She has won Oscars for her portrayal of a transgender female and a tough prizefighter. Now Hilary Swank is poised to conquer the whimsical world of romantic comedy. She talks to Mick Brown.
Hilary Swank was just 24 when, in 1999, she won the first of her two Oscars, for the film Boys Don’t Cry, playing the role of Teena Brandon. The film tells the true story of a young girl who wanted to be a boy and paid the price with her life. In playing the part, Swank was required to relinquish her femininity and expose herself in every conceivable way. Her shoulder-length hair was chopped to a boyish crop and her breasts bandaged uncomfortably against her chest. She was called upon to seduce a fellow actress, Chloë Sevigny, to be gang raped, beaten and finally shot dead.
To prepare for the role, in the months before filming began Swank would go out every day, with her chopped hair, her bandaged breasts and a sock stuffed in her underwear – ‘trying to disguise my femininity as best as I could’, as she more delicately puts it – and pass as a boy. Speaking in a low voice, she would introduce herself to neighbours and friends as Hilary’s brother James. ‘That was really interesting,’ she says, ‘to see people who knew me, but didn’t recognise me, treat me completely differently. A lot of them got really upset when they realised it was me. They felt like I was trying to trick them. It really showed me how much we use our identity and our gender to communicate.’
Swank pauses. ‘There was also something in that that I’ll never have back again, which is that I wasn’t famous. I didn’t have a bunch of things to hide from. It wasn’t that people were saying, “Ha, you look a lot like that actress.” There was none of that. Now I can’t go out and try out new characters on the street, because people would be like, what are you doing? Why are you acting like that?’ Swank throws back her head and laughs. So nowadays there’s no disguising the fact that she’s Hilary Swank? ‘Nooo…’
Swank’s unconventional beauty and her gift for dramatic self-transformation has been the making of her as an actress. She won her second Oscar in 2005, for the role of Maggie Fitzgerald, a scrappy, muscular boxer in Million Dollar Baby. In light of which, her most recent role is perhaps the most surprising of all. P.S. I Love You is a romantic comedy based on the bestselling novel by Cecelia Ahern, in which Swank plays the part of a young widow who is guided through the first year following her husband’s death by a series of letters that he has left behind for her. Light as whipped cream, it’s the kind of ‘American sweetheart’ role that Julia Roberts would have filled 10 years ago and Meg Ryan five years before that, in which Swank is required to be little more than sweet, heartwarming and gorgeous – all of which she is. But it’s a long way from Boys Don’t Cry.
‘There were a handful of actresses one could have chosen for whom this would have been a logical step,’ the film’s director Richard LaGravenese says. ‘But coming from those very heavy, dramatic roles she’d done, Hilary brought a freshness to the part. It was that light, feminine side she hadn’t really done before, and she went at it with great relish.’
‘It’s not a full-blown comedy,’ Swank says, ‘but there’s a lot of funny moments and a lot of endearing moments. Someone watched it at a test-screening and said it’s one of those movies that makes you laugh through your tears, and that’s a good way to describe it. And it’s very different from anything I’ve played before, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it.’
It is lunchtime in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel – a Hollywood institution, much beloved of industry movers and shakers. Swank arrives late amid profuse apologies – evidently a regular, she is greeted by name by the waiters. Like many movie stars, she is smaller and slighter than I imagined her to be. She is wearing skintight black jeans tucked into black knee-high boots and a baggy, black scoop-neck sweater. She is a youthful-looking 33, with not a visible scrap of make-up. Her face is a series of sharp, chiselled angles arranged around a pair of stupendously voluptuous lips, which bare in a smile to reveal great, shining, perfectly symmetrical teeth.
Swank smiles often, as if this is her default position. A kind of artless ‘Gee, that’s great’ good cheer, tempered with a thread of steely attention to the matter at hand. ‘Hmm, that’s interesting,’ she says when the conversation meanders into an area she doesn’t regard as useful. The waiter brings poached salmon. ‘Is it cooked all the way through? You’re sure now?’ She jabs at the fish with her knife – ‘I don’t like raw fish’ – wipes the knife on her finger, pops her finger into her mouth, savours it for a moment, then gives a broad smile. It is not, one thinks, the sort of thing people do in the Polo Lounge.
Among those she has worked with, Swank has a formidable reputation for dedication and hard work. Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred with her in Million Dollar Baby – a film for which she trained for six months in a Brooklyn boxing gym and put on 19lb for her role as a prizefighter – extols Swank’s ‘unparalleled enthusiasm and professionalism’. While mention of Eastwood sparks an effusion of almost religious awe from Swank. ‘There’s not many words could describe what Clint means to me. He’s a rare, rare soul in his spirit as a person, as an artist. He doesn’t have an attitude and he expects people to show up and really give their all. He commands respect by his actions because he’s such a consummate professional.’ All qualities, you suspect, she aspires to herself.
When Swank stood up to make her acceptance speech for her first Oscar, emotionally declaring, ‘I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve this. I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream,’ she was aligning herself, mindfully or not, with the great mythology of Hollywood rags-to-riches stories. It’s a mythology that Swank seems to have seamlessly accommodated into the narrative of her own life, with its abiding themes of the struggle to overcome adversity through dedication and hard work, rising to the challenge and gratitude for one’s good fortune. All of which are topics that she constantly returns to throughout our conversation.
Swank grew up Bellingham, Washington, a working-class town in the most north-westerly corner of America, close to the Canadian border, where life largely revolves around fishing and logging. Her father worked for the airborne National Guard, but when Swank was six he took a new job as a travelling salesman, installing the family (Swank has a brother, Daniel, who is seven years older) in a trailer park. Her father was frequently absent from home – he would eventually leave the family altogether – and money was scarce. Swank has been accused of romanticising the hardship of her upbringing and prefers to gloss over it now, merely saying of her father that ‘his career took him to a different state and he was not around for a while’. Furthermore, the trailer was a ‘double-wide’, as Swank describes it, with a laugh and a twang, as if she’s trying to sell it to you. It was also located close to a lake with views of the mountains – but still it was a trailer, a word invariably followed in the American lexicon by the word ‘trash’.
‘I think we were looked down on, for sure,’ she says carefully. ‘But you know, as a child you don’t see it like that. It’s everyone around you, not other children necessarily, but children’s parents, where you realise one thing is supposedly not as acceptable as another. But for me it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like I did not like where I lived.’
As a child, she says, she would spend hours floating on her back in the lake daydreaming, and lose herself in books and watching films. ‘I remember seeing The Elephant Man, and The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller, and loving the fact that you could see these characters who were feeling the same things I was feeling, things you didn’t necessarily communicate with your family or friends.’
Swank started to perform in school plays and with a local theatre company, and determined to become an actress. When she was 15, her mother, Judy, lost her job as a secretary and she and Swank set off for Los Angeles with just a fuel credit card and $75 in their purse. ‘She was at a crossroads in her life, and she said, “I can see you’re committed and passionate about this, and you have worked hard, so we need to go to California.” For me, Hollywood was just the place you needed to go to if you wanted to pursue acting as a career. There was no connotation of glamour, or anything like that. I wasn’t a girl who read magazines and there wasn’t enough money to think about fashion. I didn’t know what a designer was.’
For the first two weeks, mother and daughter lived out of the car, and then slept on air mattresses in an empty house that a friend was trying to sell, vacating the property whenever a prospective buyer arrived. Swank says she felt as if she was on ‘the greatest adventure of my life. There was not one part of it that was down or upsetting.’
While she enrolled in high school, her mother took up occupancy in a telephone booth, feeding in quarters, phoning every agent that she could find. It seems utterly characteristic of Swank that she says she never regarded the endless round of auditions, and the frequent rejections, as a dispiriting chore. ‘I always felt it was like an acting class. Every audition I had was an opportunity to learn more about what worked, or more importantly, what didn’t work.’
Eventually she began to win small television parts and dropped out of school altogether. Swank spoke her first ever line of dialogue at the age of 17 in a Burt Reynolds sitcom, Evening Shade (she can still remember it, ‘Hi, I’m Aimee, as in Aim with two ees…’ said in a broad Southern twang). Reynolds liked it so much he invited her back for eight extra shows. More television sitcoms – ‘girlfriend, neighbour, that sort of thing’ – followed, then film roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and The Next Karate Kid (1994).
By 1997 she was installed in the long-running juvenile soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, playing the role of a single mother. Her contract was for two years, but she was fired after 16 episodes. It still rankles. ‘They never told me why, they just said it wasn’t working. Especially when it’s in its eighth season and no one’s watching it… You just think, I’m not good enough for this show? My gosh, what does that say about me? But talk about serendipity…’
Three months later Swank auditioned for Boys Don’t Cry. The film is based on the story of Teena Brandon, whose murder in 1993 was one of the most horrific hate-crimes in America in recent times. Brandon moved from her home town of Lincoln to the small rural town of Falls City, both in Nebraska, where, calling herself Brandon Teena and passing as a boy, she fell in with a group of friends that included the two ex-convicts John Lotter and Tom Nissen. Teena was able to maintain a sexual relationship with Lotter’s ex-girlfriend Lana Tisdel, with Tisdel being totally unaware that ‘Brandon’ was actually a girl. When her gender was eventually discovered after she was arrested for forging cheques and placed in the women’s jail, she was brutally raped and then shot dead by Lotter and Nissen. After turning state’s evidence, Nissen was given a reduced sentence and Lotter was sentenced to death. Last September Nissen recanted his testimony, claiming that he was the only one to shoot Brandon. Lotter is now appealing against his death sentence.
An independent film, put together on a shoestring budget, Boys Don’t Cry had already been in pre-production for three years, with dozens of actresses considered and rejected for the role of Teena before Swank auditioned. She says she fell in love with everything about the character and the script the moment she read it. And – more shrewdly – ‘I knew that an independent film was a way to break into film, because big movies always hire famous people.’
Swank arrived for her first meeting with the director Kimberly Peirce in character, and lied about her age, saying that she was 21 – the same age as Teena. When she told Peirce that, like Teena, she was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Peirce thought she was lying about that too; but curiously it’s true. Swank now looks back on the role with a gust of enthusiasm. ‘What I really love about my job is that I step into people’s shoes and really walk around in them. Ultimately the challenge is the passion for me and the challenge is to make people believable, to get under the skin of this person, to discover what they were, what they’re all about, all their flaws and all their humanity.’
The film led to Swank becoming the spokesman for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York charity that offers counselling and support to young gay, lesbian and transgender people. This is the kind of role that duty, or public relations, might have obliged her to fill for just a year or two. Swank worked with the charity for eight years, visiting regularly and helping to raise funds to build a school, before finally relinquishing her role last year.
Swank was paid just $3,000 for Boys Don’t Cry, but it is possible that she will never again find a role better suited to her, or one that affords quite the same dramatic impact. Certainly, it was a hard act to follow. ‘People’s first thought was, well what else can she do? There aren’t any other boy/girl roles around,’ she laughs. Over the next four years she made a handful of films, playing a disgraced 18th-century countess in The Affair of the Necklace (2001) and a rookie detective in Insomnia (2002). Even Swank has difficulty remembering the others. She pauses then shrugs, defeated.
There was some irony that her next big role, in Million Dollar Baby, also found her playing against the feminine stereotype. In winning the Academy Award for Million Dollar Baby she became only the third actress to have won two Oscars before the age of 30. One is Jodie Foster, the other the German-born actress Luise Rainer, who twice won best actress awards in the 1930s.
Swank’s performances since Million Dollar Baby seem to have been conscious attempts by her to test her range – as she would put it, to walk around in the shoes of as many different characters as she can. She played a femme fatale in Brian DePalma’s film noir The Black Dahlia (2006), a project that must have looked much better on paper than it turned out on screen; the story was so convoluted as to be virtually incomprehensible, and Swank, who looked awkward in spiky heels and not much else, received lukewarm notices (she says she didn’t read them, and deftly changes the subject).
She was more effective in two films released earlier this year, the supernatural thriller The Reaping, and Freedom Writers, a true story about a Los Angeles high-school teacher, Erin Gruwell, who transformed her class of gang members and chronic underachievers by encouraging them to write their own life stories. The film’s message – that anybody can reach their potential if just one person believes in them enough – clearly found a deep resonance with Swank, who says she would never have been able to achieve what she has without her mother’s support. ‘She always told me I could do anything in life, as long as I worked hard enough. She sacrificed everything so that I could pursue my career.’
Swank was so taken with the story that she acted as executive producer, drawing money to the project and coordinating the rap soundtrack.Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed Freedom Writers, says that what made Swank so fitting for the part was that, like Erin Gruwell, she embodies a peculiar combination of ‘naivety and ruthlessness. Nothing will stop them realising their goals. Erin Gruwell didn’t know what she couldn’t do, and Hilary is like that too. She has a relentless determination and willpower, and she’s one of the few actresses I know who really loves the job of acting – of breaking down the script, doing the homework, preparing for the role and getting into the character.’
Perhaps it has something to do with having dropped out of high school, but Swank has a fierce bent for self-improvement. ‘Exploring and learning,’ she says, is what makes her happy, and she has a passion for taking classes – she is presently studying Italian and cooking. ‘She has a kind of earnestness about her,’ LaGravenese says. ‘So many people think it’s cool to be cynical, but there is nothing cynical about Hilary. She’s a very positive person, and she’s fun to have around on a set. She jokes, she knits, she’s interested in other people.’
When I ask LaGravenese to tell me a story that he thinks most typifies Swank, he recalls an incident during the filming of a scene in P.S. I Love You, which he also wrote and directed. The scene called for her co-star Gerard Butler to engage in a parodic striptease, wearing underpants and braces, as he advances on Swank, lying on a bed. With nobody realising it, one of the braces snagged on a chair, then snapped, catapulting the metal clip to hit Swank half an inch above the eye. She was taken to hospital with blood streaming down her face. ‘Both Gerard and I were utterly distraught,’ LaGravenese remembers. ‘Then Hilary calls me after coming out of the doctors to say everything’s OK, but am I all right? She was much more concerned about me than about herself. The next day she was back on set with butterfly stitches.’
Unusually, perhaps, for such a successful actress, Swank has managed to keep her private life largely beyond the reach of the paparazzi and tabloid press, but that all changed last year with the collapse of her eight-year marriage to the actor Chad Lowe, the younger brother of Rob. The pair had been together since meeting at a Hollywood party when Swank was 18.
Despite Swank famously forgetting to mention her husband in her Oscar acceptance speech for Boys Don’t Cry; and despite her career radically outstripping his (she did Million Dollar Baby while he played John Denver in a television biopic), leading to him being dismissed as ‘Mr Hilary Swank’, the marriage seemed as secure as any Hollywood union – at least until Swank filed for divorce in March 2006.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, the preferred platform for celebrity confessions, Swank spoke candidly of her husband’s struggle with substance abuse (apparently too candidly for Lowe, who has been sober for three years, and who one friend says was ‘floored’ by Swank’s disclosures), of her distress at the marriage coming to an end, and of how the couple had both been through therapy. ‘My pattern is that I’ve taken care of everyone,’ she said. ‘I took care of my mum; I took care of my dad; I took care of Chad. And I don’t want to carry that any more. It’s a big habit to break, but in the end I sacrificed part of myself.’ She was now, she added, ‘the happiest I’ve ever been’.
Swank is currently going out with her agent, John Campisi. But confession, one suspects, has no place in the narrative she has chosen for this particular interview, which continues to centre on determination, rising to the challenge and gratitude for one’s good fortune. ‘I kind of always joke, “one of these things is not like the other”,’ she says. ‘You know, that song from Sesame Street where you have to point out which one doesn’t belong. So I have to pinch myself a lot that I am living my dream. That I am getting the opportunity and it keeps happening. After Boys Don’t Cry I thought, God, am I ever going to get a great script again? And I thought the same thing after Million Dollar Baby. There’s not a lot of great roles out there, and there is always that feeling… this may be my last movie. How do I know I’m going to work again?’
It is at this point that Hilary Swank brings the interview to a peremptory close. She is so sorry, but she has another meeting to run to. But perhaps she can call me later today and do 10 minutes on the telephone; fix it with her publicist. And no, she doesn’t call.
‘P.S. I Love You’ is released on January 4