Born in 1974, Hilary Swank grew up in Washington state. She started acting as a child, then moved to Los Angeles in her teens, where her first film role was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Swank has since won two Oscars for her performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. She married the actor Chad Lowe – brother of Rob Lowe – in 1997, but they separated last year
When Hilary Swank got that all-important star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year, it was the culmination of a dream that had taken her all the way from trailer-park hick to two-time Oscar-winning superstar.
Today the star of Million Dollar Baby is chauffeured to a succession of glittering red carpets, but when she and her mother first arrived in Los Angeles in a beaten-up Oldsmobile they had only $75 to their names. They had no choice but to live in the car while the precocious Swank, then only 16, pursued her acting dreams.
Fortunately, unlike for so many other starry-eyed wannabes, things came good for Swank and she’s now starring in PS I Love You, her first big-budget romantic comedy, alongside Gerard Butler, star of 300, Kathy Bates and Lisa Kudrow, which hits UK screens on Friday.
“I was blessed with a mom who believed in me and made me believe in myself,” she says warmly. “She always encouraged me to work hard and to know that nothing comes easy in life but you should never give up. And that you could achieve anything as long as you do work hard enough. More than most people, I’m aware that just because I have success in my life it doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else. I see many well-known people lose sight of that.”
Unlike many stars who claim to be down-to-earth but can’t remember how to open a carton of milk, Swank does appear to have kept her feet on the ground. Her car-buying practices suggest she might still be factoring in the possibility of having to spend a night on the back seat. She’s keeping an eye out for a suitable “old truck” at the moment. “I’m renting an Audi while I figure out what to buy,” she says. “I’m looking for a truck so I can take my dogs to the beach and get sand in it and not care.”
But the face of Guerlain perfume is not a complete spartan. Her classic 280SL Mercedes roadster was recently stolen and she’s also looking for a sporty convertible to replace it. “You spend so much time in the car in Los Angeles, you may as well be out in the sunshine,” she says.
Swank has earned the right to a bit of luxury. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was six she moved with her mother, Judy, a secretary, and her father, Stephen, a travelling salesman, to a trailer park in Washington state, in the northwestern United States. Money was scarce, but Swank discovered a love of acting, being cast in her first role at the age of nine, in a local production of The Jungle Book.
“We lived out in the middle of nowhere when I was a kid,” she recalls. “So I learnt to drive really young. I learnt in an old Volkswagen Bug.
“I was probably only 14. It was just for fun. My mom said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do this.’ I couldn’t endanger anyone because it was like country roads – no one was out there. Sunny days in the summer . . . ”
Her parents divorced when she was in her teens, and it was shortly afterwards that Swank persuaded her mother to up sticks for Los Angeles. “People always talk about us living in the car but we really weren’t in it for much more than a week,” she says. “I had a friend who told me she and her family had recently moved out of their house and that we could stay there at night, as long as we were out by the morning, when the real-estate agents showed up. So we bought air mattresses and slept there at night and were gone by early morning.”
Swank has an uncanny knack for making everyday trials and tribulations sound strangely romantic. “But none of it seemed like hardship at the time,” she insists. “I was living out my dream to come to Hollywood so it was all pretty exciting.”
Other than securing her daughter’s first agent, Judy has never managed her daughter’s career. But she was right when she said it wouldn’t come easy. Swank spent several years in TV bit parts, then starred in The Next Karate Kid in 1994, but found it hard to capitalise on her first taste of film stardom. Finally she landed what she thought would be her breakthrough role in Beverly Hills, 90210, the hit 1990s teen drama series, only to find her character written out after just a few episodes.
Swank was devastated but, true to the fairy-tale plot of her rags-to-riches life story, the setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She was now free to audition for the part of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, a low-budget movie that gained a cult following, thanks largely to Swank’s performance. For her portrayal of this young man trapped in a girl’s body, Swank won her first Oscar in 1999 (although she was reportedly paid only $75 a day during its filming, adding up to a grand total of $3,000). The second Academy Award followed five years later, for her role as a female boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.
She gained 19lb of pure muscle for the role and says she never felt better. “I felt strong and feminine at the same time,” she says. “I felt in charge of myself because I was being so disciplined and felt like I could protect myself.”
As a teenager, Swank competed in the Junior Olympics in swimming and was ranked fifth in the state for gymnastics. “Being a sporty, rollercoaster-loving kind of girl has served me well in my career. You know, I’m not afraid to jump out of aeroplanes and go sky-diving.
“I couldn’t imagine not having exercise in my life. It’s such an outlet for me to get frustration out or stress. I like to hike and do Pilates and Israeli martial arts. I’m a real outdoors person. I like to swim and play tennis, and just be outside. You name it.”
She separated last year from her husband Chad Lowe, the actor, and has since found happiness with John Campisi, her former agent. But, always fiercely independent, she prefers to live alone, with her dog Karoo, a corgi-jack russell stray she rescued three years ago, and two parrots. “One is an African grey named Seuss, after Dr Seuss [the children’s writer],” she says. “I hand-raised him from his egg. And the other one I adopted, and she came with the name Angel.
“Seuss, she talks a lot. You name it, she says it. She doesn’t swear, thankfully – I don’t know why! Because, believe me, I’ve had my fair share of swearing. I drop something and I’ll say a swear word. And I can’t believe that she hasn’t picked it up. She does the phone – when the phone rings she makes the ringing sound and then she goes, ‘Hello. How are you?’ She also does the water – you take a sip of water and she makes a water sound.
“But I could go on all day about them,” she laughs.
Swank grins her big, toothy grin and you just know this is one actress who doesn’t spend her time complaining about the downsides of fame.
On my CD player The Very Good Years, by Frank Sinatra
In my parking space Right now I’ve upgraded my rental car to an Audi, but please don’t ask me which model it is. I haven’t actually bought a car yet, I’m still experimenting
On my DVD player Terms of Endearment; I love that movie. Debra Winger was so excellent in it
I will never throw away The teddy bear I’ve had since I was a kid. I’m still unpacking boxes after moving home; I found my teddy bear and I was like: “Aaaah! I’ll never throw him away.” His name is Teddy