Hilary Swank - There's something in the air

In her latest film, two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank takes to the sky as aviatrix Amelia Earhart. The 'Million Dollar Baby' star tells James Mottram why she identifies with high-flying women

While I'm waiting in the holding room – PR terminology for the hotel suite where journalists are left to sweat it before an audience with a star – Hilary Swank walks past the open door. Dressed in black jeans, Chanel-branded heels and a red cardigan with navy trim, she beams a smile that would out-dazzle Tom Cruise and waves to nobody in particular, like a politician in election year. "I would say that this is really where my work lies," she later tells me. "Travelling around and talking about the movie and doing press. It's actually harder to do than what I love to do, which is making the film."

But then this is one actress who has always known the value of good public relations. Oscars are a popularity contest, they say, and Swank has two on her mantelpiece. The first came for her role as Brandon Teena, a true-life transgender teen in 1999's Boys Don't Cry. Swank admits it recently struck her that it's been a decade since that propelled her from a struggling actress to award-winning star almost overnight. "It just goes to show that life is so short. It just happens and it's over. You only have one life and if you're not doing what you love, what's the point? To think that 10 years later, I'm talking about a movie that I'm a part of, that I love, it's really... it's something. It really hit me."

If winning her first Oscar was a surprise, claiming a second five years later while she was still 30, for her turn as a would-be boxer in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, was nothing short of miraculous. "I would say I believe in miracles," she smiles, "especially after seeing where I've come from and where I am today." From being raised in a Washington trailer park to becoming the living embodiment of the Hollywood fairy tale, it's easy to see what she means. "A lot of young women – and some men – come up to me and say, 'You're a reminder to me to not give up my dream. That you don't have to be born into it.'"

As it happens, Swank is not the first actress to win two Best Actress Oscars at this tender age. Jodie Foster managed it with The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs and before that Luise Rainer won in 1937 and 1938 for The Great Zigfield and The Good Earth. Nevertheless, it's still a remarkable achievement and one that, surely, can only heap further pressure on her slender shoulders. "A lot of people ask that question but I never have felt that," she claims. "It's not like I've ever thought, 'I must keep looking for roles that garner that attention.'"

Oddly, it is Foster whom Swank seems a natural successor to: a gifted, technically brilliant actress that perhaps we admire rather than adore. Outside of her Oscar wins, Swank has yet to truly see audiences embrace her. Now 35, she's tried her hand at various genres with little success: period drama (The Affair of the Necklace), disaster movie (The Core), film noir (The Black Dahlia) and horror (The Reaping). "I think I've done every genre now!" she laughs. "I'd like to continue to try them all. I don't know if a musical would be up my alley, but you never know. Never say never."

Swank is beginning to make the biopic her own. After appearing as real-life teacher Erin Gruwell in 2007's Freedom Writers, she now stars in Amelia, a classically told story of 1930s aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to ever fly solo across the Atlantic. Directed by Monsoon Wedding's Mira Nair, the film co-stars Richard Gere as her mercurial husband-cum-promoter George Putnam, who capitalised on his wife's increasing fame by pushing her into the limelight. "I think Amelia had an understanding that in order to pursue a passion, she had to work the business side of it," argues Swank.

Taking flying lessons for the role, Swank evidently admires her character. There's her philanthropic nature, helping sick war veterans, orphans and even other pilots. Then there was her attitude to marriage – which she once referred to as a "partnership" with "dual control", telling Putnam she would never hold him to any code of faithfulness. "I think Amelia was ahead of her time. But not only was Amelia ahead of her time in the Thirties. If she were living in 2009, she'd be ahead of her time. And one of the qualities in Amelia that I admire so much is that she made no apologies for living her life the way she wanted."

While Swank went as far as donning the pilot's freckles and distinct blonde crop, she fully admits that she and Earhart are one of a kind. "I think that she was actively pursuing her goals and her dreams, and obviously that's something that I've done and continue to do. I love to travel. I'm a curious person. She was obviously the same. One of her biggest passions was to see the world, and it's always been mine. I remember being so young and watching planes fly overhead and think, 'Where are they going? There are so many places to see in the world – and I want to see them all.' She was a great adventurer. She was a real risk-taker. So there definitely are a lot of similarities."

What's more, both are small-town girls, Earhart hailing from Kansas and Swank from Nebraska. The daughter of Judy, a secretary and dancer, and Stephen, a one-time officer in the Air National Guard, Swank understands poverty. When her parents divorced when she was 13, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, where they lived in a car until they had enough money to rent an apartment. It's moments like this that she holds close. "It's a quality of my life that I wouldn't change for the world, having grown up with such a humble background. It's made me really appreciate what I have in my life now. It also keeps me grounded. I don't want to ever forget where I've come from."

Still, from the moment she appeared in a school production of The Jungle Book when she was nine, Swank has taken her chances. "I had a person say to me once, and I love the saying, that the definition of luck is when 'hard work meets with opportunity'," she says, "and I have certainly been given a lot of opportunities." Even so, when she began to get work – roles in the 1992 movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Next Karate Kid – Swank was just another pretty face struggling to get noticed. In 1997, she enjoyed a season on Beverly Hills, 90210, only to suffer the indignity of being written out after 16 episodes.

If her subsequent rise due to Boys Don't Cry set her on her way, Swank's personal life has hardly been peachy-creamy. Married in 1997 to Chad Lowe, brother to actor Rob, the pair had met five years earlier at a party at the Hollywood Athletic Club a couple of months after Swank turned 18. An actor and director in his own right, Lowe was left in the dust by Swank, who famously admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair that her husband had "substance-abuse problems", a factor that almost certainly contributed to the couple's demise. Since then, Swank has been dating her agent John Campisi – a move that draws even further comparisons to Earhart.

Swank has recently completed yet another biopic, Betty Anne Waters, in which she plays the title role – a working mother who puts herself through law school to represent her brother, who has been falsely accused of murder. "I've spent a lot of time with Betty Anne, and she is an extraordinary woman and one of my heroes. She is something else, this woman. Betty Anne Waters is a true love story between siblings, between a brother and a sister, and how through an extraordinarily difficult childhood, how that bond will for ever be the foundation of your life. And how they are there for each other. I think you need that one person in your life that believes in you and they had that in each other for sure."

If Swank has begun to make the real-life drama her own, what is surprising is how one so business-minded has overlooked one particular avenue: the film franchise. Not since The Next Karate Kid has she made a sequel, though she claims it's "not deliberate" on her part. "A lot of people say, 'You haven't really done a superhero type movie, a Tomb Raider or something. Why don't you do that type of movie?' It's not that I don't want to. I just haven't had that opportunity." But with cash-strapped studios cutting back on the sort of prestige dramas Swank excels at, she may be forced to carve out such a gig. Or else risk stuttering what is currently a remarkable career.

'Amelia' opens on 13 November

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