Hilary Swank has, by all accounts, just done a double-take.
Loitering in the hallway of a five-star hotel, waiting for my arrival, she’s just caught sight of a framed photo of herself on the wall – amid a montage of A-list film stars. Never mind that she became a two-time Oscar-winner by the time she hit 30, she still gets a kick out of such things. “I was like, ‘I’m on the wall!’” she exclaims, smoothing down a crease in her green, sleeveless Oscar de la Renta dress. “Even now, it’s astonishing to me – that I’m with all those famous people.’”
Admittedly, this seems like false modesty for an actress with a career that stretches back over 20 years, who has sparred with everyone from Al Pacino to Scarlett Johansson. Yet there’s something still quite innocent about the brown-eyed Swank, a blue-collar Nebraska native who grew up in a trailer park rather than under the lights of Sunset Boulevard, where her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame now rests. Even now, aged 40, she still gets excited by the glamorous side of the business – such as unveiling her new movie, The Homesman.
It was in competition in Cannes earlier this year, the first time Swank has ever had a movie premiere at the film festival. “It’s such a big deal,” she nods. “I ended up having 10 people with me, including my best friend since we were six years old, from Bellingham, Washington.”
They partied, popped champagne and got chauffeured by limo to the red carpet. “I got out of the car and there was a camera right in my face. I’ve done it a million times. And they were like: ‘Welcome to Cannes!’’ And I was like: ‘Aaagh!’ I couldn’t even talk.”
A speechless Swank – now there’s a thing. Recently, she managed to overcome any shyness at a Variety-hosted event for 10 Actors to Watch. She was there to receive a Creative Impact in Acting award, leaving the selected youngsters (including The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) with the words: “I hope that you don’t ever feel afraid to fall on your face.” Coming from the actress who broke into Hollywood by learning martial arts tips from Mr Miyagi in The Next Karate Kid, it is sage advice.
She has made mistakes in the past, notably in 2011 when she attended the birthday celebrations of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Republic president accused of numerous human-rights violations, commanding a reported appearance fee of £500,000. Criticised by human-rights groups, Swank denied knowledge of the allegations made against Kadyrov, donating her fee to charities and sacking her manager in the process. Embarrassing to say the least.
Then again, there’s always been a see-saw quality to Swank’s career. Recently, the web has spawned wild rumours that she will be the next Bond girl, starring opposite Daniel Craig in the forthcoming Sam Mendes-directed 007 film. If it turns out to be true – and that’s a big if, given Léa Seydoux is said to be the one to cosy up to Craig – then she’d be the oldest actress ever to play the MI6 agent’s squeeze (Honor Blackman was the previous record holder, 39 when she played Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore).
Yet rather like fellow Oscar-winner (and ex-Bond girl) Halle Berry, Swank’s work has a strange mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. Unquestionably, she was brilliant in her two Oscar-winning roles, both utterly transformative. As the transgender teen in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, she lived for a month as a man and reduced her body fat to seven percent. And as the waitress-turned-boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, she trained for six days a week, for three months, gaining 19lb in the process.
There have also been impressive collaborations with Christopher Nolan (his Alaskan noir Insomnia) and Sam Raimi (the supernatural thriller The Gift) – but her CV is littered with mediocre genre films, like The Core and The Reaping, and middlebrow biopics, like Freedom Writers (playing teacher Erin Gruwell) and Amelia (as the aviatrix Amelia Earhart). Swank merely shrugs. “You’re an artist and you’re putting yourself out there, and you take that leap, and sometimes you fly and sometimes you fall.”
In The Homesman, she doesn’t just fly, she soars. Based on the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, who also penned The Shootist, the basis for John Wayne’s final film, it sees Swank play Mary Bee Cuddy, a good-hearted spinster living in the 1800s in the harsh Nebraska Territory. Ahead of the men of her town, she volunteers to chaperone three insane women by covered wagon back to Iowa, where the wife (Meryl Streep) of a kindly Methodist minister awaits.
Swank, who even learnt how to plough for the role, was immediately taken with the character. “I love Mary Bee. I think she has strong values. She’s selfless. She’s got good morals. She’s someone I wish I knew, that I had on my side. I say that she dares to go where angels fears to tread.” In her eyes, she remains a perfect role model for anyone watching now. “Mary Bee has such good values and I think we’ve lost a sense of values in this day and age. I think people’s values have fallen by the wayside and I think that’s sad.”
Co-starring with Swank is Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs and co-wrote the script and here plays George Briggs, a whiskey-swigging army deserter who is coerced into helping Cuddy on her quest. Jones first met Swank in an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills – the sort of Hollywood eatery that neither he nor she would usually be found dead in.
“After maybe five seconds, I knew she was just right for the role,” he says, with typical brevity. “She’s a very skilful and capable movie actor.”
Born in Nebraska, and with a lot of her family in Ringgold County, Iowa, Swank is certainly perfectly cast as Cuddy. While her mother Judy was a secretary and dancer and father Stephen a former officer in the Air National Guard, she comes from a long line of farmers, built to toil the land. “My grandfather’s hand – one hand is both my hands together,” she says, flashing a toothy smile and stretching out her own delicate fist. “The biggest hands! He was just a big man.”
After her trailer-park years in Bellingham, Swank developed both athletic and acting skills – competing in gymnastics and swimming tournaments alongside making her first appearance, aged nine, in a stage production of The Jungle Book. She was 15 when her parents split, whereupon she – famously – moved to LA with her mother, to try to kick-start her acting career, living out of the family car until they could afford to rent an apartment. Little wonder she credits her mother as one of her “role models” in life.
Almost immediately, Swank started working professionally, never thinking of any other career as a fall-back.
“Not that everything was amazing work,” she says. “[Back then] I would take any job as an actor.” She made an early appearance in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie before gaining a role in Beverly Hills 90210. It was an early low point: it was meant to be a two-year gig, but she was written out after just 16 episodes. Fortunately, being fired allowed her to audition for Boys Don’t Cry – even lying to director Kimberly Peirce about her age to secure the role.
At the time, she also met and married Chad Lowe, brother to actor Rob, five years after they’d met at a party at the Hollywood Athletic Club, shortly after she turned 18. Their union lasted 10 years, during which time Swank admitted in Vanity Fair that her husband had “substance-abuse problems” (Lowe later told Larry King that he was “definitely very disappointed” that she decided to air this private problem to the press. “I think she regrets it,” he added).
Since then, Lowe has remarried and had two children, while Swank has yet to marry again – though rumours abound. She dated her agent John Campisi for more than five years, and is currently with French real-estate broker Laurent Fleury, who has two children. Spending a lot of time now in Paris, “I’m trying to learn French,” she tells me, and she’s also learning how to play tennis – with a little help from Fleury. “I’m obsessed,” she says. “Hopefully I’m not learning wrong, because that would be hard to re-learn!”
While she has yet to have any children of her own, I ask if she feels maternal now. “Yeah, definitely,” she nods. “I think that’s just innately something that is in me for sure. I love to take care of the people I love. I’m very, very mothering to the people I love.” While she’s not a workaholic – she rarely makes more than one film a year – she finds it difficult to leave her characters behind. “I’m not very good at taking breaks. I’m not good at that. And that’s what I need to work on, but I’m getting better at it.”
Her next film, in You’re Not You, is classic Swank, the sort of heartbreaking, homely role she’s good at, casting her as a classical pianist with the muscle-wasting disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Perhaps more promisingly, she’s attached to The One Percent, a television show about a struggling farmer (Ed Helms) that’s set to be overseen by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the celebrated director behind Babel and the upcoming Birdman. “More than anything, I’m watching film-makers that I want to work with,” she says, sounding determined to ensure that photo of her on the hotel wall stays there a while longer.
‘The Homesman’ is released on 21 November