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‘I know what it’s like to be the outsider’: Hilary Swank on her journey from trailer park to Tinseltown

From trailer park to two-time Oscar winner, Hilary Swank is a woman with determination and drive – which makes her perfect, says Martyn Palmer, for her latest role, as a working-class mother on a mission

It’s a crisp, bright afternoon in London’s Soho and Hilary Swank is looking forward to a bracing walk and a little retail therapy. ‘When we’re done I’ll have a stroll and shop around,’ she smiles. ‘The Brits are so ahead of the times with fashion – hopefully I’ll find something to take home and nobody in LA will have it.’

On screen, Ms Swank is often drawn towards the serious stuff, but it’s a mistake to assume she doesn’t know how to have fun. ‘I think the way we dress can affect our moods and reflect who we are,’ says the 36-year-old actress (today looking girl-about-town chic in a short, floral Alice Temperley skirt with a black Michael Kors cardigan over a cream Paul & Joe tank top). ‘And yeah, I like to dress up. Of course I do, don’t we all? Everyone says, “When I knew I was going to meet you I thought you were going to be so intense!” because my movies are pretty intense. But that’s just the work. I’m really not like that when I’m not working.’

Spend some time in her company and you quickly realise that the solemn actress you were expecting – the one who immerses herself in roles such as a young transgender adult in Boys Don’t Cry, a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby and now, in her new film Conviction, a single mother who trains as a lawyer to free her jailed brother from a life sentence – gives way to a warm, funny and engaging woman who has never forgotten her humble roots.

She has travelled a long way from the trailer park in Washington State where she grew up, and it’s left her with a heightened appreciation of the good things in life, particularly the gifts bestowed on a double Academy-Award-winning actress (for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby). In short, it’s called perspective.

‘My background is not something I forget,’ she says. ‘It helps me to not take what I have for granted. I really appreciate that I get to travel and see the world, and that I can pay my bills. It’s an incredible feeling to know that I can actually buy that pair of shoes, and I appreciate a sale as much as the next person. I think about how I’m spending my money, and I like to spend on my family.’

It has also given her real empathy with the characters she’s portrayed – women who have to struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination, whether because of their sex or their blue-collar backgrounds. She feels a bond with these women, and in Conviction, which is based on a true story, that bond informs every second of every scene she plays as working-class mother Betty Anne Waters.

‘Growing up in a lower-income family, you don’t have the resources to make ends meet and you have to find creative ways to get by. That infuses your character with a lot of drive and determination and yes, I share that with Betty Anne. She was easily judged as a kind of castoff, and that’s part of her story that I can relate to.’

Drive and determination are clearly in Hilary’s DNA, and she’s quick to acknowledge that her mother Judy played a pivotal role in shaping who she is, empowering her with that belief that she could succeed, even when the odds were stacked against her.

‘My mum’s belief in me was the biggest gift I ever received. Nothing will trump that because she instilled in me that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish if I worked hard enough. She didn’t give me false expectations that fairy dust was going to be thrown over me and suddenly all my dreams would come true. She told me that I was going to have to work my ass off to achieve my dreams. And I never questioned that. I just said, “OK”, whether it was swimming or gymnastics and later, acting. Mum never let me say, “I can’t do it”. She said, “Never put limitations on yourself”. So that became a part of my make-up. It was a huge gift of love.’

Hilary’s mother was a secretary. Her father Stephen had served in the Air National Guard and Judy worked to pay his college fees – he would later work as a travelling salesman. As a young girl, Hilary was at first oblivious to her background. ‘For me, it didn’t feel like, “Well, poor me, I’m in a trailer park.” It wasn’t a bad experience. I had a roof over my head and I had food. But you feel it from other people. Not your friends, because at that age kids don’t care where you live – but their parents. I learned what class was. I guess you guys in England would call it snobbery: they wouldn’t want me to come round to their house to play. It was like, “Well, what’s wrong with me?”’

That’s why she’s drawn back, time and again, to playing women who have to struggle against the odds. ‘When I was ostracised by my friends I felt like an outsider. Everyone feels like an outsider at some point, but because it happened to me in those formative years I related to characters in movies, outsiders like the Elephant Man, ET, the Wizard of Oz. It was like I had this fantasy that we knew each other. The characters became my friends.

‘That’s when I thought, “I want to be a part of telling stories like this.” It was like becoming an actor to help me learn more about myself and connect to other people. And each character I’ve played I either relate to or grow from.’

Hilary was a talented athlete – competing in the Junior Olympics as a swimmer and ranking fifth in Washington State for gymnastics. ‘I loved the discipline, the training, and I still love to swim now, but it’s hard to find somebody who wants to go for a two-mile swim in the ocean, so I don’t get to do that as much as I’d like.’

She started to act, too, appearing with a local theatre group, and when she was 14 her mother told her it was time either to concentrate on sport or go full out for an acting career. ‘My mum said, “You can’t act and swim – it’s one or the other.”
We were in Washington State and that’s where my swimming coach was, but if I was going to act we needed to move to California, so there was no way to do both. And, you know, it was an easy choice – I wanted to follow the acting.’

Her parents had separated a year earlier, and her only sibling, a brother eight years older than her, had already left home, been through military academy and started his own family. Hilary and her mother headed west in a battered Oldsmobile, arriving in Los Angeles with $75 in cash and sleeping in the car for the first couple of weeks. ‘It was no big deal, really,’ she says. ‘I was embarking on a big adventure and I was very excited. My mum was scared as hell, but I loved it!’

She enrolled at South Pasadena High School and started going to auditions. Throughout the 1990s she worked steadily, appearing in the film Buffy The Vampire Slayer, sitcoms such as Evening Shade and Growing Pains, and made-for-TV movies. Then she landed a role in Beverly Hills 90210, which must have felt like a huge break. Promised a two-year contract, she was dumped early and her character, single mum Carly Reynolds, written out. ‘I was devastated,’ she says. ‘I thought, “If I’m not good enough for 90210, I’m not good enough for anything. I’ll never make it.”’

But it freed her up to audition for Boys Don’t Cry – and that changed everything. She beat hundreds of hopefuls to land the part of Brandon Teena, who was born as a girl and lived as a boy, and at 25, her career was suddenly in overdrive. But there was pressure, too. Everyone in Hollywood wanted to see how she would follow that success. Not least Hilary herself. ‘When you win an Academy Award and you are so young and not known for anything except that one film, you think, “Where do I go from here?” You’ve had this incredible acknowledgment, so it’s like, “You can’t mess up now.”’

But, if anything, she topped her own achievement five years later, playing the feisty, vulnerable and ultimately tragic boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, with Clint Eastwood directing and also playing her trainer Frankie Dunn. It earned her a second Best Actress Oscar at 30 – the third youngest woman ever to win two of those coveted statues, following in the footsteps of Jodie Foster and, in the 1930s, German actress Luise Rainer.

‘I watch Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby and I see the flaws,’ she says now. ‘I see where I could have been better. And that’s great because I have so much I still feel I can learn, and I don’t ever want to say, “Yeah, it’s easy from here.” A lot of people say, “Now you’ve won an Oscar you can sit back.” But I’m, like, “Sit back? No way!”’

And although her career since hasn’t quite matched those triumphs – she tried a romcom with PS I Love You, horror with The Reaping, and delivered a credible performance as pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart in Amelia which did well without setting the box office on fire – Conviction could well see her nominated again.

It’s a powerful story of sibling love. Betty Anne Waters and her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell, best known for Moon and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) grew up dirt poor in Massachusetts and forged an unbreakable bond as they were neglected by their parents and shunted from one foster home to the next. When Kenny – prone to violent, drunken rages and petty crime – was convicted of the 1980 murder of a waitress, everyone believed he’d done it…except his sister.
A high-school dropout with two children, Betty Anne promised to prove his innocence. Over the next 18 years she returned to school, went to college and enrolled in law school, finally enlisting the help of a powerful New York attorney.

Hilary is utterly compelling as a woman who devotes her life to fighting an injustice against her brother, sacrificing her own marriage along the way. It’s another of those gritty underdog roles that she does so well. ‘I didn’t start out saying, “Find me movies that have a political stance”, but I can see in the trajectory of my choices that there are bigger elements at play,’ she says. ‘Really, I just find them to be human stories. When I hear a story like Betty Anne’s it stuns me. There are so many things in this movie that if it had been fiction you would have been yelling at the screen, “That would never happen!” But it did happen, and that blows you away.

‘At its heart, the film is about the love between siblings and the hardships they faced. They made it through their childhood because they were there for each other, and she becomes a lawyer to try to get him off death row. It doesn’t get much more powerful, or compelling, than that.’

Hilary married actor Chad Lowe (brother of Rob) in 1997, but the pair split in 2006 and subsequently divorced. They had first met in 1992 when Hilary was just 18, but grew apart, she said later. She’s now with her former agent John Campisi, sharing a home in Los Angeles with him and his seven-year-old son, Sam. ‘John and I aren’t married so Sam isn’t technically my stepson, but it feels like that,’ she says. ‘I’ve known him since he was three and he’s an adorable boy and a very important part of my life.’

They have no immediate plans to marry and she’s not about to start a family just yet, she said recently. They have a menagerie of pets including chickens and two adored rescue dogs, and a sprawling organic vegetable garden which Hilary tends herself. ‘I’m trying to keep the squirrels and racoons out right now because they’re eating everything up. And I’ve got a bunch of chicks about to hatch, so that’s what I’m going home to…’

In the past, she’s been prepared to radically reshape her body for a role. She would think hard before doing it again. ‘When you change your weight it has an impact on your health. For Boys Don’t Cry I went down to nine per cent body fat so that I would look kind of sunken, but I was 24 and I bounced right back.’

Throughout her 20s Hilary was vegetarian, but when she was preparing for Million Dollar Baby she needed to bulk up and started eating fish – lots of it. So much so that she suffered from mercury poisoning. ‘I put on 19lb of muscle: I was 29, I was a vegetarian and suddenly I was eating so much fish that I got elevated mercury problems. It plagued me for a couple of years after that movie.’ She reluctantly cut down on fish and started eating meat. ‘When I discovered my health was suffering, I had to change my diet. So now I eat pork and beef.’

She still works out, but it’s a pleasure rather than a chore. ‘I grew up an athlete so it’s part of my life. I work out four, sometimes five days a week. It’s like breathing and sleeping. It clears my mind. And I do resistance training twice a week. Women start losing calcium in our bones as we get older and the more resistance training you do with weights, the better for your calcium levels. I mix that up with tennis, swimming, pilates, hiking.’

She and John share a love of the outdoors and entertaining for friends. ‘The thing that brings me most joy is to cook a meal, preferably with produce from my garden, and have people over and sit around the table with a couple of bottles of wine and talk about what’s going on in everyone’s life; debate politics, movies, all of that stuff. That’s
about as good as it gets.’

But if life is good, she never forgets that it wasn’t always easy. If she has one piece of advice it’s that you have to work very, very hard to chase your dream, but that if you do, anything’s possible. ‘We live one life,’ she says, ‘and it’s so short and fleeting, and if you’re not pursuing whatever it is that makes you happy, then what’s the point?

‘I don’t think people should have boundaries put on them, by themselves or society or another gender, because it’s our birthright to experience
life in whatever way we feel best suits us.’
Conviction will be in cinemas on 14 January