Hilary Swank
Photo by Irvin Rivera

Hilary Swank: “You’ve got to trust your instincts”

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Short Profile

Name: Hilary Ann Swank
DOB: 30 July 1974
Place of birth: Lincoln, Nebraska, United States
Occupation: Actor, film producer

Ms. Swank, recently you said that you speak two languages: English, and storytelling. What kind of stories are you interested in these days?

I love comedies, I love dramas, I love it all. I’d like to do an action film too. I would say throughout my career, I have always peppered in some genre stuff and I think that that’s part of being an entertainer; just doing stuff that is different and gives me the opportunity to challenge myself in a different way really. And also lighten it up!

It’s true that you’ve done a lot of serious, somber films.

My mom laughs because she’s like, “You should really be winning an award for tricking everyone into thinking you are so serious!” (Laughs) It’s funny because I was kind of the class clown growing up and I made everyone laugh. Comedies just seemed like a natural extension of who I was in the beginning. And then when I wanted to start doing drama, I was told that I was too “half hour” — not funny, but half hour, because I only did 30 minute comedies so it was just kind of a backhanded compliment, I think.

And now you’ve won two Oscars for your performances in dramas, so I guess you’re having the last laugh.

It’s still astounding to me that I have one, let alone two. Especially because it’s by-product of something that you love so much, it feels like that’s already the gift, that’s already the award — and then you have this. I sit in that auditorium with all of these people that I admire so greatly, and remember in Sesame Street, that one part where it was like “one of these things is not like the other” and then they point out the one thing that isn’t? I was always thinking that people are going to go, “Hey you, what are you doing here?” Do you know what I mean?

“It’s not something that I would have imagined as an actor, that I had the ability to touch people in that way...”

Sort of like imposter syndrome?

Right, yeah, and I think everyone has probably in their life felt like an outsider here and there at some point or another, I would assume. I think it’s just part of your marrow, it’s a part of your makeup and it follows you a little bit. I think it’s just part of being human.

Brie Larson says that one of her goals as an actor is to make people feel less alone.

People still come up to me and say, “Thank you, Boys Don’t Cry either saved my life or gave me the ability to communicate who I feel I am inside.” And that is so huge to me. It’s not something that I would have imagined as an actor, that I had the ability to touch people in that way. I would hope that there would be stories like that for me, because there were stories that I watched in my past that impacted me and gave me more courage or gave me a different reason to walk in the world. And so to be a part of being an artist and telling a story like that and to have that be impactful this much later… That’s huge. Making the choice to play realpeople was a very exciting one at the time.

It was a conscious decision?

I guess I made the decision early on without recognizing that I was making it. I told myself I wouldn’t play a role that was objectified, or a role where you had to look a certain way to make it. I was always offered opportunities to play these one-dimensional women, who were being depicted in a way that I felt wasn’t representative of them. So to me, when you get to do a type of body transformation, it helps you get more into a character when you go in and you start using that voice or you change your body, you don’t walk around like you anymore, and that clearly helps in playing and feeling more genuine to a character. That said, if the film was made now, I think it would be great if it was a trans person was telling their story.

Apparently one of the most important things you learned from this film was to trust your instincts, is that true?

Yes, and when I don’t trust my instincts, it turns out to be the wrong thing! I think we all understand what that’s like, the idea of having a gut feeling, having an instinct and then not following it… But I have never made a choice where I didn’t follow my instincts and it was a regret, because I still learned from all those experiences and I wouldn’t ever change that lesson. But I am definitely reminded you’ve got to trust your instincts, and the older I get, the more comfortable I am with that.

You have more ownership over your own decisions these days?

Well, sometimes you say, “That’s not right for me,” and some people get offended and they say, “Oh, no, I really think you should.” You know, people, even family, they really want you to be a part of things because they feel that that would be right for your career for you as a person or whatever. So a lot of times we make decisions that maybe our parents would want for us… But I think it’s really important that people make a choice in their life and follow it. We only have one life and living it to your fullest ability in the way you feel is imperative.

“I think the choices that I’ve made pretty much informs who I am as a person and that’s not going to change.”

How has becoming a producer impacted you? Has it amplified that sense of control for you as a storyteller?

That’s a great question. Being a producer you definitely have more creative say. As an actor solely, you can have input, but in the final cut it might not make it. But certainly as a producer you not only have the ability to help craft the story that you are telling, but you get to choose the artisans whom you collaborate with. So it’s going to make a huge difference for sure. Having that ability to find the stories that you want to tell is wonderful.

Does the state of the world right now make the telling of some stories more urgent than others?

No. I mean, my desire to tell certain stories has always been the same no matter what. I think the choices that I’ve made pretty much informs who I am as a person and that’s not going to change. I definitely make stories about the underdog and I stand up for human rights. You know, being a woman can sometimes feel like you are a second-class citizen. If you experience that your whole life, certainly there are times where you feel like you are an outsider… I mean to this day, I still don’t get paid the equal to my male counterpart and that hasn’t changed.

But this isn’t just in the film industry.

Right, this is happening in everyone’s industry across the world. I do think that now, we are getting more opportunities — and not just gender equality but I think race equality. We are seeing stories told of all different walks of life. And that’s great because clearly the business for so long was run by white males. But there’s so many other ways to see things. And that’s an exciting time I think for our industry especially because we are telling stories about people.