Hilary Swank was not expecting to make life-and-death decisions when she travelled to Iowa for her grandmother’s funeral on March 13. Then the pandemic hit.
“On our way back, everything became ‘self-quarantine’ and ‘self-isolation’, and my dad previously had a lung transplant so we couldn’t risk flying back to LA,” recalls the two-time Oscar-winning actor, now starring in the Netflix drama Away.
“Long story short, we bought a used car in Iowa and started driving back. We stopped at a friend’s house in Colorado, initially for four or five nights, as they weren’t there and said we could stay as long as we wanted. We ended up staying a few months!”
Now back home in Los Angeles, Hilary, 46, sounds joyful as she recounts the experience over the phone. “It turned out to be such a blessing, because instead of being in LA, where even the hiking trails were closed, we were connected to the outdoors and nature and just hunkered down in a safe place.”
While this little adventure doesn’t sound anywhere near as intense as the expedition undertaken by her Away alter ego, US astronaut Emma Green, Hilary recognises the irony in talking about her character’s isolation in space while sitting at home under LA’s Safer-at-Home order, with one of her four rescue dogs nestled by her feet.
“It’s crazy with all the parallels of the show we’re now experiencing,” she acknowledges. “Who would have ever imagined when I read this pilot script that I’d be sitting here promoting a show about family and separation during a pandemic?”
In Away, Emma Green is leading an international crew on the first mission to Mars. As well as celebrating the incredible advances humans can achieve, the series also focuses on the personal sacrifices they make along the way. For Emma, it’s reconciling her decision to leave behind her husband (Josh Charles) and teenage daughter (Talitha Eliana Bateman) for the three-year round-trip flight. The series also explores the complex relationships among the crew members as they struggle with their place on the mission and back home.
“When I read the script, I was taken by it for so many reasons,” says Hilary excitedly. “We have a female commander of this mission, but we’ve come so far with equality, that’s not even the main drama of the show.
“Emma is married to a man who is engineering the mission, and they are equals and walk shoulder-to-shoulder in life, but he’s not emasculated by her and that’s also not a big deal,” she adds. “The real drama is these people who are on this journey coming from richly different racial backgrounds and all working towards a goal together, while having this gravitational pull to Earth and their families, which makes this a love story too.”
The Nebraska-born, Washington State-raised actor was a nationally ranked athlete while at high school, competing in swimming and gymnastics, but confesses that her first real dream was to be an astronaut.
“I just loved the idea of space,” says Hilary. “The stars were bright where I lived and I’ve always been an adventurer, so the idea of that unknown grabbed my heart and spirit.”
Eventually, she found a new passion – acting – but Hilary never does anything by halves, so when she got the opportunity to play her childhood dream, she threw herself into research. This included visiting NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, and speaking with astronauts including Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the International Space Station.
“They were all so humble and self-deprecating,” she marvels. “When astronaut Mike Massimino came to visit our set, he was wearing these funny socks, with astral space stuff on them, and I stole that for Emma!”
There were plenty of challenges for the actor when it came to playing a character living in zero gravity and wearing a 16-kilogram space suit. “You’re also being hung on wires by the lowest part of your hips, and they’re being used as a pendulum,” she continues. “It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach; you’re talking at normal speed but moving slowly, and inevitably that slows down your voice without your noticing.”
Hilary was 16 when her parents separated and she moved from Bellingham, Washington, to LA with her mother to pursue an acting career. In 1997, she landed what she thought was a breakthrough role, a two-year contract to appear in Beverly Hills 90210, but was let go after six months. Two weeks later, she auditioned for the role of Brandon Teena in the film Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of a transgender man from the Midwest whose murder made headlines.
That role earned Hilary her first Oscar for Best Actress, and in 2005 she won her second, starring opposite Clint Eastwood as an aspiring boxer in Million Dollar Baby. It prompted her memorable acceptance speech, in which she declared, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”
“I work hard to make something happen by going down every road and turning over every rock, but if it still doesn’t happen, now I know for sure, this is not meant to be,” Hilary reflects of that experience. “It was great for me to have that catalyst to learn that lesson at a young age.”
She’s embraced the same philosophy when it comes to her personal life, having met her first husband, actor Chad Lowe, when she was only 18. The couple divorced in 2007 and Hilary remarried in 2018, after mutual friends set her up with entrepreneur Philip Schneider while they were both in Germany for work.
“I’ve done a lot of growing up since those formative years with Chad,” she says. “I think I had to go through all those experiences to know what would make me happy when I got to this point.”
Five years ago, Hilary put her career on hold after her father, Stephen, was placed on a lung transplant list. “They gave him three years to live if he didn’t get a transplant, and when you get the transplant, it can take up to a year to see if it’s going to work. I was in the blessed position where I could take time off work and move him in with me.
“There were a lot of complications that meant I ended up taking three years off work, as I was his primary caregiver. That was not exactly what I had anticipated, but I was grateful in the end. I got to stop working for the first time since I was 16, and step back and find out who I really was besides what I do.”
During her father’s convalescence, Hilary also attended to growing her charity, the Hilaroo Foundation, which brings together vulnerable young people and rescue animals to increase the resilience and wellbeing of both. She also founded her own fashion label, Mission Statement, focusing on smart travel separates, which she felt were missing from her own wardrobe.
While many have referred to Hilary’s return as a “comeback”, she glosses over the label. “My dad wasn’t supposed to make it this long, but he was there to walk me down the aisle and he’s here now, so it’s really emotional to think of all we’ve been through,” she says softly, her honey-coated voice full of sentiment.
“It circles back to this show and what it’s really about for me, because each day we have a choice in how we want to walk in life, right? I just try and remember that and, looking back at the last five years I have shared with my dad, I have no regrets at all.”
Away launches on September 4 on Netflix.