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There’s something Swanky in the air

When I reach the hotel suite Hilary Swank beams a smile like a politician in election year.

“I’d say this is really where my work lies,” she later tells me. “Travelling and talking about the movie.”

But this actress has always known the value of good PR. Oscars are a popularity contest, they say, and Swank has two of them. The first came for her role as Brandon Teena, a true-life transgender teen, in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. She admits it struck her that it’s been a decade since that film propelled her from a struggling actress to award-winning star almost overnight.

“It just goes to show that life is so short. To think that 10 years later, I’m talking about a movie that I’m a part of, that I love, it really hit me.”

If winning her first Oscar was a surprise, claiming a second five years later aged 30, for her turn as a would-be boxer in Million Dollar Baby, was nothing short of miraculous.

“I’d say I believe in miracles,” she smiles, “especially after where I’ve come from and where I am today.”

From being raised in a trailer park to becoming the embodiment of the Hollywood fairy tale, it’s easy to see what she means.

“A lot of young women – and men – come up to me and say: ‘You’re a reminder to me to not give up my dream. That you don’t have to be born into it’.”

Swank is not the first actress to win two Best Actress Oscars at this tender age. Jodie Foster did it with The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs and before that Luise Rainer won in 1937 and 1938 for The Great Zigfield and The Good Earth. Still, it’s a remarkable achievement and one that can only heap further pressure on her shoulders.

Oddly, it is Foster whom Swank seems a natural successor to: a gifted, technically brilliant actress whom we admire rather than adore. Outside of her Oscar wins, Swank has yet to truly see audiences embrace her.

Now 35, she’s tried various genres with little success: period drama (The Affair of the Necklace), disaster movie (The Core), film noir (The Black Dahlia) horror (The Reaping).

“I think I’ve done every genre!” she laughs. “I don’t know if a musical would be up my alley, but you never know.”

Swank is beginning to make the biopic her own. After appearing as real-life teacher Erin Gruwell in 2007’s Freedom Writers, she now stars in Amelia, a story of the 1930’s aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

The film co-stars Richard Gere as her husband/promoter George Putnam.

Taking flying lessons for the role, Swank evidently admires her character. There’s her philanthropic nature, helping sick war veterans, orphans and other pilots. Then there was her attitude to marriage – which she referred to as a “partnership” with “dual control”, telling Putnam she’d never hold him to any code of faithfulness.

“Amelia was ahead of her time, not only in the ’30s. If she were living in 2009, she’d have been ahead of her time. One of her qualities I admire is that she made no apologies for living her life the way she wanted.”

While Swank went as far as donning the pilot’s freckles and blonde crop, she admits that she and Earhart are one of a kind.

“I think she was actively pursuing her goals and dreams, and that’s something I’ve done and continue to do. I love to travel. I’m a curious person. She was the same. One of her biggest passions was to see the world; it’s always been mine.

“She was a great adventurer. She was a risk-taker. So there are a lot of similarities.”

From the moment she appeared in a school production of The Jungle Book, when she was nine, Swank has taken her chances.

“I had a person say to me that the definition of luck is when ‘hard work meets with opportunity’,” she says, “and I have certainly been given a lot of opportunities.”

Even so, when she began to get work – roles in the 1992 movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Next Karate Kid – Swank was just another pretty face struggling to get noticed.

If Boys Don’t Cry set her on her way, Swank’s personal life has hardly been peachy-creamy. Married in 1997 to Chad Lowe, brother to actor Rob, the pair had met five years earlier at a party a few months after Swank turned 18. Lowe was left in the dust by Swank, who admitted to Vanity Fair that Chad had “substance-abuse problems”, a factor that contributed to the couple’s split.

Since then, Swank has been dating her agent John Campisi – a move that draws further comparisons to Earhart.

Swank’s completed another biopic, Betty Anne Waters, in which she plays the title role – a working mother who puts herself through law school to represent her brother, who has been falsely accused of murder.

“Betty Anne Waters is a true love story between a brother and a sister, and how, through an extraordinarily difficult childhood, that bond will forever be the foundation of your life. How they are there for each other.”

If Swank has begun to make the real-life drama her own, what is odd is how one so business-minded has overlooked one particular avenue: the film franchise. Not since The Next Karate Kid has she made a sequel, though she claims it’s “not deliberate” on her part.

“A lot of people say: ‘You haven’t done a superhero movie, a Tomb Raider. Why don’t you do that type of movie?’ It’s not that I don’t want to. I just haven’t had that opportunity.”

But with cash-strapped studios cutting back on the prestige dramas Swank excels at, she may be forced to carve out such a niche. Or risk stuttering what is a remarkable career.

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