10.13.10

The Elusive Leading Lady

Hilary Swank has veered between seemingly odd choices and winning Oscars—now she’s back on track with the legal drama, Conviction. “I’m crazy with fear,” she tells Gina Piccalo.

Like so many of the hardscrabble folks she brings to life on-screen, Hilary Swank is nothing if not driven. Her scrappy intensity launched her from a small town trailer park to the Oscar podium in just 10 years. And she did it by sheer determination, leaving high school for Hollywood at 15, where she and her mom lived out of a borrowed car, cold-calling agents from a pay phone, hoping for a break.

Swank has built a career–and earned two Oscars–playing underdogs with big dreams, among them the first woman to fly around the world ( Amelia), an inner city high school teacher ( Freedom Writers), a small town girl who wanted to be a boy ( Boys Don’t Cry), a broke waitress driven to be a boxer ( Million Dollar Baby), and now in Conviction, the uneducated single mother Betty Anne Waters who in real life, spent 18 years becoming a lawyer to free her brother from prison.

“The ‘hard knock life’ I had in the beginning,” she says calling from her New York hotel room, “gave me a lot to pull from, a lot to work from. Those days for me, cold-calling agents, wasn’t a downer. For me, [it was like] I’m down here, trying to live my dream. That’s how I saw it.”

As Waters, Swank gives one of her better performances, restrained and real, never veering off into high melodrama. It was a role that Swank told Conviction director Tony Goldwyn was one she was “put on this earth to play.” And she came to it with surprising passion, spending a week just to prepare for an exploratory meeting with the director even before she agreed to play the role.

“She had thought in such intricate detail about the story, about why she was interested in it,” says Goldwyn. “It was like she was already making the film. I’ve never had a meeting like that, ever.”

Swank, once a champion swimmer and gymnast, has always been one to give, as she says, “1,000 percent” to a part. Early on, if an audition didn’t win her the role, she’d pester the casting directors for feedback, asking, “Why didn’t I?” and “What can I do to be better?”

During the audition process for Boys Don’t Cry, Swank, then playing a single mom waitress on Fox’s long-running series Beverly Hills, 90210, passed herself off as a boy in public. According to Conviction casting director Kerry Barden, who also helped cast Boys Don’t Cry, Swank called director Kimberly Peirce from a Starbucks saying, “Some girls just came over to me and told me I was a really cute guy!”

“Hilary understood that conflict of living a life of your own choosing as opposed to living the life that someone told you, you have to live,” says Barden.

Early on, if an audition didn’t win her the role, she’d pester the casting directors for feedback, asking, “Why didn’t I?” and “What can I do to be better?”

13 Wrongly Rated MoviesDuring Million Dollar Baby, for which Swank gained 19 pounds of muscle, she kept secret the fact that she contracted a life-threatening staph infection because she didn’t want to delay production. And for Conviction, Swank memorized, word-for-word a two-and-a-half hour recorded interview Waters gave to Goldwyn to learn Waters’ accent and background, long before she even cracked the script.

Swank says her relentless preparation is a way to cope with the tremendous anxiety she faces taking on a new role, particularly one depicting a real person.

“I’m crazy with fear,” she says. “Am I going to be able to pull it off? Can I do justice to this story? In doing my homework, it just settles my nerves.”

Despite Swank’s unwavering focus, her list of credits is a bit of a head-scratcher to some inside the industry. She followed up her first Oscar win in 1999 with a period romance Affair of the Necklace, in which she played a troubled aristocrat and The Core, the journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth adventure in which she played an underground explorer. Both films flopped.

Fresh off her Million Dollar Baby Oscar win in 2004, Swank starred in a series of box office disasters as miracle-debunking scientist in the supernatural thriller The Reaping, as a high-society vixen in the noir thriller The Black Dahlia and last year, as the aviation adventurer in Amelia.

And yet, disproving the notion that Swank could only open gritty real-life dramas, her 2007 romance P.S. I Love You was a strong box office draw, earning $158 million worldwide.

“She is pretty enough,” says one industry veteran. “She is talented enough. She is ambitious enough. She’s all of those things but you have to wonder why a person who has won two Oscars and is young enough to be a leading lady isn’t bigger than she is.”

One reason may be that Swank’s brand of earnestness is a touch too intense for some. Though her strong features, likened by one writer to “a dust-bowl Dorothea Lange photograph,” can telegraph a deep vulnerability, they are also so prominent that in movie reviews, they often upstage her performance.

“There’s nothing left but cheekbones and choppers,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote of her in Amelia. In praising her in Freedom Writers, another critic noted her “big white smile and pleading neck tendons.”

Swank says she doesn’t read her reviews. She prefers to get the “brutally honest” feedback of close friends and fellow artists. But she’s not naïve. Swank paid close attention to critics when she was still a young unknown and even today, she can rattle off some of the most cutting remarks.

“There was criticism like, ‘Hilary’s terribly bee stung lips got in the way of me seeing the character,” she says. “Or, ‘Wow! What a forehead!’ There’s nothing you can do about that. To me, that’s not constructive and that’s not helpful. [A criticism like] ‘I didn’t believe her with the accent,’ that stuff I can work on. That stuff I’ll take to heart. The other stuff, you just say OK, well, that’s one person’s opinion. You’re never going to please everybody.”

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.