Hilary Swank rushes into a hotel suite, all sharp angles and big bones, plops down on a seat and dazzles with a toothy, very attractive smile. She's lanky and friendly and looks All-American smashing in a black dress and heels. A tomboy with sex appeal, Swank is the totally hot jock girlfriend you took (or wish you did) to the senior prom.
The 32-year-old actress is in town to publicize Freedom Writers, a new film in which she plays real-life high school teacher Erin Gruwell, who turned her Long Beach, Calif., classroom of at-risk students into a bunch of high achievers, and taught them that writing their own, often sordid, life histories was an empowering act.
"It's just such a human story," says Swank, who was Gruwell's first and only choice for the part, and is also a co-executive producer of the film. "I think there's so much more to any person than anyone gives them credit for, and I just loved that behind this was a person who believed in someone enough that they were able to fully realize themselves."
You can see why Swank wanted to play Gruwell. Both are scrappers who came out of nowhere, took on the big boys and emerged victorious. Both also take what they do very seriously, but do it with a joy that is utterly infectious.
"Hilary is very passionate, and she's a fighter," says Gruwell. "She's also like my students in that she's street smart, and she's driven. And she takes that same fighter spirit into the role."
Swank once described herself as "a girl from a trailer park who had a dream." That portrayal plays a little bit with the facts - her dad was a mobile home salesman, and Hilary and her older brother Daniel grew up in a three-bedroom double-wide surrounded by the lakes and mountains of Bellingham, Wash. But there's little doubt the two-time Oscar winner (for Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby) had to claw her way to the top.
After her parents separated when she was in her teens, Swank and her mother moved to Hollywood to pursue the daughter's acting dreams.
Although she found work relatively quickly, Swank bounced along the fringes of the industry for years, appearing in what seems like an endless series of sitcoms (Growing Pains, Evening Shade) and second-tier feature films (The Next Karate Kid).
It didn't help matters that she wasn't a classic glamour girl and was being given advice that wasn't designed to bolster her confidence. Like, says Swank, "my lips were too big, and I should never wear lipstick, and my name was horrible and I should change it."
But Swank does not look back on those years spent wandering in the Hollywood wilderness as a negative experience. For her, it was all about doing the best job you possibly could with the material you'd been given.
"I never treated anything like it wasn't important," she says. "When I got a pilot or a movie of the week, or any of those jobs, I didn't look at them like someday I'll be doing great movies, and I'll have to do this while I wait. I looked at this as a great opportunity to learn and to grow. I tried my hardest to make it better."
Then came Boys Don't Cry, an indie film Swank made for the lofty fee of $3,000. As Brandon Teena, a Nebraska girl who passed as a boy and was eventually murdered for her subterfuge, Swank was practically unrecognizable, and totally mesmerizing. Her subsequent best actress Oscar placed her in the front rank of her craft.
Five years later, she won her second Academy Award for her portrayal of a trailer-trash waitress who becomes a world-class boxer in Million Dollar Baby. But the Oscar wins did not come without a certain painful legacy.
"After Boys Don't Cry, the pressure was enormous, but it was really the pressure I put on myself," says Swank. "I felt like I couldn't make a mistake, and that was my own pressure I put on myself. And the second you stop taking risks, because you don't want to make a mistake, you feel like you're dying inside."
Being frightened is, in fact, a key part of Swank's art.
"I'm always afraid I'm going to mess something up," says Swank. "It's not like, `Oh, yeah, I've got this one down, I can do this.' I never, ever feel that. And you wonder when you see people like Meryl Streep and Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, you see them in movies and wonder, did they wake up and think, `I've got this big scene today, and I got it. I'm gonna knock this out?' You wonder, because I wake up and go, `Will I be able to do this today?' I love my job, but my job is scary to me."
And, of course, there are the occasional missteps. Like the 2003 sci-fi turkey The Core, or Swank's failed attempt as a femme fatale in last year's The Black Dahlia.
"A lot of people may say you shy away from this or that," says Swank. "I don't even look at things that way. I don't look at them aesthetically, I look at them on an emotional level. And to me, every character I've played is emotionally beautiful. So when I read these roles, and get to the heart of who the person is, emotionally, that's where my passion lies."
Lewis Beale wrote this article for Newsday.