Categories Articles & Interviews

The power of the trailer park

There are no silver spoons in Hilary Swank’s past, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. It was perseverance and determination that made her dreams come true, she tells Marsha Lederman. And in her latest role, the Oscar darling takes her story on tour.

Vancouver— Yes, Hilary Swank grew up in a trailer park and yes, she and her mother drove to Los Angeles to pursue Swank’s acting career with just $75 to their names. And yes, the two of them lived in their car for two weeks. But no, don’t go feeling sorry for the hardships the Oscar-winning actress has endured. Hilary Swank loved it.

“People say, ‘Oh, that’s really terrible,’ and, ‘Oh, what that must have been like,’ but as a kid, you don’t think about things like that,” Swank, 33, says about growing up in that trailer park in Bellingham, Wash. “I had a roof over my head, I had food, I was warm, I had a home and so I didn’t really think of it as anything other than the place in which I lived.”

Swank wears her less-than-upscale childhood like a backless Guy Laroche dress – putting it out there, even showing it off. During her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards in 2005, she famously declared, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.” And in January, when Swank received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she emotionally recalled her mother, standing at a pay phone, persistently working her way through a roll of quarters to tell casting agents they should sign her daughter.

Today, she sounds positively matter-of-fact about her now legendary rags-to-riches story, but also wide-eyed, and appreciative of where she has landed; she sounds like a girl living her dream. “I don’t know what my experience and how my outlook would be, having not grown up in that way,” she says. “But I continue to wake up every day that I get to [work as an actress] and be very grateful, very grateful.”

So grateful that she wants to share her journey with the world – and not just during 30-second sound bites from the red carpet. Next month, she will fly a couple of hours north of her old trailer-park home and work her magic on a Vancouver crowd in the final Canadian stop of The Power Within for Women tour. The program refers to Swank as “a shining example of spectacular triumph against incredible odds.”

What’s a Hollywood A-lister like Swank doing on the lecture circuit? Is a side-career in motivational speaking in the works? Swank says she wants to make a difference; she wants to be a role model for people who face adversity, but still have a dream. And somehow, when she says it, it doesn’t sound cheesy. It sounds genuine.

“What I found is people who see Boys Don’t Cry or Million Dollar Baby or Freedom Writers and then hear my story; they come up to me and they say, ‘I know where you’ve come from and I know where you are now and your motives are obviously inspiring, but your story reminds me to fight for what I believe in and to not give up.’ ”

If Swank’s own story is even more inspiring than the characters she’s chosen to portray, she says it’s because of her mother. It was Judy Swank who encouraged her daughter to follow her dream to be an actress, her mother who roomed with her within the four doors of an Oldsmobile. (Swank also has a brother who was in his 20s when the mother-daughter team drove south.) And as romantic as the experience might seem for an adventurous teenager, it would have been another story for Judy, acutely aware of the difficult circumstances, and the potential for failure.

“I was blessed with … a mom who believed in me and made me believe in myself. … [She] always encouraged me to work hard and to know that nothing comes easy in life and that you have to work hard for the things you love, but you should never give up. And that you could achieve anything as long as you do work hard enough.”

Just how hard Swank would have to work became evident pretty early on. She was only 8 when some of her schoolmates stopped hanging out with her; apparently their parents didn’t approve of a playmate from her side of the tracks. “That’s where I learned classism and experienced classism for the first time,” she says. “It was an intense thing to experience at a young age.”

But Swank didn’t see that now infamous shoestring move to Los Angeles as a hardship at the time. “It was great; great for me,” she says. “A lot of people [say], ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so intense, I can’t believe it.’ But I was a 15-year-old embarking on the greatest adventure of my life.”

The gamble paid off. While Swank at first won some forgettable TV and film roles (think Harry and the Hendersons, Growing Pains, The Next Karate Kid), in 1997 she landed a recurring role as a single mother on the wildly popular TV series Beverly Hills, 90210. Swank was devastated when that role was cut short – but it was a blessing in disguise, as it freed her to take on the role that would change her life: the stunning portrayal of the transgendered Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (for which she was paid $3,000, only to beat out the likes of Annette Bening and Meryl Streep for the best-actress Oscar). Swank won her second Academy Award for Canadian Paul Haggis’s adaptation of Million Dollar Baby (making her one of the few actresses to go two-for-two on Oscar nominations). Her next film, P.S., I Love You (about a widow who receives letters from her now-dead husband), is due out next month.

Swank believes the work ethic and positive attitude her mother instilled in her have made all the difference along the road to the big screen and, ultimately, the Oscar podium.

Her last Oscar win is a case in point: training for Million Dollar Baby, in which she played boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, she set a goal: to gain 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of muscle.

When she hit that mark, she looked in the mirror and decided it wasn’t good enough; it wasn’t believable and wouldn’t do the story justice. So she kept going. She wound up almost doubling her original goal, putting on 19 pounds (8.6 kg.) of muscle. To get there, she trained five hours a day, six days a week.

“By the fifth day, I was so tired, that I would say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ And when I [went] in with that attitude, I would not do it. I was just not there completely. But if I would just change my attitude … get out of my own way and say, ‘I’m going to get up and I’m tired of course, but I’m going to do it,’ … it was a totally different experience and I would break through barriers,” she says. “My mind was my own biggest obstacle.”

Credit: mom. “My mom always said go after it and do it and that is probably hands down the most important and cherished gift I will ever receive.”

Believe it or not, Swank still needs to remind herself of that advice. She says she continues to struggle to find good projects and she works hard to challenge herself. She has also faced a very public personal crisis: splitting up with husband Chad Lowe last year, amid talk of his substance-abuse problems (she is said to be dating her former agent, John Campisi).

But at the same time, Swank is living her dream and feels, if not a responsibility, then certainly a desire, to give back. “People say … to me, ‘Will you please do one thing and continue to tell your story? Because people need to hear it,’ ” she says.

“I feel like there’s not a lot of great women role models for girls. If a girl can see my story and somehow say, ‘Hey you know what, I’m not going to give up on my dream’ … then I am going to continue to tell my story and it’s a great, great honour to be in that position.”


From struggling actress to international spokesperson

Her big break

After years of low-profile roles, Hilary Swank’s breakthrough came at the age of 25 in the critically acclaimed movie Boys Don’t Cry, the story of transgendered teen Brandon Teena. She was paid $3,000 (U.S.) for the role.

Glamour girl

Her performance in Boys Don’t Cry earned her the Academy Award for best actress in 1999. Appearing on the red carpet in an eye-popping Guy Laroche gown, a media darling was born.

Oscar, round two

Swank nabbed her second best-actress Oscar in 2004 for her portrayal of boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. She physically transformed herself for the role, gaining 20 pounds of muscle.

A role model is born

A certified Hollywood success, Swank received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January. “I continue to wake up every day that I get to [work as an actress] and be very grateful, very grateful.”

The Power Within for Women will be held at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver on Nov. 6. The all-day event will also feature Mia Farrow, Irshad Manji, journalist Arianna Huffington, Linda Armstrong Kelly (Lance Armstrong’s mother), stress-management expert Loretta LaRoche and former U.S. surgeon-general Antonia Coello Novello.