This is my conversation with Hilary Swank. Although we didn’t actually have a face to face meeting, it sure felt like it after I watched her being interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year.
Each year, TIFF invites a few actors to the Glenn Gould Theater as part of an informal sit-down speaker series called, “In Conversation With”. A small audience of about 100 people enjoy an up-close-and-personal session with a successful actor.
Last year, TIFF featured Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, an interesting and divergent choice. It’s Toronto’s version of the popular Actors Studio show hosted by James Lipton.
In many ways, the story arc of Hilary Swank’s film career reads like a Cinderella story except that her persona and success is anything but pumpkin coaches and magic fairy dust.
As I watched her on stage, dressed in a simple black skirt and blouse wearing minimal makeup, I could almost hear the curtain slide gently across it’s Hollywood track giving me a glimpse into Hilary’s mind.
What I saw was a humble person genuinely motivated by her craft. She smiled when talking about her first acting job in a McDonald’s commercial. For me, Hilary’s motivation is anything but commercial. Seeming to anticipate the praise as the interviewer began to describe Hilary’s biography, Hilary skillfully redirected the questions and conversation to share her purpose in life.
So when the interviewer asked, ”How did it feel to win two Oscars in just five years for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004)?” Hilary replied that the experience of making the movie was everything. With two gritty scripts and incredible directors, she couldn’t imagine how rare this opportunity was for any actor. For Hilary, her luck was practically a miracle.
And yet this luck involved hard work and a singular focus that Hilary poured into her portrayal of Brandon Teena in the movie Boys Don’t Cry.
The story was about a transgender man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska when he was 21 years old. Hilary grew up in the same area as Brandon and you could feel how much she identified with his painful experience.
What Hilary didn’t say however was how she lived for a month as a man and her commitment to the role included dropping her weight to just 7% body fat. Instead, she remained focused on the important message of inclusion and what she herself had learned about the difficulties we all have in being true to ourselves.
This seemed to set the stage for the enormous pressure Hilary must have felt in Hollywood after receiving so much attention for her unbelievable portrayal of Brandon and her boxing role in Million Dollar Baby. But Hilary continued to look for meaty roles that satisfied her insatiable curiosity about different lifestyles and people.
Having grown up in a loving family in a Nebraska trailer park, Hilary felt her greatest challenge was overcoming the feeling of being rejected and not fitting in at school. Having a profession and sense of belonging made acting a Godsend.
This explains why Hilary is happiest when working. She continues to cherish the sacrifices her mother made, moving her to California with just $75 to her name. Together, they lived out of a car for six months until they could afford rent money. Wearing this experience like a badge of courage provides a source of strength for Hilary so that when her blockbuster career seemed to stall after her second Oscar win in 2004, she seemed unphased.
Critics said her next projects were bad choices but I couldn’t disagree more. They were equally gritty roles – Freedom Writers told the inspiring story of a teacher bringing hope to kids in an inner city school and Conviction was the real-life story of Kenny Waters and his wrongful imprisonment. Hilary, who played Kenny’s sister Barbara, went back to school to get her law degree and then fought a system to get justice and overturn her brother’s wrongful conviction.
Hilary’s has said on many occasions, “ You’re an artist and you put yourself out there. You take that leap and sometimes you fly, and sometimes you fall.”
I think what’s changed for Hilary is the way people see her.
She is still as strong as many other trailblazing women in film like Dorothy Arzner who made herself indispensable to studios and set her own agenda. Hilary has grown to incorporate some of Karyn Kusama, a wonderful director whose learned to secure artistic control in her movies. She is certainly like Mary Pickford who took great risks when she moved into the producer chair and continued to look for ways to practice her art.
Hollywood is a district in Los Angeles, California. It is the geography of stardom. But for actors like Hilary Swank, it’s impossible to stay on top. At every screen award ceremony, there is usually a joke about Meryl Streep not having any more room on her shelves to hoard more hardware. Critics look for sensational ways to bring actors down – it sells papers and makes headlines.
Hilary’s laundry list of successes at such an early age – two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, two Critics choice Awards and one Screen Actors Guild Award will always made her return to the top an uphill pursuit. In Hilary’s latest movie, What They Had, she teams up with director Elizabeth Chomko to explore the familial relationships of an ailing mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Hilary’s character (Brigit) is forced to return home to help her family and to confront her loveless marriage.
While this isn’t the same kind of knock-down drama from Hilary’s previous Oscar performances, the internal tension is real. Hilary explores the multi-faced challenges of being a wife and in a strange way, perhaps this experience is fitting for Hilary who is currently on her fourth marriage.
But the magnificence of this role and Hilary continued work on screen is how willing Hilary remains to explore and share the beauty of life, warts and all.