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Hilary prides herself on her ability to play characters from all walks of life

Like most actors, Hilary Swank prides herself on her ability to play characters from all walks of life. But if the two-time Oscar winner has a specialty, it’s bringing the stories of real people to life.

She played the cross-dressing murder victim Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry,” the suffragette Alice Paul in “Iron Jawed Angels,” educator Erin Gruwell in “Freedom Writers” and aviatrix Amelia Earhart in “Amelia.”

Swank’s latest movie continues the tradition. In “Conviction,” opening Friday, the actress portrays Betty Anne Waters, a waitress and single mom in rural Massachusetts who becomes a lawyer to take up the case of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who is jailed for a murder he didn’t commit.

The action begins in 1980 with the slaying of Katharina Brow, a waitress who was stabbed in her mobile home and robbed of $1,800. Kenny Waters was questioned and released. But when two of his ex-girlfriends claimed he confessed to the murders, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life without parole.

Betty Anne never believed her brother was guilty. Hell-bent on getting him out of prison yet without money for lawyers, she vowed to earn him an appeal. But first she had to put herself through high school, college and, finally, law school.

“Conviction,” co-starring Juliette Lewis, Minnie Driver and Melissa Leo, was compared to “Erin Brockovich” by the Hollywood Reporter, which raved about director Tony Goldwyn’s vivid storytelling and Swank’s emotional powerhouse of a performance.

Swank, 36, believes the movie represents some of her finest work.

“ ‘Conviction’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ they were the best experiences that I’ve ever had in my career,” the actress says.

Waters, who’s seen the film three times, is a big fan of Swank’s performance.

“I’d give her an A plus,” she says. “Watching the movie, it’s like looking at myself up on the screen.”

For Swank, playing a real-life person represented a particular challenge.

“It’s demanding, especially when the person is still alive,” she notes. “You want to do justice to their story especially when it’s a story as magnificent as Betty Anne’s is. Betty is my real-life hero.”

Over the course of making the movie, Swank and Waters grew close but, initially, Swank was wary of meeting her alter ego.

“I didn’t want to meet her because I didn’t want to do a parody of (her),” the actress says. “I wanted to understand her heart, and I wanted to understand where her passion and drive and unconditional love for her brother came from. So for weeks, I listened to tons of stories that she had shared with Tony.”

Swank’s anxiety about coming face to face with Waters melted away soon after Sam Rockwell joined the cast.

“When Sam came on board, he was, like, ‘I want to meet Betty Anne! I want to meet the family! I want to meet everybody!’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going with you,’ because I thought that would be a great bonding experience for us, playing a brother and sister, to meet Betty Anne together. So that’s when we all got in a car, Tony and Sam and I, and drove to visit Betty Anne and her family.”

According to director Tony Goldwyn, the chemistry between Swank and Waters was instantaneous. “They really connected,” he says. “ I could see right away that Hilary knew how to play the role; she had it in her bones.”

Rockwell believes Swank was especially suited to play Waters. “Hilary is so tenacious,” he says. “She’s a no-nonsense force of nature. There’s a sweetness about her, but she’s also very tough.”

Adds Goldwyn, “Both Hilary and Betty Anne came from nothing, and they let their passions drive them. There are a lot of commonalities between the two.”

Swank could indeed relate to Waters on many different levels. Like Waters, she dropped out of high school and began working before her 18th birthday. The actress, born in Lincoln, Neb., and raised in a Bellingham, Wash., trailer park, made her first stage appearance at age 9 when she starred in a school production of “The Jungle Book.”

When she was 13, her parents split up, and Swank and her mother moved to L.A so Swank could pursue a show-biz career. The pair lived out of their car until Swank’s mother could afford to rent an apartment.

After enrolling in South Pasadena High School, Swank dropped out when she began landing guest spots in TV shows such as “Evening Shade” and “Growing Pains.” Her career took off in 1994, when she aced the starring role in “The Next Karate Kid,” but a mere four years later, she felt like a has-been when she was written out of “Beverly Hills 90210” after only 16 episodes.

Later, Swank admitted she briefly considered giving up on acting. She recalls thinking, “If I’m not good enough for ‘90210,’ I’m not good enough for anything.”

Less than a year later, though, Swank landed the career-transforming role of Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry.” She earned all of $3,000 for the film, but she won nearly every award imaginable, including the Golden Globe and the Oscar. (She would later win another Best Actress Oscar for playing a determined boxer in “Million Dollar Baby.”)

“The Academy Awards gave me an opportunity to play more roles like Brandon Teena and Betty Anne Waters,” Swank says. “I mean there’s no doubt that as an actor, my passion lies in playing characters like Betty Anne. So the Academy Awards have given me the opportunity to continue to explore areas of the human spirit that inspire me.”

Swank hopes “Conviction” inspires a closer look at a legal system that allows people without funds and legal muscle to be railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit.

“It’s astonishing to me that things like this can happen. I mean it leaves me speechless. When you think of Kenny in prison for a murder he did not commit … People right now are living that life, right now as we sit here, free, talking about it. It is unfathomable, but hopefully talking about it can help the situation. Even if it’s a minor step, it’s a step.”