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Hilary reaches new heights as Amelia Earhart

The decision was a no-brainer for Hilary Swank. Once her new film, Amelia, received the green light, flying lessons became a priority for her.

“Obviously, you can’t play Amelia Earhart and not learn to fly,” she grins. “That would be wrong in every way.”

Besides, Swank is a lot like the legendary woman flyer whose disappearance over the Pacific in 1937 remains a tantalizing aviation mystery. Like Amelia Earhart, she thrives on challenge. And she blithely reports that she loved every minute of her flying lessons — even the discomfort of working herself into an uncomfortable sweat.

“I didn’t realize the calculations that go into flying. It was like I was back in calculus. I’m not a big sweater, but I would find after a two-hour flight lesson that I would land and be drenched just from the calculation. It was really wonderful.”

She had wanted to continue and secure her pilot’s license before she started work on the movie, which opens Friday, but that would have required a solo stint in the air — and there was no way the film’s insurers would allow that, not when she was the most valuable component in a project which hadn’t even started shooting.

“Now they’re like — sure, go ahead!”

With Swank, determination is part of her makeup. “I like to see things through to the end. I don’t just want to say, ‘yeah, I flew.’ I’d like to get my license and continue to go up on my own. One of the great things about my job is that I get to do all these things that I may not experience had I not been an actor. And I think saying that I learned how to fly in order to play Amelia Earhart is pretty great.”

This is the trailer-park kid from Bellingham, Wash., talking — the kid who likes playing characters who seek to overcome massive obstacles: the doomed gender-shifting youngster in her Oscar-winning turn in Boys Don’t Cry; the aspiring female boxer on Million Dollar Baby, a project which led to her second Academy Award; the keen teenage martial arts aspirant in The Next Karate Kid; the driven teacher in Freedom Writers; and now this freckle-faced Kansas gal who captured the hearts of the world by making her dreams of flight come true and who became the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic.

“I do long to play roles that challenge me and scare me and make me learn new things about the world, about myself, about my art.”

The empathy she feels for someone like Earhart is embedded in her very nature. Swank has always set herself goals — from the time she was nine years old and decided she wanted to be an actor.

Growing up poor, she faced obstacles which seemed insurmountable. But Swank found strength, and what she calls her greatest gift, from her mother who gave her a clear message: “You can do anything you want to, Hilary, as long as you work hard enough.”

Swank is every inch the confident movie star as she perches on a stool in the Essex Country Airport and chats with reporters. She’s wearing a dark blue V-neck top, slim black slacks and double-buckle boots. Her hair is longer now, in contrast to the short boyish curls which were Amelia’s hallmark. Rising behind her is a gleaming Lockheed Electra aircraft — one of few Electras from that era left in the world today, and the same one used for much of the filming.

This was the aircraft which the 39-year-old Earhart was piloting in July 1937, when she and her navigator, Greg Noonan, vanished over the Pacific during the final phase of a remarkable around-the-world flight. Director Mira Nair was determined to give audiences the real thing and not resort to a computer-created facsimile.

“Mira fought hard to get that plane,” says Swank who actually taxied the aircraft down a runway at one point during shooting. “You can’t tell the story without the Electra. In the latter part of the film, it’s a character in the movie.”

Swank says it’s easy to take flying for granted now, in 2009. In recent days she herself has spent 36 hours in the air, promoting Amelia on both sides of the Atlantic; and Amelia was also partially shot in Toronto, Nova Scotia and South Africa.

“There are hundreds of planes in the air right now, and they’re going to be there tomorrow, and are flying all the time. When Amelia was doing it, it was a sport and she hoped that some day it would be a way of transportation. And this plane, particularly, is a beast to fly. It’s not easy,” she says.

“Flying when Amelia was flying was dangerous — so to fly that around the world was really remarkable.”

Earhart was remarkable in many ways during her years of glory as America’s sweetheart and “goddess of light.” Her personal charisma transcended that of Charles Lindbergh. She was an inspiration to people from all walks of life, including former U.S. first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, played by Cherry Jones.

In flirting with danger, she proved fearless. She was instrumental in organizing The Ninety-Nines, the first women pilot’s organization. Much in the way celebrities do today, she launched her own brand-name fashion line.

She was also a rebel against conformity. The fact that she was a female determined to fly testified to that; so did her unorthodox views on relationships. She married publisher George Putman (played by Richard Gere) but because of her views on open marriage, she also had an affair with pilot Gene Vidal (played by Ewan McGregor).

She was a complex human being.

“It’s a responsibility to play someone who really lived,” Swank stresses. “And it’s a big responsibility to play someone as iconic as Amelia. I mean, we all have such a great idea of who she was and what she looked like, so there wasn’t a lot of room for fictional license, and we just had to do the best we could to bring honour to that person. Under Mira’s guidance and keen eye — she’s an incredible visionary — we just tried to navigate the best we could, and that is hopefully onscreen.”

Her portrayal has won enthusiastic endorsements from two respected Earhart biographers

“I think Hilary is amazing, actually, in how much she takes on the persona of Amelia,” says Susan Butler, author of East to the Dawn.

She notes that some scenes in the movie alternate original newsreel footage of Earhart with Swank’s Amelia and — “wow, for a moment you can’t tell which is the real Amelia and which is Hilary.”

Author Elgin Long, himself a flyer and an expert on what he calls “the multiple errors of navigation and communication” on that final fatal day over the Pacific, also endorses Swank’s performance.

The movie has generated huge advance interest, and that’s something new for Swank.

“A lot of people — more than any of my movies — have come up to me and said, ‘I cannot wait to see Amelia.’ It was something I kind of expected from women who really want to see it, but a lot of men are also coming up to me and saying, ‘I cannot wait to see this movie.’ ”

Swank thinks people today are “magnetized” by this woman from the early 20th century who lived her life the way she wanted to live it.

“She made no apologies for saying, ‘This is my life, this is how I see it, and this is how I want it to be done.’ ”

The following poem, Courage, is written by Amelia Earhart:

Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace,

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

From little things;

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,

Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear

The sound of wings.

How can Life grant us boon of living, compensate

For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate

Unless we dare

The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay

With courage to behold the restless day,

And count it fair.

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