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THE sky’s the limit for Hilary Swank’s dedication to making a screen role come to life. She tells Siobhan Synnot why she had to learn to fly to become feminist pioneer Amelia Earhart.

Hilary Swank is used to rising to a challenge, whether it’s piling on 20 pounds of muscle to play a girl pugilist in Million Dollar Baby, or passing herself off as a boy in Boys Don’t Cry. Her conscientious attention to character has won her audiences and awards, including two Oscars, yet not everyone is impressed by her film choices. “My mother used to ask me, ‘Are you going to ever live to see the credits?'” admits Swank with a laugh.

Maybe Mrs Swank should skip her daughter’s next feature. Amelia is a biopic of Amelia Earhart, the female pilot who disappeared in 1937 during her attempt to fly around the world. The bodies of Earhart and her navigator were never found, allowing mystery to flourish over the passage of time. Throw in Earhart’s very modern flying-jacket feminism, an open marriage and rumours of bisexual liaisons supposed to include Eleanor Roosevelt, and it’s astonishing that a big-screen movie treatment has never got off the ground until now.

It turns out that Amelia the film has been seriously stalking Swank for over a decade, since her first Oscar-winning performance as the boyish girl Brandon Teena. Back then she was sent a script, didn’t much care for what she saw on the page, and turned it down: but the seed was planted.

Earhart may be the most well-known person Swank has yet played, but she does have previous experience with biographical stories. “Any time that you play a character who was alive, you just don’t have as much room to creating fictional parts of the person,” says Swank. “You need to find as much as you can about the reality of the person and do justice to their story. It’s a responsibility, whether they’re famous or not.”

To play Earhart, she cut her hair raffishly short and dyed it blonde. Make-up added sunburn and freckles, and she studied hours of newsreel in order to catch Earhart’s clipped Kansas delivery.

“You can hear the period way of speaking of the time in her voice,” says Swank, who says it took her two months of study to untangle the patterns and inflexions. “It sounds like Katharine Hepburn. It can sound posh or upper class – and yet Amelia wasn’t that. She was a girl from Kansas, so we had to figure that cadence out.”

She also learned to fly, piloting vintage planes for months before filming. “You can’t play Amelia Earhart and not learn how to fly. Putting my hands on the wheel for the first time was a rush,” she recalls. “After a certain age, there’s not many firsts you experience in your life, so learning to fly reminded me of the childlike feeling of exhilaration when you first ride a bike or read a book.”

Now she plans to get a pilot’s licence: ironically because she was forbidden from completing the flying hours during Amelia as insurance conditions forbade solo flights. “I’d like to get my licence and continue to go up on my own,” she says. “I flew for 19 hours, but they couldn’t let me go up when they were shooting. I taxi the plane – but that’s on the ground, and I would like to see this through. What I didn’t know when I started was the calculations that go into flying. It was like I was back in school doing calculus. I don’t sweat much – but I’d do a two-hour flight and I’d be drenched from the concentration.

“I do want to go back. I don’t want to just say, ‘Yeah; I flew’.”

As an actor, she points out, she also has some additional experience of another level of flying. Amelia was partially shot in Toronto, Nova Scotia and South Africa, and in a six-day promotion trail, she has crossed from Los Angeles to a film festival in Dubai to London before returning to America. “The air staff actually laugh at me because they know me so well and they tell me it’s illegal for them to fly as much as I do. I’m constantly in the air!”

Seventy years after her disappearance, Earhart is seen by Swank as a resonant model for women. “She’s important because she lived her life the way she wanted. She made no apologies for that, and I believe that in 2009 that’s really rare.

“She was willing to do things that were deemed not for women, and she did them just as well as men. She would go and speak at universities and tell her audiences that it was fine to pursue your desire before
settling down so you can have the fullest, richest life imaginable.”

There’s more than a touch of that determination in Swank herself. “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream,” she told the audience when she won her second Academy Award as best actress for portraying a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby. Her father left when she was six, and at school many of her classmates were forbidden from playing with the girl living in a mobile home, so she watched movies and, aged nine, decided she wanted to become an actress.

It took another six years to persuade her mother to drive her to Los Angeles to pursue a career. Their savings totalled little more than $50 so they slept in the car while Judy badgered agents. Eventually one signed Swank up for modest roles in the movie version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and a Karate Kid sequel. When she was 24 she won her first Oscar as a girl trying to live as a boy in Boys Don’t Cry, a low budget indie picture which paid its star a salary of £60. In 2005, she won her second award for Million Dollar Baby, starring opposite Clint
Eastwood and Morgan Freeman.

She has since gone on to shoulder executive producer duties in order to get projects moving that interest her.

You cannot mistake Swank’s seriousness of intent when you meet her. She is guarded about her private life following a divorce from actor Chad Lowe (she’s now dating her agent) but she’s happy discussing plane models and how she managed to pull old friend Ewan McGregor into Amelia to play one of the heroine’s lovers Gene Vidal, Gore’s father.

“On this movie, I always pictured Ewan McGregor as Gene, but he was already filming I Love You Phillip Morris with Jim Carrey. So when I was in the hair-and-make-up chair, filming already, I was also on the phone with his lawyers and agents and the producers from the other project he was working on, trying to figure out the puzzle of his schedule.”

In the end, McGregor was persuaded to commute between the two sets, back and forth from Toronto, before flying off to begin filming The Men Who Stare At Goats.

Amelia had more than its share of personnel grabs and shifts, down to and including the director. Originally the film was to be shot with Rabbit Proof Fence filmmaker Phillip Noyce, but finally went into production under Mira Nair, best known for Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon. “It’s interesting when you see a woman in a position of power – a lot of times they’re apologising for it,” notes Swank, who previously worked with Kimberly Peirce on Boys Don’t Cry. “There’s a lot of, ‘I’m sorry but …’ before they can say what it is that they need. Mira makes no apologies for her strengths, and to see her ask for what she needs and to see her direct was perfect. It warmed my heart because I think it’s a hard enough world out there.”

There are many more texts about Earhart’s death and that final flight than her life, but while researching Earhart’s introverted personality, Swank grew to respect a misunderstood daredevil. After her first around-the-world attempt failed, Earhart was a wreck, and fumes from the fuel gave her chronic stomach problems. She would fly up to 12 hours in a single day, and sleep for five.

When she vanished over the South Pacific in 1937, her disappearance
became shrouded in conspiracy theories; she was on a spy mission and ended up in a Japanese prison; she wanted to abandon her high-profile life and took on a new identity; she landed and survived for a time on a deserted island.

Swank, however, favours the most unadorned explanation. “She ran out of gas.”

• Amelia is in cinemas from Friday.

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