When Hilary Swank walks into a luxurious suite at London’s Soho Hotel, there’s none of the bravado you might expect from a two-time Academy Award winner. If anything, she looks a little nervous as she sits back in the sofa, and places her hands underneath her knees.
Uncharacteristically tall for a Hollywood leading lady, she’s wearing vertiginous black heels, her tiny frame accentuated by skinny black jeans, a black vest top (from Marks & Spencer, she reveals) and a red Chanel cardigan.
“This outfit best describes me,” she says with a slightly goofy smile. “My friends and I joke that I have one foot in the meadow and one foot in the ghetto.”
It’s now 10 years since Swank, 35, made her breakthrough performance as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Based on the harrowing true tale of a Nebraskan woman who was raped and murdered for trying to pass as a man, the role secured the 25-year-old unknown actress her first Oscar win.
“Winning an Academy Award when you’re so young and you aren’t known for anything else except that one film, you put this incredible pressure on yourself, like you can’t mess up or something and that’s never going to happen,” she says. “You’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to make a movie that doesn’t work.”
She admits she can only say that now, with 10 years in the business behind her. “It’s incredible to see the choices I’ve made, to see the common thread among the characters I’ve played.”
A quick glance at Swank’s resume and the “common thread” seems to be strong women who overcome immense adversity to prove themselves in a male-dominated world. Take the boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby for which Swank won her second Oscar in 2005.
“I can only say that it’s not that I search out those types of characters,” she says, fiddling with the gold buttons on her cardigan.
“I think what happens is when the scripts come across my desk, there’s just either a fire that lights in my belly or there isn’t.”
Swank fully expects people to have strong opinions on her latest incarnation, as one of America’s most iconic female figures, the aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
The first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, Earhart died in 1937 when her plane went down over the South Pacific during an attempt to circumnavigate the world. Despite one of the biggest sea searches in history, neither she, nor her plane, were ever found.
“Amelia was an extraordinary woman and so ahead of her time,” says Swank. “She made no apologies for being the strong woman that she was or for living her life the way she wanted.
“Amelia was a great reminder that it’s a hard enough world for women as it is and we need to really stand by other women and not be threatened but be empowered by them.”
Swank’s own story reads like one of her films. She grew up in a trailer park in Washington with her salesman father and secretary mother.
In 1989, three years after her parents split, Swank and her mother moved to Los Angeles with just 75 dollars to their name and lived out of the car until a friend offered them a place to say. Her mother set up auditions and steady work flowed, including a part in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Then she landed the lifechanging role in Boys Don’t Cry.
Two Oscars, a multi-million pound salary, and movie executives hammering on her door doesn’t mean Swank will be resting on her laurels any time soon.
“My job brings me so much joy. Every time I’m on a movie set, I just kind of sit there in awe,” she says.
“There is no such thing as perfection. I watch Boys Don’t Cry or Million Dollar Baby and I see the flaws. I see where I could have been better and that’s great. Even sitting and talking about these movies time and time again is a reminder I’m getting challenged and it’s a reminder that I’m living my dream.”