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February 7, 2007

Hilary Swank: To Hil and Back

hillary swank

Hillary Swank

Photo Credit: Richard Bailey

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Profound Presence

There is a sort of old-time innocence about Swank. Unlike most performers, or people for that matter, she does not flirt. She does not labor to endear. In fact, she seems disinterested in any sort of conspicuous seduction. She is like some pro athletes — or Hillary Clinton — at home in her accomplishments and eager for more, aching to be judged by the quality of the work alone. Screw the mascara and the heels.

Swank is attractive but not a stunner, unless you count her body, which defies reality with liquid hips and breasts punctuating an otherwise sinewy frame. Her face is a topographical map of lips and bones, making her resemble a dust-bowl Dorothea Lange photograph, simultaneously severe and vulnerable. It is a look she has earned.

Swank has taken more than her share of life's lumps — a frequently absent father, a depressed mother, homelessness, poverty, and now a public divorce — and emerged with strength, will, and a keen awareness of her good fortune. Currently, that includes a fizzy new relationship with her CAA agent, John Campisi.

She knows firsthand how much life can suck, and, like an adopted puppy from the pound that suddenly finds himself frolicking on a farm, Swank is wise enough to recognize her luck and to battle tirelessly to preserve it.

"I believe in this world you continually have to fight for yourself," she says plainly. "You can't ever rest on your laurels, on the past. And I would never want to do that anyway." Instead, she tests herself — packing 19 pounds of muscle onto her slight 5'7" frame for Million Dollar Baby; contracting a life-threatening staph infection and not telling anyone about it, for fear of halting production. "That's what happens to boxers," she explained in an interview, defending her decision to push through. Her fortitude led Clint Eastwood to describe her as "a major talent without a shred of attitude."

Meaning, she is neither cynical nor ironic, which in L.A. makes Swank something of a curiosity. "I really believe in mind over matter," she says. "I am an optimist, to the point where there are people in my life who say I am naive."

She chews on that thought. "I think when people make assumptions about me, it's often a class issue," she explains, alluding to her hardscrabble beginnings, most famously encapsulated in her 2005 Oscar speech, when she enthused, "I don't know what I did in this life to deserve this. I'm just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream."

She sips her beer. Swank understands why people see her as something of a white-trash hero. From mobile home to Academy darling is the longest of stretches. And yet, the idea that she came from nothing is a thesis she categorically rejects.

"The biggest gift I have ever been given in my life is my mother believing in me from a really young age," she says passionately, eyes wide. "I had someone who told me to follow my dream. Someone who loved me. And that certainly isn't nothing."

Swank credits her mother with giving her the strength to quit high school and Bellingham, WA, for Hollywood at age 15. The two drove to L.A. with a Mobil card and $75, living for six weeks in a borrowed car, a sacrifice she now labels a "fantastic adventure." In fact, it was her mother's unmitigated support that led her to embrace her latest role, playing the lead in Freedom Writers, the true story of a teacher who was able to resurrect the faith in a group of troubled L.A. kids.

"It is a story about how when you have no hope, one person can make a difference," she says. "The saddest thing in life to me is when you feel hopeless."

At this poignant moment, Swank is interrupted by a 30-something man sweating profusely in a tight suit.

"I am so sorry," he says with a grin that proves he is anything but. "Hilary? Hilary, right? You are so amazing. So amazing. I was an actor years ago, and I know how much dedication it takes. And you are absolutely amazing."

Swank smiles and thanks him graciously, shaking his hand as he reluctantly backs away from the booth.

"That was so sweet," she says, popping a corn chip into her mouth. "That kind of thing makes me really emotional." Her eyes are welling slightly. She shakes it off.

"As a kid I felt like such an outsider. I didn't belong. I fought for my place in the world. And part of what brought me to being an actor is that I would watch movies and there would be characters I could relate to. I felt my place within that, within them."

The man returns, this time with tickets. Soggy tickets. "Some friends and I are going out tonight on a boat, and I was wondering..." Swank cuts him off. "That is so thoughtful," she says earnestly, "but I am working." Really," he screeches. "On what?"

Swank proceeds to tell him all about the film she just wrapped, including the plot and the release date and the co-stars. She is engaged and patient and kind, and it is an amazing thing to behold, given that she is a bona-fide movie star and the man is an incontrovertible wanker.

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