Pulling no punches
Hilary Swank has achieved success the hard way, but, although known for her gritty, real-life portrayals of strong women, she would love to do a comedy, she tells Declan Cashin
Hilary Swank is a serious gal. She mostly plays serious roles where serious things happen to her serious characters. Even when she took on a supposedly comedic role in the afterlife romance PS I Love You -- adapted from Irish writer Cecelia Ahern's novel -- it was far more serious than the conventional norms of the chick-flick genre.
"I know! I thought, 'Oooh I'm doing this lighter movie!' and yet I cried every day. I was like, 'What? Again?!'" the 36-year-old laughs while chatting to Day & Night in London's Soho Hotel.
"That's what's so funny. I'm the silly girl. I would love to do a comedy, but you have to find a good one for me. Try and name a few good comedic roles for women. There's a way that men can get away with the humour you find in these movies a lot easier than women. Where are the Lucille Ball-type comedies? They're just not around. I actively look, but I find them to be not so smart."
So for now it seems as if Swank will continue to work by the old thespian adage that dying is easy; comedy is hard. Day & Night was talking to Swank when she had flown in to town for the London Film Festival to promote her new -- very serious -- movie, Conviction, now pulsating with Oscar buzz
Based on a pretty incredible true story, Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters, a single mother and high-school dropout from Hicksville, USA, whose troublesome brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was wrongfully convicted of murder in the early 80s, largely due to the influence of corrupt cop Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo).
When all Kenny's legal options ran out, Betty Anne decided to finish high school and then put herself through law school in order to fight her brother's case, and spends 18 years doggedly trying to overturn Kenny's conviction.
It's a strong, potential awards-magnet role for Swank, but she admits feeling an extra responsibility for playing not just a real-life person who is still very much alive, but also doing justice to a story that remains controversial to this day: on the morning that we meet, it was reported that legal and feminist firebrand Gloria Allred was to represent the surviving children of the story's murder victim, Katharina Brow, in a lawsuit against the filmmakers.
"What makes me nervous about a project like this is the idea of letting the person I'm playing down," Swank says. "There are a lot of different ways to see things and take things, and everyone's going to have their opinion, but, like I said, if everyone liked the movie except Betty Anne, that wouldn't be a success to me."
Swank spent time with the real Betty Anne before filming to try to get some sense of her motivations. "I wanted to get to know more about her heart, where this drive and determination and fierce tenacity came from," Swank says.
"I just wanted to explore what it is to be so selfless for another human being. It's incredible. I don't know if I could even pass the tests to become a lawyer!"
There are similarities between Swank and her character, however: both came from poor backgrounds, and both had to work their asses off to get what they wanted.
After all, this is the actress who grew up in a trailer park and then lived in her car with her mother when she first moved to Hollywood to pursue her acting dream, taking on bit parts in Beverley Hills 90210, The Next Karate Kid and the original Buffy movie, before going on to work for $75 a day while filming for her first major leading role.
Swank is not without her detractors, though. Film critic David Thompson, who recently went to town on just about every star in Hollywood in his updated Biographical Dictionary of Film, wrote of Swank that: "In nearly everything she has done, [Swank] has been pretty, dull, ordinary and incapable of lifting the film clear of a sanctimonious mud." Ouch.
Thompson's criticism is hard to dispute when considering at least some of Swank's previous movies, such as the achingly worthy (though effectively manipulative) Freedom Writers and the MOR Amelia Earhart biopic Amelia. Then there are the proper duds like The Reaping and The Black Dahlia.
In Swank's defence, she's nearly always the best thing in her movies. What's more, she's at her best when playing plucky underdogs or misunderstood outsiders. "The first movies I remember seeing were The Elephant Man, The Miracle Worker and even ET and The Wizard Of Oz, which are all stories about outsiders, and I just connected to them," she explains. "I felt like they were my friends."
Film roles don't come more outsider-ish than Swank's devastating breakthrough performance as a real-life transsexual murder victim in Boys Don't Cry (1999), for which the then 26-year-old won a Best Actress Oscar. Five years later, she bagged a second Best Actress gong -- a rare feat -- for playing a tragic boxer in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby.
The fairest assessment that can be made of Swank and her career is that Hollywood doesn't really know what to do with her. She certainly has the looks, the cheekbones and the dazzling toothy grin to be a standard romcom-headlining A-Lister. On the day we meet she's looking very much the Hollywood babe, all tanned and toned, dressed in a leopard-skin dress with black cardigan, with her strawberry blonde hair chopped to shoulder length (an entire episode of The US Office was once devoted to debating whether Swank was hot or not).
But, in common with many other contemporary female stars, Swank struggles to find parts that play to her strengths. "I think I've been really lucky over the last 11 years to get roles like Conviction," Swank admits. "After Boys Don't Cry, I thought to myself, 'When am I going to get an opportunity like that again?'
"Then Million Dollar Baby and Freedom Writers came along, which, all bar one, have involved playing real-life characters. I would say that there's really a lack of original, compelling fictional works for women, but I certainly can't complain about that."
She continues: "I'm drawn to roles where ordinary women find themselves in extraordinary situations, be it true stories or fictional. Take Betty Anne: she had a dream and worked against all the odds to achieve a goal. That's what all of us can relate to. We all have a goal and we have all suffered an injustice, be it big or small, and even if it's small it feels big to us. These are the human stories that made me want to be an actor."
When she isn't working -- and at up $5m per movie, she can afford to be a bit choosy -- Swank likes to lay low with agent boyfriend John Campisi (having divorced ex-husband Chad Lowe in 2006), and hanging with her relatives. "My family slap me back to earth in a 'get back in the kitchen and help out' kind of way. They're always like, 'I know you were on Letterman yesterday, but take out the garbage Hilary'."
For the most part, Swank has managed to maintain some semblance of a private life throughout her career. "There are pros and cons to everything," she says. "I guess I'm a household name, but it feels weird to say that because I don't feel like that. I feel like the same girl who came from a trailer park who had a dream. The idea that I'm well known lends me the opportunities to greenlight a movie like this. For that, I wouldn't shoot fame down. But I didn't become an actor to become a celebrity. I just like to tell stories."
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