Hilary Swank: To Hil and Back

With two Oscars and a recent divorce under her belt, Hilary Swank — here in the season's knockout back-baring dresses — shows Allison Glock how a regular-girl movie star gets her groove back.

Hilary Swank
(Image credit: Richard Bailey)

Hilary Swank has a bloody lip.

"I'm so sorry," she says, blotting her mouth with a cocktail napkin. "They're really chapped. It's disgusting, I know."

Swank, 32, is sipping a beer from one side of her mouth, artfully dodging the napkin she's holding to the opposite side. She is folded into a booth at a rowdy dockside sports bar in New York, exhausted from working for several weeks on a few hours of sleep a night. She has ordered nachos and fried cheese sticks, but it's the beer she needs most, and a little unexpected blood is not about to stop her from taking a well-earned swig.

"I'm just going to sit here with this napkin glued to my face," she says amiably. "Try and pretend that I'm not."

No problem. If there were ever an actress one expected to see eating a platter of nachos with a bloody lip, it would be Hilary Swank. For the past 10 years, she has made a career out of playing characters whose lips run the risk of imminent bloodiness. In both of her Academy Award-winning performances - as transgendered youth Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry and as plucky female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby — Swank gets violently pummeled. In Sam Raimi's The Gift, she played an abused wife. In Insomnia, she was a no-nonsense detective who spent several scenes with, yes, a bloody lip. Most recently, she received a stitch-requiring cut on her forehead from an errant suspender clip while filming the romantic comedy P.S., I Love You. All this from the woman who made her big-screen debut kicking the snot out of a bunch of preppy hooligans in The Next Karate Kid. Perhaps we should have seen it coming.

Swank knows she is perceived as a badass. While filming P.S., I Love You, co-star Harry Connick Jr. once said to her, "You know, Hil, the first time I met you, you were really looking at me, and I couldn't tell if you were squinting or frowning or what, and now I realize you were really just trying to listen to what I was saying and connect to where I was coming from." "People do call me intense," Swank admits. "I can see why. I can. But, I don't like the word 'intense' — I prefer 'focused.' As she says this, she makes prolonged and concentrated eye contact, her head jutting forward slightly, underscoring said "focus." She does this because she wants you to know the deal, her deal. If Swank is about anything, she is about avoiding bullshit in any form.

"I am a lay-it-on-the-table kind of girl," she says with some pride. "No nonsense. I'd rather have honest relationships, because life is too short to beat around the bush. Honesty shows that you really care about someone. I live by that."

And if others don't, that is not really her problem.

A self-admitted jock, Swank has little interest in being the delicate girl. Not in this bar, and not in life. She is, both naturally and deliberately, the antithesis of the flighty actress. She is punctual and professional, grounded and resolute. A grown-up who finds little charm in neurosis. Solid and dependable, she is the kind of friend who reminds you to get your mammogram, the kind of friend who tells you that your ass looks fat in those jeans. The kind of friend who laughs when you tell her the same.

Hilary Swank

(Image credit: Richard Bailey)

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.

Hilary Swank

(Image credit: Richard Bailey)

Words of Wisdom

"I think everyone has a gift," she says, picking up where she left off once he's gone, waving her hands around — something she does often and exuberantly. "You just have to be able to find it and follow your calling. People are afraid to do that. Some people are afraid of greatness, of success. And other people are afraid if they try and fail and that was their one big dream, then what do they have left?"

Swank confesses she has been afraid, but when asked for one example, she is silent. She asks for a minute, then takes five. She cracks her knuckles, massages a tight shoulder, eats more chips, bites her lip — the bloody one.

"Sometimes it is scary to make life choices," she concedes. "Because there is no blueprint for how to do it. There is no manual to turn to. I've had things not work out. Like Clint told me, 'You always aim for the bull's-eye, but you don't always hit it, and that's just life."

Swank is alluding to the fresh dissolution of her 8-year-marriage and 13-year relationship with actor Chad Lowe, a split the tabloids cheaply attribute to his professional jealousy. (She neglected to thank Lowe in her first Oscar speech, a widely noted lapse.)

"In life we have expectations of how things should turn out," Swank says. "Chad and I have been separated a year-and-a-half. We will be officially divorced next week. Ending my marriage isn't something I take lightly. But it was the right thing to do."

She sighs. While Swank has weathered the split with characteristic grit, that does not mean she hasn't suffered and wept and hurt. Doing right by yourself can be harder than anything else, a lesson she says she "needed" to learn.

At the start of the separation, she buried herself in work, filming three movies back to back: P.S., I Love YouFreedom Writers, and The Reaping, a supernatural thriller about biblical plagues. Now she is taking a long, well-deserved breath. "I have been enjoying two-hour baths," she says. "There are a lot of things I need to focus on in my life." She exhales. "Such as myself."

And it is in this way that Swank suddenly resembles any other successful woman. Capable to a fault, taking on the burdens of those around her, carrying everyone else's baggage at the expense of unpacking her own. Caretaking to the breaking point.

Seven months after the separation announcement, Swank revealed to the press that a contributing factor to the end of the marriage was Lowe's past substance abuse, a disclosure she caught no small amount of hell for from some fans who felt she was selling him out for media attention. Lowe, to his credit, called the claims "absolutely true," and Swank "the love of [his] life."

Ever guileless, Swank was mystified by the public outcry. She is determined, but not calculating. In her mind she was simply being honest. She knows no other way of being.

"People are afraid of the truth," she says. "And it is scary sometimes. I think people are afraid if they're honest, they're not going to be liked or loved or respected. But I think it is the total opposite.

"I'm not a hider," she keeps on, gathering steam, her hands flapping now, her eyes blinking and alive. "I feel like, this is me. For better or worse, this is who I am."

Newly single, looking for perspective and a chance to break some patterns, Swank took a five-week sojourn to India last summer. "It was the perfect time to go," she says. "I went alone. I was doing volunteer work. I wanted to do something outside of me, to get out of myself."