If one was to look at the early bio of Hilary Swank, one could hardly foresee an Oscar in her future. A professional actress since the age of sixteen, when she moved to Los Angeles from her native Bellingham in Washington, Swank first appeared onscreen in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Two years later, she earned a rudimentary degree of fame when she was picked to star in The Next Karate Kid, but this recognition proved fleeting: Swank subsequently appeared in a number of minor films and did a year-long stint on Beverly Hills 90210. In 1999, however, she won both acclaim and recognition for her lead role in Kimberly Peirce’s independent drama Boys Don’t Cry. Based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a woman whose decision to lead her life as a man met with dire consequences, Boys Don’t Cry was one of the year’s most lauded films, with particular praise going to Swank for her stunning performance. She went on to win a number of honours for her work in the film, including a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress.Hilary was on her way.
Recently she stood her own opposite Cate Blanchett in The Gift, and her latest film – shot prior to the release of Boys Don’t Cry – is about to open. The film is the lavish costume epic The Affair of the Necklace, and co-stars Australia’s Simon Baker. Set in late 18th century France, the film is based on the true story of aristocrat Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, who leaves her adoptive home to seek out her royal heritage. During her quest, she finds out that her family was torn apart by the fickle royal politics preceding the French Revolution. To avenge her family, she fixates upon stealing a spectacular diamond necklace, and unwittingly contributes towards the death of the French monarchy. Swank talks to Paul Fischer about corsets, fame and life after the Oscars.
Question: I was looking through your bio and I remembered that the Next Karate Kid came to mind and Beverly Hills 90210 and now here you are an Academy Award winner. Are you absolutely surprised at how your career has developed over the last few years?
Answer: I’m not one to ever expect anything in my life, but I certainly was hoping I would get the opportunity to test my chops and challenge myself and I was just lucky with that opportunity when Boys Don’t Cry came along, because they didn’t want someone that was famous. I was at the right place at the right time and I’m very thankful for that and thankful for all the opportunities that have arisen since then certainly after winning the Oscar. I never really thought about it as, you know, when it’s going to be MY turn, you know. I was definitely really hoping for something that would challenge me but I never expected to quite happen this quickly, I guess. Rather, I didn’t expect it to happen with Boys, Don’t Cry.
Question: The last time I saw you was when we spoke about Boys Don’t Cry and it was all the pre-Oscar stuff, and that was very early on. Did the Oscar kind of legitimize something in your profession for you? What’s the genuine impact of an award like that?
Answer: Well, at first, honestly, you feel this enormous pressure to be larger than life and to not make mistakes and that was really interesting, because I didn’t think it would be like that. Every time I watched the Oscars, I was always like: ‘Oh that person’s life changed and those problems are forever and all those things that you think of and you happen to see you and you realize you’re still the same person, you still have your problems, you still make the mistakes, and I guess it’s really, it’s look in your mind. I was thinking, oh God, there’s no place to go but down and I’m being watched under a microscope and you know all of those things. So once I got past that and got back to that very, very pure innocent place of why I even started acting, I was much better off.
Question: Had you heard of the Affair of the Necklace tale before?
Answer: No, I hadn’t. I’m not a big history buff, not even our OWN history, of American history, let alone other countries’ history. I guess that’s why I found it quite amazing is that I was reading this story and it was so scandalous and it seemed that when they say life is stranger than fiction, I just didn’t believe it was one of the reasons for the fall of the French Revolution. It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I didn’t know of it.
Question: Now I’m a student of history and I never even heard of this woman. Why has she remained so hidden?
Answer: Well, I definitely know a lot of French people, and in fact, when we were filming in France, I asked people about it and they all knew about it because it’s such an important part of their history. I’m not exactly sure why certain things stay hidden and certain things don’t, but I think probably because it WAS so scandalous.
Question: Hilary, when you saw what the role was, were you terrified? It was a huge role, a big budget movie, what was your reaction when you first got the job?
Answer: Actually, you know what’s interesting about that, is that the budget’s not that big. It’s bigger than Boys Don’t Cry, which had a budget of under $2,000,000, but this movie was only under not quite $25,000,000, and if you think of period pieces in the whole scheme of things, you can’t even breathe air into a period piece for $25,000,000. So I think that’s quite remarkable on the budget, what the cinematographer did, and what Charles [Shyer, director] did, and the costume designer with those costumes? Those alone should have been $15,000,000.
Question: Were you apprehensive or worried about it?
Answer: No, I’m not one who tends to worry, I’m not one who tends to be apprehensive, but I definitely realized the challenge that was ahead of me, but that’s where my passion lies, I like to challenge myself, and once I get over the whole fact that I wasn’t being judged by everybody, and got back to that, that was fine. You know I was actually offered this movie before I received a Golden Globe and that really spoke highly of Charles Shyer and the producer’s belief in ME. I was offered this before I was even offered The Gift, but they were just in their beginning stages.
Question: What do you think they saw in you that made them want to go for you for this role? Given that you hadn’t done a period film before.
Answer: I think, first of all, I read it and then I met with Charles before even being nominated for a Golden Globe, and then he went and saw Boys Don’t Cry and I guess you will have to ask HIM, because I don’t know what he saw in Boys Don’t Cry that made him think I could play this beautiful woman with breasts and hair. I just saw the love story within it and the scene where she’s in the cell and she says, “I love you, that should have been enough.” And she realizes that? That’s a very human quality that we all have. When we sometimes realize some things too late unfortunately, and sometimes we catch it right before it’s too late, and I think back to that’s what we really need to be doing in this story and I think that this is his feeling about it, and he just said, “This is going to work.”
Question: This was your first ‘corset’ role. How was it for you wearing those costumes and would you do it again?
Answer: You know, when people say to me, would you ever bind your breasts again for a role, it’s kind of not the most comfortable thing for sure, and wearing a corset is not the most comfortable thing, and I would never just take a role because of how a person looks in a movie. If a period piece came to me, and it was a beautiful story, absolutely.
Question: Is it too much of a distraction wearing those costumes and acting in them?
Answer: It’s funny that you use that word, because it’s absolutely impossible to play that role without being in those costumes, that’s part of it and you get in those costumes and you get in that hair and makeup and half of your work’s done.
Question: What was it like working with Aussie Simon Baker, who has since achieved success here with TV’s The Guardian?
Answer: It was interesting because he already came in and he gave this amazing audition and Charles wanted someone to read with me so he could see what our chemistry was and he did a screen test and Simon was just right on-there was such a quality about him that he brought to that part, this sadness in his eyes, that was just right. You know, that’s another thing I love about Charles, is that he believed that he didn’t have to have the ‘hot’ guy or ‘hot’ girl in the movie together; he saw Simon in the role and he was great.
Question: Can you talk about the detective you play in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, with Al Pacino and Robin Williams?
Answer: I finished that in July, it’s a murder mystery, kind of thriller with Al Pacino and Robin Williams and Christopher Nolan, whom you might remember from Memento, who is incredible, and believe me he is not going to let you down with this movie either.
Question: So how do you feel about this movie? Does it have the usual Nolan twist? Or is there one?
Answer: You know what? It’s not as tricky as Memento. This movie is like when someone comes in and mixes the Rubik’s cube up and it still works, you know in that he comes in and just has a different way of going about making a movie and – and he doesn’t like it linear. He likes it nonlinear and he just you know he just messes it up a little bit and with this movie the audience is in on it and the producer is not in on it as what’s going on. You know as the budding detective that I am, you see the evolution of her growth as a detective and I always try and find a sentence that describes what the movie is to me before I start it and my sentence in Insomnia was that ‘nothing is as it seems – heroes are flawed.’
Question: Now that you’ve been validated by your peers, what scares you now?
Answer: Well recently, flying.
Answer: Let me just say this. I live in New York and you know I saw it all happen from my window and being that close to it, I got on a plane a week after and I have flown at least eight times since and I was fine, then the plane went down – the American Airlines plane and you know and in New York right by us and you see the smoke and everything and you’re just so close to it and I just thought: Hey you know I have ALWAYS known I’m not going to die in a plane. I’ve just always known that, but then do you know what hit me? I had the sensibility not to get on the plane that’s gonna crash. So that all of a sudden hit me, but I don’t know. You know what? I am not scared of things very often.
Question: Well I was just thinking about starring in a movie with Pacino. I mean that would scare me, and working with Robin Williams.
Answer: I don’t use the word scary, but it most certainly it is. I mean you work with these people who are so well respected and have proven themselves and you know you – that whole thing my God am I going to live up to their expectations and am I going to be able to step up to the plate? Then you just have to just feel that and get over it and not dwell on that or you’re not going to be able to work. I just sort of had to observe Pacino and work off of him. I mean he is just so giving and if you’re not present for that and you’re too afraid that you’re not going to absorb any of it.