Hilary Swank turns up at the Emporio Armani Caffe on Boulevard Saint-Germain apologizing like mad.
“I hate being late,” she says, though by Parisian standards, arriving only 10 minutes after the appointed hour is almost punctual. The reason, she explains, is that her boyfriend has a new puppy. She shows me a photo of a little chocolate-coloured Labrador. “Who doesn’t love puppies and kittens?” And of course I instantly forgive her.
According to the tabloids, her boyfriend is French, which would no doubt explain her presence in Paris; the paparazzi have been keeping an eye on her since her eight-year marriage to Chad Lowe ended in 2006. And to look at her, she could almost be a native Parisienne; she’s wearing the sort of weather-appropriate casual chic — black sweater, skirt and parka — that allows one to look perfectly at home on the Rive Gauche on a chilly winter’s morning.
Like many film actresses, Swank looks more petite in the flesh than she does on screen, with not a scrap of makeup, red lacquered fingernails her only concession to cosmetic adornment. Her hair is loose but glossily immaculate, and I am so smitten by her flat-heeled black boots (“I think these are Marc Jacobs from maybe eight years ago”) that she graciously allows me to stroke them; I had no idea patent leather existed in a form so soft to the touch.
The cafe staff swarm around and exclaim, “Brava!” when Swank addresses them in Italian.
“I went to Italy when I was 16,” she explains. “I spent the summer there, and love the people, love the food, love the country, and I’ve been back many times, and decided to learn the language.”
I’m always very impressed when Hollywood stars speak foreign languages (Bradley Cooper’s French is adorable), and even more impressed by Swank’s hearty appetite as she tucks into a big fish platter with gusto.
Swank is here to talk about her role in Mary & Martha, a BBC and HBO co-production with NBC and Working Title, in which she and Brenda Blethyn play two women from very different backgrounds — moneyed American and working-class Brit — drawn together into an odd couple relationship after their sons catch malaria in Mozambique.
“The thing I connected to the most,” says Swank, “was the unexpectedness of the relationship, and the depth of what that means to both these people because they’ve experienced something that is unimaginable”.
Her involvement came about when Richard Curtis (“who I’m a huge fan of”) sent her a copy of his script.
“It was during a time when I wasn’t available to work, but thankfully they didn’t get it made then, and then when I became available Phillip Noyce came on board as the director. We’ve been looking for something to work on together. He has a big heart, and I just couldn’t wait to collaborate with him.”
Curtis’s ostensible inspiration in both form and content should be familiar to anyone who watched a lot of television in the 1980s — the genre affectionately known as the “disease-of-the-week” made-for-television movie. These had titles like A Time to Live, Who Will Love My Children? or First, You Cry, and were usually based on true-life stories in which plucky women struggled against their own or their loved ones’ diseases, smiling through the heartbreak and showing that, yes, one person can make a difference by raising awareness, giving rousing speeches, sometimes inspiring funding for research.
Curtis, however, takes this genre to another level. His version stars a two-time Oscar-winner and a Bafta-winning actress. Noyce is a world-class filmmaker capable of tackling both social issues (Rabbit-Proof Fence) and action (Salt). Swank’s father is played by James Woods in a small but vital role. Another notable cast member is the young actor playing Blethyn’s son, Sam Claflin, whose appealingly wonky smile will almost certainly inspire Robert Pattinson-type levels of devotion among teenage girls when he appears as Finnick in the second Hunger Games movie later this year.
It’s not Swank’s first foray into the world of television; in the 1990s she paid her dues in a clutch of shows that got cancelled, and played a recurring role in the original Beverly Hills, 90210. She doesn’t file this project under the same heading, though, claiming, as others have before her, that, “HBO is not really television.” The cable network is best known for groundbreaking, critically acclaimed series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, though, like the BBC, it is also responsible for award-winning telefilms such as When the Levees Broke and Temple Grandin.
“I think some of the best writing now is on television,” says Swank. “I’m loving what I’m seeing, it’s so creative and unique and risk-taking.”
All the same, Mary & Martha, which was shot in North Carolina and South Africa, is the first television she has done since her breakthrough performance in cinema — in Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry — as transgendered teenager Brandon Teena, which won Swank her first Academy Award for best actress. She has since played several other characters based on real people — schoolteacher Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart in Amelia, Betty Anne Waters (a working mother who put herself through law school to defend a brother unjustly jailed for murder) in Conviction.
Given the nature of Mary & Martha, in which Swank becomes a crusading force for good, climaxing in a full-on maternal assault on the tear ducts, I was surprised to learn the character of Mary wasn’t another inspirational real-life person.
“It’s not based on a true story,” says Swank, “but certainly this is happening in the world. Richard Curtis wants to eradicate malaria. This is a cause that’s very close to his heart.”
Swank is known for playing feisty, intrepid characters, strong-willed women pursuing their dreams against all odds, albeit not always with the happiest of consequences. Her second Academy Award was for her performance as the boxer with the tragic destiny in Clint Eastwood’s 2004 Million Dollar Baby.
In her acceptance speech, she said, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”
This is such a perfect one-liner I assumed it had to be a quote from the movie, but no. It’s true: Swank grew up in Nebraska, and really did live in a trailer park. When she decided she wanted to act her mother took her to Los Angeles and they both lived out of their car until they’d saved enough to rent an apartment.
“My mom gave me the greatest gift. She told me that I could do anything, as long as I worked hard enough,” she says.
Swank’s films are also notable for their diversity of genre: since her first leading role in The Next Karate Kid in 1994, she has starred in biopics, romcoms, a disaster movie and horror films.
“I like all movies, so why wouldn’t I try and do it all?”
She once competed as a swimmer in the Junior Olympics, and in both The Reaping and The Resident she looks so fit in a vest I was disappointed to learn she has dropped out of a sci-fi action movie called Shrapnel, in which she would have played an exiled war hero helping Venusian rebels fight against a totalitarian regime. I’d love to see her in more action films, and so would she, it seems.
“I’m active, I’m sporty, I like those types of movies.”
In 2007, she launched her own production company, 2S Films, with Molly Smith.
“I do feel a responsibility. I feel women are portrayed in a way that can be quite daunting for a young woman, for any woman — the idea that we have to look a certain way, when those models who are beautiful to start with are airbrushed as well; it’s the idea of achieving some sort of perfection to be able to be successful, to be able to be loved; it’s a lot of pressure, and I think showing flawed and real people is important . . . So finding those projects and championing them is something that’s important to us.”
What really comes across when you’re talking to Swank is how she’s the opposite of cynical. Her enthusiasm and appetite are boundless, whether it’s for movies (“I love movies!”), travelling (“I love to travel!”) or food (“I love to eat!”). She’s living the dream, and enjoying every minute of it.
She and 2S Films have just wrapped You’re Not You, adapted by Shana Feste from the novel by Michelle Wildgen, which promises to be another tear-jerker; Swank plays a woman suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Emmy Rossum is the student who becomes her caregiver. But her next film will add yet another genre to her CV — a period drama which sounds very like a western.
“I’m leaving here Wednesday to go and meet Tommy Lee Jones, who’s directing me in my next film.”
The Homesman will also bring Swank full circle to her home state of Nebraska, where the story is set, and one of the stars she admired back when she was growing up. “Meryl Streep! Even when I’m not working I’m going to be on set, because I’m going to be a fly on the wall, watching her and Tommy Lee.”
The dream goes on.