Method Woman: Let's Talk About Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank is a two-time Oscar and Golden Globe winning actress who has worked with esteemed directors like Brian De Palma, Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones. Roger Ebert called her ‘astonishing’ in his review of Million Dollar Baby. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has played Amelia Earhart and Brandon Teena, and worked as a child actress for several years. She has been praised for her steadfast commitment to her work and all-consuming method of acting that is usually seen as the reserve of men in the business. Hilary Swank is Hollywood made flesh.
This month, Hilary Swank launched a lifestyle brand.
In an interview with InStyle, Swank talked about Mission Statement, a luxury activewear brand she describes as the next step in athleisure. When asked if she had always wanted to have her own clothing line, Swank is honest and says no. Her reasons for starting one, she says, are rooted in filling a gap in the market, but it’s what she says next that reveals so much, and emphasises the robustness of Swank’s life narrative, one that played a prominent part during two successful awards campaigns:
I also had a lot of people coming up to me and saying, “You fought for living your dream, and it’s encouraged me to never give up on mine”… I’m very much inspired by people who persevere through adversity—if we can continue to share stories about where we’ve come from and what we want to achieve, it helps us feel less alone in our insecurities and pushes us to be our greatest selves.’
Triumph over adversity is something that Hilary Swank knows all too well. She did it at 24, winning an Oscar for a star-making performance of intense commitment in Boys Don’t Cry, then repeated the miracle five years later with similar focus and fairytale goodness in Million Dollar Baby. She may have elicited a few eye-rolls with her second speech and the line of being ‘a girl from a trailer park who had a dream’, but the potency of that rags to riches narrative still stands. Yet still, with everything in place and the stars aligned in her favour, Hilary Swank is seldom talked about in terms of intense respect or excitement. She’s got two Oscars, but she’s still a woman in Hollywood over the age of 40 so of course she has to create a side-hustle of $145 bras.
Swank was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved to a trailer park in Washington when she was 6. At school, she excelled at gymnastics but struggled academically in part due to ADHD. Acting was where she found focus and a sense of belonging, and so at the age of 15 she moved to Los Angeles with her mother to pursue it as a career. At one point, with money so low, the pair of them ended up living in their car until they could save up money to rent an apartment. When talking about this dark part of her life in interviews, Swank remains focused on her optimism. In an interview with the Times Leader, she refuses to dwell on the tough times, saying, ‘I can’t say that I was ever hopeless because I had this whole idea of what I wanted to do with my life. And my mom always believed in me.’
The work began to trickle in during her late teens, including a two-episode part in Growing Pains, a main role on a quickly cancelled ABC sitcom called Camp Wilder, and her big-screen debut in the original movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her first starring role came in The Next Karate Kid, when she was 20, continuing the industry’s fine tradition of adults playing teens. Most of her reviews were encouraging, but it was hard to get over the reality of the film she starred in being so unnecessary and ineptly executed. It was a critical and financial flop, so Swank moved onto TV movies and direct-to-video fare. It was on one of these projects, Quiet Days in Hollywood, where Swank met her future husband Chad Lowe. The pair became a quiet celeb couple, with Lowe easily more famous than Swank in those early days. After all, he was the brother of Rob Lowe, an Emmy winner for his work on Life Goes On, and he had a recurring role on the wildly popular Melrose Place. During this time, Swank’s career was dwindling. In 1997, she landed what she assumed would be her next big role in Beverly Hills 90210, playing single mother Carly Reynolds. Her contract was for two years: The writers got rid of her after 16 episodes. In an interview with the Sunday Morning Herald, Swank is candid in her admission of how much the sacking crushed her: ‘They sacked me because I wasn’t a good enough actress. I was devastated. I thought, if I’m not good enough for 90210, I’m not good enough for anything. I’ll never make it.’
Fortunately, losing that gig freed her up to prepare for the role that would change everything. Boys Don’t Cry was the passion project of director Kimberly Peirce, and one that carried a major weight with it. Centred on the true story of Brandon Teena, a young trans man whose brutal rape and murder led to increased lobbying for hate crimes laws in the USA, Peirce spent several years working on a script for the story, and many more looking for the right actor to play the part. Many big names apparently sought out the role, while an equal amount of major stars avoided it for fear of the stigma attached.
For Swank, the project was an ideal opportunity to show her skills beyond the confines of soap operas and TV movies. After sending in an audition tape to Peirce, she turned up to the Tribeca Film Centre in New York in men’s clothes, borrowed from her husband, to meet the diector. The doorman called up Peirce and said, ‘There’s this guy here. He says he has a reading. Should I send him up?’ That proved encouraging, and it was in the confidence with which Swank inhabited men’s clothes that she found her Brandon Teena, even though Swank had lied about her age. When confronted on this, Swank’s response was ‘But that’s what Brandon would do.’ Immediately after being cast, Peirce took Swank to the barbers and had Swank shear off her hair and dye the short remains brown. Chad Lowe only recognised her afterwards because he remembered she was wearing his shirt.
The preparation for the role was intense. Swank lived as a man for a month, bandaging her chest and deepening the register of her voice as well as losing a lot of weight. Her husband ‘introduced’ her to family and friends, and she fooled a number of them. When on set, she stayed in character and wouldn’t let the crew see her out of costume. Her work was the sort of focused Method acting we hear about all the time with men, from Leo DiCaprio’s liver-munching self-flagellation in The Revenant to Daniel Day-Lewis’s entire filmography.
There have always been women actors who used Stanislavski’s system, and many women were renowned for teaching it, like Stella Adler. At its core, Method acting is just the ways an actor is encouraged to tap into their own experiences to create deeper emotional resonance in their work, but nowadays it carries a heavier and more awkward weight. Everyone’s heard stories of the actor so dedicated to their role that they never left character and caused havoc on set as a result. Jared Leto seems to have made a solid career out of this lately, although the veracity of some of his claims have been refuted, even by Leto himself. Now, talking of yourself as a Method actor is to promote yourself in intensely masculine terms. Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep are famous for using the authentic method system, but if they started pulling Dustin Hoffman tactics, there’s little chance any director would tolerate it. With Swank, the low-budget nature of the production and the focus of the material gave her a creative freedom a bigger actress, or indeed most actresses, would never have, and it saw her take home the Oscar for Best Actress at the age of 25.
Boys Don’t Cry is a brilliant film that is tender in its romance and unflinching in its brutalities, but it’s also a strange one to watch now that we have a greater understanding of LGBTQ+ representation in the media and the prevalence of cisgender actors playing transgender roles. Swank is one of many actors who have played trans characters and received major mainstream acclaim for it, and her work, as stellar as it is, has contributed to the very real problem of pop culture treating trans stories as awards bait. At the time, the film was anything but that - it was a tiny budgeted drama with indie stars in the main roles and helmed by a first time director who was also a gay woman. You couldn’t make this film now and cast a cis woman as Brandon Teena without facing (entirely justified) backlash. It would be difficult to avoid the assumption that going to such lengths to play a trans character would be deemed not only awards worthy but ‘brave’ for an actor of any gender to do. Hollywood, much like the rest of our cis-defined society, still sees trans and gender non-conforming identity as a costume to don, and something that allows a cis person to immerse themselves in further ‘work’ to show off their acting chops. It certainly worked for Swank. She’s wonderful in the role, and as strong an example for how to play a trans role as a cis actor (if Hollywood must insist) as I can think of, but the obsessive focus on her ‘transformation’ into someone so different from herself, into being less pretty by the industry’s standards, certainly didn’t hurt her chances.
Winning an Oscar so young - the ideal age the Academy likes to anoint its bright young women of the future - was part of the fairytale narrative for Swank, but the reality of her situation less rosy. She only earned $3000 working on the film, too low to qualify for health insurance. The roles that followed were hardly stellar either. There were hits, both commercial (The Gift) and critical (Christopher Nolan’s wonderful drama Insomnia), but for someone who had just won an Oscar, this didn’t feel like the step up you would imagine such a prestigious honour would lead to. Swank had proven her talents in the most bombastic manner possible, with the kind of singular devotion that would cement a man’s career in legendary status, yet here she was doing shlock like The Core. It’s telling that her Wikipedia page lumps her two Oscar wins under one sub-category, with little discussion of everything that happened in-between.
Clint Eastwood, director of Million Dollar Baby, has confidence in Swank’s acting skills when he started casting his boxing drama, centred on an old-school boxing trainer who partners up with a woman looking for her big break in the sport. What concerned her was her lithe physicality, which didn’t scream ‘fighter’ to him. For an actress of such discipline, the role of Maggie was just another chance to show her commitment to the work. This time around, her prep for the role would require bulking up, gaining 19 pounds of muscle through three solid months of training six days a week to box like a pro. Throughout this, she developed a blister on her foot the size of her palm, one that led to a potentially life threatening staph bacteria infection. According to Swank, when she finally went to the doctor to check it out, he told her she was hours away from the infection reaching her heart. She never told Eastwood about it, because, as she explained, ‘that’s what happens to boxers. They get blisters, they get infected. They have injuries and they keep pushing through it.’ Brandon would lie about his age, and Maggie would just fight through the pain.
By the age of 30, Swank had two Oscars for Best Actress, putting her on level footing with actresses like Vivien Leigh, Jane Fonda and Bette Davis. That may be part of the reason why Swank isn’t as strongly remembered for her stellar achievements as other actresses are. There is still an overwhelming narrative from some critics that Swank’s wins were undeserved, or too soon in her career. Both years she was nominated, she beat out actresses like Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Imelda Staunton and Kate Winslet. She also beat out Annette Bening twice. The Oscars have never been dictated solely by ideas of merit or who ‘deserves’ them, nor have any awards bodies. It’s always about the timing, the people, the story, the work, and sheer dumb luck. For Hilary Swank, the stars aligned perfectly both times, but none of that could have happened without her skills.
It’s a shame she was given so few opportunities to use those skills effectively in her post-Oscar roles. What is striking is that, even in the bad films, she is always rising above the material, and she is never a love interest. She has done romance, like the box office hit P.S. I Love You, but there she was front and centre, not hanging onto the male hero’s arm. There were other more suitably dramatic opportunities following Million Dollar Baby, but lightning did not strike for a third time: Her performance in Amelia is spot on but the film tries hard for golden age sentimentality and lands on twee; Conviction saw her stand out amidst a vibrant ensemble but the film fizzled at the box office; and Tommy Lee Jones gave her a role to die for in The Homesman, a bleak Western with a feminist slant, but it couldn’t break out to a bigger audience. In an interview on Netflix’s Chelsea, she also talked about being offered 1/20th the salary of a young male actor for a major film, despite being the bigger name and having two Oscars on her mantle. Being a winner means something totally different for a woman than it does a man.
Swank’s post-Oscar shine was also tainted by the media’s portrayal of her marriage. After her first win, she forgot to mention Chad Lowe in her acceptance speech, something that is still brought up as one of the great Oscar night gaffes. It was clearly an omission devoid of malice, and merely the brain fart of a woman under the pressure of the world, but it was something that seemed to bother Swank. She was asked about it a lot, and you could practically hear the cogs whizzing in her head every time she gave a speech following that, reminding herself repeatedly to not forget Chad. After the second win, she quickly mentioned him, but now the gossip was focused on the impending Oscar Curse: How long before the inevitable split? It seemed to have struck so many Oscar winning women, and the message was clear regarding notions of ‘whipped’ husbands and alpha wives. I remember reading a tabloid after Swank’s second win that spent pages with a ‘body language expert’ picking apart how every photo of Swank with Lowe was further proof that he resented being outshone by his more famous and celebrated wife. The media already had its narrative of Swank not being ready for two Oscar wins, but now that pressure included the insinuation that such vaulting ambition was unbecoming of a wife. Swank and Lowe divorced in 2007, two years after her second Oscar, in part because of Lowe’s substance abuse problems. No curse, just life, but the story remained.
There’s a three year gap in Swank’s filmography, from 2011 to 2014, where she appeared in no films (although she did star in a TV movie). She had no work released in 2016 either. Part of this could just be the ways of Hollywood and not wanting to accept subpar work, but Swank has also been open about a reality of her life that few publicly talk about. In a 2015 HuffPost Live interview, she talked about taking a break from her work to become the sole caretaker of her father, who had been through a lung transplant. Women are usually the default family carers, with the work consistently coded as feminine, but there’s still something sharp about seeing a two time Oscar winner with a decent amount of money in the bank publicly acknowledge her role in that dynamic. In a similar way to how she discussed the bleakness of her period of homelessness with her mother as a time of hope, Swank is warm and positive in talking about her role as her dad’s carer as something that has strengthened their bond.
Now, we’re seeing more of Hilary Swank in the world. She has a standout supporting role in Logan Lucky and has been attached to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s long-gestating TV series The One Percent for three years. She’s set to play Gail Getty in Danny Boyle’s FX anthology series Trust next year. TV could be a good fit for Swank, offering her richer and more satisfying roles than the film world ever can. Swank isn’t really viewed as a celebrity, which seems to suit her fine, but she really deserves to be seen more deservingly as the actress of exceptional talent that she is. The quickness with such some dismiss her two Oscar wins by the age of 30 seems rooted more in narrow notions of worthiness than any indication of the quality of her work. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a woman’s achievements lauded for the wonders that they are without someone chiming in with a ‘Well, actually…’, just for once?
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