Hilary Swank takes her mind back 30 years and vividly recalls the harsh voices of her friends’ mothers as they shoo her away.The girl who would go on to become a double Oscar-winning actress was the pariah her schoolmates weren’t allowed to play with because she lived in a low-rent trailer park.
“For me it was no big deal, because I didn’t know that was something that people looked down on,” she says now. “I had a roof over my head and my mom worked hard to make sure there was food on the table, but the parents of the neighbourhood kids wouldn’t let them play with me. They would tell them, ‘It’s time to come in’ if they were with me, or if I was at their houses, it would be, ‘Hilary, you need to leave.’
“I didn’t understand because I didn’t know there was this kind of a stereotype about people who lived in trailer parks, and I look back now at those parents, who were in their mid-thirties, the age I am now, and I think, ‘How could you do that to a child?’ It’s not something I understand, but I try and have compassion for whatever their insecurities were.”
Swank is now a fully fledged movie star, enjoying all the trappings that go with the lifestyle: luxurious house, expensive car, bookshelf filled with awards, handsome boyfriend.
But while she has left the trailer park in Washington State far behind, her choice of roles reflects her background as an underdog and outsider. For her first Oscar-winning role, in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), she played the real-life transgendered person Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered after trying to hide the fact he was born a woman. She won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby (2004), playing a tough but undisciplined boxer looking for someone to believe in her.
“They are people who have the odds against them in so many ways, and I find that something I really relate to and support,” she says. “I love the underdogs and I find it more interesting to play roles that aren’t just arm candy, for want of a better word. I like to take on roles that scare me, where I have to transform and change and really go somewhere emotionally.”
In her new movie, Conviction, she again portrays a real-life underdog, Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high-school dropout who dedicates 18 years of her life to fighting a legal battle to free her brother (Sam Rockwell) from prison after he is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” says Swank, 36, who is the film’s executive producer and who believes she shares certain characteristics with Betty Anne. “I’ve always been drawn to true stories because life is stranger than fiction and this story amazed, moved and inspired me. I was really stirred by the script and by this bond between a brother and sister. It’s a rare kind of love they have, where one would do anything for the other.
“She’s so selfless and full of humility, and I think we are similar in our drive and determination to follow through with things and people we believe in, and I think that stems from having very similar backgrounds. When you grow up poor you don’t have money as a resource to help you get ahead, so you’re literally using every personal resource you have.”
We are talking in a Beverly Hills hotel suite on a day she says is the fourth anniversary of her romance with her boyfriend, the Hollywood agent John Campisi, with whom she lives. She divorced her husband, the actor Chad Lowe, in 2006 amid reports of his alleged drug abuse. Observers believe the fact that his career sank while hers rocketed was partly to blame for the divorce, although she denies that and says he was always supportive of her.
“In the end it just didn’t work, but I would never look back on it as a relationship that failed,” she says. “I look at it as 14 years of success. Our relationship was extraordinary and we were together for a long time and there was so much joy. But now it’s a different kind of happy.”
Dressed in an eggshell-coloured Moschino blouse with a black lace miniskirt and black patent leather high-heeled sandals, and with her hair curling on to her shoulders, Swank is friendly and talkative, saying all the things a movie star is obligated to say about gratitude and humility for unexpected and undeserved success and how luck played a big part in everything.
It could be, though, that in her case, given her difficult background, she means it.
She spent her childhood grappling with poverty, loneliness and her parents’ problems. Acting was a natural choice for the young girl who immersed herself in books and movies because she had no one to play with. She was nine years old when she first appeared on stage, in a school production of The Jungle Book.
Her father left the family when she was 16, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where they lived in their car while Swankauditioned for acting jobs.
“My mother gave up her whole life for her family,” she recalls fondly. “She put my father through college, gave up her career as a dancer and instilled in me and my brother the belief that we could pursue whatever we wanted in life. She taught me to be independent, not to have to rely on anybody and to go after everything I wanted in life and never give up.”
She and her mother didn’t have to live in their car for long, because Swank landed small roles in television series and, at 18, made her feature film debut in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992). She soon beat out thousands of actresses for the coveted lead role in the 1994 martial arts film The Next Karate Kid, but the movie flopped.
After more guest-starring roles in TV she became a regular on the popular Beverly Hills 90210, playing a single mother, until she once more was out of work, but only briefly. Although still largely unknown, she was hired for the leading role in the drama Boys Don’t Cry. Suddenly she was a much-talked-about movie star, although she earned a meagre US$75 (Dh275) a day – a total of $3,000 (Dh11,019) – for the role.
“I was devastated when I was fired from 90210, but three months later I got the role in Boys Don’t Cry,” she says. “So it was a combination of trusting fate, learning about the business, working hard and some luck that brought me where I am today.”
When she isn’t working,Swank loves to take her two dogs – Rumi, a golden retriever mix, and Karoo, a corgi mix – hiking with her in the Santa Monica Mountains. Afterwards they head for her favourite café near her home in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles.
An athlete who competed in the Junior Olympics in swimming and gymnastics, she has a personal trainer, plays tennis, attends spinning and Pilates classes and runs. “I really like exercise and it’s an important part of my life,” she says. “I do it four or five days a week, and while I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive about it, when I do it, I focus on it.”
Swank has starred in 20 films, frequently portraying real-life characters, as she did in her most recent movie, Amelia, the story of Amelia Earhart. She is also a hands-on producer, and her company has five movies, most of which she intends to star in, in various stages of production. Although the details of some of them are still under wraps, it’s a safe bet that her roles will not be glamorous ones.
“My characters are always on edge, and I have to abandon all of my ego,” she says. “I can’t care what I look like or what the critics think. I can’t care about looking like a complete and total fool, because the second you start caring about those things you’re acting for the wrong reasons and you’re not inhabiting the character fully and honestly. So if I’m not falling on my face or looking like a fool or messing up every once in a while then I don’t think I’m going the distance in my work.
I never wanted to become an actor because I wanted to live in a house or have that fancy car or wear those Louboutins, even if I knew what they were. That never intrigued me.
“But don’t get me wrong. I love wearing those shoes now, and I do drive a nice car, but that doesn’t make me who I am. I don’t need those things to feel complete, or feel like I belong. People ask me if I would change my past if I could, and I never would because it makes me so grateful for what I have today.”
The Swank file
BORN Lincoln, Nebraska, July 30, 1974. Parents moved to Washington State soon after she was born.
SCHOOLING Sehome High School, Bellingham, Washington, until 16. Santa Monica, California, City College.
FAMILY Father Stephen, a travelling salesman; mother Judy, a secretary; separated when she was 13. Has an older brother, Dan, who owns a marketing company in Washington.
FIRST JOB Waitress
HERO Betty Anne Waters
BIGGEST REGRET Being fired from Beverly Hills 90210
BIGGEST BREAK Being fired from Beverly Hills 90210
FAVOURITE SNACK Snickerdoodle cookies
HOBBIES Hiking and gardening
CAN’T DO WITHOUT Coffee
CAN’T STAND Food stuck between the teeth