Hollywood Master: Hilary Swank

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Photo by: Juan Tallo

Two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank wrapped up the second season of The Hollywood Masters series with Stephen Galloway on November 13, 2014. Swank, known for her roles in films such as Boys Don’t CryMillion Dollar BabyP.S. I Love You and Freedom Writers, shared everything from how she found a passion in acting to how she prepared and got into character for the two films that won her Academy Awards.

Discovering a Passion for Acting

Swank knew she loved acting from a very young age. “At eight years old I had a teacher, Mr.Sellurite was his name, who had us write a skit and perform it in front of the class. And I remember doing this and coming alive and just feeling such a great happiness. Now, I didn’t know at the time that would be [my] calling, but I just knew it was something that I really enjoyed. And my teacher wrote in the report card to my mom, ‘Hilary has a talent and I think you should really support it.’ And so, I auditioned for the school play that year, The Jungle Book. I auditioned for Baloo, but they took me aside. I think the librarian was also the drama teacher and he said, ‘Would you consider the role of Mowgli?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s a boy. I’m gonna have to think about that.’ And then, I came back the next day after some contemplation and said, ‘Well, yes. I would be very interested in this role.’ So, I was Mowgli the man-cub. My first role.”

Breaking Into the Industry

Swank first arrived in Los Angeles with her mother, where for about three weeks, they lived out of a car. Her mom, Judy Swank, spent much of her time using a roll of quarters to call talent agents, in hopes that one would meet with her daughter Hilary. After constantly being turned down for not having headshots and a resume, Swank finally found an agent who had also signed Tobey Maguire and Leonardo Dicaprio. After working a number of television roles, Swank was cast in her first movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She booked her first full-time job when she was cast in Beverly Hills 90210. However, after only 13 episodes, Swank was let go from the show. “I was devastated. I was devastated because no one was watching it anymore. It was the eighth season and I thought, ‘I’m not good enough for this show.’ I was really upset by it but then two months later I got Boys Don’t Cry. So, I wouldn’t have been able to do Boys Don’t Cry had I been on the show. It’s such an important reminder that there’s really… There’s just… There’s no negatives. You just have to trust that what’s happening in your life is unfolding in exactly the right way.”

Boys Don’t Cry

One of Swank’s first major roles was that of Brandon Teena in the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. In order to prepare for her role of a female who takes on a male identity, Swank spent time disguised as a boy for about a month. “I went out every single day in my daily life trying to pass as a boy,” she said. “It was such an enormous challenge…Passing as a boy, I mean, I don’t know if there’s a bigger challenge.” She noted that she studied both her dad and her cousin to truly master playing a boy. “Actually a lot of it was emulating my dad, who again is sitting right here, and when he looked in the mirror I would just watch him. And then my voice…I had my cousin Billy who lives in Iowa record his voice reading the newspaper and just tried to bring that quality into the lines,” she said. “At the time I didn’t know it [the film] was gonna be such a catalyst for a bigger talk about gay, lesbian, transgendered people. I didn’t see it as that. To me it transcended gender and it was about love, and about giving love and receiving love.”

Working with Clint Eastwood

Swank reminisced on what it was like meeting Clint Eastwood for the first time. “He walked in, he came around and he put his feet up on the desk. And he made me feel so at ease. And we just talked. And he talked about my being an athlete and we talked a little bit about the script, but not a lot. Just kind of getting to know each other. And at the end of the meeting, he looked at me and he just said, ‘Well you better start training.’ Clint looked at me and he believed in me. And he said, ‘I wanna do this with you.’ And I’m so grateful to him for that.” Swank also shared what he was like as a director, as well as the artistic freedom she was given while working with him. “He virtually said, ‘Do what you wanna do. If you wanna have a dialect, do it, if you don’t, don’t. You know how to prepare for the character. I hired you ’cause I believe in you. You’ll do your homework, you come to set, you’ll be ready.’ I mean, he feels like he hires artisans and they do their work. And his set is run like that too. From every person has their job. It’s a huge collaboration. It’s the most professional set I’ve ever been on. And one of the most fun sets I’ve ever been on.”

Million Dollar Baby

Swank shared the intense training she underwent to prepare for the role of a boxer named Maggie in Million Dollar Baby. She worked out five hours a day every day to prepare for the role; she would box with Clint Eastwood’s trainer for two and a half hours a day and would spend the rest of her time lifting free weights. Even though she was a vegetarian, she was also required to eat 210 grams of protein a day and had to limit herself to only 30 grams of carbs a day. Although grueling, the training and strict diet regiment paid off, as she had put on 23 pounds of muscle by the end of the process. Swank expressed the newfound appreciation she had for boxing after filming. “I felt like it was a really brutal sport. That’s how I felt. And then like anything, any time you get an opportunity to step in someone else’s shoes or see through someone else’s eyes, it just broadens your whole perspective of the world and in that instance, it was boxing. I have such enormous respect. It is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Boxing three minute rounds, I thought, ‘Three minutes, that’s not very long.’ And so you do it. You’re getting punched in the stomach. You can’t breathe. You have to constantly move. You can never stop. How do you find your strength in that? It was really a defining moment in me for my life, where I recognized that there’s no bigger obstacle than ourselves. Our mind is our biggest obstacle. There’s no bigger obstacle than you saying to yourself ‘I can’t do it.'”

Film as a “Creative Outlet”

Swank revealed that although she usually keeps busy with her charity and production company, her truest passion lies in acting. “[It’s] really frustrating sometimes, because I can go a year without working in that creative way and it feels like a part of my soul dies. I’d like to do a movie at least a year. One movie a year would totally suffice in feeding my soul and when I don’t have that creative outlet, everything else just isn’t as fulfilling I guess I would say.”

Read the entire transcript of Hilary Swank’s Hollywood Masters interview: click here.

The Hollywood Masters is an interview series that examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers, major artists and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporters Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.