Hilary Swank tells John Hiscock how she went from trailer park to Hollywood A-list, and why she can’t resist playing real-life battlers .
Hilary Swank casts her mind back 30 years and vividly recalls the harsh voices of her friends’ mothers as they shooed her away.
The girl who went on to become a double Oscar-winning actress was the pariah her schoolfriends 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 it 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-30 – 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.”
Hilary Swank has gone on to become a fully-fledged movie star, enjoying all the trappings that go with it: luxurious house, expensive car, bookshelf filled with awards and a handsome boyfriend.
But while she may have 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, she played the real-life transsexual Brandon Teena, who tried to hide the fact he was born a woman. She won her second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, in which she played a tough but undisciplined female boxer looking for someone to believe in her.
“They are people who have the odds against them in so many ways,” she says. “I love the underdogs.”
In her new movie, Conviction, she is once again portraying a real-life underdog; Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high-school dropout who dedicated 18 years of her life to fighting a legal battle to free her brother (Sam Rockwell) from prison after he was accused of a murder he didn’t commit.
She put herself through high school, college and finally law school and, with the help of her best friend, played by Minnie Driver, she sifted through suspicious evidence mounted by the local police and meticulously retraced the steps that led to her brother’s arrest.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” says Swank, 36, who is the film’s executive producer. “I’ve always been drawn to true stories because life is stranger than fiction and this story amazed me. I was really stirred 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.”
We are talking, she tells me, on the fourth anniversary of her romance with boyfriend and Hollywood agent John Campisi, with whom she lives. She divorced her husband, actor Chad Lowe, in 2006 amid reports of his alleged drug abuse.
“It’s amazing that four years have gone by so quickly,” she says. “It’s just a different chapter in my life. My ex-husband and I were together for 14 years and our relationship was extraordinary, but now it’s a different kind of happy.
“I’m at a more mature place in my life but there’s nothing in that first chapter that I would put down. It helped make me who I am today and now I’m very much in love in my second chapter and very grateful for the relationship that I have and how it’s helping me grow into the woman I’m still becoming.”
Dressed in an eggshell-coloured blouse with a black lace miniskirt and with her hair curling on to her shoulders, Hilary Swank is friendly and talkative, saying all the things a movie star is obliged 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 Hilary Swank’s case, given her hardscrabble background, she actually means it.
She spent her childhood grappling with poverty and her parents’ problems. Her father left home when she was 16 and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where they lived in their Oldsmobile car while she went to auditions for acting jobs.
“My mother gave up her whole life for her family,” she said. “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 and never give up.”
She and her mother didn’t have to live in their car for long, because Hilary landed small roles in television series, and when she was 18 she made her feature film debut in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After more guest-starring roles she became a regular in the cast of Beverly Hills 90210, playing a single mother, until she was dropped. Quickly, although still a virtual unknown, she was hired for the leading role in Boys Don’t Cry and suddenly she was a movie star.
“Thankfully I was fired from 90210 because three months later I got the role in Boys Don’t Cry, which wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed with the show,” she said.
In the decade since, she has appeared in 14 films, frequently portraying real-life characters as she did in her most recent movie, Amelia, the story of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering American pilot. She is also a hands-on producer and her company has five movies in various stages of production, most of which she intends to star in.
“I became an actor because I love people and I love their stories; it’s like a great kind of advanced psychology class,” she laughs. “I didn’t want 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 made me so grateful for what I have today.”
‘Conviction’ opens on Jan 14.