Categories Articles & Interviews

Hilary Swank on purpose, parenthood and the importance of patience

Hilary Swank is unusual for a Hollywood actress. In more ways than one – we’ll get to that – but primarily because she is so brilliantly straight-talking. “By nature, I don’t really worry,” she says with an easy shrug. “I just like to say, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do’. I don’t like to ‘what if’ the heck out of everything, you know?”

This remarkably relaxed life philosophy is one that has propelled Swank into a long career (three decades and counting) as one of the world’s most famous actresses. She is also clearly unfazed by the Hollywood circus (“I feel like this business probably has more than most, when it comes to people with egos!” she says with a laugh at one point).

For all her easy-goingness, however, Swank is not without mettle. She grew up in a trailer park in Washington, before moving to LA with her mother, where the pair lived in their car until they could pull together enough money for an apartment. Swank dropped out of South Pasadena High School, and began booking small parts: in TV series Camp Wilder, and the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film.

Her breakout role was as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, a moving biography of an American trans man, for which she lived as male for a month and earned so little that she couldn’t even qualify for health insurance. It paid off, though: Swank won the Oscar for Best Actress for the film, and went on to score her second for Million Dollar Baby five years later.

“I definitely have a lot of grit!” she says, smiling. “I feel like you do the best you can with what you’ve got. And then, you just try to figure it out. And that’s a part of life for everybody – we all have something that we’re going through. I definitely have that ‘figure it out’ attitude, though: at one point, one of the agents I had said, ‘You’re so naïve, with the parts that you want to go after’. And I was like, ‘Well, if you said that to the little girl who was living in a trailer park who said she wanted to be in an actress, I’d probably still be in that trailer park’.”

Fighting against the odds is what drew Swank to her latest project Ordinary Angels, in which she plays Sharon, a Louisville hairdresser who rallies her community to help a widowed father (played by Alan Ritchson) save the life of his critically ill daughter, who is awaiting a lung transplant. Sharon – an alcoholic, estranged from her son – is battling her own demons as well.

“I’m inspired most by people who persevere through adversity,” she tells me. “A lot of people are struggling with debilitating health bills. Fighting for your life is hard enough, and you shouldn’t have to then live under the weight of these bills. And I think it makes us feel less alone, when we see movies that deal with that.” Swank is no stranger to the subject: her own father received a lung transplant in 2014. “I know how life-changing that is,” she says. “And I feel like anything that we experience in life, if we can bring it to our art, it’s only going to help enrich it.”

Sharon’s character in the film – which is based on a true story – appealed to Swank mostly because “she is flawed. She goes through the dark night of her soul and, in helping someone else, finds her truest purpose,” she explains. “I think a lot of us feel like we have to be perfect. Like, I can’t help anybody, you know? Like, who am I to help? And then you recognise, we’re actually all flawed. We’re all imperfect. And we can make a difference in someone’s life.”

It’s easy to see why Swank was attracted to the part: in some ways, she and Sharon are remarkably similar in their tenacity, their ‘can do’ attitude and their insistence that “finding laughter and humanity through all of it” is an essential tonic. “You just have to remind yourself that this is life, and that you’re going to find your way through it, with patience, sweat, sometimes tears,” says Swank, with her characteristic optimism. “And, you know, hopefully, with a lot of love from the people you care about.”

It’s taken time for Swank to fully understand and appreciate that love. “I didn’t know how to rely on people when I was younger. And then, as I got older, I recognised that such a big part of having a relationship is not only being there for someone else, but allowing them to be there for you. That’s something that came later for me, because I didn’t want anyone to have to help me. Then I realised, ‘Oh, no, that’s a form of love for them. They want to help me because they love me.’ So that was a bit of a learning curve.”

Love and learning have come together for Swank in parenthood: last year, aged 48, she welcomed twins with her husband, the entrepreneur Philip Schneider. “I worked up until the second week of my third trimester,” she recalls. “It certainly wasn’t the best environment in which to be pregnant. But like I say, you have to navigate those waters as best you can.”

Swank is pleased to be back in front of the camera, but she is more judicious now about the projects she takes on. “For the first year of my children’s life, there was a strike, so I wasn’t able to go back to work even if I’d wanted to. But I’m definitely going to be even more selective now. I think all the boxes have to be checked in order for me to be part of something: is the director someone I want to collaborate with? How many hours am I going to work in the day? Do I want to be pulled away for that long? Can I work a half day in the middle of the week, so that I can come home and put my children to bed?”

She may sound like she knows exactly where she’s heading, but when it comes to what the future holds, Swank is happy to expect the unexpected: “I just take it one thing at a time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – but hey, life isn’t, right?”