After a three-year break from acting, Hilary Swank is back on the big screen. Her new role as an FBI investigator in the comic action film “Logan Lucky,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, is her first appearance in a movie since she went on hiatus to take full-time care of her father, who was diagnosed with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“When you walk away from that one thing that defines you, you say…‘I’m so much more than that,’ ” she says. “I’m a woman. I’m a daughter. I have other ambitions.”
A two-time Academy Award winner for her performances as a transgender teen in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and a boxer in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), Ms. Swank, 43, plays a dogged detective in her latest. In the film, she tries to track down the thieves who took cash from a Nascar raceway.
She is known for portraying tough characters. “I like strong people, people who really stand for something and have backbones,” she says. “I’m drawn to people who are underdogs, who have to be strong, maybe because of my own circumstances.”
Ms. Swank grew up in a trailer park in Bellingham, Wash., where her mother was an executive assistant and her father was a chief master sergeant in the Washington Air National Guard.
After her fourth-grade teacher encouraged her to act, she started participating in school plays and local repertory theater. Then, at age 15, she and her mother left for Los Angeles so she could try acting professionally. (Her father stayed in Washington; he and her mother divorced a few years later.) In those early days in L.A., they lived out of their car, and her mother called agents and managers to try to schedule meetings and auditions.
She started getting roles soon enough, starting with small parts on TV shows such as “ABC TGIF” and “Harry and the Hendersons.” Her first big onscreen part was in the film version of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992), and in 1994, she got a starring role in the movie “The Next Karate Kid.” Five years later, she won an Oscar for best actress in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
To prepare for a role, she asks herself how the character would answer questions such as, “What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you?” “Do you have a grudge?” “What foods do you hate?” and “What are your insecurities?”
She’s found that getting into a character so deeply can take a toll. Sometimes, when playing a part, she can’t recognize whether she’s in a bad mood or her character is. “Even if you know this isn’t real, your body still goes through the emotions nonetheless,” she says.
Her part in “Logan Lucky” didn’t require any special training or research. Because the movie is a light comedy, she says, “I didn’t do any type of getting down and dirty with the FBI.”
When asked about where she lives, she says, “I usually say I live on a plane.” When she isn’t filming, she lives in Los Angeles with her father, a parrot, three dogs and a horse. Her father has just recovered from a lung transplant. Her mother, now an executive assistant to a real-estate developer in Los Angeles, helped Ms. Swank care for him by visiting and bringing over meals. She credits her parents with her drive. “My parents are both super-hard workers,” she says. “They’ve always instilled that in me and to not just settle, to work hard and to do the right thing.”
She’s currently filming in Rome for an FX television series on the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. (She plays his mother.) She brought her dogs along to Rome, and when we spoke, her boyfriend, producer Philip Schneider, was visiting.
When she’s home, she hikes, plays tennis and sees friends. She is also designing and marketing a new clothing line, which she created during her time off from acting. Her goal is to use comfortable fabric to create clothes that can be worn during activity as well as to work or dinner. “The underlying purpose of the brand is to encourage women to take an hour in their day to live their own personal mission statement, which is to make a choice for themselves, whatever that personal goal is,” she says.
During her three years off, she also worked on her charity, Hilaroo, a nonprofit that connects disadvantaged youth with rescue animals so that they can help one another.
Ms. Swank enjoys the physical intensity of action films and hopes to appear in more of them. Whether preparing for a role or not, she exercises nearly every day, including weightlifting and swimming.
She would also like to explore directing and documentary filmmaking. “People’s stories inspire me more than anything,” she says.
A few weeks ago, she traveled to Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi coast, and found herself reflecting on her good fortune as she looked out at the moon over the water. “I stopped there marveling and was just overwhelmed with gratitude with where I am now,” she says. “I think one of the things when you experience life like that at a young age, you don’t take anything for granted.”