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Hilary Swank Biography



Filmography: The Complete List

Hilary Swank's early roles did not bode well for a future career as a "serious" actress. Making her screen debut in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, then headlining in the third sequel to The Karate Kid before winding up in that thespian graveyard Beverly Hills 90120, she was surely destined for artistic oblivion. Even after winning an Oscar for her extraordinary performance as the doomed cross-dresser Teena Brandon in Boys Don't Cry she was immediately forgotten by the public, most of whom never saw that notoriously "diificult" movie. So it was a surprise to most when, in 2004, she made a sudden and decisive return in Clint Eastwood's multi-nominated Million Dollar Baby, an Oscar-winning comeback supported by a very high-profile modelling assignment for Calvin Klein. Clearly that first Oscar had been no fluke - Swank's abilities could no longer be denied.

Of Spanish and Native American extraction, Hilary Ann Swank was born on the 30th of July, 1974 in . . . well, therein lies a question. Reports have been severely confused by the audition process for Boys Don't Cry. In order to win the confidence of director Kimberly Peirce, Swank told her that, like the real Teena Brandon, she was 21 and had been born in Lincoln, Nebraska. In fact, she claimed, she'd be born in the same hospital. Later, Peirce would discover that Swank had lied and confronted her, with Swank cheekily (and quite correctly) replying that that's exactly what Brandon would have done. The part was hers, but the lies caused problems for biographers. Swank was certainly not 21, she was 24. As for her birthplace, her management maintained that she was indeed born in Lincoln. Swank herself would often refer to herself as a mid-Western girl, and state that one of her grandfathers was born and raised in Iowa, just two hours drive from Falls City, Nebraska, the small town where Teena Brandon disastrously went to start a new life.

What's sure is that Hilary's father was employed by the airborne National Guard and, when Hilary was still pre-school, took his family - wife Judy, a secretary and later an executive, and son James - to live in Bellingham, Washington. With a population of 60,000, this was the closest sizeable American town to the Canadian border, nearer to Vancouver than Seattle. It was a beautiful spot, set between the sea and the Cascade Mountains, looking out to the San Juan Islands in the bay.

Soon, her father would change jobs. Deciding there was money to be had dealing in trailers, when Hilary was 6 he shifted the family into a trailer-park and began life as a travelling salesman, now operating mostly as an absent father. Attending Sehome High School (known for their aggressive but absurd Sehome Fight Song), young Hilary would excel at sports, particularly in the gym and pool. Indeed, as a swimmer she would compete in the Junior Olympics, while as an all-round gymnast she'd come fifth at the Washington State Championships.

But, despite her excellence in these physical disciplines, Hilary had a greater love . . . acting. When she was 8, one of her teachers had asked her class to write a skit then stand up and act it out. Swank had found the experience revelatory and, by the age of 9 was starring as Mowgli in a production of The Jungle Book (not the last time she would successfully pose as a boy). From then on, she would be a regular in school plays and local theatre, eventually being named Best Junior Actress by the Bellingham Theatre Guild. She would be constantly reprimanded by her mother for staring at people and mimicking their actions and expressions.

Despite the accolades, her school-life was not all plain sailing. As most of her schoolmates sprang from a higher social class - at least, they did not live in trailer parks - she would take a fair degree of abuse. Later, she would recall one incident when a group of her supposed friends ran past her and threw a screwed-up letter at the back of her head. On the bus home she was horrified to read the words "You think you're so cool, but you're not. You think you're so pretty, but you're ugly. You think you're so talented, but you suck". God only knows what her enemies might have written.

With her heart set on an acting career, Hilary was now to be lent a hand by ill-fortune. Her parents' marriage had been turning sour for some considerable time and, with Hilary now 15 and James old enough to cope, they separated. As Judy had just lost her job, she found herself at a major crossroads in her life. She had nothing in Bellingham, so she decided to seek a new life in Los Angeles, where Hilary might also ply her desired trade. So, with $75 between them, the pair took off for California in Judy's Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

To begin with, it was far from easy. All down the coast and for the first two weeks in LA they slept in the car. Living off Judy's Mobil card, they spent much of their time in coffeeshops and automats at Mobil stations. Soon a friend would provide a roof over their heads, but this was in a house in the process of being sold. With viewers due each day, Judy and Hilary would have to vacate it each morning, making sure no one would suspect they'd been there.

Quickly, both of their main aims were achieved. Judy found employment and Hilary found an agent. She enrolled at South Pasadena High School, then Santa Monica City College but, with work coming her way, she'd drop out of High School altogether, completing her education by mail and with a succession of tutors. Her onscreen career began inauspiciously enough, in 1991, with a brief appearance in Harry And The Hendersons, concerning a Pacific Northwestern family with a comic secret - they have a seven-foot sasquatch for a pet. By the end of the year, though, her CV would have expanded to include Evening Shade, where she'd cause chaos by eloping with the son of Burt Reynolds' retired Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, and Growing Pains, where she'd laugh off the amorous intentions of Ben Seaver, one member of the starring Long Island family. Joining her on the credits for this, the seventh series of Growing Pains, would be a young actor brought in to boost the show's falling ratings by playing troubled Luke Brower. Fourteen years later, in 2005, both he and Swank would be Oscar-nominated as Best Actor and Best Actress respectively. He was Leonardo DiCaprio.

1992 would see Hilary make her Silver Screen entrance in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which also saw the brief debut of Ben Affleck), playing one of star Kirsty Swanson's Valley Girl buddies, who pour scorn on the heroine for ignoring the trivial things in life and choosing to save the world instead. Her character, Kimberly Hannah, would have one of the movie's finest lines, the classic dismissal "That's SO five minutes ago". She'd then move on to more TV with Camp Wilder, positioned in one of ABC's renowned Friday night family-fun spots, but still a one-season failure. This would see Mary Page Keller return home after her parents' deaths, to raise both her own young daughter and her two teenage siblings. Hilary would play one of the best friends of Keller's sarcastic sister Melissa, who'd often hang out round the house as her own parents were always arguing. Though a comedy (Jay Mohr would appear as an entertainingly eccentric friend of the family), the show would cover many teen problems, Hilary at one point considering whether to have sex with cool new kid Jared Leto.

With her TV career on the up, Swank would now meet the love of her life. This was Chad Lowe, brother of the infamous Rob. This was in 1992, when Lowe was starring as HIV-positive Jesse McKenna in ABC's series Life Goes On (for which he'd win an Emmy in 1993). They'd hook up at an industry party and remain more or less inseparable from then on, arranging their filming schedules so they could stay together. They'd marry in 1997.

Onscreen, 1994 saw Hilary appear in Cries Unheard: The Donna Yakkich Story (also known as Victim Of Rage). Here ex-Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith got married to a cop, only to have her dreams of security shattered when he becomes obsessed with weight-lifting, steroids turning him into a psycho. Hilary would play Smith's step-daughter, who raises suspicions that her dad may have killed his first wife. The same year would come her first starring role, in The Next Karate Kid. This saw her step into the shoes of Ralph Macchio, as surly teen Julie Pierce who, her parents dead, is forced to live with her grandmother. Fortunately, she's taken on by the franchise's guru, Pat Morita, whose life her dad saved decades before, and he takes her off to a Buddhist temple for training in martial arts and, naturally, the waltz, enabling her to both bash up fascist bullies at school and score big at the prom. Her gymnastic abilities would, of course, stand her in good stead.

Though The Next Karate Kid was not a hit, her headline billing did at least allow her to become a little more prolific. 1996 saw her move on to the key role in the TV movie Terror In The Family, which reunited her with Joanna Kerns, Growing Pains' Mrs Seaver. Here Kerns played an alcoholic mother with a dentist husband, Hilary standing out as her increasingly aggressive daughter. As the situation worsens, the bickering turns to violence as Swank beats Kerns and repeatedly slams her father's hand in a door. Eventually she pulls a knife and is jailed, before a redemption of sorts is achieved.

The same year would contain two more cinematic appearances. First there was the Stephen King sequel Sometimes They Come Back . . . Again, where Michael Gross returned to his hometown with daughter Hilary to bury his mother, who has died mysteriously. Enter Alexis Arquette, who proceeds to charm Swank, much to Gross's horror as Arquette was one of a gang to took part in the ritual slaying of Gross's sister years before. Beyond this, Arquette is known to be dead. And soon, amidst much gore, so are many of Hilary's friends.

With very little going for it, the movie went straight to video. Her next effort did not fare much better. This was Kounterfeit, a low-budget crime drama which saw petty crooks trying to exchange dodgy dollars for the real thing. As ever, the deal goes horribly wrong and an undercover cop is killed. And now Swank, the cop's sister, goes seeking her own hardcore justice, only to find that the good guys and bad guys are not always what they seem.

1997 would see a real rush of activity. It would begin with another TV movie, Dying To Belong, which would attempt to explore the darker side of college sorority culture. Hilary would star as a student carrying out a personal investigation into the death of a friend who died during a "hazing" incident. As a matter of interest, when banning the activity, "hazing" was said by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to include "whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of food, liquor, drugs etc" as well as "sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact and forced conduct that could result in extreme embarrassment". It's amazing any students survive, really.

Hilary would move on to another disappointment in the short-lived TV series Leaving LA. This was a drama-comedy set in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office and saw the team investigating a series of strange deaths, including that of a man who drowned in a vat of chocolate, and a car-crash involving a group of Elvis impersonators. The show would feature future TV stars Melina Kanakaredes (Providence) and Ron Rifkin (Alias), with Hilary popping up as an office clerk.

Sadly, Leaving LA lasted only six episodes. Hilary, though, had plenty still going on. She next appeared in another TV movie, The Sleepwalker Killing, where Charles Esten turned himself into the cops claiming that he thinks he killed his mother-in-law during a somnabulist episode - but he can't be sure, as he was asleep. The situation's complicated by the fact that Esten's a gambling addict with huge debts and has already stolen $30,000 from his wife, played by Hilary. Thus Swank was handed a central and complex role as she must decide whether to back her traumatised family or fight for her husband's freedom. She was a great success in this, her first truly adult role.

Her only cinema release of 1997 was the oddity Quiet Days In Hollywood, which saw her unite onscreen with her longtime boyfriend and soon-to-be husband Chad Lowe. The movie was basically a circular chain of stories, each linked by a character from one having some form of sex with a character from the next. Infidelity, betrayal, theft and prostitution were on the cards, with Lowe playing a yuppie rapist and Swank starting and ending proceedings as a Hollywood hooker.

The year would end with yet another disappointment in a TV series. Well, actually, two. Having lost out in auditions to play Lucy Hatcher in The Practice (Marla Sokoloff took the part), she won a role in the ever-popular Beverly Hills 90210, joining the show in October, 1997. With the main players now out of college and seeking employment and happiness in the outside world, she'd play Carly Reynolds, a single mum who loses her waitress job after a run-in with Steve and his date. Luckily, Steve rather fancies her, sets her up with a new job at the Peach Pit and sets about wooing her. Of course, being Beverly Hills 90210, there's problems. He must forge a relationship with her child, then she loses the child in the mall, and another woman shows up claiming Steve is the father of her baby. High drama, indeed, with Hilary finally moving away to Montana to look after her father, who's suffered a heart attack.

Written out of the show in January, 1998, after just three brief months, Hilary was mortified. If she couldn't cut the mustard in Beverly Hills 90210, what chance did she have of ever being seen as a "serious" actress? In fact, her sacking turned out to be a blessing as within two weeks she was auditioning for the movie that would prove her breakthrough, Boys Don't Cry. The omens were good, she thought, on discovering that the director was to be Kimberly Peirce. After all, she'd played a character called Kimberly in the Buffy movie and Julie Pierce in The Next Karate Kid. Despite, or perhaps because of the lies she told about her age and birthplace, she was hired to play Teena Brandon.

First, though, came 1998's Heartwood, a tale from a small Californian town where mill-owner Jason Robards is risking bankrupcy because he refuses to exploit the surrounding forests. Hilary shows up as the daughter of the mill's new manager and is immediately hit upon by the town Lothario, as well as becoming the love object of young Eddie Mills, a slacker-type who spends much of his time in the woods. When Mills makes an astounding discovery, he and she then struggle to save both the mill and the town. It was, as it sounds, a feel-good Capra-esque story of sacrifice and human decency.

And then, in 1999, came Boys Don't Cry. To prepare for the role, she worked closely with acting coach Larry Mills, a former pupil of the renowned Stella Adler, who'd helped Helen Hunt to an Oscar for As Good As It Gets and would perform similar duties for Michael Clarke Duncan (for The Green Mile) and Swank's former co-star Leonardo DiCaprio (for The Aviator). She'd been introduced to him by her husband Chad, who'd attended one of his classes, and part of her training would involve spending a month as a man, out in the local malls, finding out what fooled friends and strangers alike, and what gave her away. The results were stupendous. As Teena Brandon, a girl from Lincoln, Nebraska who moves to Falls City and starts life anew as a boy, runs with the lads, wins the heart of Cloe Sevigny and comes to a horrible end, she was wholly outstanding. In fact, she was so good that no one was surprised when she beat heavyweight contenders Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening to win the Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe. A fair reward given that for her performance she'd only been paid $75 a day - $3,000 in total.

Swank would now make serious efforts to expand her range, even if it meant forsaking lead roles for interesting parts. After appearing alongside Brittany Murphy in a comic short directed by husband Chad (with whom she'd also co-narrate the audiobook Big Mouth And Ugly Girl), she moved on to The Gift, where Cate Blanchett would star as a psychic and therapist who becomes involved in the disappearance of tarty socialite Katie Holmes. Hilary would appear as Valerie Barksdale, the badly beaten wife of redneck Keanu Reeves, who comes to Blanchett for help and inadvertently brings Reeves' impressive wrath down upon her. Written by Billy Bob Thornton, it was a superior thriller and very different from her next outing, the period drama The Affair Of the Necklace. Here she played Jeanne St Remy de Valois, an orphan who dreams of returning her family to their former wealth and status. To do this, she pulls a con where she hopes to fool not only Joely Richardson's Marie Antoinette and Jonathan Pryce's cunning Cardinal, but also the devilish and insanely sophisticated Christopher Walken, playing Cagliostro, head of the Illuminati. Amidst court intrigue and sexy shenanigans, all goes well - but then it all falls to pieces as she inadvertently acts as a catalyst for the French Revolution.

Also featuring Adrien Brody and Brian Cox, The Affair Of The Necklace saw Swank in esteemed company, as did her next effort, 2002's Insomnia. A remake of a 1997 Norwegian movie of the same title, starring Stellan Skarsgaard, this saw Al Pacino as a jaded cop sent north with his keen young partner to investigate a murder in Alaska, land of the midnight sun. Up here, the guilt-ridden Pacino is in trouble as his partner may grass him to Internal Affairs and prime suspect Robin Williams has spotted his weakness and begins to play upon it. Hilary would impress once again as a local deputy, fresh and enthusiastic, who hero-worships Pacino but still pushes on with her job. Directed by Memento's Christopher Nolan, it was a brilliant drama and also a big hit.

Having starred in another short directed by her husband, this time the thriller The Space Between, Swank progressed to infintely lighter fare with the sci-fi action flick The Core. Recalling the outlandish sci-fi movies of the 1950s, this was based on the crazy premise that the molten middle of the planet has stopped spinning so, within a year, everyone on the surface will be fried by solar microwaves. In order to save us all, a hole must be drilled and intrepid heroes must journey to the centre of the Earth where they'll set things revolving once more with powerful nuclear explosions. Hilary would be one of these heroes, the hugely resourceful space-shuttle pilot Major Rebecca Childs and, amazingly, it was actually tremendous fun.

Moving up a step in the industry, Swank would now act as executive producer and co-star of 11:14, a quirky, $3 million dollar black comedy in the spirit of Run, Lola, Run. Flashing back from a fatal car accident, this would see several different stories converge, involving a drunk driver, a gang of bored, prank-playing kids, a manipulative girl running two boyfriends, and Hilary as a frustrated clerk plotting to rob the grocery store where she works. Following this, for the first time in six years, she returned to TV for the prestigious HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels. This took her back to 1912 as she played Alice Paul, a smoking, flirting, forthright and self-possessed agitator for women's rights. Advised to be more discreet by party leader Anjelica Huston, Swank and fellow radical Frances O'Connor form their own National Women's Party and begin to put pressure on political candidates, including President Woodrow Wilson during World War One. It was a great role for Hilary as it took her on a voyage of self-understanding and erotic discovery, as well as seeing her on a painful hunger strike when she's jailed and about to be certified insane.

The TV movie would see her nominated for another Golden Globe, but Swank was not pushing for screen accolades. Instead she returned to her first love, the stage, travelling to Charlotte, North Carolina, to play Helen Keller's teacher Annie Sullivan in the award-winning The Miracle Worker. This run was intended to be in preparation for an advance to Broadway, but production problems and then Swank's film schedule forced a postponement. She moved on to Red Dust, set in South Africa during the Truth And Reconciliation hearings where Apartheid-era soldiers and policemen admitted their crimes and were absolved. Hilary would play the lawyer of a black politician who confronts a cop who, years before, tortured him and "disappeared" his friend. But Swank's case hits problems when it's revealed the politician's memory may not be reliable.

If Iron Jawed Angels and Red Dust tested her thespian range, her next project would present a far more physical challenge. This was Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, where Swank would star as a hillbilly waitress from south-west Missouri who seeks to escape her dead-end life via success in the boxing ring. To achieve this, she attempts to enlist veteran trainer Eastwood, but he refuses to work with a girl, until persuaded by Swank's persistence and the wise words of former boxer and lifelong sidekick Morgan Freeman. The movie would brilliantly chart the relationships between the three leads, and all three actors would find themselves Oscar-nominated (Hilary would take the Golden Globe and beat former rival Annette Bening for the Best Actress Oscar yet again). It was a reasonable reward for a difficult training process that had seen her learn the craft under champion trainer Hector Roca at New York's famous Gleason's Gym, where the likes of Ali, Frazier and Tyson had pounded the bags before her. It was also where Robert De Niro had worked to become Jake La Motta for Raging Bull (and where La Motta himself had trained). Swank would put on over seven kilos of muscle for the role, and exhibit a great deal of courage as she dared to spar with real-life champion Lucia Rijker.

Having now proven her abilities beyond doubt, Swank would continue to seek consistency in a wide variety of roles. Her next part would see her as a genuine femme fatale in Brian De Palma's take on James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, concerning the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress found mutilated in 1947. Josh Hartnett would play a cop on the murder trail, whose investigation is complicated when he falls for both Short-lookalike Scarlett Johansson and Hilary, the decadent and bisexual daughter of a dodgy construction mogul. It was all about desire, suspicion and betrayal - as if Jack the Ripper had come to Hollywood.

Playing a femme fatale was now appropriate for Swank. Having for a while been considered somewhat masculine due to her fine performance in Boys Don't Cry, she'd broken down those barriers by becoming an athletic but very feminine model for Calvin Klein in 2004. She also represented Estee Lauder. She's very much a product of her age - a vegetarian from the age of 14, an animal lover (she helped to rescue trapped pets after the 9/11 attacks) and, as a keen skydiver and white water rafter, a woman who likes to push at the boundaries. She's clearly capable of remaining at the top for some considerable time yet.

Dominic Wills

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