jones said adding that “there’s a reason for that. And there’s a history in that”, a comment that was applauded by the press.

Swank talked about the strong nature of the character Mary Bee, “It was a hard, hard time, a hard place to live that only the idea of doing it alone the idea of wanting a partner to share in someone to love, someone to have her back so she doesn’t have to be strong all of the time which Mary Bee is”.

The Homesman premieres tonight in Competition and EuropaCorp handles sales.