“The world’s we don’t know fascinate me,” said two-time Academy Award winning actress Hilary Swank during her Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) “Conversation With…” at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Dressed in creamy white and positively glowing, the 40-year-old is in complete control of her career and very focused on her path.
Acting for over nine years before her breakout role in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank joked that her career was “anything but an overnight success.” With her mother by her side, Swank moved from Bellingham, Washington into the Oakwood Apartments near Burbank Studios where she would go on countless auditions picking up small roles. She was hired and after 16 episodes fired from “Beverly Hills 90210” when she got the call in 1998 while with friends in the Hamptons at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor about “Boys Don’t Cry.” Diving into the role, she cut her hair the next day and started binding her breasts and getting into the psyche of the character. It was a big break for her but hardly a big budget. She joked, “I had an Oscar but I didn’t have insurance…I was only paid $3,000.”
With an Oscar on her resume, she would go on to carefully choose projects with strong leading ladies including “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by and co-starring Clint Eastwood that would earn her, in 2004 at 30, her second Academy Award. “I like stories that really get into life and dealing with life. Not to say that they’re not entertaining, that’s important as well. When you get to share a slice of life, and really look at a slice of life deeper, I respond to that. Even as an audience member I connect with that.”
“I read this beautiful script that [Tommy Lee Jones] co-wrote and I loved it,” she explained about the role that brought her to the HIFF for the first time to present a film. “For many ways and for many reasons I was grateful for being able to collaborate with him to tell a story that I feel very strongly about.”
Some describe “The Homesman” as a gritty western, the likes of which are rarely on the screen these days. Swank however sees the film as, “a feminist movie and deals with the objectification and trivialization of women in the mid-1800s. Which is obviously, here in 2014, something we’re still dealing with as women. It’s something that I want to be able to talk about and to share. It’s one of the things that drew me to the movie.”
“I think that this character has virtues, morals, and manners,” she remarked about her role as Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman who enlists the help of George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to bring three mentally ill women across from Nebraska to Iowa. “She’s one of the most selfless characters I’ve ever played. In the way she goes about life, she does the right thing because it’s the right thing. She doesn’t do it because she wants applause. There’s no alternative meaning behind it. We could use more people like her around.”
The role required Swank to get in the saddle like never before, but she was up to the task having trained as a swimmer, making the Junior Olympic team, and gymnast as a young girl. “I’ve done recreational horseback riding in the past but I’ve never like really ridden a horse like this. I had these challenging stunts when I had to get on a horse, that was erratic. I had to learn how to drive mules, and a carriage, and drag a plow behind mules.”
The work was grueling at times but so worthwhile, “The incredible thing as an actor is that you get to step in peoples shoes and empathize with someone else’s plight. I always had respect for farmers, but I just scratched the surface on what they do.”
“I have another movie out right now, ‘You’re Not You,’ and I was an ALSs patient, and I had to understand the physical and emotional bindings of that disease. I like that physical challenge,” says Swank about roles that employ a great deal of physicality, roles, she admits that she prefers. “It makes me see life through different eyes. I appreciate it and it scares me. I always think, ‘this is the day that I have to do that,’ I go to bed and I lose sleep and I think, ‘please don’t let me mess it up.'”
Very poised and engaging while sipping a cup of very hot tea and keeping an eye on her rescue pup Kai, a beagle-terrier mix who was bounding about The Living Room c/o The Maidstone in East Hampton, throughout our interview, Swank says that she still gets nervous all the time. “Absolutely,” she said emphatically with a laugh. “If I don’t have nerves then I know that I’m going to fail. And you have to use those nerves. If we can share that we can feel less alone with our own insecurities and utilize it.”
Respected as a serious, dramatic actress Swank gave a glimpse into her humorous side when we talked about her visit to the Hamptons, “When I checked in [at the Maidstone] last night at 1 a.m., there was a sign that read, ‘Park here to drop off your bags, friends, kids, and dogs’ and thought, ‘yeah.’ And then I got into my room and there was a ‘Hamptons Dogs’ book and I thought, ‘yeah, we’re in the right place.'” No stranger to the Hamptons, dog loving Swank’s best friend actress Mariska Hargitay has a home in the area, “I do get to come out here and visit her, her daughter is my goddaughter. When I do come I get to stay in a beautiful home and it’s stunning.”
Swank, who turned 40 in July, doesn’t let the number scare her, rather she’s firmly holding the reins on her career taking her time looking for challenging roles for herself as well as projects with strong women for her production company, 2S with producing partner Molly Smith. Will she ever direct? The actress explained that acting is her passion, but left the door open to the opportunity of directing.
“I choose characters that are real and don’t care about their wrinkles. As I age, I say bring on the realness, bring on the wrinkles.” Swank reflected a bit, “All the women that I have in my life that are in their 40s or through their 40s have said that it was the best decade that they had had. They really embrace it. I think that you’re able to feel more you and be more you.”