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Telluride: Hilary Swank on Her Comedy Roots, How She Picks Roles and Why She Acts

On Saturday, two-time Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank received the Silver Medallion at this year’s 41st annual Telluride Film Festival.

Dressed in a brown sweater, tight jeans, and boots appropriate for the intimate mountain festival, Swank accepted the award from TFF co-director Julie Huntsinger. “I’m speechless,” Swank said, adding that she felt “far too young” for such an honor.

Swank’s modesty was ingratiating to the 500-plus fans attending the tribute to this young actress, who has distinguished herself by giving flinty performances in roles as varied as the inspirational teacher Erin Gruwell in “Freedom Writers” and Betty Ann Waters, a woman who struggled to clear her brother of murder in the under appreciated drama, “Conviction.” Clips from these films showcased Swank’s strength as a performer. The actress displays a fiercely independent determination that is also characteristic of Mary Bee Cuddy, the gutsy Nebaska frontierswoman Swank plays in “The Homesman,” which was screened after the tribute.

Comedy Roots
The clips, included scenes of Swank in her breakout role of Brandon Teena, a young man with a sexual identity crisis, to her female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald from “Million Dollar Baby.” But there was an interesting sequence pulled from the actress’ lesser-known indie feature, “11:14,” in which Swank played a young woman working at a convenience store. The clip was fascinating to watch for how Swank’s character plays with a gun as she processes how she can hold on to her job and still manage to get out of a desperate situation. In contrast, a scene from Swank’s Hollywood romantic drama, “P.S. I Love You,” illustrated Swank’s flair for comedy, as her character, a grieving young widow, performs a smashing rendition of Judy Garland singing “The Man Who Got Away” from “A Star Is Born.”

Speaking with moderator Scott Foundas, Swank noted that despite being known for dramatic roles, she got her start in comedy. As one example, she recalled her character in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” who had lines like, “That’s so five minutes ago!” Her interpretation of the dialogue earned a laugh, as did her remark that a TV executive called her “too half hour,” meaning better suited for comedy, when she was auditioning for hour-long dramatic pilots.

Finding Motivation
Swank revealed that she finds a sentence that “defines her character” and writes it on the front page of her script to remind herself that every scene leads back to that one idea. For Mary Bee Cuddy, her character in “The Homesman,” that line was that she “dares to go where angels fear to tread.” The statement, she added, applies to many of Swank’s signature roles, which are often real people (Teena, Gruwell, Amelia Earhart) — many of whom die before the end credits. She observed jokingly, “I went from funny to death!”

The actress talked about selecting roles that challenge her, starting with Mowgli, in “The Jungle Book,” at age eight. Swank recalled expressing concern as an elementary school student — “but that’s a boy!” – though she had no qualms about when asked to play Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Her career-defining role, in 1999, came at a fortuitous time. Swank recalled how she had recently been fired from “Beverly Hills 90201” about six months into a two-year contract during the show’s 9th season. “When Luke Perry was gone, and no one was watching,” she said, getting another laugh. Losing that job was “devastating” for the actress, who wondered if she was “good enough” to have a career.

Yet Swank, who has played plucky heroines such as the young police officer Ellie Burr in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia,” was inspired by her mother’s belief in her as an actress. She also admitted to receiving such support from Clint Eastwood when he cast her in “Million Dollar Baby.” Flashing her movie star smile at the mention of the film, Swank indicated that playing Maggie Fitzgerald was “a highlight of my life,” and that the role “paralleled her relationship” with Eastwood, who reminded her to trust her instincts as an actress. She also recounted working with co-star Morgan Freeman, who sang a Hoagy Carmichael song that wowed her, not realizing that they were actually shooting a scene at the time.

Swank further endeared herself to the crowd by listing her reasons for acting: To “touch someone” and make them feel “a little less lonely,” by giving a performance in a film that will leave them “stapled to their seat.” She gushed about having her “dream come true” to star in a film with Meryl Streep – that would be “The Homesman” — only to bemoan the fact that they didn’t get to have a scene together.

Foundas also asked Swank if her career aspirations included directing, like her “Homesman” co-star Tommie Lee Jones, who co-wrote and helmed the western. “I’m starting to think I would like to do that,” she demurred. “I’m not looking for it, but I’m open to it if I’m asked.” Swank emphasized that she still has “a deep passion for acting.

“It’s hard to leave a role behind,” she said. “The characters stay in my heart forever.”