By Ray Rogers
Given her taut, muscular physique, penchant for sports, and recent soul-searching journey to India following the breakdown of her eight-year marriage, I figured Hilary Swank might actually welcome an invigorating morning yoga session as a way to ease into the “celebrity profile interview.” Always such a hoot.
I propose we meet for a round of sun salutations while taking in the celestial orb rising on the beach in Malibu before settling down to the business at hand. There, I could witness firsthand her incredible strength and flexibility, and we could share a vulnerable moment of tranquility together, concluding with a few Ohms for world peace and inner balance.
I don’t know what herbal tea commercial I thought she was living in, but Hilary Swank had a different idea for her morning.
Photography by Warwick Saint Styling by Elizabeth Sulcer
“Check out my bloody knuckles,” Swank says, brandishing two fists in front of my face when we meet up for happy-hour cocktails. Traces of crimson are still visible in the cracked nooks of her delicate, Oscar-winning meat hooks. “I went to Krav Maga this morning,” she says. “It’s what the Israeli army is trained in. It’s awesome!”
After her crack of dawn spent practicing the most brutal form of martial arts known to man, Swank showed up with energy to spare to model this season’s high fashions at a seven-hour BlackBook photo shoot. You can’t say she’s not versatile-something she’s been trying to prove for a good eight years to Hollywood suits who can’t seem to look beyond her most iconic performances as the transgendered Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the determined pugilist Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (2004), both of which won her Academy Awards for best actress in a leading role.
Truth be told, it took her a little while to warm up to the cameras at our shoot, but once she did, she didn’t want to stop, and stayed a good hour past schedule in order to slink into several more sexy, luxe designer looks. There’s a sophisticated edge to today’s fashions, heightened by the fierceness displayed on Swank’s angular face and her kick-ass body. But there’s also a glimpse of a kid raiding her mom’s closet. “My grocery-shopping outfit!” Swank calls out to her assistant, strutting across the room in a sliver of gold sequined hot pants and an ultra-femme fuzzy white top. “This is actually comfy,” she laughs, perched on her haunches atop five-inch heels.
It’s a playful side of Swank that the world hasn’t been privileged to see much of yet, at least not on film, where she’s made her mark playing decidedly more butch women (notwithstanding her sorely overlooked ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ber-femme fatale role in Brian de Palma’s caustic neo-noir The Black Dahlia). But in this month’s romantic comedy, P.S. I Love You, she’s soft and pretty and all girl, with flowing, blondish auburn locks and a goofball side of her personality used to play Holly Kennedy, a recently widowed 30-year-old New Yorker who is worlds away from Brandon Teena or Maggie Fitzgerald.
Are audiences ready for a girlie Hilary Swank starring in a chick flick? If the number of hankies whipped out by a roomful of women’s magazine editors attending a recent viewing are any indication of the film’s commercial potential, she’s in luck.
Casting Swank in the lead role “was a very fresh idea,” says her director, Richard LaGravenese. “I was trying to do this romantic movie that was both a comedy and a drama, but I was trying to re-invent it a bit. And using different aspects of Hilary that people haven’t seen on screen before added an originality to the story.”
LaGravenese knew Swank would be up to the task after he teamed up with her on Freedom Writers, the true-life story of a Southern California high school teacher who mentors gang youth in her homeroom, which Swank both starred in and executive produced. “Because I got to know her on set, I got to know other sides of her-her funny side and her feminine side,” says LaGravenese. “She’s a very funny woman who can do very broad characters that have a great sense of humor. And she’s got this great willingness as an actress to jump off the high wire, whenever you get her a net to fall into.”
The director’s idea to pay homage to Audrey Hepburn in look and vibe turned out to be a winning gamble. Forget those bloody knuckles-Swank, with her modern-day pluck and a strand of elegant pearls, easily calls to mind an update of the Breakfast At Tiffany’s star. “Hilary is a beautiful girl,” notes LaGravenese, “and on screen she has played these hard characters that haven’t allowed that to come through.”
Her co-star Harry Connick Jr. had a different on-set experience with Swank. “She’s a tramp. She slept with probably everybody on the set, every man, woman, stranger,” he says, before relenting. “No, she’s awesome. A great professional. I figured she’d be intense, and she was; she’s no joke. She’ll goof off right up till the time of the shoot, and then it’s like a switch goes off. She comes across as being not overly serious about what she’s doing, but the results prove otherwise.” Her character, he notes, is much closer to the actress in real life than the roles that have made her famous: “She’s a really smart, feminine, sensitive person, and she loves to laugh-and that’s what this character is.”
With two Academy Awards under her belt from playing some of the most compelling characters to hit the big screen in the past decade, how could she “possibly complain” about her career, asks Swank on a break from today’s shoot, heartily diving into a three-bean salad that, by her estimation, is big enough to feed a football team (“Do you want some? Because I really do want to eat the whole thing.”) What she will complain about: being typecast. “Every role you do, you’re pigeonholed by your last role,” she says. “For a really creative business, sometimes it doesn’t feel so creative.”
But it’s not exactly like she’s been dying to step into, say, Jessica Alba’s shoes. As for the piece-of-walking-ass parts, she’ll pass. “Certainly there are a lot of roles that are sexy and challenging, riveting and moving,” she says. “But a lot of them are just the girl on the arm. And there’s nothing to me that is challenging or exciting about that. In a fun role like in P.S. I Love You, here is a character that is really pretty and a real girl’s girl, but there’s really something underneath, there’s real dimension. So, great. But when it’s just, ‘Hey, I’m the girl,’ I want to know what’s underneath that. Because there’s more to that pretty girl on someone’s arm.”
Peeling back the layers, and getting to the core of a character, is Swank’s trademark. She’s drawn to characters that have an unflagging determination to live out lives that are true to their interior dreams and desires.
“I’m really lucky in that I have gotten to be a part of such wonderful films where the roles and the films speak to me in a really profound way,” she says. “I got a feel of what it is like to have a sexual identity crisis by blurring that gender line and I’ve gotten to learn to be a professional boxer, and I learned what it felt like to be a teacher. I get to really get into a lot of different people’s shoes-and not only get in, but walk around for a bit. It gives you such an appreciation for other people and different ways of looking at things.”
She’s also found that the emotional journey of the characters she’s played on screen can hit a lot closer to home. She was in the midst of ending her 13-year relationship with then-husband, actor Chad Lowe, while working on Freedom Writers, in which she played a character whose marriage fails due to her commitment to her work and waning interest in her home life. By the time P.S. I Love You began filming, she was recovering from the loss of her marriage, much like her character on screen. The circumstances are differentï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½Holly Kennedy’s husband died, Swank separated from her husbandï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½but the emotional parallels were similar. Her director won’t say how any of this affected her performance. “Hilary is very private and I won’t discuss that,” says LaGravenese.
But Swank will admit that her choices in projects have always been instinctual. “When I read each one of them I thought, I have to be a part of this. You just feel it really deep inside.” The softer, lighter side drew her to her latest. “I loved the humor in that film, it was so different than anything that I’ve done before. I read that script and it just reminded me of what’s important in life,” she says. “It just reconnected me to growth and family and friends, the importance of them, and not taking the person you love for granted. Sometimes it takes something big to happen to learn and grow.”
While Swank is perfectly happy to show the world her boxing wounds and bite scars from her Senegalï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½a devil of a bird named Angel who has left her mark all over the actress’s handsï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½she’s less eager to discuss any bruises from her divorce. Asked if Lowe is still in her life in any way, she says, “Definitely. Definitely, There’s an enormous amount of respect and care, and a friendship that will always be there.” (Perhaps she learned a valuable lesson after a Vanity Fair tell-all in 2006, in which she revealed Lowe’s struggle with substance abuse as a factor in the end of their marriage.) But she will concede that the past few years have been a keen learning curve for her.
“When things come up in your life, it’s really important not to ignore them, whatever they may be. My biggest growth has been really sitting with things that are uncomfortable and dealing with it and working through it and moving past it and having patience through that. Whether it be getting fired off ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ to, you know, the dissolvement of my marriage to turning 30 to what’s the next job going to be. That’s the beauty of life. You’re constantly trying to figure it out and go with it. And sometimes you’re thrown into a tailspin and sometimes you’re not. It’s how you choose to deal with the tailspin and how you choose to deal when it goes well.”
Learning to listen to yourself and be true to that voice, says Swank, is “the biggest sign of maturity.”
So what did it take for her to learn how to do that? “I’m still doing it. I’m still learning how to do that. I think that only comes with life experience. As you grow up, as you get more mature, you find it, you lose it, you find it. but every time you find it in a new, richer way.”
In that process, she’s also found room for new love. She won’t divulge much about her current relationship with her agent, John Campisi, except to admit that they’re together and she and his child interact. “I don’t really talk about them just because they’re not in the public and choose not to be in the public. So I just try and appreciate and respect their privacy. But they’re both great.” Part of her moving on has been a literal process: After she and Lowe sold their West Village brownstone, Swank purchased her first place on her own. She says building a new home in Los Angeles has been “great, finding that place, that oasis. I’m really glad to have found it.”
Following her split from Lowe, Swank searched high and low for a new place in New York before setting her sights on L.A.ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½where she took the first place she looked at. “It was on the market for four months, and I’m sure a lot of people saw it, and it wasn’t right for them, but I walked in and I just felt it.”
For starters, there’s an outdoor yard for her animals. She kept the couple’s two birds and two dogs-Karoo, a Corgi-Jack Russell mix (who joined us on the cover shoot), and Lucky, the world’s unluckiest German Shepard, according to Swank-while Lowe got custody of their rabbit and cat. But, she admits, there are “visitation rights all around.” Does she actually visit? “Yeah. I mean, I haven’t for a while, but I definitely [have] visitation rights.”
After almost two years of living out of boxes, “I was done with hotels,” she says. “And I also wanted a kitchen, I wanted to cook again, and I wanted my friends over, and I wanted to set those meals around the table.”
If she only had one, that is. Given her passion for food (“I love cannolis. I eat it all! I can really pack it away”) and cooking (“I’ll bake a pie for someone if they’re having a bad day”), it’s no surprise to hear she’s searching for the perfect dining room table at the moment. “I like to find pieces when I travel. I’m going to London next week, for a promotion for Insolence Guerlain. I’m the face of Insolenceï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½I don’t know if my mom is proud that I say that!” Swank has a vision of what her table looks like: “Really big and knotty and marked-up and scruffed-up and used by many a people over a great meal, great debates, great conversations. That’s what I want in my table -I want my table to have that life in it. I think that the table is where it all happens.”
After a long day of throwing punches and striking posesï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½and, ahem, dodging a few personal questionsï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½a round of strong margaritas is in order. Swank takes hers with Patron Silver, rocks, no salt, and no orange juice (“I’m a purist” she says). We have reconvened after the day’s shoot at the Backstage Bar and Grill, where Swank, a ravishing beautyï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½even in a blank tank top, jeans and flip-flopsï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½breezed in unnoticed by the small happy-hour crowd in business attire and gray-haired regulars parked at the long wooden bar. “It smells like throw-up,” she assesses as she makes her way to a back banquette, where, thankfully, the air is a little clearer.
No power lunch meeting at the Ivy, or any other fancy-pants, tucked-away celebrity haven for this leading lady. She’d rather slug back a tall drink while hidden away with the masses.
The place is not without enviable Hollywood history, though. The munchkins are said to have frequented these premises when on break from filming The Wizard of Oz at nearby Columbia Studios in Culver City. This news delights Swank to no end. “I love The Wizard of Oz,” she says, her dazzling brown eyes alight. “It was one of the first movies I ever saw.”
Strange but true: A barmaid riding a kid’s-size bike whizzes by. “Maybe the munchkins used that!” cracks Swank, who at the moment is car-less. Her white, vintage 280SL Mercedes Roadster was stolen, and she’s in the market for two vehicles: an old truck “so I can take my dogs to the beach and get sand in it and not care,” and a sporty convertible, all the better to take in the sun while West Coast-living.
Quite a difference from the Oldsmobile she and her mom Judy rode into town on when they finally said goodbye to the sticks of Bellingham, Washington, when Swank was 16ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½the one they lived out of when they arrived. Eventually, each found work and they rented their first house in North Hollywood, which she recalls “was a big deal.”
The Oldsmobile wasn’t the first car she became intimately acquainted with, though. The year after Swank’s parents separated, at age 14, her mom taught her how to drive a stick shift on a Volkswagen Bug. “We lived out in the country, virtually, and my mom taught me on the back roads.” Stick shift, she advises, is “a must, especially in New York, because you can down-shift instead of using your brakes when it snows. It slows your car downï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½things those country girls know.”
She has a sense of belonging wherever she is, but admits, “I will always be a country girl at heart,” echoing a sentiment she proudly expressed while accepting her second Oscar, for Million Dollar Baby: “I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve all this. I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”
As a kid in Washington she “felt like an outsider”ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½like so many budding actors and artists. “I connected with characters in movies and books. Because they were experiencing something that I was feeling and I locked into that, and felt understood through the book or movie I was watching, I felt like, Wow, OK, I belong.” Unsurprisingly, she adds, “If there’s any time I wouldn’t want to revisit, it would be middle school and high school. Not a good time in my life. I hated it. Kids are cruel to each other. So I say, Good riddance that I’m not friends with any of those meanies! Maybe they’re nice now.”
These days she feels at home in her own skinï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½”It’s awesome, I’m my lucky number now, 33.” Comfortably ensconced in her new Los Angeles digs, she’s ready for what’s ahead. Her new Hilary Swank Productions company will usher in its debut movie next year with a Craig Lucas film called The Laws of Motion, starring Matthew Perry, with Swank in a supporting role as an uptight neighbor. Already, she’s finding out firsthand how difficult it is to get an intelligent film made in Hollywood. Swank points to Clint Eastwoodï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½as well as Sean Penn and Jodie Fosterï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½and the resistance they’ve faced while trying to get studio funding for their films. “It’s such a walk of passion that you have to continue to have in order to get something to the screen-to continue to feel passion about it and believe in it.”
Learning patience, Swank reiterates, is her greatest challenge in life these days, and it’s a trait she knows she needs to work on if she’s going to successfully produce the kind of films she wants to see made. “Time and time again, it’s proven that if you just trust, things work out the way they’re supposed to. Maybe I need to get into yoga to work on that patience thing of mine,” she says, thinking about my suggestion for today’s interview setting. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t been drawn to it-because it’s making me look at something I don’t want to look at. Meanwhile, cut to me: [makes punching sounds] POW! POW!”