Actress Hilary Swank

Originally aired on December 2, 2010

Two-time Oscar winner and star-exec producer of the feature film Conviction explains why her career has included so many real-life stories and shares which film roles have scared her the most.

Hilary Swank didn't realize that her ouster from the original Beverly Hills 90210 series would be a disguised blessing. Her newfound availability set the stage for her rare accomplishment of winning two best actress Oscar statuettes (Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby). Before becoming a Hollywood A-lister, Swank competed at state-ranking levels in swimming and gymnastics. But, with her mom's support, she relocated to L.A. to pursue her dream and began acting professionally at age 16. She now also has a production company with several projects in the works.


Tavis: Pleased to have Hilary Swank on this program. The two-time Academy Award winner has become one of the most sought-after actors and producers in this business today, with a successful string of movies, including, of course, her Oscar-winning roles in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million-Dollar Baby.” Her latest film is called “Conviction.” The film is based on a true story, and also stars Sam Rockwell. Here now, a scene from “Conviction.”
Tavis: So you and I were chatting before we came on camera here a second ago, and I was saying to you that last night for, like, the 18th time in the last two weeks, I was watching “Amelia.”
Hilary Swank: Thanks.
Tavis: So it’s been on cable, it is on cable right about now, and I was thinking last night when I was watching it that whether it’s this movie or that or a few others I can name, you seem to be drawn to true stories.
Swank: Yeah.
Tavis: What’s that all about? Am I right about that?
Swank: Yeah, you’re right about that. I think one of the biggest reasons is it’s hard to find really original, compelling works of fiction, for women especially. I find that these true life stories about these women that I’m so blessed to play are some of the most compelling stories, and the truth is stranger than fiction.
With “Conviction,” I think especially when you see that, there are so many things in the movie that you would say, if it were fiction, “That would never happen.” You would be almost angry. (Laughter) Because you’d say, “Come on, that – never.” So.
Tavis: Is there a particular challenge that you get – and maybe not – out of playing characters based upon real life?
Swank: Well, I find it quite – it blows my mind when I read these scripts and I think, that really happened? That happened? That happens in this life? Women who just – I think walking in their shoes and understanding their heart have made me a better person.
Women who are human and flawed and trying to figure it out, and inspiring, Betty Anne being one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met and encountered. It’s just been extraordinary for me.
Tavis: You mentioned human, you mentioned flawed, you mentioned inspiring. I’ll throw another word in – strong. Does the character – when you play these women, do they have to be strong personalities or are you open to playing someone who is the antithesis of that?
Swank: Well, I use the word “strong” as in – or you just said strong, actually – I would say as in brave.
Tavis: Okay.
Swank: I think there’s something about them that is very real. They’re – Betty Anne especially – an ordinary person in a very extraordinary experience, and I find people like that to just really move me. You read about them in the paper, you hear stories about these people, and that’s why I’m an actor, because I love people and I love their stories, and everyone has their own unique story and I find it absolutely compelling.
Tavis: Aside from being turned on by the character, given that you are an actor and a producer, what I’m pressing here is I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not you feel some conviction, pardon the pun, something that compels you, that pulls you into wanting to portray on the screen for the rest of us to see women who are brave.
Swank: I didn’t set out to do that. I didn’t start my career thinking oh, I want to find these real life stories and tell these specific types of stories, but definitely looking at the trajectory of my career and the choices I’ve made, these are the stories I am drawn to.
Not to say – I’m still young; hopefully I’ll do lots of different types of things, and hopefully still some true life stories, but I have to say that when I read them, just something happens inside and I’m moved from a very deep part of my soul by these people and by these women, and like I said, I think it’s partly because I learn a lot about myself and who I want to become and where I want to grow and where I need to grow through these people.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago that you expect in your career, as we all do, that you’re going to play many more characters, and I hope that I’m fortunate enough to talk to you many times over the years as you do this. So let me ask you a question now that I want to get you on the record, get you on tape, so 20 years from now I’m going to check back in and see what you think of this answer.
Swank: Okay.
Tavis: So you mentioned a moment ago as you have looked so far at the trajectory of your career, assess for me that trajectory so far. What do you make of this trajectory, this journey, so far as an actor?
Swank: I’m really grateful. I look back and I look at all the opportunities that I’ve had to work really hard and really challenge myself, and I like to do things that scare me. I like to do things that I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do. I need the help of talented people around me. I love that it’s a collaboration.
I look at some of my work and say, “Oh, that’s where I can be better.” I want to continue to grow and do things that do scare me. I want to work with filmmakers who will help me go deeper in my work. I don’t know if that’s really answer the question, though.
Tavis: No, it does answer. Is there a particular role thus far that has scared you – I like that answer, that you want to do stuff that scares you, stuff that you know you need collaborators on. Which particular character has scared you the most at this point in the career?
Swank: Well, they’re all – it’s hard to just choose one that would scare me the most, because they all have their own intricate challenges. With “Boys Don’t Cry,” if I didn’t pass as a boy, then it wasn’t going to work. I knew the other actors in the movie were going to say their lines, that they believed that I was a boy, but I wanted to pass on the street, because this was someone’s life.
Again, now that I look back at all the people’s lives that I’ve played, with Betty Anne, she’s living on this Earth today. This is her life story, and if I somehow didn’t do justice to her story I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I wouldn’t. So it puts an extra kind of oomph into the process.
Tavis: It’s one thing to meet the person you’re playing – Betty Anne in this case – it’s another thing for them to be on the set when you’re filming. Is that intimidating in any way?
Swank: It is, and it can be, but after meeting Betty Anne, she’s really the least judgmental person I’ve ever met in my life, and she, for not being in the business, understood the making of a film extraordinarily well. So actually having her on set – I didn’t want to meet her right away, because I didn’t want to be mimicking her.
I wanted to get under her skin and into her heart, because she transformed herself through sheer will and strength, and I wanted to transform into that being without just doing the accent and the physicality of it.
So after getting to know her it was a blessing to have her on set, because she was helping us answer questions and get into the heart of the story in a way that we wouldn’t have, I think, had she not been there.
Tavis: You mentioned that she is the most nonjudgmental person you’ve ever met. I’ve seen this film, looked at it twice now – once for a conversation with Sam Rockwell, your costar, and now, of course, I looked at it again last night for this conversation with you.
What strikes me the second time that I didn’t even so much focus in on the first time I saw it was the bond between the two of them. The bond, it stands out, but what I’m getting at here is that she never, ever winced. It seems to me that she never, ever thought that there was any possibility other than the fact that her brother was innocent.
Never considered any other option. This is my brother, he is innocent, and I will do whatever I have to do to get him cleared. Tell me about the bond between the two of them.
Swank: I love that you’re talking about that, because to me that’s everything in that this movie is this incredible love story between a brother and a sister, and this unflinching belief in the other person.
And that was made up from raising each other. They were each other’s parents, they were each other’s best friends, they were born a year apart. They were each other’s everything, and so they were there for each other in everything.
Betty Anne said the reason why she was doing this was because her brother believed in her. She said, “I would never have thought I could do this, but because my brother believed in me,” and vice versa, it gave her the wherewithal to find whatever resource she did to get her brother out.
Thankfully, Sam and I had an instant chemistry, because that’s something that you have to build and really work on, because that is to me the meat of the story and when I read the script, what I felt. Sam is – I have an enormous amount of respect for him and his process, and we have similar ways of working and we just – it was like we were in the sandbox together, and it felt like we traveled.
When Tony Goldwyn, our director, would say, “Cut,” it was like we’d plop back down, like, “Where’d we go?” (Laughter) It was pretty cool.
Tavis: Had you worked with Sam prior to this film?
Swank: Nope.
Tavis: I ask that for a reason, and the reason is this: To your point now, you’re not just an actor here, but you’re a producer as well. If this bond doesn’t work on-screen, then the movie is a flop. If you don’t believe anything, you’ve got to believe in the bond between this brother and sister. So how did you know that bond could work other than the fact that Sam’s a great actor, you’re a great actor. But you never worked with him before, so how did you know that was going to click?
Swank: You don’t. You really don’t. That’s just part of, I guess, the magic of making movies, is you don’t know what’s going to work. It’s also part of what makes it scary, too. Clint Eastwood has this great quote that I hold dear to my heart. He said, “You always aim for the bull’s-eye, but you don’t always hit it.” Making a movie is you’re really only as good as your weakest link, so when everyone’s working at their best and it actually comes together, it’s an extraordinary thing because it doesn’t always.
So you don’t really know when those things are going to work or when they’re going to come together until you really have your finished project.
Tavis: I think every one of us in our lives wants to or at least should want to be exposed, to have the opportunity to work with a master in our field of human endeavor. Whatever that field of human endeavor is, you want to get access to the masters in the field to learn, to grow, to be empowered by them.
So when you throw out the name Clint Eastwood – I don’t mean to color this too much – but tell me what you get out of operating in a space with a guy like Eastwood.
Swank: I have this very – he has a very special place in my heart. Clint has been an enormous gift to me in so many ways. He’s also a great friend of mine now, and has given me wonderful advice. He’s a seasoned, sage – and not only in his craft; he does the music, the directing, the producing, the acting. He does everything – but also as a person.
He’s experienced a lot in life and he’s been a great gift for me. Working with him will probably remain the highlight of my career. Working with him at just the age of – I was 29 when I did “Million-Dollar Baby,” so.
Tavis: I’m a movie buff; I love films. One of my favorite films is “Broadcast News,” William Hurt has a line in this film, a line in the movie that says –
Swank: It’s a great film.
Tavis: It’s a great film. I think there’s a line that says – there’s a question in the film, actually – “What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?” “What do you do when your life exceeds your dreams?” You and I were talking before we came on the set here about the fact that you grew up in a trailer park, I grew up in a trailer park, and every day I walk on this set – I’m no Hilary Swank, I’m no Academy Award winner, but I’m always grateful for the opportunity to do what I do, given where I started.
Swank: Yeah.
Tavis: I have to wrestle with that question every day – what do you do when your actual life exceeds your dreams? Take me back to that trailer park and how you process now from there to here.
Swank: I wouldn’t change my past for anything, because I think it’s made me who I am today. I’m so enormously grateful for all that I have in my life. I have an incredible work ethic that both of my parents have given me because of where we came from. My mom said to me, “You can do anything in life that you want, as long as you work hard enough.”
The desire to get out, but really the desire to do something bigger than myself and be a part of telling stories that people connect to, that they learn from and grow from – essentially, I wanted to become an actor because I saw movies like “The Miracle Worker” and “The Elephant Man” and “Wizard of Oz,” these stories about these outsiders, and I felt like I could connect.
It made me see bigger, and I’ve had people come up to me, fans come up to me and say, “I saw this movie,” or “I saw that movie, and it made me realize that I never want to give up.” That is a powerful thing, it’s a moving thing, and it’s not why – I didn’t become an actor to do that, but I’m realizing how much my past has formed who I am now and how I would never change it, essentially.
Tavis: Is there anything else, to your point now, that you think you could have done or could do that would be as fulfilling as being an actor, or is this, you are certain, your calling, your vocation and your purpose?
Swank: This is my calling and my purpose, for sure, and there are nothing that I could imagine being as fulfilling. Every day, like you said, every day that I get to live my dream and do this, I am so grateful. I wake up so full of life and feeling so alive and so full of joy when I get to go to a set and tell a story. I just – I couldn’t imagine not having that, and what a gift it’s been in my life.
Tavis: Tell me more about your mom. I’m fascinated by this, because any of your fans knows that there’s a wonderful bond and your mother was with you at these auditions, et cetera, et cetera, and brought you out to L.A. So I’m just curious – tell me about the relationship between you and your mom.
Swank: Tavis, when you say that, and just talking about my past and everything, it just reminds me of my mom with this roll of quarters. We lived out of our car for a little while. She took this roll of quarters and she’d cold-call agents, saying, “You’ve got to meet my daughter. She’s an actress and she’s really pretty.” Just her belief in me, and what an enormous gift that is – she just – she’s really my number one fan.
My mom also didn’t follow her dreams, and I don’t think she wanted to see that happen to me, so she really instilled all of those things in me because of that as well, and it’s also another blessing. It’s pretty special. She lives out here now and is still very much a part of my life.
Tavis: I would imagine so. The issue I raised earlier about your being an actor and a producer, I suspect there’s going to be more of that. Tell me why that’s important, and I’m raising that in part because you mentioned earlier that there’s a dearth and paucity of fictional roles, and you find yourself more turned on and there’s more meat in these non-fiction roles.
As a producer, obviously, you have some say-so in that, so tell me what – I assume you want to do more of this, on the production side.
Swank: I do. I started – obviously, I have produced a lot of the films that I’m in, and I just wanted to see these films make it to the screen. I believed in them with every part of me and I wanted to see them be told. There are so many stories I want to be a part of telling, and I’m not going to be able to act in every single one of them, so I have this production company now, it’s called 2S Films. My producing partner is Molly Smith, so it’s Swank and Smith, that’s why the 2S.
It’s wonderful to be a part of that creative process from an early stage all the way to the end. As an actor, you come in and then you collaborate for a certain amount of time and then you’re done, and then they finish the film and the film has usually been developed before you come on board.
But as a producer, you really have – you’re able to hand-pick all the talent that you want to be surrounded with. As I was saying, you’re really only as good as your weakest link, so after being able to say this writer is so talented and up-and-coming writers or already established writers, from the very beginning, from the inception all the way to the end, it’s a new, exciting part of the business.
Acting will stay, hopefully, my mainstay, but it’s really a creative process that I find intriguing.
Tavis: Speaking of the notion “from inception to end,” you have a long way to go, as we established earlier in this conversation, before this career is over – a long way to go.
Swank: Knock on wood.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) We both will – I’ll do that for you. But it seems to me that there is – I’m trying to find the right word here. Let me just ask the question whether or not there is a certain level of pressure that you feel, either that you put on yourself or that outsiders put on you when you at this early age have two of those statues already.
Is there a pressure now to repeat that by trying to find a script that can put you back in that – there’s buzz about “Conviction” already, and your role in it, but what happens if you do two or three films in a row and there ain’t no buzz? It’s a good movie, but there ain’t no Oscar buzz about it. How do you process that?
Swank: Well, it’s a fantastic question. After “Boys Don’t Cry,” which was 11 years ago now, you think where you go from here. You’re at the very top. This happens, you didn’t expect it, you feel shot out of a cannon. This little movie that could, it was amazing to me that anyone actually even saw it.
It was a very socially conscious movie that I think said a lot, and this happens, and you think – I think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself where do you go from here, and I didn’t want to let people down, and what do you do? And then you have to just kind of get back to why you’re in it, back to why you’re telling stories, and it wasn’t ever to win an award.
Believe me, it’s incredible to have these – to be acknowledged in that way. It’s extraordinary, and it leaves you speechless.
Tavis: I’ll take your word for it. (Laughter) I have to.
Swank: But it’s not why you’re doing it, and the pressure – you can make as much pressure as you want for yourself and you can listen to endless amounts of people and things that they have to say, but really, if you just get back into touch with why you’re doing it in the first place, it kind of all slips away.
Tavis: So how do you go about making choices, then, on this side of “Conviction?” Your career choices, your acting choices, your producing choices?
Swank: With my heart – with my heart. Like we were saying before, you’re not always going to hit the bull’s-eye. I’m going to make movies that work and I’m going to make movies that don’t work, and that’s just a part of being creative. Because really, I think if you’re taking risks and you’re pushing yourself and you’re doing things that scare you, you are going to fall on your face, and it’s not always going to work.
It either really works, or it really doesn’t, when you’re taking a great risk, and like I said, I’m a risk-taker. It’s where my passion lies, so I don’t want to play it safe. That means I’m going to fail sometimes.
Tavis: How do you process, though, putting so – I hear your point; something may work or it may not work. But the Hilary Swank that I know, that I see on-screen, it’s never not going to work because you didn’t give it everything that you had.
So when you spend all these months and weeks filming this stuff and it comes out and it doesn’t do what you thought it was going to do – and there have been one or two of those – how do you –
Swank: Well, “Amelia” was – yeah.
Tavis: “Amelia,” exactly.
Swank: And I appreciate –
Tavis: I was trying to be nice, you went there. (Laughter) How do you process that?
Swank: I know, but I’m actually fine talking about it, because that’s a great example. People were talking about that movie winning Academy Awards, the film, and it’s going to be my third Academy Award even before we started filming. So that –
Tavis: It’s a great story, yeah.
Swank: – that could be a good example of a feeling of a pressure. But we didn’t work any less hard on that movie. We put as much heart and soul into that as we do any other of our films. But it just doesn’t always hit its stride. But again, that’s what keeps it different and exciting and keeps you humble.
Tavis: Well, I love it. I’m going to go home tonight and watch it again on cable. (Laughter) We’re talking about “Amelia” now, but the new one from Hilary Swank, two-time Academy Award winner, is called “Conviction.” It’s a good one as well, and there’s more Oscar buzz, as I said earlier, on this project. Hilary, always good to have you, and come back any time you want.
Swank: Thank you. I enjoyed the show very much, thanks.
Tavis: I’m glad having you on.

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Last modified: September 19, 2014 at 12:48 am