Five minutes into lunch and Hilary Swank already has tears in her eyes. She’s talking about Betty Anne Waters, the single mom turned lawyer whose life story inspired Swank’s new movie, Conviction—and who clearly made an impact on the actress herself.
“Betty spent 18 years of her life fighting selflessly and with astonishing loyalty to exonerate her brother of murder charges,” Swank says, edging toward Kleenex mode. Waters, who was on the set of Conviction most days, became a kind of muse for the actress. “Betty’s the type of heroic, dedicated person you aspire to be in every way, shape and form.”
Swank, 36, collects herself, but five or six minutes later it happens again. She’s remembering her first visit to Los Angeles as a freshman in high school when she and her then-recently separated mom left behind their double-wide trailer in Bellingham, Washington, to come to Hollywood in a borrowed Oldsmobile with $75 in cash. “There was nothing else I wanted to do but act, and my mother was endlessly supportive,” Swank says, all misty. It’s a happy mist, but still. “Even though we didn’t know where my path would lead, my mom instilled in me that ‘can’t’ is a four-letter word.”
She takes a big breath. Swank, who won her first Oscar in 2000 for Boys Don’t Cry and her second in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby, is sitting in a corner booth of a busy café near the beach in Santa Monica, and just about everyone who walks by the table does a double take. “I like to watch people, to study people,” she says. “But one of the things that happens when you’re famous is, you can’t look around as much anymore. Instead of looking at others you’re being looked at. Sometimes I long to be anonymous.”
Good luck: Swank is impossible to miss. In person, her magnificent smile—the Chiclet teeth, the succulent lips—is somehow even more prominent. Though she is petite, she radiates the kind of strength that reminds you she was once a Junior Olympics swimmer. Her body is lean and chiseled under a stretchy black sweater (she works out two days a week with a trainer, plays tennis, hikes and spins). Her voice booms. Her gaze is direct and unwavering. Yet despite her commanding presence, she’s not afraid to appear vulnerable. When the waitress arrives to announce the lunch specials, she has to cock her head, Labrador-style, wondering if Swank is OK. “I’m fine, totally,” Swank says, and now she’s laughing, which only causes her to tear up again. “I get like this.”
Actors can sometimes be difficult to read. They excel at deception and are paid to mask whatever they’re feeling on-set for the sake of a role. But with Swank, it’s all there for the taking. Here’s a list of other topics that make her tear up unselfconsciously as the conversation continues: the homemade sopapilla and chile con carne her part-Latina grandmother used to make; the time that one of Swank’s Siamese fighting fish almost died (“but he survived so I changed his name from Papillon to Spartacus”); the way she feels upon answering the phone and finding Clint Eastwood on the other end.
“Knowing Clint is a gift, it’s a blessing,” she says of her Million Dollar Baby co-star and director, who remains a close friend. “I spent last Christmas with him and his family and I didn’t want to leave. He’s so inspiring.”
Her favorite Eastwood advice: “Don’t over-think anything. Trust your decision and go with it.” Sound counsel. Million Dollar Baby, in which Swank played an underdog female boxer, clinched four Academy Awards, including best picture. “You don’t take jobs for the awards. You don’t think of it while you’re filming. Honest,” Swank says. “All you can do is aim for the bull’s-eye. But sometimes, you get an instinct when it’s working. Things just click and you think, ‘I’m working on all eight cylinders.’ It’s almost like an out-of-body experience.”
In Conviction, Swank is in full-throttle form again, playing a woman who won’t rest until she can overturn the wrongful murder conviction of her brother, Kenneth (played by Sam Rockwell). She spent months reading up on the real case, mastering a tricky Massachusetts accent and gaining and then losing 20 pounds to appear believable over the film’s 18-year time span. “You can’t remove yourself when you’re doing a true story, especially when the person you’re playing is still alive,” she says. Swank’s co-star Juliette Lewis notes that, “There’s no frills or fluff or attitude with Hilary. She cares way too much about the work to get caught up in diva-ish behavior. It makes you wish every actor was like her.”
It doesn’t take long to see why Swank is so adept at projecting naturalism on screen. She lives in her characters’ minds. “I’m never bored, ever, and I think that’s because I feel so much,” she says. “In my job, I get to go to these new places emotionally, to step into someone’s shoes, whether as a boxer or a lawyer or a pilot”—see last year’s Amelia Earhart biopic—“and understand that person’s story in a profound way that expands my world. I can’t imagine a profession better suited to my particular emotional makeup.”
Long before she started working professionally, Swank knew acting was the right career. As an eight-year-old at Happy Valley Elementary School in Bellingham, where her father worked for the Air National Guard, a teacher had Swank write a skit and perform it in front of the class.
“I remember thinking something happened inside where something came alive,” she says, rubbing the goose bumps off her arms. “I didn’t know at the time, but it was almost as if I’d found my calling.” The teacher encouraged Swank to do school plays, which led to her auditioning and performing with the local Bellingham Theatre Guild, and later at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
By 15, Swank made the move to California, where she and her mom, Judy, lived out of their Olds Delta ’88 until Judy got a job as a secretary. (Swank’s brother, who is eight years older, had already moved out of the household and started a family of his own by then.) With her mother’s help, Swank soon landed an agent and small roles followed on such shows as Growing Pains and Evening Shade. Judy was more of an inspiration than a classic stage mom. “I was always competitive. I was the one who wanted to make this happen,” Swank says. “Mom and I really saw it as an adventure more than anything.”
At 18, Swank’s big break came with the lead role in the 1994 sequel The Next Karate Kid. Three years later, she got a part on Beverly Hills 90210, playing a single mom who had a brief fling with Ian Ziering’s character. That gig was only supposed to last four episodes, but grew to 16—and then Swank was fired without an explanation. “It was the eighth season and nobody was watching anymore and I absolutely thought, ‘This is the end of my career,’” she says with a laugh. It wasn’t.
Soon after, she was cast as Teena Brandon—the real-life transgendered teenager who lived as a man—in Boys Don’t Cry. Swank chopped her hair and wore men’s clothing for six months while making the movie. “I couldn’t do Boys Don’t Cry now. Having anonymity was everything then. I was able to go out into the world and pass as a boy without people saying, ‘Are you Hilary Swank? What did you do to your hair?’” Her heartbreaking portrayal of Brandon—whose violent death, along with the murder of Matthew Shepard, led to increased lobbying of hate crime laws—changed everything for the actress. By awards season, things completely exploded.
“I remember hearing Sigourney Weaver on some talk show say she thought I should get an Academy Award, and I thought, ‘I cannot believe Sigourney Weaver even knows my name.’ Around that time, I would meet people and say ‘I’m Hil…’ and they’d interrupt and say, ‘I know who you are.’”
Swank’s private life looked great, too. In 1992, she met actor Chad Lowe, Rob’s younger brother, at a party at the Hollywood Athletic Club. They tied the knot five years later and appeared to have one of the strongest marriages in Hollywood. But shortly after separating in January 2006, they announced their divorce, saying,
“[We] continue to be friends and have the utmost respect for one another.”
By the summer of 2006, Swank announced she was dating her then-agent John Campisi, of CAA, who represents writers and directors, including Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner. Today, Swank and Campisi have found domestic bliss, living on the Westside with Campisi’s seven-year-old son, Sam, and a slew of animals: two dogs, an African Gray parrot, a hamster named Cheddar and a stock of backyard chickens. “We’re very much a stay-at-home family,” says Swank. And while she hasn’t ruled out getting married again or having children, she’s “not in any rush,” as she puts it. “Our favorite thing is to sit around the kitchen table, and if we’re not eating, we’re playing cards. There’s always a game going on, there’s always someone in from out of town or a neighbor over, and as soon as we have enough people, we’ll usually get a barbecue going or John will whip up some fabulous Italian dish he’s made with ingredients from four different stores or we’ll all head to the beach to play touch football.”
Swank is so enthusiastic about all this, you almost forget she has a day job. As Tony Goldwyn, who directed her in Conviction, says, “I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone enjoy life the way Hilary does. I joke with her and say, ‘Every time I’m around you, it’s a life-changing experience.’ She has dinner parties with the most interesting people that go until three in the morning. She made me come to Italy this year because she and her family were having such a great time there. But then you see her work, and in one second you’re like, ‘OK, I get where she really makes use of all that energy.’”
A lot of Swank’s energy at the moment is focused on finding and developing more compelling female roles. “The movies I choose to do not only have to move me, but I want them to expand the world for the audience,” she says. “To have someone walk up to me and say, ‘I didn’t think highly of people who were gay until I saw Boys Don’t Cry’—that’s everything to me.” Now, in addition to promoting Conviction, Swank is building her producing résumé. Something Borrowed, a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson and due out next spring, is the first feature from Swank’s production company, 2S Films, which she runs with her partner Molly Smith, an executive producer of The Blind Side, among others. “I’ve been so fortunate with the dramatic roles I’ve gotten to play,” Swank says, and here come those misty eyes again. “They’re some of the greatest characters of the last 10 years. I’m so lucky. It blows my mind every day. Every single day.”