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Hilary Swank: A tale worthy of Hollywood

Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank tells Metro about playing her hero and why her background inspired her to seek success.

‘Some roles come to me, others I do fight for. I’ve never been one to take a back seat, that’s for sure,’ chuckles Hilary Swank.

Ever since her lead movie debut as Mr Miyagi’s first female protégée in The Next Karate Kid, Swank has become known for playing tough cookies. She won her first Oscar for portraying an embattled transgender man in Boys Don’t Cry and a second for playing a ballsy waitress turned boxer fighting for survival in Million Dollar Baby. Can she score a third with new film Conviction?
‘Betty Anne is my hero,’ Swank says simply of a role that’s being dubbed her Erin Brockovich, ‘and that’s not to make her out like a saint. Like Maggie in Million Dollar Baby, she’s a great example of an ordinary person who finds herself in an extraordinary experience because that’s her dream. And she works real hard, against all odds, to achieve a goal.’

Conviction is a real-life melodrama that casts Swank as Betty Anne Waters, an unskilled mother of two who dedicated her life to overturning her brother’s murder conviction by training herself to be a lawyer. ‘We all have a goal. We all have suffered injustice,’ insists Swank. ‘These are the inspiring human stories that made me want to be an actor and to be a better person. They are the characters I relate to.’

You don’t have to search hard to see why. Born to humble beginnings, Swank grew up in a trailer park in Washington state and left for LA with her mother when she was 15 to try to become an actress. They lived in a car. ‘My mom always told me: “Hilary, you can do anything you want in life as long as you work hard enough. Don’t ever take no for an answer.” She didn’t want me to be afraid of taking life by the horns.’

All of which made meeting Swank an intimidating prospect. I’d expected a hard nut, battle-scarred from intrusive press junkets. Yet although she’s Kylie-tiny in a leopard-skin miniskirt that says ‘you can take the girl out of the trailer park but…’, the peachy-skinned Swank comes across as natural, warm, down-to-earth and, particularly for a Hollywood A-lister, refreshingly non-defensive.

‘What’s funny is that everyone thinks I’m this very serious person and I’m not,’ she says. ‘I’m like this silly girl. I would love to do a comedy but you have to find a good one for me – and try and name a few with good, smart parts for women. I mean really, think about it.’

We saw a lighter side of her in PS I Love You, I suggest, referring to Swank’s not-very-successful attempt at a chick flick, though even that was rather serious. ‘I know,’ she laughs uproariously. ‘I thought, “ooh, I’m doing this lighter movie” and I ended up crying every day. I was like, “not again”.’

Hunting down smart, meaty lead roles for women in Hollywood is always a struggle, yet the 36-year-old Swank has reaped the lion’s share. ‘I think I’ve been really lucky,’ she admits. ‘Being able to play not just the last two roles [Betty Anne in Conviction and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in Amelia] but I’d say with the trajectory of my career for the last 11 years.

‘After Boys Don’t Cry [a role for which she was paid only $75 (£49) a day] I thought, “when am I ever going to get that opportunity again?” Answer: five years later with Million Dollar Baby and then, after that, playing Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers. If you notice, though, they are almost all, except for Million Dollar Baby, real-life characters. So I would say there’s a lack of original compelling fictional works for women but I certainly can’t complain.’

Nor, despite her insistence that she ‘didn’t become an actor to become a celebrity’, will you catch the super-determined Swank whingeing about the downsides of fame.

‘There are pros and cons to everything but the thing that I’ve embraced about it is it’s given me the opportunity to greenlight a movie like this, just because I’m a household name, I guess. I don’t know. It sounds weird to say that because I don’t feel like that. I still feel like the same girl who came from the trailer park and had a dream.’

Forget the Oscars: that Swank can pronounce this without sounding remotely corny indeed makes her one of the greatest actresses of her generation.
Conviction is in cinemas from Friday.