The actress discusses embodying a journalist on ABC’s new hit series Alaska Daily, and the legacy of her role as Brandon Teena, a transgender man, in Boys Don’t Cry.
Hilary Swank is no stranger to playing powerful characters who feel like outsiders—and her latest turn, as a disgraced investigative journalist seeking personal and professional redemption in Alaska Daily, is certainly no exception. In the new ABC drama from Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy, the two-time Academy Award winner plays Eileen Fitzgerald, an intrepid reporter who, after falling from grace at a major New York publication, decides to start over at a struggling metro newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska, where she decides to investigate the disappearance of Native American women in the region.
“I definitely knew about [the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women]. It’s something I learned about six months before meeting Tom,” Swank tells W. “When I read the pilot, it was something that, besides working with Tom, solidified the deal for me, because any time you can entertain while shining a bright light on something that needs attention, to start or continue a conversation, and make more people aware, it’s a no-brainer.”
Below, Swank talks about Alaska Daily, which airs new episodes every Thursday; the challenges of playing (and being) a journalist in today’s sociopolitical climate; the evolution of her career and acting process, and the legacy of her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a transgender man, in Boys Don’t Cry.
Playing a reporter who will stop at nothing to expose the truth feels particularly timely in 2022, when journalists do their jobs amid much misinformation. How do you hope this show will further the conversation about the frailty and importance of journalism?
It’s tough, because there are so many different ways we can get our “news.” A lot of people will get their news from Instagram, and people’s attention spans are so quick now that it’s, “flash, flash, flash,” and you’re not sitting down and reading anything of merit. You don’t make a lot of money being a journalist; you do it because it calls you to be a truth-seeker. People are looking for the truth, they’re tired of being fed lies from corporations trying to sell things. There’s a new paradigm happening.
In an interview with The Guardian a few years ago, you said, “When I take a character on, I love them. They make me a better person because of it.” How has playing Eileen challenged the way you look at journalism?
I don’t think it’s changed too much. I’m aware of the things she’s working on and what’s happening in journalism, especially when it comes to Alaskan Natives who have gone missing. I’m excited for other people to dive into those worlds. There are so many people who don’t even know about missing Native Alaskans, and it’s horrifying that something like this is happening and nothing is being done about it. That’s the one thing about being an actor—you just have to see things through people’s eyes in a way that is truthful.
Would you say choosing roles that subvert traditional ideas of womanhood has been a common thread in your work?
Certainly, when you look back at the trajectory of my 30-year career, I’ve definitely been drawn to strong women who have an opinion or who are driven to do something, whether it be following a dream, or standing up to people. There are certain elements of the characters I’ve played who are all outsiders, which are personal qualities I’ve had as a human being.
I was a teenager when I started acting, so I didn’t have an idea of, “I’m going to seek out these strong women.” During that time, when I would read something, I certainly thought, “Ooh, I love this, and I want to fight for this.” But I wouldn’t say I knew I was actually doing that.
Have you noticed a shift in the kinds of roles you’re drawn to as you’ve gotten older?
Yes. In the beginning of my career, I would jump at doing anything, because I just wanted an opportunity to learn and grow in my craft—it didn’t really matter where it was, theater or television. When I was coming into the business, you couldn’t break into movies unless you were famous—until the independent films came along, and then famous people didn’t want to do them, because it was too risky and they didn’t make any money.
So I was doing a lot of television—not necessarily good television—because I would never knock an opportunity to grow as an actor. It was like my online acting class, which is good and bad because you can find it somewhere and see it all. Now, it’s so wonderful, because I do get a choice in what I want to be a part of and I’ve had the blessing of working on so many things that do entertain and also shine a light on something I feel is important. That’s the most important part: It shines a light on things that matter, and that’s not something I think I entered the business for.
Has your approach to acting or getting into character changed at all since Million Dollar Baby? What makes this character different from the ones you’ve played in the past?
My approach is always the same, and I can kind of align it to Eileen Fitzgerald. She’s a truth-seeker, and that’s what I try and do as an actor: find the truth of the character within that story. It’s been the same, really, since Boys Don’t Cry, which is to break my script down: I take my script, and I put [into] one sentence—what is this story about? Then I want to know who my characters really are, inside and out.
What makes characters rich is knowing them—for instance, you know what your triggers are, you know what your fears are. I could ask you anything and you’d say “Oh, this or that” about your past, about your future, about your dreams, about your goals. I try and find all of those gradations in the characters so they’re real and fleshed out, and that has never changed. Clint [Eastwood] said it really well: You always aim for the bullseye, but you don’t always hit it. But at least if you’ve done all your research and your script breakdown and character work, you have your best foot forward.
After you starred in Boys Don’t Cry, you remarked that quite a few people came up to you and remarked how you, as a straight, cisgender woman, were able to help them see trans people in a new light. What did starring in Boys Don’t Cry teach you about Hollywood and the power of storytelling?
I didn’t know, stepping into that movie, what an important conversation starter that would be. I knew it was a powerful story; I knew it resonated deeply with me, and I felt honored to be a part of telling it. But who knew this indie film would have the reach it did? And now, it’s so wonderful to be able to celebrate our differences, which, at that time, we weren’t doing. [The movie] is humbling, and probably one of the most important things I will ever be a part of.
How have trans rights evolved in the 23 years since that movie first came out, and what have you learned about the privilege and responsibility of using your platform to give a voice to people who need it most?
There will never be a world in which I will play that role [again]—and rightfully and understandably so. But at that time, we were talking about 1999, a world in which the gay and lesbian community wasn’t even inclusive of trans people. They were seen as total outcasts; there was no place for them. The conversation was, like, “Are you a crossdresser?” So the idea of a trans person actually playing that role at that time—I don’t know if anyone even auditioned for it, because people were so afraid to even come out as gay or lesbian. They didn’t want anyone to know, because they thought it would be a career killer.
I was the spokesperson for the Hetrick-Martin Institute for 10 years after that, and I met a lot of trans people. I saw how they walked through the world. One hundred percent of them were heckled and either physically or verbally abused every single day, living in New York City. These kids were afraid to walk to their school, because there were people picketing outside and throwing things at them. It’s beautiful to see how much more inclusive the world has become in certain ways. We’ve come so far, but we still have such a long way to go.