Hilary Swank has made a career – an Oscar-winning one at that – out of playing inspirational women.
But for the 26-year-old actress, the most inspiring female character of all is her own mother.
Judy Swank held the family together, bringing up two kids in a trailer park. Then after splitting from dad Daniel when Hilary was 13, she moved to LA with her wannabe actress daughter.
The pair were so poor they lived in their car until Judy could save enough cash to rent an apartment.
Hilary said: “I admire my mum more than anyone. She’s been this rock for me and a reminder of being there for someone else.
“She was a dancer then she became pregnant with my brother and married at a very young age, which is what you did at the time.
“She became a secretary out of high school to put my dad through college and kind of took care of everyone else her whole life. That’s what women did in that generation.
“She’s still a secretary to this day. She was intent on making sure I had the life that I really saw for myself, instead of giving up. I think she probably would have been a dancer.”
When Hilary won her first Oscar – she has two – for Boys Don’t Cry, she sparked concern that her mum had passed away by saying “My mum, up there wherever you are”.
However Judy was alive and well and in the audience – just in a poor seat up in the top of the theatre. But the proud mum somehow blagged her way backstage to congratulate her daughter.
Hilary said: “They don’t give you a lot of tickets. But we managed to find a ticket for mum during Boys Don’t Cry. It was at the top and I said thanks to mum, up there wherever you are, and everyone backstage was like, ‘Did your mum die?’
“This is how much my mum believes in me. We were at the Academy Awards and she took her shoes off, because she thought, ‘if my daughter wins I’m running down there’.
“It moves me that she believes in me that much. Getting backstage is no easy feat, but my mum found her way with her shoes in her hand.
“You think they would say ‘This crazy woman with no shoes – send her out!'”
Boys Don’t Cry – and the award it landed her – had a huge impact on Hilary’s career, propelling her into the limelight and the eyeline of major directors.
Since that first award she has worked with directors including Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi and Clint Eastwood.
She said: “When you win an Academy award it’s larger than life.
“There’s nowhere above that you can go recognition-wise in your work. I felt the pressure after Boys Don’t Cry of ‘How do I meet that?’
“But you have to let it go and get back in touch with why you’re an actor, which for me is just to tell stories. Of course it’s always going to be a part of your title but it doesn’t define who you are.
“Film is such a collaboration, and I always want to, in every opportunity that I get, be better than the last. I would say I’m competitive with myself.
“I always want to grow and I need help. It’s not something you can just do on your own.
“So working with great artists helps you see things that you wouldn’t maybe see or they give you a safety net so when you do jump they’ll catch you.
“Working with Clint on Million Dollar Baby was great. He was always reminding me to trust my instincts and that’s a great gift.
“It’s easy to second-guess what your ideas are and if you’re doing the right thing. He was always about ‘If that’s how it feels.’
“That’s why he does one or two takes, because he feels like you’re going off your instinct if you’ve done your preparation. That’s a great reminder for everybody.”
In latest hit Conviction, Hilary plays Betty Anne Waters, a working mum who puts herself through 10 years of law school to represent her brother, who has been locked up for murder.
Hilary said: “She is the definition of selfless. What describes Betty Anne in volumes is when I said to her, ‘I can’t believe you devoted your life to this’, and she said ‘I just did what anyone would do.’
“I broke the character down for eight weeks before meeting her, because I didn’t want to mimic her. It would be lazy and do a disservice to the story to just not understand where she’s coming from.
“I wanted to get into the heart of this drive and determination, this passion and just understand the layers of her emotionally, before thinking of the physicality of it.
“We saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival and she was across from me in the aisle. She was crying and just saying thank you. It was such a relief because if I let her down in any way I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”
And Hilary hopes the message of the film can have an affect on people in these difficult times.
She said: “We’re coming to a place in time globally where we’re realising that family is what is most important. People are losing their jobs and homes and realising there’s nothing for sure except family. Hopefully, we’ll carry a little bit of that in them.”
And of course, animals are suffering too. Hilary is famously a massive animal lover and even rescued a dog while filming Red Dust in South Africa.
She said: “I have two rescue dogs, one from South Africa, the other from an animal shelter in Los Angeles. I also have a parrot, an African grey named Seuss.
“I have a hamster, because my boyfriend has a son, so it’s his hamster but I take care of it. Its name is Cheddar. I also have a bunch of fish and I have chickens that are about to hatch.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Hilary is keen to take on bigger roles behind the scenes on her films. She served as a producer on Conviction and wants to do the same on as many other new movies.
She said: “It’s important, because I am able to help contribute to getting a movie made, casting and being creative. It’s a different way to be artistic. You don’t have influence on the overall film. The filmmaker does. But you hire the director you think is best able to help the vision that you’ve always seen for it.
“You support them but you can be more creative in the development of the script and in the casting. You bring the elements together and let them all do their thing.” But next up for Hilary is a straight acting role – however it’s a world away from the gritty Conviction.
She said: “I have attached myself to a Gabriele Muccino movie called What I Know About Love.
It’s a romantic drama. I like to mix it up. That’s my job, to hopefully entertain.”
Conviction is released on DVD today from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.