All achievers

Hilary Swank

Two Oscars for Best Actress

I didn't have formal acting training. I just had my mom who believed in me.

Hilary Ann Swank was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. By the time she was six, her father, Stephen Swank, had moved the family to Bellingham, Washington. Hilary’s older brother and only sibling, Dan, left home in his teens. Hilary and her parents lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bellingham. Shunned by the snobbish families of many of her classmates, young Hilary sought solace in books and movies, identifying with the struggles of the characters she found there. She credits a close relationship with her mother, Judy, to developing her self-confidence despite the hardships of her early years.

Hilary Swank, recipient of two Oscars for her performances in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby. (Courtesy of Hilary Swank)
Hilary Swank, recipient of two Oscars for her performances in the films Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby.

As a child, Hilary Swank found relief from her loneliness when she discovered acting. One of her first performances on stage was in her fifth grade class production of The Jungle Book. Auspiciously, she was chosen to play the feral man-cub Mowgli. She was disturbed at first to find herself cast in a boy’s role, but she was thrilled to lose herself in a character and loved the intensity and camaraderie of the rehearsal process. With her mother’s support, she began to pursue acting outside of school, winning the Best Junior Actress Award at the Bellingham Theatre Guild. While she pursued self-expression through acting, she also distinguished herself as an outstanding swimmer and gymnast. In her teens, she competed in the Junior Olympics as a swimmer, but by age 16, acting had become her primary focus.

Hilary Swank and her mother Judy arrive at the 2005 Screen Actors Guild Awards. Swank credits her mother's faith in her for her success as an actress. (© AP Images/Jennifer Graylock)
2005: Hilary Swank and her mother, Judy. Swank credits her mother’s faith in her for her success as an actress.

Her mother, Judy, believed in Hilary’s talent and wanted to give her a chance to make a career of it. When Judy and Stephen Swank divorced, mother and daughter made the move to Los Angeles. The two drove south in 1990 with $75, one gas station credit card and no leads for finding a home. They lived in their car for the first few weeks until Judy found a job and temporary housing. Judy’s persistence in seeking opportunities for her daughter brought a meeting with Hollywood’s premier agent for child actors, Bonnie Liedtke, who represented Hilary Swank until she turned 21.

The teenage Hilary settled into a new life, attending South Pasadena High School while auditioning for films, commercials and television pilots. Within her first year in Los Angeles, she made an appearance on the television series Harry and the Hendersons and soon won recurring roles on the popular situation comedies Evening Shade and Growing Pains. Television proved to be a solid training ground for the actress, and in 1992, Hilary landed a supporting role in the feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Hilary Swank kicks it up a notch as The Next Karate Kid (1994). (© Bureau L.A. Collection/CORBIS)
1994: Hilary Swank kicks it up a notch in the film The Next Karate Kid. (Bureau L.A. Collection/CORBIS)

In 1994, Hilary Swank secured her largest film role to date, as the heroine of The Next Karate Kid. Although this sequel did not achieve the box office success of its predecessor, it demonstrated that the young actress could carry a feature film. Although she longed to expand her range, casting directors familiar with her work in television repeatedly told her she was “too half-hour” for dramatic roles. She was cast in numerous pilots for television series that were never picked up for production and broadcast. In 1997, she married fellow actor Chad Lowe. The same year brought a promising career breakthrough when Hilary was cast as a young single mother in the nighttime serial Beverly Hills 90210. A two-year contract with a primetime dramatic series offered a financial security rare in the life of a working actor, but the series, once extremely popular, was now in its eighth season and struggling to win back its dwindling audience. Swank’s contract was canceled after only 14 episodes. At first this appeared to be a devastating setback, but it opened the door to the film that would make Hilary Swank a major motion picture star.

When she read the script for Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank knew this was a part she had to play. The film told the tragic real-life story of Tina Brandon. Born, like Hilary Swank, in Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandon felt more comfortable dressing and identifying as a male and chose to live as a man under the name Brandon Teena. Passing as a male in rural Nebraska, Brandon entered a romantic relationship with a local woman. Gruesome tragedy followed when a number of young men in the community discovered Brandon’s secret. This powerful story captured Swank’s imagination and she resolved to win the role, flying to New York at her own expense to meet with the film’s director, Kimberly Peirce. On being informed that the role of Tina Brandon/Brandon Teena was hers, Swank undertook a remarkable physical transformation to be convincing as the film’s cross-dressing protagonist. She shed the long hair that had been a notable feature of her onscreen image, and reduced body fat from her already slender figure to achieve a leaner, more boyish appearance. For weeks, she walked the streets of New York City dressed as a boy, eliminating every trace of feminine mannerisms and experiencing the hostile confusion of strangers whenever her facade slipped.

Hilary Swank displays the Best Actress Oscar she received for her performance in "Boys Don't Cry."
2000: Hilary Swank displays the Oscar for Best Actress that she received for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry.

When Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, Swank’s performance stunned critics and audiences. She won every award in sight, from the National Board of Review’s “Breakthrough Performance” prize to the Best Actress awards of the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago Critics’ associations, to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe. The awards season culminated with the Oscar ceremony, where Hilary Swank took home the statuette for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Those in the television audience who only knew her from her performance in the film were surprised by the grace and elegance of the real Hilary Swank when she appeared onstage to accept her award. Boys Don’t Cry was a milestone in the portrayal of transgendered persons in cinema. Hilary Swank continued her advocacy for tolerance of human diversity as National Spokesperson for the New York-based Hetrick-Martin Institute, which supports a charter school for gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Her achievement also encouraged other leading actresses to take on characters outside the conventions of Hollywood formula.

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in a tense scene from "Million Dollar Baby." (© Merie W. Wallace/Warner Bros/Bureau L.A. Collection/Corbis)
2004: Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in a tense scene from the film Million Dollar Baby. (Merie W. Wallace)

Although Hilary Swank was eager to prove herself in a wide variety of roles, many producers and directors found the impression of her as the male-appearing Brandon Teena impossible to forget when they were asked to consider her for more traditional parts. Nevertheless, she appeared alongside many of the best actors in motion pictures, with Cate Blanchett in Sam Raimi’s The Gift, and with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. The Affair of the Necklace was a startling departure and gave her the first opportunity to appear in an elegant costume drama. In 2004, she received acclaim for her portrayal of suffragette Alice Paul in the HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels. At the same time, she received a new script from the producers of The Gift. The screenplay, Million Dollar Baby, came with Clint Eastwood attached as director and co-star. Once again, Swank knew she had found a part she had to play. After a brief meeting, Eastwood approved Swank for the powerful role of Maggie Fitzgerald, a struggling female boxer.

Hilary Swank trains for her role as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby." (© Merie W. Wallace/Warner Bros/Bureau L.A. Collection/Corbis)
2004: Hilary Swank trains for her role as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby. (Merie W. Wallace/Corbis)

This role required a physical metamorphosis even more remarkable than Boys Don’t Cry. To appear convincing facing off against actual female boxers onscreen, Swank undertook brutally rigorous physical training. Starting at a mere 108 pounds, Swank gained 19 additional pounds of muscle in two months. To do this, she consumed 210 grams of protein a day, waking repeatedly during the night to drink protein shakes. Her training routine included two-and-a-half hours of boxing lessons, plus two hours of weight training, six days a week. While learning the boxer’s technique of punch and pivot, she developed a massive blister on her right foot. It soon turned into a painful and ultimately life-threatening Staph infection. Her doctors ordered her to quit boxing until the infection was under control. The determined actress continued weight training to strengthen her upper body until she could walk again. All the while, she concealed her condition from most of her associates, including Eastwood, and made a complete recovery in time to begin shooting on schedule.

Hilary Swank won her second Oscar for her performance in "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005. (©Corbis)
2005: Hilary Swank won her second Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Million Dollar Baby. (Corbis)

The resulting film was acclaimed by critics and a huge hit with audiences. At the 2005 Oscar ceremony, Million Dollar Baby was showered with awards, including a Best Supporting Actor award for Morgan Freeman, a Best Director Oscar for Eastwood and another for Best Picture of the Year. Hilary Swank received her second Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. With this award, she joined the handful of leading ladies to be so honored, an elite company that includes Katharine Hepburn and Olivia de Havilland. In 2006, Swank and her husband, Chad Lowe, parted amicably after nine years of marriage, speaking respectfully of each other to the press and public. The following year, she was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, an occasion she shared with her mother, Judy, whose faith in her had long since been redeemed.

Hilary Swank and her mother Judy enjoy the 2007 ceremony honoring her with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (© AP Images/Nick Ut)
Hilary Swank and mother, Judy, enjoy a 2007 ceremony honoring her with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Never content to rest on the praise for her past achievements, Hilary Swank continually seeks out fresh challenges. Recent projects have included Brian Da Palma’s 1940s mystery The Black Dahlia, and the supernatural thriller The Reaping. She enjoyed one of her favorite roles as an inner-city high school teacher in Freedom Writers (2007); she was also the film’s Executive Producer. She plans to expand her activities as a producer; at the time of her interview with the Academy of Achievement, she was co-producing the films Labyrinth and The Laws of Motion, and had just completed shooting a romantic comedy, P.S., I Love You.

Two of the Academy of Achievement's 2007 Guests of Honor: Award-winning actress Hilary Swank and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson enjoy the Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Washington, D.C.
Two of the Academy of Achievement’s 2007 Guests of Honor: Award-winning actress Hilary Swank and U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson enjoy the Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

Hilary Swank enjoyed another career high point when she played the aviation pioneer and feminist icon Amelia Earhart in the 2009 biopic Amelia, directed by Mira Nair. The following year, she starred in the drama Conviction, the real life story of Betty Ann Waters, a high school dropout who put herself through law school in the course of an 18-year campaign to win the exoneration of a brother she believed had been wrongly convicted of murder. The film renewed public discussion of the role of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system. She won further acclaim for her performance in the 2014 western The Homesman.  In 2016 she inaugurated a new clothing line for the active woman, Mission Statement. She has multiple films in production and is collaborating with Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu on a new television series.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

Today, television audiences are used to seeing Hilary Swank resplendently gowned, gliding over a red carpet at glittering Hollywood soirees, but her early years were anything but glamorous. She spent much of her childhood living in a trailer park near Lake Samish in Bellingham, Washington. Hilary Swank began acting professionally in her teens, appearing in television shows such as Growing Pains.

Movie audiences got their first look at Hilary Swank in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Next Karate Kid. She was dropped from her regular role on Beverly Hills, 90210, a potential career disaster that proved to be a blessing in disguise. She was soon cast as the tragic Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Her devastating performance brought her the Oscar for Best Actress. The role had required a challenging physical transformation, but that was nothing compared to the grueling training regimen she undertook to convincingly portray a professional boxer onscreen. She received a second Best Actress Oscar for her physically demanding and emotionally wrenching portrayal of the doomed Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby.

Audiences, critics and Oscar voters alike are awed by Hilary Swank’s conviction, dedication and emotional power as an actress, but she professes to be mystified by her extraordinary success. “I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve this,” she has said. “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”

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You won the Oscar for your performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. Boys Don’t Cry was the role that really brought you widespread attention. Can you tell us how you got that role? What do you remember about that?

Hilary Swank: I remember, first of all, reading that script and thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe that this happens in the world,” and that this really happened, and feeling like I really wanted to be a part of it, and going in and auditioning for the casting director. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I bought a cowboy hat and put my husband-at-the-time’s clothes on, and put my hair up in the hat, and was just scratching the surface of how I wanted to play the character. The casting directors knew who I was.  Yet, when I got there, they were looking at their clipboard and kind of looking at me.  They just went, “Hilary?” and I said, “Yep,” and they said, “Oh, okay.  Great.” And I went up, and I remember auditioning. The tape went to Kimberly Peirce in New York, and they said, “She’d like to meet you, but you have to fly yourself here,” and I didn’t have a lot of money.  My manager said, “No. They should fly you,” and my agent said, “Get your ass on that plane.” So I bought my ticket.

Keys to success — Courage

I remember auditioning. I remember Kimberly having me not only read what I had prepared, but practically the whole script. After the audition, I remember feeling really liberated. I felt liberated, not because I felt like I had done a wonderful job or that I was going to get the movie, but that I had fought for myself and that I put myself on a plane and I went there and I fought for something that I really wanted. I remember I felt wonderful.  It was a great feeling to have done that for myself and to not be afraid, to just get in there and give it all.

When did you find out after that?

Hilary Swank: I didn’t find out right away, actually. I think it took about five days, and I found out that I had the role.

Hilary Swank meets fellow Academy members Richard Leakey and Peyton Manning at the 2007 International Achievement Summit.
At the reception prior to the Banquet of the Golden Plate ceremonies that concluded the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C., three Academy guests of honor: Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank, renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, and the Super Bowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning.

That must have been an amazing moment.

Hilary Swank: It was an amazing moment. Yes. And at that moment, they said, “Okay. We want you to cut your hair off and start right now your preparation for the role,” which ended up being about a four-week preparation of trying to pass as a boy.

What did you do physically to achieve that?

Hilary Swank: First of all, I cut my hair.

I went into the Astor Place Barber Shop in New York City.  It’s not there anymore. My hair was longer than it is now, and I asked them to please cut my hair off, and they wouldn’t do it.  They kept saying, “Is this for a student film?  Are you sure you want to cut your hair off?  What are you doing?  What are you doing?” and the first person wouldn’t do it. Finally, we got someone who would do it, and it was probably the most physical part of the kind of transformation. Afterwards, I had someone meet me at a coffee shop across the way, and I remember standing there, and I was in the clothes that I had auditioned in, and they were looking right past me.  They would look at me and look right past me, and I thought, “Wow, this is wonderful.  This is the first step in this preparation.” And then after that, for four weeks, I would just, every single day, go out and try and pass as a boy, which is what Brandon Teena had done.

I knew that when I got to the set that people would treat me like the role because they were saying the lines, and that’s what they were supposed to be doing, but I really wanted to know what mannerisms worked and what didn’t, what gave me away. Was I seen as a girl when I was trying to pass as a boy? Was it a voice inflection? Was it the way I was carrying myself? Was it the way I was looking? That was a really important part of my preparation. I learned a lot about life.

In these roles that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, I really learned a lot about things that I wouldn’t have any idea really about, except from what I’ve read, but I get to live it in such a deep profound way.  I get to see what it’s like for a transgender person, or a person with a sexual identity crisis, or a lesbian or a gay person, and really the daily harassment that you can get. I got to live that.  I knew that I could go back to being the person that people could define, and that I could step out of that. But for the people that can’t, and that’s their life, it’s a scary place to be, to feel not understood, and when people can’t define you, how it scares them and how their own weakness comes out because they don’t know how to be.

It was a scary movie, actually.

Hilary Swank: It’s scary in the fact that it’s happening. It’s a true story, and it’s still happening in the world today.

Tell us briefly about the plot of the film. What happens to Brandon Teena?

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry."(© CORBIS SYGMA)
Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in film Boys Don’t Cry.

Hilary Swank: Tina Brandon was actually born in the same hospital I was born in, in Lincoln, Nebraska, two years before me. So there is that interesting coincidence. Tina grew up with her sister and her mother, and at one point in her life she started dressing more masculine. To this day, I try not to define who this person was, because she or he, however you look at it, never said, “Look, I’m a lesbian, and it wasn’t okay to be a lesbian in Nebraska, so I started passing as a boy,” or “I want to have a sex change. I don’t feel like I’m a girl.” The only thing we know that Tina Brandon said was, “I have a sexual identity crisis.” That’s the only thing we have on tape, when she was interviewed by a cop. So an important part of my job, I felt, was to not define her, but just to try and be as honest to who she was as we could.

What I do know is that this person had a sexual identity crisis, and chose to be with women. All she — all he — wanted to do was find love and give love. She was quoted as saying, “I have a lot of love to give, and I want to give it,” and that’s something that I could relate to. That was the part that I could relate to. In essence, this was a love story about finding yourself, and becoming yourself, and that journey, and that journey getting cut short. The pain of it, and what is hard to understand, is how the people who were her — or his — friends ended up brutally raping her and then killing her. It was because of whatever came up in their minds when they found out that this person was really a girl. Why? What came up for them? Why was it so threatening? That’s occurring still. That’s not something that happened and it’s done and we all moved on and we all grew from it and we are enlightened. It’s still happening in the world today, every day.

Your transformation in that role was astonishing. There was also a real chemistry with Chloe Sevigny. Those of us watching the film saw a real relationship there. Was that difficult to work on, that relationship where she isn’t sure what’s going on, but kind of goes with it?

Hilary Swank: Chloe, I feel, really embodied Lana fully. I felt like her performance was just beautiful. We were working off a script that was also wonderful. This script was really fleshed out. It was there. It was on the page. I think Kimberly and Andy, the co-writer, really captured the spirit of these people. So it was there on the page. I think what we really had to do was just get out of the way and not mess it up. It was there.

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry." (© CORBIS SYGMA)
Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in the acclaimed film Boys Don’t Cry. Female-born Teena Brandon adopts his male identity of Brandon Teena and attempts to find himself and love in Nebraska, but falls victim to a brutal hate crime perpetrated by two male acquaintances. The film’s themes include the nature of romantic and platonic relationships, and the causes of violence against LGBT people. Chloe Sevigny was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The film received overwhelming acclaim from critics and was lauded as one of the best films of the year.

This role inspired you to get involved in a community in New York.

Keys to success — Integrity

Hilary Swank: I was asked by the Hetrick-Martin Institute to give their yearly award out, right after I had finished filming, and the movie hadn’t even come out yet. I went and I presented this award, which is an award that is given to people who have done great things in the gay, lesbian, transgendered community to either raise awareness or funds, or actors who have played roles and brought enlightenment to the community. That’s when I learned about it, and I was asked to be the spokesperson.  So I have been the spokesperson now, I guess for seven years, and worked closely with the kids there. There’s an accredited high school, the Harvey Milk School.  I work closely with the school’s chancellor in New York City to help expand the school and make it bigger.  There’s counseling services for the kids and their families.  A lot of these kids have been either ostracized from schools or their families and have lived on the street, turned to prostitution, myriad things.  So it is wonderful to be their spokesperson and be able to help raise money to give them a safe environment in which to learn and grow and realize their dreams.