Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank has become a household name by choosing unexpected roles from someone of transgender experience in Boys Don’t Cry to a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby. Even in the excessive and sometimes trashy glam of Hollywood, Swank’s freedom in acting has made her a respectable icon without the high-octane drama of drunken tirades, or scandalous, and sometimes grotesque, lack of undergarments. In her latest film, Freedom Writers, Swank shines in the true life story of Erin Gruwell, a teacher who inspires teens in the mid ‘90’s to translate their urban hardships in journal entries. Swank sat down with MF opening up about the new film, her own experience in school and how she stays healthy with all of the incredible success.
MF: I know you didn’t grow up in a violent neighborhood, but you did grow up poor. What part of your life as a child was able to relate to the kids in Freedom Writers?
Hilary: Great question... well, I feel like I was an outsider, I didn't feel hopeless that's the one thing that was the biggest difference. I definitely felt like my mom believed in me, so she gave me a great gift by saying you can do anything you want in life. I didn't feel hopeless, but I didn't feel like I belonged, I just didn’t fit in at school, I didn't feel understood, and I didn't feel like teachers cared. I felt like I was kind of in there, it just was not a good place for me.
The education system in our country is really messed up, and that's really unfortunate for a lot of reasons. The most important thing in the world is education. That's what makes kids figure themselves out, it makes them feel confident, it gives them hope and it makes them realize what their dream is. It's everything… it's sad that teachers aren’t paid very much and it's sad that they're underappreciated. It's sad that you have to pay a lot of money to get an education, and it makes people like Erin Gruwell even the more rare.
MF: Did you feel a responsibility to play the character like she acts?
Hilary: It's a good question because I didn't really want to spend a lot of time with her, I didn’t want to be mimicking. I felt like the last thing you want to do is mimic somebody, you want to really get into the heart of who they are and what their story is. But, Erin's mannerisms are really important to who she is because she uses her body to communicate in a really interesting way. I feel like she brings you in with her hands. She's talking with her hands to describe something, it just comes across differently to her than to just sit here and talk. She looks at you, shakes her head when you're talking so you really know she's listening. I think that’s an important thing as a teacher especially because in the beginning they're like, "Who are you? You're invading my space.” She got in their face and that is a really important thing. The kids had a reaction to her physical being so that was important -- I got an idea of it from the first meeting. You get a real sense right away about how open she is and optimistic.
MF: Of the whole genre film of the teacher who makes a difference is there any movie that made a difference in you?
Hilary: Yeah, many –- what drew me to being an actor is that I would go to a movie and feel understood, or I would read a book, and go, "That character is like me. They feel the same thing I do." So, of course it made me want to continue to read and made me want to watch movies. It was the one place I felt like I wasn’t alone. One of the first movies I watched, or remember watching besides The Wizard of Oz and ET, were Elephant Man and The Miracle Worker, it was life changing. It was kind of a no brainer for me to want to act and tell stories. If I can tell a story and change one person's life because of it, that one kid in the audience that says, from any of my movies whether it be a kid with a sexual identity crisis who watched Boys Don't Cry, or Million Dollar Baby, where they say, “I can believe in myself,” it's an amazing feeling. It's not why I got into the business, but it's become one of wonderful side effects for me.
MF: You look incredible, how do you stay healthy?
Hilary: Thank you! Well, I think I'm really blessed with good genes because I really am a big eater. I really like food and food is life to me, but I kind of eat what I want and do it in moderation. Not because that's what you're supposed to do, but I don’t feel good if I eat two donuts. I eat one that's fine, but if I eat two I feel sick and that's not a fun feeling. If my body craves something I allow myself to have it, but on the flip side of that I really have to take good care of myself because I work nonstop. I worked Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, and I went to bed for a few hours and came here for press all day.
I have to have the sustained energy so I understand about nutrition and I really look out for nutrition. What I would do is stuff like, I take my vitamins, I'm a real vitamin person. I got my blood tested so I knew vitamins I needed the most of. I didn't exercise all week because my hours are too tough, but I like to exercise, it's a big part of my life for a lot of reasons. One, it's a huge stress relief; it mentally makes me feel great. It gets my blood going, it gives me more energy, and it makes me think better. I would say a normal exercise routine for me would be maybe running three days a week, or running twice a week, and pilates three days a week. I don’t do it everyday; I usually take two days off during the week.
MF: What part of the movie resonated with you the most?
Hilary: I don’t know what part resonated with me the most, but I can tell you that I just went to work everyday scared because I didn’t want to mess the story up. I felt like it was written so well, and I got so much out of it. Just being with those kids and how the kids were in the movie, their lives were so similar to the lives of the kids who the movie was about. I just got so much as a human being and as an actor that I could never even begin to you how life changing it was. When you see these kids, you get to talk to them and hear what their stories are, you realize how we're all the same… it really moves me. It was a constant reminder even to myself about staying open, not judging a book by its cover, it's okay to make a mistake, try to learn from them and that's what life is about.
MF: I see you’re getting teary-eyed.
Hilary: It was amazing, I love this movie and I love these kids. These actors in the movie, there were only two kids who were actors and the rest were picked for the film. They're just amazing! I'm so proud of them, and the obstacle they have had in their life at such a young age and how quickly they had to grow up. It just reminds you that we have a lot to be thankful for. It’s so easy to complain about nothing, you have a choice everyday to live your life a certain way.
Freedom Writers is in theatres today.
Clay Cane (http://www.claycane.net) is the author of the forthcoming novel BALL-SHAPED WORLD.