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If you like Hilary Swank's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Carol Burnett,
Olivia de Havilland,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Naomi Judd,
Sidney Poitier
and Barry Scheck

Hilary Swank can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Hilary Swank's recommended reading: To Kill a Mockingbird

Related Links:
New York Times
Hetrick-Martin Institute
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Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank
Profile of Hilary Swank Biography of Hilary Swank Interview with Hilary Swank Hilary Swank Photo Gallery

Hilary Swank Biography

Two Oscars for Best Actress

Hilary Swank Date of birth: July 30, 1974

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  Hilary Swank

Hilary Ann Swank was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. By the time she was six, her father, Stephen Swank, had moved the family to Bellingham, Washington. Hilary's older brother and only sibling, Dan, left home in his teens. Hilary and her parents lived in a trailer park on the outskirts of Bellingham. Shunned by the snobbish families of many of her classmates, young Hilary sought solace in books and movies, identifying with the struggles of the characters she found there. She credits a close relationship with her mother, Judy, to developing her self-confidence despite the hardships of her early years.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
As a child, Hilary Swank found relief from her loneliness when she discovered acting. One of her first performances on stage was in her fifth grade class production of The Jungle Book. Auspiciously, she was chosen to play the feral man-cub Mowgli. She was disturbed at first to find herself cast in a boy's role, but she was thrilled to lose herself in a character and loved the intensity and camaraderie of the rehearsal process. With her mother's support, she began to pursue acting outside of school, winning the Best Junior Actress Award at the Bellingham Theatre Guild. While she pursued self-expression through acting, she also distinguished herself as an outstanding swimmer and gymnast. In her teens, she competed in the Junior Olympics as a swimmer, but by age 16, acting had become her primary focus.

Her mother Judy believed in Hilary's talent and wanted to give her a chance to make a career of it. When Judy and Stephen Swank divorced, mother and daughter made the move to Los Angeles. The two drove south in 1990 with $75, one gas station credit card and no leads for finding a home. They lived in their car for the first few weeks until Judy found a job and temporary housing. Judy's persistence in seeking opportunities for her daughter brought a meeting with Hollywood's premier agent for child actors, Bonnie Liedtke, who represented Hilary Swank until she turned 21.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
The teenage Hilary settled into a new life, attending South Pasadena High School while auditioning for films, commercials and television pilots. Within her first year in Los Angeles, she made an appearance on the television series Harry and the Hendersons and soon won recurring roles on the popular situation comedies Evening Shade and Growing Pains. Television proved to be a solid training ground for the actress, and in 1992, Hilary landed a supporting role in the feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In 1994, Hilary Swank secured her largest film role to date, as the heroine of The Next Karate Kid. Although this sequel did not achieve the box office success of its predecessor, it demonstrated that the young actress could carry a feature film. Although she longed to expand her range, casting directors familiar with her work in television repeatedly told her she was "too half-hour" for dramatic roles. She was cast in numerous pilots for television series that were never picked up for production and broadcast. In 1997, she married fellow actor Chad Lowe. The same year brought a promising career breakthrough when Hilary was cast as a young single mother in the nighttime serial Beverly Hills 90210. A two-year contract with a prime time dramatic series offered a financial security rare in the life of a working actor, but the series, once extremely popular, was now in its eighth season and struggling to win back its dwindling audience. Swank's contract was canceled after only 14 episodes. At first this appeared to be a devastating setback, but it opened the door to the film that would make Hilary Swank a major motion picture star.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
When she read the script for Boys Don't Cry, Hilary Swank knew this was a part she had to play. The film told the tragic real-life story of Tina Brandon. Born, like Hilary Swank, in Lincoln, Nebraska, Brandon felt more comfortable dressing and identifying as a male and chose to live as a man under the name Brandon Teena. Passing as a male in rural Nebraska, Brandon entered a romantic relationship with a local woman. Gruesome tragedy followed when a number of young men in the community discovered Brandon's secret. This powerful story captured Swank's imagination and she resolved to win the role, flying to New York at her own expense to meet with the film's director, Kimberly Peirce. On being informed that the role of Tina Brandon/Brandon Teena was hers, Swank undertook a remarkable physical transformation to be convincing as the film's cross-dressing protagonist. She shed the long hair that had been a notable feature of her onscreen image, and reduced body fat from her already slender figure to achieve a leaner, more boyish appearance. For weeks, she walked the streets of New York City dressed as a boy, eliminating every trace of feminine mannerisms and experiencing the hostile confusion of strangers whenever her facade slipped.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
When Boys Don't Cry was released in 1999, Swank's performance stunned critics and audiences. She won every award in sight, from the National Board of Review's "Breakthrough Performance" prize to the Best Actress awards of the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago Critics' associations, to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe. The awards season culminated with the Oscar ceremony, where Hilary Swank took home the statuette for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Those in the television audience who only knew her from her performance in the film were surprised by the grace and elegance of the real Hilary Swank when she appeared onstage to accept her award. Boys Don't Cry was a milestone in the portrayal of transgendered persons in cinema. Hilary Swank continued her advocacy for tolerance of human diversity as National Spokesperson for the New York-based Hetrick-Martin Institute, which supports a charter school for gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Her achievement also encouraged other leading actresses to take on characters outside the conventions of Hollywood formula.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
Although Hilary Swank was eager to prove herself in a wide variety of roles, many producers and directors found the impression of her as the male-appearing Brandon Teena impossible to forget when they were asked to consider her for more traditional parts. Nevertheless, she appeared alongside many of the best actors in motion pictures, with Cate Blanchett in Sam Raimi's The Gift, and with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. The Affair of the Necklace was a startling departure and gave her the first opportunity to appear in an elegant costume drama. In 2004, she received acclaim for her portrayal of suffragette Alice Paul in the HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels. At the same time, she received a new script from the producers of The Gift. The screenplay, Million Dollar Baby, came with Clint Eastwood attached as director and co-star. Once again, Swank knew she had found a part she had to play. After a brief meeting, Eastwood approved Swank for the powerful role of Maggie Fitzgerald, a struggling female boxer.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
This role required a physical metamorphosis even more remarkable than Boys Don't Cry. To appear convincing facing off against actual female boxers onscreen, Swank undertook brutally rigorous physical training. Starting at a mere 108 pounds, Swank gained 19 additional pounds of muscle in two months. To do this, she consumed 210 grams of protein a day, waking repeatedly during the night to drink protein shakes. Her training routine included two-and-a-half hours of boxing lessons, plus two hours of weight training, six days a week. While learning the boxer's technique of punch and pivot, she developed a massive blister on her right foot. It soon turned into a painful and ultimately life-threatening Staph infection. Her doctors ordered her to quit boxing until the infection was under control. The determined actress continued weight training to strengthen her upper body until she could walk again. All the while, she concealed her condition from most of her associates, including Eastwood, and made a complete recovery in time to begin shooting on schedule.

Hilary Swank Biography Photo
The resulting film was acclaimed by critics and a huge hit with audiences. At the 2005 Oscar ceremony, Million Dollar Baby was showered with awards, including a Best Supporting Actor award for Morgan Freeman, a Best Director Oscar for Eastwood and another for Best Picture of the Year. Hilary Swank received her second Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. With this award, she joined the handful of leading ladies to be so honored, an elite company that includes Katharine Hepburn and Olivia de Havilland. In 2006, Swank and her husband, Chad Lowe, parted amicably after nine years of marriage, speaking respectfully of each other to the press and public. The following year, she was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, an occasion she shared with her mother Judy, whose faith in her had long since been redeemed.

Never content to rest on the praise for her past achievements, Hilary Swank continually seeks out fresh challenges. Recent projects have included Brian Da Palma's 1940s mystery The Black Dahlia, and the supernatural thriller The Reaping. She enjoyed one of her favorite roles as an inner city high school teacher in Freedom Writers (2007); she was also the film's Executive Producer. She plans to expand her activities as a producer; at the time of her interview with the Academy of Achievement, she was co-producing the films Labyrinth and The Laws of Motion, and had just completed shooting a romantic comedy, P.S., I Love You.

Hilary Swank enjoyed another career high point when she played the aviation pioneer and feminist icon Amelia Earhart in the 2009 biopic Amelia, directed by Mira Nair. The following year, she starred in the drama Conviction, the real life story of Betty Ann Waters, a high school dropout who put herself through law school in the course of an 18-year campaign to win the exoneration of a brother she believed had been wrongly convicted of murder. The film has renewed public discussion of the role of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system. As Conviction makes it way through the nation's theaters, Hilary Swank is already at work on her next film projects, The Resident and Dreams of a Dying Heart.

This page last revised on Oct 22, 2010 15:31 EDT
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