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Taking a Flier on Amelia Earhart

Two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank has a history of playing strong women, including fictional boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in “Million Dollar Baby” and real-life suffragette Alice Paul in “Iron Jawed Angels.” In director Mira Nair’s biopic “Amelia,” which opens Oct. 23, the actress adds flier Amelia Earhart to the list. Ms. Swank, who studied piloting for the film, spoke to the Journal about playing the doomed aviation pioneer, who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and disappeared during a solo fight during the summer of 1937.

Given how much you physically resemble Amelia Earhart, you must have been a shoo-in for this role.

Ironically, when I first got the script, I said to myself, “Really?” I never thought I looked like Amelia Earhart, especially because she’s such an iconic image, with her short blond hair, gray eyes and freckles, which is so different from my complexion and dark features.

What was it like working with director Mira Nair, who’s better known for her Indian-themed dramas, on a period epic like this film?

Mira was perfectly suited for this material, because of the similarities between her and Amelia. She’s a strong woman who doesn’t apologize for her strength. Plus, since the percentage of women to men in this business as directors is quite small, it was wonderful to have a woman at the helm of this particular story.

Given all of your research preparing to play Amelia, what do you think happened to her during that final flight?

For sure, she ran out of gas. Learning how to fly, if you know what the weather is, you learn to calculate how to figure out the actual speed of a plane, which is tied to figuring out your location. Because she didn’t have a clear connection with anyone up in the plane, giving her weather updates, I don’t think she had a good understanding of how much headwind she was encountering. I think that she was probably a couple hundred miles off of Howland Island.

Your dad was in the Air National Guard. Did you grow up around planes?

No, I never really went up in planes as a kid—but as a child, I did have a fascination with where airplanes were going; one would fly over my head and I’d pull out a map and fantasize about where it was going. The first time I put my hands on a plane’s wheel [when shooting this movie], it was an adrenaline rush, for sure. There’s not many firsts you experience in your life after a certain age—like when a child first learns to ride a bike or read a book. As an adult, we’ve experienced so much. So learning to fly reminded me of the childlike feeling of exhilaration and being in the moment.

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