If any Hollywood star personifies the old maxim that “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything”, it’s Hilary Swank. The two-time Oscar winner talks to Chris Sullivan about guts, determination and the will to succeed…
When I meet actress Hilary Swank in a Soho hotel suite to discuss her film Conviction, she looks every inch the Hollywood movie star. But behind the glamour is a courageous actress who has played, among others, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, a transgender teen, a boxer and a sceptic.
In Conviction, she plays real-life hero Betty Anne Waters – an ordinary mother of three who spent 18 years training to become a lawyer in order to free her convicted murderer brother (Sam Rockwell) from a life behind bars.
“Betty Anne was just an ordinary person who found herself in this extraordinary experience and who really, against all odds, came out the other end a winner,” says Hilary. “I think that’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all experienced a certain injustice in our lives.
“She just decided to fight her brother’s corner, even though all the evidence was against him. People considered her naive but people who can believe in other people as she does are priceless.
“It was a great role for me because I am incredibly optimistic and really believe that just one person can change your life for the better.”
Hilary knows what she’s talking about having had first-hand experience of that kind of absolute faith. “My mom is my biggest fan,” says Swank. “She has supported me and believed in me all the way through. She sacrificed everything just so I could pursue my career.”
When faced with separation from Hilary’s travelling salesman father and with just a charge card for fuel and $75 in her purse, Hilary’s mother packed up their home in Bellingham, Washington State, and took her talented daughter to Los Angeles so Hilary could pursue her dream.
Virtually penniless, the pair lived for a while in their car and at other times slept on inflatable mattresses in an empty house. “People make a big deal about all that,” laughs the actress. “But it wasn’t for that long and it was no great hardship because as a kid you just look at it as one great big adventure.
“A lot of people who haven’t been down on their luck can’t comprehend what it was like, but then I can’t comprehend what it must be like being born rich and never have to need for anything.”
Hilary did the rounds of the Hollywood castings and, after minor parts in mediocre TV shows, landed a regular part on Beverly Hills 90210. “Eventually they sacked me from 90210 for not being a good enough actress,” chuckles the two-time Academy Award winner. “I was crushed. But in the end it was a godsend, as being released me from my contract enabled me to do Boys Don’t Cry.”
Boys Don’t Cry sees Hilary play real-life teenager Brandon Teena (AKA Teena Brandon), who was a born a female but lived life as a man drinking and carousing with his buddies in a small Nebraskan town, even dating and falling in love with local lass Lana Tisdel (Chloe Sevigny).
”I knew that if I would have just played Brandon in the movie, that the other actors would have just to pretend that I was him,” says Swank. “So I took to boys clothing and had my hair cut really short and tried it out, living it on the streets for four weeks as a boy and some were more easily fooled than others.”
Her performance won her the Best Actress award at the 1999 Academy Awards.
“When I won I was speechless,” says Swank. “And then I won the second one. I still feel that one day they’ll call and say: ‘There was a mistake – give it back’!”
Swank’s second award came for her role as boxing champ Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. “There are moments when you realise that you’ve made it,” says Swank smiling gently. “And the moment I got the call from Clint Eastwood was one of them.”
Swank’s approach to the role was every bit as comprehensive as her take on Teena. She lived, ate and breathed boxing for five months at the famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn (where such fighters as Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Muhammad Ali have trained).
“That was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life,” recalls Swank. “I gained 19 pounds of muscle which meant running at 5.30am every day and working out for two and a half hours a day, six days a week – just as a real boxer might.
“I got this blister on my foot,” she adds “It’s common for boxers, but it was the size of my palm. And it hurt like hell but I had to carry on. It was infected with the very dangerous staphylococci bacterium. I caught it just in time but my doctor said that if I didn’t follow his advice I could die.
“Of course, I didn’t tell Clint because that’s what happens to boxers: they have injuries, and they keep pushing.”
So was she interested in boxing before the call came from Eastwood? “No, I wasn’t a fan of boxing,” she says. “But I found it’s a great analogy for life, as there are a lot of lessons you learn. You have to be humble: you only get as much as you put in; don’t disrespect your opponent; never think you have them understood and you can never tell what someone can do just by the way they look. It’s kinda like chess.
“I apply that to my work. I believe that you always have to work hard and never rest on your laurels.”
Swank continues to chalk up outstanding performances playing characters both complex and diverse.
“That’s the best thing about my job,” she says. “Finding the character emotionally and physically and achieving that physical change that is different from the last job. That’s what I love to do…”