Let’s talk about your next Oscar-winning role. What drew you to the role of Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby?
Hilary Swank: There are, I would say, one in 50 scripts that you read — only — that blow your mind, that are riveting and get under your skin in a really profound way. Million Dollar Baby was one of them. It was sent to me by the producers at Lake Shore, who I had done The Gift with, and I knew nothing about it. I just knew the title, and I thought — I didn’t know if it was about a prostitute or — I had no idea what it was about. Million Dollar Baby was the name. I just thought — no idea. And I sat down and I read it, and it was such a page-turner, and it moved me so much. I think probably because, if I had to say, of all the characters I played, it was the one that was most similar to me and my story. It was like it was in my marrow. It was visceral. I just sat there and looked at it, and I was so moved, and I just knew that I had to be a part of it.
And then I got to meet with Clint Eastwood, and at the time, I weighed 108 pounds. I have small bones, I’m little, and I just thought, “Oh, I hope he sees me as a boxer.” They sent me the script. Yet, Clint needed to approve me; he could have anyone he wanted. I went in and I sat down with him. People, to this day, say, “How did you get it? How did it work out?” He says that he knew my work ethic, and he knew of my sports background, and by the end of our meeting, he looked at me and he said, “Well, you better start training.” So I started. I went back to New York, and the following week, I started my training.
Perhaps it’s a function of where he is in his career that he has so much confidence. He didn’t agonize about it. He didn’t wonder if there were 17 other great actresses he could have hired.
Hilary Swank: I have so much respect for him, and I get really emotional because he’s such an anomaly. He has so much confidence, but he has no ego. He trusts his instincts. At the time when I met him, he was 74. He’s been doing it for so long. Yet, there are a lot of people who have been doing it that long and still don’t really trust their instinct.
The one thing that I learned from Clint, of the many things I learned from Clint, is to always trust your instinct, and don’t think about it too much. Clint is well known for only doing one to two takes. He says that because he feels like he gets the people who are right for the role and the job, his whole crew as well, and he allows them to do it. He says he just gets out of the way, and he believes that people know when they’re working on all eight cylinders and that your first instinct is the right instinct if you’ve done your homework.
It’s almost a Zen quality you’re describing of someone at peace with his own decision-making process. Even some very prominent directors want many, many takes. They don’t know how to cover what they want.
Hilary Swank: Absolutely. Our longest day was 12 hours, and that was a company move. Just to give you an understanding of how amazing that is, I would say a normal workday for me is 15 to 18 hours. That’s normal, and you don’t think twice about that. He never questioned it. Some people would ask questions, and he’d say, “You’re thinking too much. We got it.” Wonderful instincts. It’s a talent, but it’s also a confidence and an understanding of film. Time is money, especially in the film business, and we came in under budget, under schedule. It’s very rare when that happens, and it’s a boxing movie, where anything could have happened. We could have gone over because of the fight scenes, but that’s Clint, and you hear it over and over and over from everyone who has worked with him. That’s Clint.
How long did you have to train to put on all that muscle?
Hilary Swank: Every job that I get is an opportunity to learn more about myself and grow as a human being. This was, hands down, the most challenging thing I have ever asked myself to do physically. I started at 108 pounds, and I ended up getting to 129, so I put on at least 19 pounds of muscle, with the help of some wonderful people who, again, believed in me.
How long did that take?
Hilary Swank: Two months. I trained for five hours a day, two-and-a-half hours in boxing, and then — it was between four and five hours a day — two-and-a-half hours of boxing every day, six days a week, and an hour and a half of weight training, to two hours. I needed to eat 210 grams of protein a day, and your body can’t assimilate a lot of protein, so I had to eat every hour and a half, and I was a vegetarian. I ate fish at that time, but I didn’t eat red meat or anything that could help me. So a lot of my diet was egg whites. I had to eat 60 egg whites in a day. I don’t know if you’ve ever even tried to eat five egg whites. It’s fine and everything, but I just couldn’t eat that many. So I would just drink them. I would drink flax oil. I would drink protein shakes, but I also needed a lot of sleep at night because my body was going through this change, but I couldn’t go to sleep without waking up and eating. So I would wake up, and I would drink my protein shakes, too.
Would you set an alarm?
Hilary Swank: Yeah, or I would just wake up. I had shakes by my bed, and I’d shake them and I’d drink one and go back to sleep.
Was there a trainer or somebody who determined 19 pounds of muscle is what you needed?
Hilary Swank: No. I was actually going for ten pounds. Ten pounds of muscle was my goal, and when I got to that weight, I just didn’t feel like it was enough. No one was saying, “You need more or less.” It just didn’t look right yet to me to make this believable. The wonderful Lucia Rijker, who I was boxing at the end of the movie, she fights at 158, but she came down to 148 for the film to help balance it out, and I just thought, “Right now, it’s just not going to work. It’s just not going to be believable.” So I just continued on that regimen and eventually put on the extra muscle.
That preparation for me was so important in who I am today, because if I woke up in the morning, I ached everywhere. Everything. I just thought, “I’m so tired right now, and I can’t go. I can’t train today, I can’t.” And with that attitude, I wasn’t growing. With that attitude, I was staying where I was, and I realized that the biggest obstacle was my mind. It was the biggest obstacle, and if I could get out of the way of myself, I would grow. So every time I had that attitude, I changed it, and I’d say, “You can. Today you can, and take it one day at a time, and today, I’m going to get up and I’m not going to think about the other six days of this week. I’m going to get up right now, and I’m going to go to the gym, and I’m going to learn about my boxing, and I’m going to be in the moment.” You know, in anything, you hit a wall, and then you have to break through it, and I just had to get out of my own way.
Was there any moment when you thought this is too much? “I can’t do this for a role.”
Hilary Swank: No. I never thought I can’t do this for a role. I just wondered if I was going to be able to actually do it, to make it believable, to go the distance for this role. Am I going to be at the place that I need to be on the date that we have to start filming?
What have you taken away from that experience? You still look very strong. Have you maintained some of that?
Hilary Swank: No. To drop weight and to lose that muscle, you just virtually stop lifting. Muscle memory, as everyone says, is really a powerful thing, and if I started lifting again, I’m sure that I could put it right back on, but it’s not how I choose to look. I’m a big proponent of exercise. I don’t exercise to look a certain way. I exercise for the mind-body connection. It’s a very important part of my life, for my stress, for overall well-being. I have to have it in my life, and it makes me feel great, and it’s helped me through a lot of difficult times in my life.
What do you do for exercise now?
Hilary Swank: I run. I do Pilates. I swim. I bike. I’m a big outdoor person. I love the outdoors. So any time I can run or hike, I do that. I was not a runner at any point in my life, but because boxing was the most difficult thing I had ever done physically, it got my heart beating in a way that I didn’t know my heart could beat, and I really longed for my heart to beat like that again, and running was really one of the things that did that for me. So I took up running.
You were injured on Million Dollar Baby, weren’t you? You had a Staph infection.
Hilary Swank: I got a blister, the size of my palm, on my right foot from pivoting, and it was really swollen, and I couldn’t train and walk on it. So I popped it myself, and it got infected. It turned into a Staph infection, which I actually didn’t know much about. All I knew was that I couldn’t walk on my foot, and I was in an extraordinary amount of pain, and someone said to me, “You know, I’ve had Staph, and that might be Staph. Just keep watching it.” Well, it didn’t take that long. I went to bed one night and I woke up, and I had a streak up my leg, and they said, “Oh, you better get in. That’s not a good thing.”
That can be very dangerous.
Hilary Swank: Staph is very dangerous. When I got to my doctor’s, he said, “Put your foot down. Stand up.” Not on it, but to stand up. “Put your foot down. I’ll be right back in.” He came back in, and he said, “This is very serious. You have to stop boxing immediately, and you are going to stay right here.” He drew a line on my leg, so it wouldn’t go above that, because if that gets to your heart, you die. So if that infection makes it up to your heart, that’s it. So obviously, it was devastating news to me that I wasn’t going to be able to box, and I only had this limited amount of time. So he said, “I can’t express to you…” I said, “I need to box. I need to box. Two days? Will it be over in two days?” and he said, “Listen to me. You have to stop. This is life-threatening. You have to stop. Just stop. Get your infection, until it’s gone, and then you can go training again.” So I took most of the advice. When I felt like the line was gone and it wasn’t red anymore, I couldn’t box still ’cause I couldn’t pivot on it, but I was still doing weight training. My trainer would piggyback me to the gym, and I’d do everything I could where I wasn’t standing on it. I was doing all my upper body and my sit-ups, and then he’d piggyback me back to my place.
Did the crew know? Did Mr. Eastwood know about the Staph?
Hilary Swank: No. I didn’t tell anybody because I just didn’t want it to hold anything up. I just didn’t say anything. I didn’t want people to stop the process. I felt like I was in a groove, and it was something that I was dealing with. I didn’t need to worry anybody. He found out when I did my 60 Minutes piece with Mike Wallace.
Mike Wallace always finds out everything. Morgan Freeman was also amazing in that film. What was he like to work with?
Hilary Swank: Wonderful. Such a professional and also just an incredible work ethic. Getting the opportunities to work with people that I’ve admired my whole life is one of my big blessings that I’m grateful for. To work with them and grow, I just learned more about everything, getting that opportunity.
Clint Eastwood’s performance was so moving in the film, too. What was it like seeing him direct himself?
Hilary Swank: I was wondering how it was going to be. I thought, “Wow, what a challenging role for an actor and a challenging job for a director. How do you do both?” I do feel like it was Clint’s best performance, because at that age, he was still pulling cards out of his sleeve, doing things that you’d never seen him do before. He was emotional in a way that I feel like we’ve never seen him, and at the same time, being at the helm of this movie. How he did it all, I have no idea. To me, he’s worthy of every accolade because of it.
There was a tremendous feeling of connection between the two of you in the film. Was that true off camera as well?
Hilary Swank: Absolutely. Clint being this person that I’ve admired my whole life and certainly my whole career, it really mirrored our characters’ relationships. I’m living this dream, I want this role, I want to work with Clint Eastwood. Maggie has this dream. She needs the help of this person to help get her there, and it was very, very funny how life can imitate art or vice versa. It was very, very similar to the relationship that we have and the relationship that the characters have.
You went from being incredibly physical to having to be still for the second half of the film. That must have been quite difficult.
Hilary Swank: More than anything, it was a reminder — after all those days when I complained about getting up to use my body — of the position I could have been in, or anyone can be in, where all of a sudden there’s a big shift, and you’re not able to use your body, and how easily we take our health for granted is what it did for me. Every time I got to get up out of that bed and realize that I hadn’t broken my neck and I could still utilize my body was also a wonderful reminder to me to not take my health for granted and to use it. It’s another reason why I use my body, and I treat it with respect, because I’m thankful.
That’s a good lesson, too. Tell us about winning the second Oscar. Was that a surprise?
Hilary Swank: Yes. It’s amazing to me that I’ve won. I don’t know if it will ever quite hit me that it’s really happened. It’s such a big honor to receive, and I still feel like I am this girl from this trailer park who had a dream. I’ve been given the highest honor from people who I watched all my life, and who inspire me and move me. It’s something that is quite amazing and leaves me really speechless.
For somebody who had never seen a movie and doesn’t know what acting is, how could you explain what it does for you, what draws you to this art form?
Hilary Swank: Well, I personally became an actor because, as a child, I felt like an outsider, and that’s not just specific to me. I think everyone has felt like that at one point or another in their life, but for me, I would read books and watch movies, and in that way, I would feel understood. I felt like characters were going through something I was going through, or that would make me feel, “Oh, there’s someone in the world that is understanding,” and they almost became like they were my friends. And when I realized that it was something I could do with my life — that I could become an actor and tell these stories, that I could continue to learn about myself in a deeper way, that I could entertain at the same time, and hopefully give that to another child or person and just continue to learn about the human experience — it was really my draw to become an actor and how I describe what movies are.
What kind of books did you like to read as a child? Do you remember any particularly that really meant something to you?
Hilary Swank: To Kill a Mockingbird, I would say is still my favorite book and was one of the most moving books I remember reading as a child. I just loved it. Scout, this little girl who felt like she was going through so many similarities that I was going through, it was just a wonderful reminder that I wasn’t alone, really, in a way. And the movies that I watched, the first few movies I watched that I really remembered being important to me were The Wizard of Oz, The Miracle Worker, and The Elephant Man. I remember at a really young age — I think I was maybe seven when I watched The Wizard of Oz — thinking, “Wow, there are these people who want to go and get a heart and a brain, and they go to this man behind the curtain, only to realize that that man isn’t really there, and they have to find it within themselves.” I feel like I grew up really quickly, and those things helped me realize things about myself, that I’d have to look within. My mom also gave me that gift. My mom was a wonderful, wonderful person in my life and still is a wonderful person in my life. My mom gave me the most important gift that I will ever have been given, which is the gift of believing in myself.
She believed in you?
Hilary Swank: Yes. She believed in me, and she continued to tell me my whole life, “You can do anything you want as long as you work hard enough. You will hit a lot of walls, and there will be a lot of obstacles, but you just keep persevering, and you will make it.”
Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood? We understand you were born in Nebraska, but then moved to Washington.
Hilary Swank: Yes. My dad was in the military, and they did most of their moving before I was born. I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and when I was three, my dad got moved to Spokane, Washington, and we drove there. I remember that drive. We drove there and lived there for about four years, and then we moved to Bellingham, Washington. That was the extent of our moving.
But moving at that age, you still felt like an outsider in Bellingham?
Hilary Swank: I did. I was from a lower income family. I lived in trailer parks, and to me that didn’t mean anything, because I was a kid and it has no meaning. I had a roof over my head and I had food and I had love, and it was not a big deal. But it was at that young age that I learned classism, because of my friends — not my friends, but my friends’ parents — who wouldn’t allow their kids to play with me, like I was somehow contagious and they would all become poor or something. Looking back now as well, I realize how narrow-minded (that was), and that led me to feel like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. I look at kids now, and you just realize we’re all the same and what a terrible thing to do to any child, but it helped make me who I am, and I don’t have any bitterness or anger.
Were you a serious student? Were you interested in school?
Hilary Swank: School was the place that I would go where — the kids whose parents didn’t want them to play with me — it was just an extension of that. Unfortunately, it was a place where I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged. I had a couple of wonderful teachers. My fifth grade teacher was also a big influence in my career because he had us write a skit in front of the class and perform it in front of the class, and in that moment, now I realize, I found what we call our calling. At the time, I had no idea, but I knew that something came alive inside of me and that I was doing something that I loved tremendously.
Do you remember what the skit was?
Hilary Swank: No. I don’t even have it. I don’t know where it is. It probably got thrown away, or lost in a move or something. I just remember writing it and enjoying that process and then getting up and feeling like I came alive when I was doing that. He was so kind. He wrote to my mom and said, “She really has a talent for this. She really enjoyed it. I think you should really support this,” and I have gone back to visit him and speak to his classes. I’m really thankful for his support. I think he was a teacher that saw what was going on and really, really cared. It’s amazing when there are teachers like that who really reach out and try and understand the kids in their class. It certainly made me feel like I belonged.
Was he an English teacher or a drama teacher?
Hilary Swank: It was fifth grade, so he was everything.
What was his name?
Hilary Swank: Mr. Sellereit.
How wonderful for him to have you come back to the class.
Hilary Swank: Yeah. He said, “This is great to have you come back. Thank you very much.” It’s people like that in my life that I’m really grateful for. We all have that handful of people that believed in us, and I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am today without those people. So I’m really grateful, and I like to let them know it.
Your performance in The Jungle Book was around that time, wasn’t it? Your first appearance on the stage?
Hilary Swank: Yes. That was actually the same year. He said, “I think you should try out for the school play,” and it happened to be The Jungle Book. I went in and auditioned for Bagheera. I wanted to play Bagheera, and I was asked to play Mowgli. I thought, “A boy? I’m going to have to go think about that,” and I came back. I said, “Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” So that was my first play. I don’t know if it was a peek into the future of what my first big role would be, but I didn’t cut off my hair for the role.
What was the reaction? Did you feel that sense of coming alive in doing that?
Hilary Swank: Absolutely. That’s on videotape. It ‘s very funny to watch. I remember it gave me focus. It gave me something to just really put everything into.
I remember learning the lines. I remember thinking, “Am I going to remember all of these lines?” I remember rehearsing. I remember the joy of losing myself in the rehearsal process at that age of nine years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the collaboration and how fun it is to figure out what you’re doing together.
After that you became more active with the Bellingham Theater Guild. Was that outside school?
Hilary Swank: That was outside school. I told my mom at that young age, “I want to be an actor,” and at that point, she was like, “Oh, that’s great,” but at the time, I was also a swimmer. I started swimming at a very young age. I was a gymnast. I loved sports. I had played basketball, depending on what season it was, but I always swam. I ended up going to the Junior Olympics. So I had a lot going on in my life, and my mom said, “Well, if you want to start doing plays, that’s great. We’ll go audition,” and she was very supportive of that. She wanted to make sure, obviously, that it was something I really wanted to do before we made any big steps, and so, yes, I started doing theater in my local repertory theater in Bellingham.
So you just continued to feel that vibe of wanting to do more?
Hilary Swank: I absolutely loved it. And then there was a time when I was about 14 — my mom started to come to a crossroads in her life where things were changing up. My father and her separated. Then I hit 15, and I was still doing school plays. My mom realized that it was something I wanted to do with my life, and about the middle of my 15th year, she said, “Well, if you really want to do this, we should go down to Hollywood and pursue this in a real way, and I am at a place where I can do that now.” And with $75 and a gas credit card, we got into our car with all of the stuff we could put in there and drove down to Los Angeles.
It’s a good thing it wasn’t $3.50 a gallon back then.
Hilary Swank: That’s right. We’d still be paying it off.
That’s almost a legendary story about you, but it’s so moving to think about your mother’s guts to do something like that.
Hilary Swank: My mom will say to this day, “How did you get the way you are? How did you not worry? Your work ethic, your optimism,” and I tell her, “Mom, you took it all on. You worried.” She hid it well. She never showed me how worried she was. When we first got down to Los Angeles, we were living out of our car — which is in the press and something I talk about a lot — just until we could find a place or my mom could get a job, and to her, that was obviously something that she worried about, but for me, it was a great adventure. I didn’t look at it as something that was a negative. Again, it was like the trailer. I was a kid. It was all an adventure to me. It was life. It was not something that I thought as a negative in any way, shape, or form. I was in Hollywood, about to pursue my dream. I was going down there to try and live what I love. So it was a wonderful, wonderful adventure.
My mom found a friend who was selling her home, so their house was empty during the day, and we spent a little bit of our rations and bought some air mattresses, and we blew them up and would sleep on them at night in this house, and then fold them up and leave during the day, so they could try and sell their house. That’s where we lived for a little while.
That sense of drive must be very powerful in you as well. “I am here, I am going to do this.”
Hilary Swank: I would say I’m a very driven person, but I think more than drive, I would say I’m a very passionate person, because I think drive can only get you so far. Without passion behind it, and a sense of destination, you’re just kind of wandering around aimlessly. You can have drive and push yourself, but if you don’t really know what you’re pushing yourself towards and have a real sense of what it is you want to do, it can be frustrating.
How long were you living out of your car and staying in vacant houses?
Hilary Swank: I would say maybe eight weeks altogether. I remember watching my mom. She had a roll of quarters, and she would just call agents, “My daughter is really great. She’s really talented. You should meet her.” They’d say, “Great. Well, send a résumé in and a picture.” I, of course, didn’t have either of those, and finally, my mom found somebody who said, “Okay. Well, yeah. We actually are meeting people, you know, Wednesday. Come in at 2:00.” And I went in, and they had me read a McDonald’s commercial, and I didn’t know what was expected of me when I went in, but I remember reading it. I remember it like it was yesterday, and the woman’s name was Bonnie Liedtke, and she said, “Great. That was great. I would love to be your agent,” and I remember going out. My mom was sitting in the waiting room, nervous, and I said, “Mom, I have an agent,” and Bonnie was my agent up until I became an adult. She worked with children. So, she was my agent for, I guess, five years.
It’s certainly an illustration that it may not be easy, but you can do it without all the head shots and résumés and seven years of acting classes.
Hilary Swank: That’s right. I didn’t have an Ivy League education. I didn’t have a head shot. I didn’t have training, formal acting training. I just had my mom who believed in me and who instilled a wonderful work ethic and belief. So I’m really grateful for that. In the years between now and then, I have recognized the importance of learning my craft and wanting to go deeper and never wanting to rest on my laurels and what I’ve achieved, and I believe that learning is one of the most important things in life. I take classes when I can, not only in acting, but any other thing that I can. I’m learning Italian. I read. Anything that has to do with life is only going to help me as an actor. So, any way that I can travel and learn more, I take that when I can.
What was the first break after you got to L.A.? Aside from finding an agent, what was your first break?
Hilary Swank: I got a couple of lines on a sitcom, Growing Pains. I think the first time I was on Growing Pains, I pulled a bunny out of a hat and said, “Ta-dah,” and that got me my SAG card. Then I was on Evening Shade, and they just kept bringing me back. I had recurring characters on sitcoms.
By then, you and your mom were living in your own place, I hope.
Hilary Swank: My mother got a job, and we rented a room from a single mother, and we lived with her for I think a year, maybe a little more than a year, until I started working too, and my mom and I rented a house together.
Was your dad out of the picture at this point?
Hilary Swank: Yes. My parents were separated at that point, and my father was still in Washington State.
Were you visiting him on any regular basis?
Hilary Swank: No, I was not. I didn’t see him during that time.
Did you have a brother?
Hilary Swank: Yes. My brother is eight years older than me. So at the point when my mom and I moved to Los Angeles, he had already been out of the house and was starting his family. My brother and I have never been really close, mostly because when I was younger, he was away at military academy. He was going to school and wasn’t really living with us. By the time I was eight, he had already moved out. So it was not like we had a really close sibling relationship as it is, but I have a lot of respect for my brother, as I know he does for me.
Could you tell us about being cast in Beverly Hills, 90210?
Hilary Swank: I was cast on Beverly Hills, 90210 when it was in its eighth season and no one watched it anymore. Yet, I was still very grateful for the job. I never, ever knocked an opportunity to learn my craft. I did a handful — every single year — I’d do a pilot. You know, a pilot is something that you get that they make, and they only pick up maybe four of them. They probably make 50 of them. So every year, I was thankful enough to get a pilot. Not all of them obviously got picked up, but then I got on 90210, and I was very grateful for the opportunity to continue to learn, even though it was something that was kind of old news. I signed a two-year contract, which is a very big deal. As a working actor, you have that security. I would say security is not the number one thing that most actors have, ’cause you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So having a two-year contract was actually wonderful. It gave me the opportunity, like I said, to continue to grown and learn. And about maybe 14 episodes into the first year, I was fired. I remember going in and them saying, “This isn’t really working. It’s not working.” I was devastated. I went home, and I thought, “I’m not good enough for 90210 in the eighth season! What does that say about me?” It’s actually one of those great lessons in trusting fate, because about maybe four months later, I got Boys Don’t Cry, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that, had I not been fired.
That’s a good lesson to learn. But that wasn’t your first lead in a feature. Could you tell us a little bit about The Next Karate Kid?
Hilary Swank: I was 18 years old when I was cast. It wasn’t my first movie. My first movie was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, I started my career in comedy. I was always auditioning for dramatic roles as well, but I was constantly told that I was too funny, I was too “half-hour,” I wasn’t dramatic enough, which I think is really interesting. The Next Karate Kid was obviously a very big break for me and a wonderful opportunity. I was a huge fan of The Karate Kid, the first one. I was a kid when I saw that and thought, “How wonderful to be a part of this!” Not really much else to say about it, other than I was really happy.
Your athleticism must have come in handy for that role.
Hilary Swank: It certainly did. Some jobs that I’ve had, I’ve been thankful for my background in sports.
Did you believe them when they told you, you were too “half-hour”?
Hilary Swank: That’s a great question. There’s criticism everywhere, and not all of it’s constructive. So you walk a fine line of trying to figure out what is healthy and what’s not. If someone says, “Your lips are too big,” which I’ve heard, was that constructive? Is there anything I can do about that? No. If someone says, “We feel you’re too half-hour,” that’s great that that’s their opinion and that’s why I didn’t get that job, but I’m not going to take that upon myself and say, “Okay. Well, then I’m just going to do comedy, and I’m only going to go in for comedy.” So it’s a fine line of figuring out what do you take in and have to help you grow. It’s a business, too. You can’t close off and become bitter at things that people say, even though you might not always want to hear it. So I would take some of the things in, and incorporate that into my craft, or to my auditioning, or to whatever it may be. And then other things, I’d have to really say, “Oh, that really stings. That’s a real bummer to hear that,” but not allow it to close me up, to continue to stay open, and say, “But that’s their opinion.”
That’s an interesting decision, how seriously to take somebody’s criticism. That must be very difficult.
Hilary Swank: It’s very challenging, yes. I’ve had people in my life say, “When are you going to give up your hobby and get a real job?” There are many, many people who have their own ideas about how life should be and aren’t proponents for people following a dream that seems difficult to achieve. “What’s the point? An actor? You’re not a brain surgeon, you know. It doesn’t seem like an important job,” or whatever it may be. Learning what to take in and what not to take in, at the same time not becoming bitter or angry or hardened, is very difficult, and it’s something that still is a challenge for me. I’ve had wonderful success in my life, and when I’m invited to do things like this, it’s a reminder that I’m living my dream, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with a lot of challenges still.
After I won my first Academy Award, I thought, “Wow, everything’s going to change. I’m going to get so many offers, I’m not even going to have time to read everything, and I’m going to get all of these opportunities to work with people who inspire me and finally get real quality material.” Yes, that was partly the case, but what I realized was my first role was a role where people saw me as looking like a boy. So that was their first impression of me. Well, of course, that’s not who I am. I had long hair, and I’m a girl before I got the role, but I realized that that role, being everyone’s first impression, that I had a lot to prove. I still had a lot to prove. They didn’t see me as the girl next door or the funny girl or the pretty girl, and that I understand. And I didn’t become angry about it. I said, “Wow, well now my job is to continue to go in, to meet people, to read things, to fight for things, to prove that I’m not just that, that I can be so much more.” It’s a constant, constant job. It’s not easy for me. You know, even after Million Dollar Baby, there are still people who say, “Well, I don’t really see her in this role,” and I have to go in, and I have to persuade them and talk to them and tell them why I am.
That’s not all of the time, of course. I get wonderful opportunities, but I think when people look at successful people, they think we have everything. But it’s really important, and I wish it was something that I was really told when I was younger, that it’s always a work in progress, and that you have a choice every day in how you want to live your life. I can wake up and rest on my laurels and say, “Oh, I have achievement, and now I’m just going to travel the world or whatever.” That’s a choice, but my choice is to continue to do what I love. I love what I do, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it. So I wake up in the morning, and I say, “What can I do today to continue to live my dream?” Is it taking a class? Is it traveling? Is it taking a break, so that I don’t burn out? Is it going in and fighting for the script that I believe in that they don’t see me as? Is it learning more about the business side of it, so that I understand why they make the choices that they do? There’s always something to learn, every single day.
We’ve read that you like to ride the subway to watch real people being themselves, catching them off guard and learning about their mannerisms.
Hilary Swank: One of the things that I always remember my mother saying is, “Hilary, stop staring.” I remember at a really young age, around six, watching people, to the extent of how they pick up their hamburger and how many times they chew. Little quirks, like in their head, or how they would communicate with the person they are with or not communicate, how they touch their child on the head. Just taking everything in. It was just something that was very interesting to me. Human behavior is very interesting to me.
To this day, I continue to observe, and…
I think that what can happen when people become famous is they really lose touch with people, because you become very insular, and there are reasons for that. There are reasons why you need security at times, and all of that is valid, but it also keeps you from being in touch with what you’re trying to do with your craft. I find that sometimes you can watch movies, and you actually see a celebrity instead of an actor, and I just didn’t want that to happen. I really didn’t want to lose touch with my life as well. I didn’t become an actor to become a celebrity. I became an actor, like I told you, to continue to learn about the human experience and about myself, and so I wasn’t about to lose touch with that.
I moved to New York after the success of Boys Don’t Cry because I felt it was a cultural blender. That’s how I describe it. You’re in it together, and riding the subway was my choice of transportation.
Tell us about your role in Freedom Writers. That’s one that also garnered a great deal of acclaim.
Hilary Swank: Freedom Writers was one of those movies that you read, and I didn’t know that this was a true story. I’d never read about it. I didn’t know anything about it. It was a reminder that the power of someone who can believe in you, the one person, all you need is one person who can believe in you and how that can change your life, how I had that one person and how grateful I am for that one person, and how important it is to have that person, and if you don’t have it, to be your own advocate and to believe in yourself. I know that’s hard, and to dig that up somewhere when you’ve had people your whole life say, “You can’t. You’re not worth it. You? You’re never going to amount to anything,” which is what these kids had experienced. They had been literally thrown into the trash and told they can’t learn, they’re never going to amount to anything.
These are people living in the world today. They’re told that, because of the color of their skin, because of the amount of money their parents had in their bank account, because they didn’t have parents and they were getting into a lot of trouble. It’s just a reminder not to judge a book by its cover, not to judge a person by the way they look, how they dress, how they may talk, that they may be trouble-makers, but that they’re people with dreams, who deserve just as much as the next person.
Every single one of these kids who had been given up on completely, who had turned, of course, to the gang life — why wouldn’t you if you’d been treated that way? They found a place where they belonged. Of course, they’re going to go there. To see every single one of them graduate from high school, when they were the first, many of them, the first in their family to have graduated, they’re heroes in my mind. And that they’re going out in the world today and talking about their experience and inspiring other kids who are in their same shoes to look within and to fight for themselves and to not become bitter about it, don’t become angry about it, just have compassion for the people who look down upon you, because they don’t know any better, another moving opportunity for me to learn more about life and to feel connected.
What’s next? What would you like to do that you haven’t done?
Hilary Swank: Well, I wanted to get back into comedy, and believe it or not, I was told, “But you’re a dramatic actress.”
You’re not a “half-hour” person anymore!
Hilary Swank: Right. So, to bring it full circle, I wanted to start doing comedy again. Richard La Gravenese, who wrote and directed Freedom Writers, wrote and directed a movie called P.S., I Love You, based on the book, and there are a lot of funny, funny moments in that movie. I got an opportunity to do a little bit of both in that movie, and that’s coming out this December. It’s a Christmas movie, and it’s a wonderful love story. It’s a great reminder of not taking the people you love for granted, to let them know every day that you love them, that life is short and we only have one life, and to live it to its fullest. It’s one of those stories that makes you laugh through your tears.
How do you go about balancing personal life and celebrity and relationship and career? There are similar challenges for all working women, but being in the spotlight must make it even more challenging.
Hilary Swank: I don’t know if it’s more challenging being in the spotlight. I think it’s just a difficult thing in itself, balancing your career and your life and a family. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s a challenge even more now, because more women are pursuing their dreams and wanting to see their careers realized and putting family on hold for a little while. A lot of people haven’t done that before us. So we’re kind of leading the way. We have to look to each other and be a support for each other as we find our way to find that balance. It is a balance. It’s difficult.
It’s difficult to be given an opportunity when you’ve said, “I’m going to take this time off and devote it to seeing my mom again, and my grandfather in Iowa who’s been such a believer in me, whose health is failing.” And to say, “Do I take this movie? Or do I go and be with my grandfather? Do I take this time?” because it’s not just the time of filming the movie. It’s the preparation, and then it’s the travel afterwards of the press that takes three months of your life, and it’s grueling. You travel the world. It’s wonderful, but it’s also grueling. Finding that balance is a daily — again — a daily job of saying, “Today, do I wake up and make the choice to do this movie, knowing what that involves?” Or do I choose to take this time with my family and my friends? Because that’s just as an important part of my life as my career.
You have to ask yourself what’s right for you, what’s important to you. Make that list of priorities, and make sure you stick to them. There are things that I’ll be asked to do, and I’ll say, “Okay. If I choose to do that, it is going to take me away from my top four priorities. Is this worth it?” I have to evaluate it like that, with every choice that I get. It’s a give-and-take. If I want to take away from my top four priorities, I have to see where I can balance that. It’s very easy to get a phone call saying you’ve been asked to do this, that, or the other, and at that point to say yes, and afterwards say, “Oh, that’s going to affect all of these other things. I can do that here, but then I can’t do this other thing.”
You seem like a very kind person, and I imagine your instinct is to say yes, perhaps more than you should.
Hilary Swank: I think so. I feel like I’ve been blessed, and I don’t ever want to take it for granted. If I can say something that affects one person, I want to do that.
Well, that’s a great place to end. Thank you for a beautiful interview.
Hilary Swank: Thank you for the wonderful questions. It’s great to sit down and talk like this.
The pleasure was ours.