After her Million Dollar Baby Oscar win in 2005 for her gritty portrayal of a doomed boxer, Hilary Swank decided to spoil herself by attempting a variety of roles.
The 36-year-old portrayed a vamp in the crime thriller The Black Dahlia, a teacher in the social studies drama Freedom Writers. She was a debunker of religious phenomena in the horror flick The Reaping, and tried romantic comedy with P. S. I Love You opposite Gerard Butler.
As co-executive producer, Swank committed her substantial talent to the task of bringing the story of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart to the screen last year in the biopic Amelia.
All five of those films received modest to middling critical and box office responses, but nobody questioned Swank’s extra effort in each of her performances.
The two-time Academy Award winner – she also won for her transgender role in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry – brings the same sort of tenacity to her latest film, Conviction.
“I’d definitely say I am a determined and single-minded person,” said Swank at a downtown hotel promoting the film featured at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 11.
The fact-based Tony Goldwyn-directed drama opens theatrically in Toronto and Vancouver Oct. 22, Calgary and Edmonton Oct. 29. and Nov 5 in Ottawa, Victoria and Winnipeg.
In Conviction, Swank plays the real-life Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high school dropout and a single mom who puts herself through law school in order to clear her brother (Sam Rockwell) of a murder he didn’t commit. (He was eventually exonerated but died months after his release from prison in 2009).
Co-starring is Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s law school friend who assists her with her brother’s case. Melissa Leo, a 2009 Oscar nominee for her Frozen River performance, is the cop convinced of the brother’s guilt. Juliette Lewis plays an ex- of the brother who manipulates the truth.
The movie, written by Pamela Gray, is an against-all-odds study of doing the right thing against daunting odds.
That’s something Swank can appreciate after nearly a decade of struggling to make ends meet while making her way in the acting game. So she understood she had to show “extra-effort” responsibility.
That was especially true given that Goldwyn had worked on the project for nine years – first securing the rights, then reducing 40 years of events into a feasible film plot line. “It was an issue of focusing,” said Goldwyn.
After Swank came on board she immersed herself in Conviction with her usual obsessiveness.
“You want to do justice to the story,” said Swank. “Betty (Waters) is my real-life hero. But in the beginning I didn’t want to meet her right away. I didn’t want to be parroting somebody.”
When the actors and the Waters family finally met before filming started, Swank found herself even more impressed with the person she was portraying.
“Betty (Waters) was so gracious about sharing, with such humility and grace, her story,” reported the actress. The fact-finding mission also brought Rockwell and Swank closer. “I thought that it would be a great bonding experience for us and it was,” she said.
The relationship with Waters and the film didn’t end there. She was on set for “the beginning, middle and end” of the production.
When Waters first screened the finished movie, she was overwhelmed with the dramatic and accurate re-enactment. “I started crying one minute into it,” she recalled.
Swank had a similar reaction because of the film’s theme. “This opportunity for me was so life-enriching and a reminder to me what’s important in life and that’s family.”
That’s not a big surprise. After Swank’s parents separated, she moved from Bellingham, Wash. to Los Angeles with her mother, famously living in their car until they could afford rent for an apartment.
The teen enrolled at South Pasadena High School, but eventually dropped out to pursue acting full-time, although jobs were scarce.
Guest spots on shows such as Evening Shade, Harry and the Hendersons, and Growing Pains helped her career and her finances, but just a little. After a co- starring part in the movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she won her first lead role in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid.
She then landed the recurring role of a single mother in Beverly Hills 90210 but was written out of the series after just 16 episodes.
As it turned out, Boys Don’t Cry was a last gasp. Swank was paid less than $100 US a week for the role but she persevered, and it paid off.
Now she decides what moves her, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes. That includes her starring role in the thriller The Resident, which is in post-production.
“And for the past year I have been producing Something Borrowed,” said Swank, referring to the romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson set for release next year.