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Hilary Swank on ‘Amelia,’ Learning to Fly & Meryl Streep

Hilary Swank is a two-time Oscar winner, first as a she living as a he, in ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ then as a girl engaged in the macho sport of boxing, in ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ So should it come as any surprise that awards buzz is starting up for her performance in her latest, ‘Amelia,’ in which she plays the iconic aviatrix pursuing her dreams in the traditionally male field of flying?

We caught up with Swank, who told us why she thinks truth is stranger than fiction, that more people are approaching her about this movie than any she’s ever done (even though critics aren’t loving the film) … and which woman is her own real-life inspiration.

You immerse yourself really deeply into your characters; how did you immerse yourself into Amelia?
Well, you know, first of all, there was the physicality of it. Amelia is an icon and this image that we all know very well, so the physicality of it was something that was fun, you know? I cut my hair off, I became blonde. She had freckles. Understanding how she carried herself is a big part of playing Amelia. The cadence in which she spoke, her accent — for eight weeks I studied 16 minutes of newsreel on Amelia, which was really difficult. I think her accent was the most challenging accent that I’ve ever done in my career of accents. It was hard for me to get.

And you took flying lessons?
I did, I took flying lessons. I couldn’t imagine playing Amelia Earhart and not learning how to fly, so it’s pretty great to say, “I learned how to fly to play Amelia Earhart,” because it something I’ve actually always wanted to do. One of the exciting things about my job is that I really get to step in all these different shoes and learn things that I might not have had I not been an actor.

What did you know about Amelia before you took on the role?
I really only knew the couple sentences that you learn about in the schoolbook. Getting to know her was exciting … you know, I’ve never had as many people come up to me and say to me, “I cannot wait to see this movie,” more than any other movie that I’ve been a part of, actually. And I think it’s because [she was] a woman who made no apologies for living a life that she wanted to live for herself. In 2009, even, it’s a difficult thing to do. We’re constantly kind of living our life for our parents or a loved one or the idea of who we think we should be rather than what really is right for us. She, I think, was ahead of her time then, and certainly if she lived in 2009 she’d be ahead of her time now.

Amelia worked with George Putnam before they started dating; did you identify with that since you’re dating your former agent John Campisi?
I didn’t really think about that, because I don’t know if it’s quite the same, but that’s funny. He is an agent, but he wasn’t really my main person, not my agent. But he works at my agency … I think that their relationship — I think Amelia was George’s beloved, and he really allowed her to have this life that she dreamed of. She did finally recognize what a gift that was on her final flight and, which she didn’t know at the time was her final flight, of course. I think that that’s so moving in life when you finally are aware of the meaning of life in a deeper way.

The scene in the movie when Amelia takes Eleanor Roosevelt up in a plane, did that really happen?
Yes, it did really happen. I don’t really know exactly how it went down when they were in the plane, whether she really said, “put your hands on the wheel” and she took her hands off, but yeah, at night after a function, she said, “come on, let’s go up.” They flew around DC together with a bunch of people in the back. Isn’t that fun?

You have another biopic coming up, ‘Betty Waters,’ and you won your first Oscar for a biopic. Are you drawn to playing real people, or is it sort of just a coincidence?
That adage that truth is stranger than fiction is holding true in all the stories I’m reading … a lot of these stories that I’m drawn to are just absolutely incredible and, you know, they’re mind-blowing, and I’m thankful for [them], because I think that all of them have been so life-enriching for me as an actor, and also as a human being.

Is there a different way you prepare for playing a real person versus when you’re playing a fictional person?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with playing someone real, especially someone like Amelia Earhart, who was so well known. I feel like it’s really big shoes to fill, and certainly you can’t take a lot of fictional license when you play someone that’s achieved so much. It’s definitely, I feel, a lot different. It was scary — it’s a daunting task to play Amelia Earhart. I went to work everyday saying, “Please don’t let me mess this up!”

You’ve had a pretty amazing career, but is there anyone’s career that you look to as an inspiration?
It’s probably cliché at this point, but Meryl Streep is someone who not only continues to raise her own bar, and she’s time and time again extraordinary … she carries herself with such grace and she’s a girl’s girl, she’s very supportive of other women, and her work ethic is inspiring. She runs the gamut of doing dramatic and mainstream movies. You know, she fluctuates back and forth so easily and fluently. We’re entertainers, and that’s what a full career is supposed to be filled with, so I think she’s just extraordinary in every way.

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