Hilary Swank is an American actress who has won Academy and Golden Globe Awards for her starring roles in the films Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don't Cry. Swank endured a difficult childhood, plagued with poverty, living out of a car with her mom while trying to land roles in Hollywood. Her screen acting work has been met with great success but also numerous box-office failures.
Swank had a difficult childhood. Her parents had a strained relationship, and her father left the family when she was 6 years old. As a young girl, Swank spent her formative years living in a trailer park in Bellingham, Washington. She would often spend time at nearby Lake Samish. Athletic, Swank swam competitively and did gymnastics, but she discovered early on that she wanted to become an actress. "I have dreamed of being an actress since I was 8 years old," she later told Redbook Magazine. "I never had a doubt that I could do it, but I also never expected that I'd have any great success."
After her mother lost her job, the pair moved to Los Angeles and lived out of their car for a while as they tried to get Hilary's career off the ground. "We picked up, with seventy-five bucks to our name, and drove down to California in our Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme," she explained to Interview magazine. Her mother would take a roll of quarters to a pay phone and make calls, trying to get Swank into an audition or a meeting with an agent or manager. Small Screen Success
Their hard work eventually paid off with a number of television roles. She had guest appearances on such shows as Harry and the Hendersons and Evening Shade in the early 1990s. Around this time, Swank made her film debut in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) starring Kristy Swanson as the title character. She also landed her first role as a series regular that year on the family comedy Camp Wilder with Jerry O'Connell and Jay Mohr. The show was canceled after only one season.
In 1994, Swank appeared to get a big break, winning the leading role in The Next Karate Kid, the fourth installment in the Karate Kid series. The film, however, proved be a box office disaster, bringing only $8.7 million. Several other forgettable movie projects followed, including Sometimes They Come Back ... Again (1996) and Kounterfeit (1996). On the small screen, Swank landed a role on the popular teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1997, playing a young single mother for one season.
That same year, Swank wed actor Chad Lowe. The couple met at a Hollywood party in 1992 when Swank was only 18 years old. The two quickly became inseparable. Breakthrough Role
Two years later, Swank finally landed a role that would showcase her immense talent. She played transgendered teen Brandon Teena (born Teena Brandon), in Boys Don't Cry (1999). The film was based on the true story of a young Nebraskan who is beaten, raped, and eventually murdered when her true gender is discovered. The film also explores Brandon's relationship with Tina (played by Chloe Sevigny), a romance that endures after Brandon reveals himself to be a female. "For me it's a love story, and a terrible story of hate. Part of Brandon's tragedy is that he didn't really have a safe place," Swank said in Interview magazine.
Throwing herself into the role, Swank spent weeks as a man. She studied how people reacted to her and whether they saw her as a male or female. The project was clearly a labor of love for Swank, for which she was paid only $3,000. The independent drama became a critical success. For her memorable and universally acclaimed performance, Swank earned a number of critics' awards, a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, and an Academy Award for Best Actress. She found her marriage the subject of much tabloid speculation at this time, after she forgot to thank her husband during her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. Mainstream Success
More film roles soon followed. In 2000, Swank appeared in the supernatural thriller The Gift, also featuring Keanu Reeves and Cate Blanchett. She then starred in the historical drama The Affair of the Necklace (2001) with Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Walken and Joely Richardson. Both films failed to attract much of an audience. She fared better with the 2002 crime thriller Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams, playing a local Alaskan cop, but she had yet to play a leading role that matched the caliber of her work on Boys Don't Cry.
Working with director Clint Eastwood, Swank gave it her all to play a female boxer in 2004's Million Dollar Baby. She put herself through a grueling training regime to play a young woman hoping to become a professional fighter. "For this role, I was asked to put on 10 pounds of muscle, but I didn't feel that it was enough, so I put on 19 pounds. I trained for three months, boxing and lifting weights for four hours each day. I drank egg whites and flax oil, ate raw fish, and woke up every night for a protein shake," she told Redbook magazine.
Her dedication to her craft clearly came through in Million Dollar Baby. As Clint Eastwood later said, "she absolutely inhabits her characters and approaches each one with unparalleled enthusiasm." Swank won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her work in the film.
On television, she took on another strong character, playing suffragist Alice Paul in 2004's Iron Jawed Angels. With her career on an upswing, Swank took on more leading roles. She starred in Brian De Palma's true-life crime thriller The Black Dahlia (2006), playing a femme fatale. The film, however, received lackluster reviews and did poorly at the box office.
In her personal life, Swank experienced some heartache as she and her husband decided to divorce in 2006. "In the end, it just didn't work, but I would never look back on this relationship as failed; I look at it as 13 1/2 years of success," she explained to Vanity Fair magazine.
Despite her personal challenges, Swank continued to work hard. In Freedom Writers (2007), Swank played a teacher trying to inspire her troubled urban students through writing. She also served as an executive producer on the film. Trying her hand at romantic comedy, Swank starred opposite Gerald Butler in the critically panned P.S. I Love You. Hopes were high for her portrayal of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in Amelia (2009), but the film proved to be another critical and commercial disappointment.
No matter what bumps or obstacles she may encounter on her career path, Swank continues to take on new challenges. She set up her own production company, 2S Films, with producer Molly Smith in 2008. For the upcoming drama, Betty Anne Waters, Swank plays a single mom who goes to law school to help get her brother released from prison. She is also serving as an executive producer of this film adaptation of a true story.
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