In the American film industry today, actors don’t come much more credible or committed than Hilary Swank. This is a judgment that would be endorsed by almost everybody, including the voters at the Oscars, who gave her the Best Actress award for Boys Don’t Cry in 2000 and again for Million Dollar Baby in 2005.
Since this double triumph, Swank has moved in and out of the spotlight, dropping out of showbusiness entirely for a few years in the mid-2010s in order to care for her sick father. The film she’s discussing today, the independent science-fiction thriller I Am Mother, was shot in Adelaide in 2017 not long after she returned to work.
At the time, Swank was juggling two other projects, which coincidentally share with I Am Mother the theme of parents and children—the feature What They Had, where she starred as a woman whose mother (Blythe Danner) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and the TV series Trust, where she played the mother of kidnapped oil heir John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson).
“It was kind of a mad rush to get them all done around the same time,” she recalls over the phone from New York. “But it was definitely an entertaining ride.”
Swank’s performances suggest a highly focused, level-headed personality behind them, and this is borne out in conversation. Her tone is friendly and straightforward, her answers carefully considered, suggesting that she approaches being interviewed as seriously as every other aspect of her job.
“I don’t take roles because I see them as being Academy Award worthy,” she says when asked specifically about her past success and how it affects her current career choices.
While she’s grateful for the recognition, what she looks for are characters that will challenge her — that call on her to rethink how she walks in the world, as she puts it, in both a figurative and literal sense.
As she points out, in I Am Mother she plays a supporting though crucial role, given that she’s one of only two main cast members whose faces are visible on screen. Continue reading Hilary Swank says filming in Australia ‘almost like being on a different planet’
The independent film boom of the 1990s launched many brilliant actors, but perhaps none flew higher than Hilary Swank. She took the chance on a risky role in a micro-budget film with a provocative subject matter and an unknown director — and walked away with an Oscar. Then a relatively unknown TV actress, she was paid $3,000 for the film. (As she often said, “I had an Academy Award, but no health insurance.”) However, in a recent interview at the Crosby Street Hotel to promote the Netflix movie “I Am Mother,” she lit up when discussing the heyday of independent film.
“I thought, ‘Wow this is my opportunity to break into film,” she said. “Famous people weren’t taking the risk on independent film, and they weren’t getting paid to do independent film, so there was no interest for them. But, newcomers couldn’t break into film because the studio system was like, ‘We only use famous people.’”
Directed by Kimberly Peirce and produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a seminal work in the queer film canon. Distributed by Fox Searchlight in 1999, it was a critical and box-office surprise success that went all the way to the Oscars. At the time, Swank took a huge gamble on an incredibly challenging role and what was then an incendiary topic.
“I broke into film with that movie. But it was like such a long shot,” said Swank. “It was made for nothing; I made $3,000. The idea of making a movie for a certain budget, it was just this brilliant idea of being able to take a risk on telling a story that there is an audience for, you just have to make it to be able to find that audience. Right? Build it, they will come. So it was a super exciting time. Super exciting time for film. And then obviously it took off.”
With sensitivity and heart, the film tells the story of transgender man Brandon Teena’s (Swank) first exploration of his gender, early pivotal romance, and tragic murder, all anchored by Swank’s powerful breakthrough performance. The effects of the film rippled into audiences who had never seen a sensitive portrayal of a transgender person, much less given any thought to the violence they face every day simply for being themselves.
“I believe [‘Boys Don’t Cry’ will] for sure be the most important thing that I was ever a part of,” Swank said proudly.
Following the film’s release, Swank became the spokesperson for The Hetrick-Martin Institute, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ youth services organizations. During her 10-year tenure, she helped find a home for New York’s Harvey Milk High School, a public high school catering to at-risk LGBTQ youth.
“There are so many hate crimes that are still occurring in the world, not just in our country, that people weren’t even aware of until [‘Boys Don’t Cry’] was made,” Swank said. “At the same time, Matthew Shepard and the horrendous crimes against him were like blips in the news here and there. But with that movie, they became more of a conversation.”
In many ways, it kicked off the conversation around transgender representation in film that continues to this day. But in recent years, some activists in the trans community have criticized the film for casting Swank, who is cisgender, as a trans man, and for having been directed by Peirce, a cisgender lesbian. On a 2016 visit to Reed College, the filmmaker was greeted with protests.
“I think in some ways it’s been criticized and in others it hasn’t. And I think if people knew the outpouring of letters and people on the streets who have come up to me in tears, thanking me for telling their story,” Swank said. After pausing for a few seconds, she added: “I hold on to that. That’s important to me, and to be that spokesperson for that amount of time. I’m happy that times are evolving and changing and that people are getting the opportunity to tell their own stories.”
The international trailer for Netflix’s upcoming sci-fi thriller I Am Mother has been released online, featuring first look at Oscar winner Hilary Swank’s character and Rose Byrne as the voice of the titular robot antagonist. The film will be available for streaming on June 7, exclusively on Netflix.