When an actress wins an Academy Award, it catapults her to a new universe. When she wins two, she gets into the VIP room in that new universe. Hilary Swank has two Oscars, for her work in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” which means that in the distaff hierarchy of movie stardom she ranks somewhere between Katharine Hepburn (four Oscars) and Helen Hunt (one). Swank has as many Oscars as Meryl Streep.
After winning for the second time in 2005, she said of herself, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.” That girl’s career remains in high gear. She will appear in theaters on Friday as aviatrix Amelia Earhart in “Amelia,” frequently graces the covers of major magazines, and will be honored soon at the Hollywood Film Festival.
She clearly has transcended the trailer park description and then some, yet traces of that persona are present in her two most notable roles. In “Boys Don’t Cry,” she played Brandon Teena, a transgendered person who was eventually raped and murdered. It was a brave and nuanced performance that required her to step into unfamiliar territory. In “Million Dollar Baby” she was Maggie, a down-on-her-luck waitress with an eye on boxing success.
Yet in those two roles, she played someone with whom she could connect, given her own humble upbringing in Bellingham, Wash., and later Los Angeles. She herself was an outsider with little in the way of resources, longing for a better life.
She has played many other parts, of course, generally to favorable reviews. But Swank, now 35, hasn’t drawn the same level of raves for her other work that she received for the two that provided her with gold statuettes.
“I think she’s very talented,” said Arthur Mendoza, a longtime Los Angeles-based acting teacher who has worked with Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro, among many others. “Like so many young actors in her category, she can do something like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and turn around and do the boxing movie, but in between I feel like talented actors are sort of at the mercy of the quality of material, or the quality of the director. They really don’t have the skill to survive a bad script that could use their enhancement. I feel like talent is like Swiss cheese: there are solid parts, and there are the holes.
“So with what she has, she’s done a great job. But there’s a lot of talent there. I’m interested in seeing how she can take that talent and cultivate it in the future.”
Obviously an actor’s worth is not based solely on Oscars or other awards. Swank has appeared other high-profile roles to considerable acclaim, including a splendid supporting turn in “Insomnia” with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in 2002, and the TV movie “Iron Jawed Angels” in 2004, about the women’s suffrage movement.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese, an Oscar nominee himself for writing “The Fisher King,” has directed Swank twice, on “Freedom Writers” and “P.S. I Love You.” He said that no matter how she gets to the acting places she needs to get to, she always arrives.
“She has the craft to back it up,” LaGravenese said. “After working with her twice, she’s the girl who nails it on the first or second take. Then if you want to play and explore a little, she’ll jump off and explore, because she already has the tools required to gain an understanding of the character, and the confidence to then go off and explore.
“I don’t know how much is training and how much is instinct. I don’t know that it’s formal training, but I don’t think that characterization matters. It’s a combination of talent and training and instinct. People come in all combinations, and there are great actors and actresses who arrive there in different ways. There isn’t just one way to do it.”
Whatever it is that Swank has, Suzy Sachs recognized it early. She is a producer who was working for a management agency in the Seattle area when a 12-year-old Hilary and her mom came to see her. Eventually, Sachs helped Swank and her mother settle in Los Angeles and find work.
“She was pretty green at that age,” Sachs recalled. “She was totally inexperienced. With young talent, what I look for, if they’re not trained, is a sort of natural strength that comes with confidence. So that when they deliver lines, there’s a naturalness to their delivery. Then in the future they can strengthen it and build on it.
“Hilary had a confidence about her in whatever she did. She committed 100 percent, and that’s what made me see she had the potential to be a great actress.”
Sachs said even back then her gift was impossible to miss. “We would bring acting coaches from L.A. into Seattle, who had been working with name talent, and Hilary would blow all of them away,” Sachs said. “I would give her scenes to do from all different movies and she just had it. She was always able to do anything.”
Now Swank puts that gift on display in “Amelia,” a broad-canvas biopic in the vein of “The Aviator.” Director Mira Nair said Swank came attached to the project when it was offered to her, and she was delighted.
“I couldn’t think of anyone more appropriate for the role,” said Nair, best known for “Salaam Bombay!” and “Monsoon Wedding” as well as “Vanity Fair,” with Reese Witherspoon.
“Hilary is like Amelia in the sense that she’s a spiritual daredevil. She throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she’s doing, but at the same time she has a sense of humor about it, too. She embodies characters from within rather than from without. There is always an anchoring of truth there. There is never a move that is actorly.”
For all of Swank’s ability, accolades and awards, though, she is probably no different than any actor in the sense that each role is a new step into the unknown, and there are never any guarantees of finding solid footing.
“It’s like what Tennessee Williams said in ‘The Glass Menagerie’: ‘For nowadays the world is lit by lightning!’” Mendoza said.
“An actor today who does a wonderful performance is equal to lightning striking.”