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Hilary Swank acting with Conviction

She’s already bagged two Oscars for gritty, true-to-life roles; now Hilary Swank may be heading for a third. Rob Driscoll asks her how she prepared to play an ordinary mum fighting for justice

YOU want one of Hollywood’s finest actresses to play a real-life, underdog battler? There’s only one lady at the top of your wish list and that’s Hilary Swank.

The two-time Oscar winner has made her reputation playing gritty and unglamorous outsider roles – as in the films that won her those prized statuettes, Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby.

Now, once again, she’s carrying the can for one of society’s hard-done-by fighters, in her latest movie Conviction, with a tear-jerking performance – as a working-class mother on the mission of a lifetime – that insiders reckon could bring her yet another Best Actress Academy Award nomination.

But what attracts her to these tough, yet overwhelmingly emotional dramas?

“In the case of Conviction, it’s just an extraordinary story,” explains 36-year-old Swank, who stars as the real-life Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high-school drop-out who dedicated 18 years of her life to fighting a legal battle – even training herself to become a lawyer – to free her brother from prison after he was accused of a murder he never committed.

“I’ve always been drawn to true stories, because life is stranger than fiction, and this story amazed me. To be given the opportunity to play somebody like this leaves me a better person. I’ll carry Betty Anne and her brother Kenny forever in my heart and I’m really grateful for that.”

Swank herself, somewhat famously, can relate strongly to the Betty Annes of this world – the humble, low-salaried loners who have to fight their way from the bottom to make their mark on society.

She grew up in a low-rent trailer park in Washington State, and continued to grapple with poverty after her father left home when she was 16, leaving her mother to give up her whole life for the family.

It was only through sheer dogged determination, along with her mother’s encouragement after they moved to Los Angeles, that the young Hilary eventually landed small roles in TV series, and when she was 18 she made her feature film debut in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Swank is the ultimate A-lister superstar with all the trappings that go with it: luxurious house, expensive car, mantlepiece groaning with awards and a four-year relationship with her partner and Hollywood agent John Campisi.

Is it any wonder, then, that she’s continually drawn back to playing women who have to struggle against the odds?

For her first Oscar-winning role, in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Swank played the real-life transsexual Brandon Teena, who tried to hide the fact that he was born a woman.

Five years later came her role as a feisty yet vulnerable and ultimately tragic boxer in Million Dollar Baby, with Clint Eastwood directing and also co-starring as her trainer. It earned Swank a second Best Actress Oscar at 30, making her the third youngest woman ever to win two of those coveted awards.

Since then, versatile Swank has dipped her toes into other genres, from rom-com in PS I Love You to horror with The Reaping to period biopic in Amelia (as pioneering pilot Amelia Earheart), with varying degrees of success.

Now, it seems, she’s back doing what she does best – tugging at our heart-strings with a true-life tale of triumph against adversity. Above all Conviction, on which Swank also served as executive producer, is a powerful story of unwavering sibling love.

Betty Anne Waters and Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell) grew up dirt-poor in Massachusetts and forged an unbreakable bond as they were neglected by their parents and shunted from one foster home to the next.

When Kenny – prone to drunken rages and petty crime – is convicted of the 1980 murder of a waitress and sentenced to life imprisonment everyone believes he is guilty, except his sister.

A high school drop-out, and now a wife and mother of two young children, Betty Anne embarks on a selfless mission, devoting every waking hour to prove her brother’s innocence, sacrificing her own marriage along the way. She puts herself through high school, college and finally law school in an 18-year quest to fight what she believes – and finally knows – to be an outrageous miscarriage of justice.

With the help of best friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), Betty Anne pores through suspicious evidence mounted by a corrupt small-town cop, meticulously tracing the steps that led to Kenny’s arrest, and uncovering the facts and DNA evidence that will exonerate her jailed brother.

“For me, this was such a beautiful love story between a brother and a sister, one that was so compelling,” says Swank. “The idea that someone can be so selfless as Betty Anne, she’s my real-life hero for having such a big heart for another human being.”

In preparing for the part, Swank wasn’t immediately sure that she wanted to meet with Betty Anne, though they ultimately developed a close rapport.

“Something as actors that we do, as we’re hanging out with people, is that we do imitations of people in general. I didn’t want to be mimicking someone, I wanted to get the physicality of this person,” she explains.

“I wanted to understand the heart of this person. What about Betty Anne made her have this drive and determination and tenacity to go against such odds? But when I met her, it only allowed me to feel her heart stronger.”

Ultimately, having Waters on the film set turned out to be a gift for Swank.

“Betty Anne was never intimidating in any way. She was never there to point a finger or anything, but if we ever had any questions, she would fill in the blanks.”

The story runs from 1980 to the late ’90s, the changes in style and fashion reflected subtly in the production’s art direction, costuming and make-up.

“In less than two hours’ screen-time, we span 18/19 years of time,” says Swank.

“As an actor it’s a great challenge because I go from 18 to 39; how does your character change emotionally from year to year? We weren’t filming in sequential order either, so these were all major challenges.”

Swank clearly hopes that Conviction, as well as proving a compelling drama, will shine a bright light on the flawed American justice system, especially when it comes to the correct usage and gathering of DNA evidence.

“I know that we have a very flawed judicial system in the United States,” says Swank. “Knowing what Betty Anne knows – that an innocent man was executed – I don’t believe in the death penalty.

“I believe there are other people as we speak right now in prison wrongfully accused, who could face such a fate. And that is injustice at its greatest.”