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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee

At age 30, Hilary Swank hasn't had a lot of great roles, but she's made the most of the ones she's had. After a start on TV, in teen fare like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Beverly Hills 90210," she grabbed her first Oscar for her role in 1999's controversial "Boys Don't Cry," where she played a woman impersonating a man and getting away with it. What followed were less memorable, decent performances in films with interesting directors -- Sam Raimi's "The Gift," Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" -- and forgettable duds like "The Core." But with "Million Dollar Baby," Swank proves that first Academy Award win was no fluke, again transforming herself physically to play a pumped-up boxer, and displaying a steely nerve in confronting some psychologically harrowing material.

News photo
Actress Hilary Swank in Tokyo to promote the Japan release of "Million Dollar Baby"

In person, Swank is an intriguing combination: tall, poised and glamorous, she's every inch a Hollywood actress, but speaking to her, she retains a down-to-earth manner that belies her fame. Swank discussed her career so far, and only stumbled when trying to explain what a "trailer park" is to the Japanese press.

How rough were the fight scenes?

I absolutely got hit, many times. It was good, because it made me feel like a boxer. During training, my trainer wouldn't let me use a face guard, because he said if you have a face guard on, you're not gonna move your head. And, obviously, an important part of boxing is learning how to move your head. I did get hit by Lucia Ryker, who's a professional boxer -- she's in the film, that last fight scene is with her. And we had five moves we had to do, and she had a right hook that I was supposed to go under, and I forgot. So I got hit by Lucia Ryker.

What was the training like for the film?

I trained 4 to 4 1/2 hours a day, six days a week, for three months. I had to eat 210 grams of protein a day, so I had to eat it every hour and a half, and I was drinking egg whites. And I'd have to wake up in the middle of the night and drink protein shakes, because your body can only assimilate so much protein at a time. It was pretty intense. I ended up putting on 19 pounds [8.6 kg] of muscle. It was unbelievably hard.

What's it like working with Clint Eastwood?

Clint is a true anomaly. His gift is, well, he says he hires the people he feels are right for the job, and he just lets them do their job. Now, he says that, but you watch the movie, and you realize how gently you've been guided and led, under his watchful eye. He doesn't push you or force you, but he's so keen and observant. He's confident without being arrogant. I find that a lot of stress on set stems from people being insecure, and it trickles down. His confidence just allowed everyone to believe in themselves. And, you know, he works normal hours. Our longest day was 12 hours; in any other movie it's 14 to 18 hours.

What was your favorite scene in the film?

The scene where Clint agrees to train me. It's a long scene, almost five pages -- it's very rare that you have a scene that's so long. Usually they're a fourth of a page, and you don't get such fine colors within the scene.

Are you more attracted to tragedy?

I think it's just coincidence. It's not that I search that out. But I find that Brendan Teena [her "Boys Don't Cry" role] and Maggie Fitzgerald both had so much joy in their lives; of course, it ends in tragedy, but the joy that they have during their lives overwhelms the tragedy. I think you're left more with hope than a deep sadness.

I would like to do a comedy, someday, but they're hard to find. Sometimes you can't see it on the page; you'll read a script and think, "that's just awful!" But then when you see the finished film, it makes you laugh.

Did you find it easier to find roles after winning an Oscar?

Take this year: The best films of the year -- "The Aviator," no leading lady; "Finding Neverland," no leading lady; "Million Dollar Baby," yes; "Ray," no leading lady; "Sideways," no leading lady. That's the five best films of the year. So good roles [for women] are few and far between. You can't get upset about it. You just have to keep searching out the great films, and you have to work. So sometimes you just take roles and say, "Well, it's maybe not the best, but it's a movie, and I'm an entertainer." I never thought I would get such a fulfilling role only five years later. I thought, God, maybe once every 25 years! I'll get my next one when I'm 50.

Are you still in touch with director Kimberley Pierce, and what has she been doing since "Boys Don't Cry?"

She's such a great filmmaker, and such a smart person. She's working on a lot of different things, but she hasn't made them yet. If she came to me with something, I'd love to do it, but I don't think any of the things she's working on has a role for me.

What inspired you to become on actress?

I had a teacher who made us write a skit [when I was 8 years old] and we had to perform it in the front of the class. All of a sudden I felt something different, that [feeling] when you're doing something you love. I didn't know that this was something you can grow up and do. But I started doing theater and I realized you can be an actor. It was either that or an astronaut (laughs).

Do you think the movie affected political debate in the States?

I don't do movies because of a message, or because there's something I believe in. If anything, the movie does the same thing for me as it does for audience, which is expand my own mind. It gives me the opportunity to learn about something I maybe otherwise wouldn't get so involved with. The projects I do don't necessarily reflect my view of the world. It's just my job, as an actor, to facilitate the story.

Did the media ruin the film's ending?

No one did.

Rush Limbaugh?

That was way after, maybe around the Academy Awards. I said to Clint, what's going to happen when the reviews come out, but everyone was so respectful. I think everyone who came up to me on the street said, "I had no idea what was going to happen."

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