“I became an actor because I felt like an outsider,” Hilary Swank reflects.
As a child, the double Oscar-winning actress was the pariah neighbours didn’t let their kids play with because she lived in a trailer park. At the time, she couldn’t understand why people would look down on her, and learned to escape her reality, into characters on stage and became active in school and regional repertory theatre.
The hardship in her early life lead Swank to play heroic steely real-life characters who, like herself, are outsiders. Among them are her two Oscar-winning roles:
Brandon Teena in “Boys Don’t Cry”, who was murdered for being transgender, and Maggie Fitzgerald in “Million Dollar Baby“, an aspiring boxer who wins against all the odds.
“I just find in these characters something that I really relate to and see in other humans,” she says. “Not only do I relate to, but I love the underdogs. There’s a place in me that says: I have to play this; I have to do this. I want this story out there in a universal way because that’s what helped me through my own life.”
One of those characters is Betty Anne Waters in Swank’s latest film “Conviction,” who sacrificed 18 years of her life, attending high school, college and law school,
in order to exonerate her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell), who was arrested for murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Having endured poverty and parents’ problems, Swank, whose mother gave up her whole life and dancing career in order to bring her to LA and help her pursue her acting career, felt a special connection with Betty Anne.
“She is so selfless and full of humility. I think we are similar in our drive and determination to follow through with things that we believe in and people that we believe in, which I think stems from having very similar background. Betty Anne’s selfless act of complete love is an inspiration to me and something that I would like to bring more into my life.”
When the 36-year-old star was approached by the director Tony Goldwyn, she was looking to take a break from playing real life characters, but she couldn’t get Betty Anne out of her mind, and not only did she eventually became a supporter and executive producer, but also an ardent advocate for the cause of the innocent whose lives have been unjustly wasted in American jails.
“The fact of the matter is that Kenny would have died had there been a death penalty in Massachusetts,” she stresses. “He would never even made it all these 16 years so this hopefully will help raise awareness that we need to make a change and do something because as we sit here right now, every second an innocent person is in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.”
One of the most striking features I saw in the fit, tanned actress was her charming earnestness and deep thoughtfulness. Not only did she speak with passion and conviction about justice for the innocent while we talked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, but also subsequently when we met at a party, where others were engaged in lighter chatters. Her sense of care and concern for others, she tells me, is driven by love not political agenda or self-interest.
“I became an actor because I love people and I love their stories and I learn more about myself through it. It’s like a great kind of advance psychology class,” she
laughs. “I walk in these people shoes and I see life in a totally different way than I would had I not been an actor. I like to take roles that scare me, where I have
to transform and change and really go somewhere emotionally and physically as well.”
In fact, the athletic actress, who competed at a state-ranking level in both swimming and gymnastics during her teens, pushed the physical limits of her body so far that she almost lost her life to mercury poisoning, as she gorged fish protein in order to bulk up for her boxer role in “Million Dollar Baby,” gaining 19 pounds of muscle. A few years earlier, she took similar risks by reducing her body fat to 7 percent in her preparation for “Boys Don’t Cry.”
It’s not uncommon for actors to be unable to answer questions about the characters they portray in a movie, but Swank was mortified when she couldn’t answer a question about, Betty Anne.
“I hate when someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to because I feel like that’s a part of my character. These things I should have known, the specificity in a character,” she laments.
Preparing for her characters, Swank learns all the specifics in their lives: the date they were born, their likes and dislikes, and their favourite things in life. She wears their favourite clothes and listens to their favourite music. She goes as far as carrying a wallet, which contains the character’s driver’s license, family photos and other personal items.
She believes that sometimes actors fail because they are not playing people, but characters in a movie, and hence miss the specifics in them.
“Humans are specific,” She says. “We all have our specificities here. I love understanding my characters on a very profound level. And I love to do all that research. My notes on my script are very detailed. I write all these things on the front of my script on the back pages from what my favourite colour is to the date that I was born to the music I like and don’t like. It’s fun because you can be in a diner scene, let’s say, and a song will come on that you’ve written down that you don’t like. A little thing like that gives me something to play with or it can be a song I like and I can start dancing or something. That’s not in the script but it makes you feel complete.”
Once she’s inhabited a character, Swank abandons her ego and does it fully and honestly.
“I can’t care what I look like or what the critics think,” she says. “I can’t care about looking like a complete and total fool, because the second you start caring about those things, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and you’re not inhabiting the character completely fully and honestly.”
Swank’s hard work and dedication has paid off, winning her two Golden Globes, two Oscars and many other accolades, and catapulting her to the top of the Hollywood game.
“I look at my Golden Globes and my Academy Awards on the bookshelf and I walk by them every day. I didn’t become an actor for those reasons, but I will tell you, it’s something that leaves me speechless. I am truly beyond grateful for the awards and the recognition for doing what I love.”
The Washington state-born star, who, at the age of 16, lived with her mother in their Oldsmobile
when they arrived in LA, also denies having the privileges and wealth that comes with her stardom in Hollywood as her goal.
“I didn’t want to become an actor because I wanted to live in a big house or have a fancy car or wear a pair of louboutins. I didn’t even know what those were. That never intrigued me.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she laughs. “I now love wearing them, those shoes, and I do drive a nice car but that doesn’t make me who I am.”
One of those magical success stories that Hollywood loves to sire, Swanks’s story is truly inspiring.