I appreciate that it seems so quick! But it actually took much more than a few years. I started acting at age fifteen. Ten years later I won my first Academy Award for Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Five years after that I received the Oscar for Million Dollar Baby (2004), so I was actually a “10-year overnight success”. Regardless, no matter what your dreams or goals in art, commerce or life, I believe only tenacity, hard work, grit, determination and perseverance can get you across the finish line. Of course you also need a healthy dose of good luck and a support team to finish in style.
Let’s go back to those two Oscar-winning roles. Starting with Boys Don’t Cry, the story of a trans man which must have presented a significant challenge for your performance. How did you set about portraying the inner drama of a person whose body and identity are somehow different?
It all started with me zeroing in on something that had nothing to do with gender: the desire to love and be loved. That is something we can all connect to and is not limited by any identity, race, gender or creed. That’s where we started Brandon Tina’s journey, and in the end, that’s what it’s really all about. It’s incredibly tragic and horrific that anyone, anywhere is murdered because of how they choose to live their life, express themselves, or find and give love.
Five years later came another big challenge, again requiring you to transform your body. You put on nineteen pounds of muscle to play boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, in Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood. What can you tell us about the experience?
It actually was 23 pounds! I know this as every single one of them was hard fought! Pushing your body to the limits is one of the best ways you can learn about yourself. What I learned training and competing in sports in my past and in preparing for that role is that our mind is our biggest obstacle. It’s such a cliché but it’s undeniably true. WE are the only thing standing in the way of our own success. Once we learn how to ignore or not believe our self-doubt and negative thinking, our potential skyrockets.
Taken together, the roles you have played make up an impressive gallery of unconventional female figures. What are the crucial criteria for you in accepting or rejecting a part?
I actually see them as conventional females. We are all in some way underdogs, wrestling with our own demons and trying to find and pursue our dreams, whatever they may be. We just don’t always see these types of women in movies. Thankfully that’s changing! To me these are women who overcome or learn to benefit from their perceived or real limitations and step into new identities of who they are and what they are capable of. To me, this is the exciting journey each of us makes in life.
When you started out as an actress, was there anyone in particular you admired or wanted to emulate?
As far as the skill of acting, everyone says this, but they say it for a reason: Meryl Streep. But I’ve also greatly admired Ingrid Bergman, Debra Winger, as well as actors like Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn.
Apart from the two titles already mentioned, is there any other film – perhaps one which didn’t get the success it deserved – to which you feel particularly attached?
Yes, Freedom Writers (2007) and Conviction (2010). Both are true stories about incredibly inspiring and compassionate women who saved lives through their belief in themselves and others.
The movies have given you a lot, but you also showed a great deal of courage when you took a long time away from your career to look after your sick father. A decision which once again shows great character. What are the human qualities that you risk losing, once aboard the Hollywood rollercoaster?
The same that anyone can if they lose sight of what’s really important in life and choose to let success go to their head.