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Interview With Two-Time Academy Award Winner Hilary Swank

Aired April 5, 2013 - 05:30   ET



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's hard to articulate, I guess they're pretty hungry for news here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, good. What I'm wondering about is the name.

HILARY SWANK, ACTOR: I'm Brandon. I mean, I'm Teena.

MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): It was an emotional performance about prejudice in Middle America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I invite you into my home and you expose my daughter to your sickness.

RAJPAL (voiceover): A real life story about a transgender youth trying to find his place in life.

PETER SARSGAARD, ACTOR: You know, Lana, if you are a Lesbian, you just need to tell me.


RAJPAL (voiceover): In a role that would sweep Hilary Swank from budding film star to Oscar-winning actress.

SWANK: I didn't think of anything like this at all. I was just involved in the movie for the importance of it.

RAJPAL (voiceover): It was a far cry from her supporting role in the 1992 film, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

SWANK: Retro.

RAJPAL (voiceover): And as troubled youth, Julie Pierce, in the fourth and final installment of the "Karate Kid" series.

But her portrayal of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" wouldn't be her only Oscar-winning performance.

CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR: Your nose is broke

SWANK: Fix it.

EASTWOOD: I can't, I can't.

SWANK: You can fix it.

EASTWOOD: I can't.

RAJPAL (voiceover): She again snapped up a statuette for playing Maggie Fitzgerald opposite Clint Eastwood in his 2004 boxing film, "Million Dollar Baby".

SWANK: Frankie, if you can stop the blood, I can beat her.

RAJPAL (voiceover): It would be her second Oscar from two nominations. An Academy Award feat achieved by just 12 other women.

SWANK: It's been 11 years since "Boys Don't Cry".

RAJPAL (voiceover): Since then, she's adapted her skills to more real-life roles, romantic comedies, and even productions. Making the Nebraska native a firm fixture in Hollywood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hillary Swank. Right here.

SWANK: When I walk these streets with all these stars, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would see my name right here.

RAJPAL (voiceover): This week, on "Talk Asia", we catch up with Hillary Swank, as she trades the bright lights of Tinsel Town to rub shoulders with Hong Kong's A-Listers on a whirlwind visit to the city.


RAJPAL: Welcome to "Talk Asia". Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us -

SWANK: Nice to be here.

RAJPAL: -- here in Hong Kong. You're here in Asia and you're surrounded by jewelry.


RAJPAL: Luxury. Five-star treatment.


RAJPAL: Do you ever think about -

SWANK: Spoiled.

RAJPAL: Spoiled.


RAJPAL: It's nice, isn't it?

SWANK: Yes, it is.

RAJPAL: Do you think about that little girl inside you from Lincoln, Nebraska, wondering -


RAJPAL: So in awe of what you've achieved and where you are today?

SWANK: Yes, absolutely. I never forget where I came from and every time I get an opportunity to travel, see the world, meet new people - it's just - I pinch myself every single time.

RAJPAL: Tell me about your childhood, growing up.

SWANK: Well, I come from very humble beginnings. Like you said, I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is the very middle of the United States. And when I was three, we moved to Washington State. And that's really where I grew up. It was beautiful, there. Outdoors, trees, lakes. And my mom was really supportive of me being an actor and this dream that I had. Which really started when I was about nine years old. And I just - yes.

RAJPAL: Tell me about that relationship that you have with your mom. She's been such an inspiration, as you're saying. What has that been for you?

SWANK: I think the most important thing you can do for a child to just give them the gift of believing in themselves. It was just always in my head that, if I wanted to do it and you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. And I - now, looking back, at the age that I am now, I realize how important that is, because you don't have that obstacle of, like, oh, you don't question it. You just think, "I'm going to go after this and I'm going to work really hard". So it was a really incredible work ethic my mom instilled in me as well.

RAJPAL: What was it about acting, do you think, that allowed you to just feel like you were breathing?

SWANK: That's a really good way to put it. I think, for me, I love people. I love people. And I love what makes us similar and I also love what makes us different. I think the idea of really honoring another person's difference is important. Especially now, more than ever.

So, when I would watch a movie or read a book or - in the beginning, I started in theater - I would relate to these characters and learn something more, not just about the world and other people, but about myself. Because, innately, there would be something in that character that, you know, that I either hadn't explored in myself or that I wanted to explore in myself. So, it's just - it's enriched my life in so many ways I can't even - I can't even explain.

RAJPAL: You got, after doing numerous roles in television, you got your first movie role.


RAJPAL: In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".



KRISTY SWANSON, ACTOR: Guys, what's the sitch? I'm bored. What do you think?

SWANK: Lieb (ph)? So five minutes ago.



RAJPAL: Do you remember what it was like for you when you got the call that said you got it?

SWANK: Yes, I was 16 or 17 years old. And I was doing a TV show during the day and, thankfully, the movie was all nights. So I was able to do both. And, thankfully, I was also still young. I had the energy to do both. And I was so excited. As you many know, I started my career in comedy. So it's funny that now I'm seen as this really dramatic actress. Although I understand why. But yes, I started my career in comedy.

RAJPAL: How do you still feel when you walk on set first day?

SWANK: Butterflies. Always. I don't sleep the night before. It's like the first day of school. That's the only thing I can compare it to. You know, the night before, you don't sleep. And you hope that you're going to get along with everybody and that everyone's going to click. And, you know, you're going to have a great collaboration and -

RAJPAL: What are you like on-set when you're not filming?

SWANK: Well, I used to, in the very beginning, always stay in character. And that was just a fear-based thing, because I thought if I got out of character, I was never going to get back into character. It was solely because of that. It wasn't because I thought, "Well, I'm going to stay in character because I want to be true to my role". It was because I was scared that I was going to lose the person completely if I stepped out. Now, I just can't. I have to step - I stepped in, and I have to step out or it's too deep. It takes me somewhere emotionally that isn't always healthy.


RAJPAL: In the world of Hollywood, is being tough enough?





SWANK: Lana, what are you doing here?

SEVIGNY: What are you doing here? Girl stuff?

SWANK: This place is crazy, it's like -

SEVIGNY: Brandon, what's going on?

SWANK: You want the truth, don't you? I'm a rampidite (ph).



RAJPAL: Well, let's talk a bit about a couple of those roles, where you won the Academy Awards. There's this emotional depth that was required for the role of Teena/Brandon, Brandon Teena.


RAJPAL: What kind of a place did you have to get into, mentally and emotionally, to get to that role?

SWANK: You know, that type of role that - Teena/Brandon, Brandon Teena, as you said, was born in the same hospital I was born in.

RAJPAL: Really?

SWANK: Yes, she was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Exact same hospital, two years before me. So there's all these interesting connections in that way. But I - I felt an enormous responsibility, because it was someone who had lived. You know, a lot of the stories I chose, now, looking back, are real-life people. And there's just an added element of responsibility. You know, it's not a fictional character that you can completely make up whatever you want.

And if I went on set and the actors would call me a boy because that's what the role says, that's what the script says. But it was important to me to be able to really pass as a boy and do all that work before getting to set, so that it wasn't just the actors saying their lines.

RAJPAL: Was it a hard role for you to play?

SWANK: It was extraordinarily challenging because I think I was able to recognize how difficult and challenging it is to walk in this world as someone who people can't quite define. Some of my friends that I would run into and say, "Oh, I'm Hillary's cousin, James" and was doing my best that I could to pass as a boy. And once, I said, "No, it's really me, Hillary". They would sometimes be angry at me, like, "What are you trying to do?" Like, "Why did you do that?" And I said, "Oh, no, I'm just preparing". So it's just interesting, the reactions. And then once the movie was over, kind of finding myself again was a challenge.

RAJPAL: There's this one scene that I think a lot of people will know and remember where Brandon is forced to strip.


RAJPAL: Literally and also emotionally - I guess, figuratively.


SWANK: John, please.


RAJPAL: It is, perhaps a scene a lot of people will say shows how cruel human nature can be. What did you learn about human nature? I mean, the whole film encompassed all sides of human nature. The beauty and the dark side.

SWANK: When you're scared of something that's different and not open- minded, it can be dangerous. But, you know, being an actor, I was just scratching the surface of what that must feel like. My heart goes out to people who are living that every day. And having dangerous situations because of it. I believe that everyone should have lived their life the way they choose.

I became the spokesperson for Lesbian, Transgendered, and questioning youth for about 10 years after I did that movie. And got to spend a lot of time with these teenagers who, unfortunately, get either physically abused or verbally abused every day of their lives. And it's not way to live, so -

RAJPAL: Why did you want to do it? To take on this role?

SWANK: Oh, because it was - she - Brandon Teena - was - she/he - however you'd like to say it - was a fascinating person who was trying to live her/his life and figure it out just like we all are. And find love and give love. Just like we all are. So, you know, it was really an opportunity of a lifetime for an actor and a person.

RAJPAL: Another opportunity of a lifetime was Maggie Fitzgerald.


RAJPAL: And she came into your world. And I love this scene where Clint Eastwood's character, Frankie Dunn, says to Maggie, "Girlie, tough ain't enough".


SWANK: Thought you might be interested in training me.

EASTWOOD: I don't train girls.

SWANK: Maybe you should. People seen me fight say I'm pretty tough.

EASTWOOD: Girlie, tough ain't enough.


RAJPAL: In the world of Hollywood, where you're expected to have a very thick skin, is being tough enough?

SWANK: Um - no. I think, you know, as an actor, you have to wear your heart on your sleeve and you have to be very open and you can't ever be closed off or you cut yourself off from the very emotion you need to play characters.

RAJPAL: You became pretty tough in that role, though. You worked out and, what is it? Gained 19 pounds of pure muscle?

SWANK: Yes, yes. Exactly. It was - it was - that was - that was - the most physically challenging thing I have ever done and the interesting thing about it was, is I recognize, in a really profound way, how we are our own biggest obstacles. Because, if I said to myself, "I can't do it" because I was too tired - like if I woke up and said, "Oh, I can't do it, today". Then I wouldn't be able to push through and attain something in that moment. It was - it was an incredible physical transformation, but also working with the great Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman was a dream come true.

RAJPAL: I could bet. These are legends.


RAJPAL: Iconic legends -


RAJPAL: -- in their fields. And what did you learn from them? What kind of wisdom did they impart on you?

SWANK: I never went into my trailer. I just sat there, even when I wasn't in the scenes and just absorbed like a sponge from both of them. Watching them, observing them, they make it look so easy.

RAJPAL: Did I read correctly that, in that role you - while preparing for the role, you got a staph infection?

SWANK: I did, because when you're boxing, you're constantly on the ball of your foot and you're twisting, twisting, twisting, when you're punching. And I got a huge blister, like the size of my palm on the ball of my foot. And I couldn't box with it. So, I stupidly, in the bathtub, popped it, and got a really bad infection.

RAJPAL: I mean, that's deadly.

SWANK: I know. And I had no idea at the time. I would say my ex- husband saved my life, because I didn't know what a staph infection was. And it was nighttime. And I remember him saying, "You know what, that's not good. Like, you could have an infection in your foot and if you wake up in the morning, you have to go to the doctor's if it still hurts that bad. That's not normal".


SWANK: And the next morning I woke up and I had a line going up my leg. And he was like, "That's staph". So I rushed to the doctors and they draw a line, because if it keeps going, you can die in a few hours.

RAJPAL: And did that stop you, though? From continuing to train?

SWANK: I'm not supposed to say it, but no. I took, obviously, the day off. Maybe two days. And my trainer, Grant Roberts - I called him. I said, "Look, I can't miss - I can't miss my training. We start filming in just a few weeks". He said, "OK". And he would come and he picked me up - my gym was, like three blocks away - he picked me up, physically, brought me to the gym, and then we would just do all upper-body stuff. So I would do all this upper body stuff, and then he'd carry me to the next equipment and then I'd do that.

RAJPAL: Where did that drive come from, where there's no holds barred?

SWANK: It's probably going back to - it's probably fear, because I'm so scared of not being prepared and messing the job up. I mean, can you imagine? Everything works in the movie but me?


RAJPAL (voiceover): Coming up -

SWANK: I had an Academy Award, and no health insurance.

RAJPAL (voiceover): We find out why, for Hilary Swank, fame didn't always take.





RAJPAL: For me, sitting here with you, you just seem so normal.


SWANK: I am normal.

RAJPAL: How do you maintain this perspective in an industry where it has been described as being very celebrity-driven? Wanting, you know, just - how do you stay away from that?

SWANK: Well, I stay away from it because it's not really my life. It's not what I'm interested in. I didn't become an actor to become a celebrity. So, obviously paparazzi will find you, wherever you are, and that's just a part of it. But no, I don't do the "scene" type of things.

RAJPAL: I read somewhere that you learned - because of the work that you do and the acting that you've done and the roles that you've chosen - it's given you a perspective on life that you probably may not have had, had you not picked those roles.

SWANK: Absolutely.

RAJPAL: What have you learned about yourself, through those roles that you've portrayed?

SWANK: I've learned many things. I think one is that I continually learn that I need to be less judgmental. I think I'm not, but we all have our own judgments just because that's a human quality. But I'm constantly reminded to be more open-minded and that there's so much more that I want to learn about - I know we keep coming back to this - about different ways of life and different ways of looking at life.

RAJPAL: Does that influence, also, the kind of decisions you make now, as a producer?

SWANK: Yes. You know, my company, "2S Films" is still very new in the overall scheme of things. We've been a company now for only four years. So my partner, Molly Smith, really likes rom-coms. She likes comedies, and that's great because I said I wanted to get back in comedy. It doesn't mean I'll be in all of them. But that's also another important thing to remember, like I said, in life, too, is to laugh.

RAJPAL: I've read on your website for 2S Films that "2S was formed to develop and produce female-driven projects featuring grounded, flawed characters". Why flawed characters?

SWANK: Because we're all flawed and no one's perfect. And I think that the image that we are perfect is one of the most detrimental things that we can put out there. Especially for young women.

RAJPAL: I read somewhere that, growing up, you felt like an outsider.


RAJPAL: Now that you're a producer, you're literally an insider now, in Hollywood. Do you still feel like an outsider sometimes?

SWANK: I think we all do. I think that's another common characteristic of everybody. I think at one time or another we've felt like an outsider. But I feel less like an outsider than I did then.

RAJPAL: One would hope that, after two Academy Awards, you wouldn't feel like you'd have to prove anything to someone. Or anyone.

SWANK: Yes, you know? And that's a great feeling. And I think - I'm feeling good about things.

RAJPAL: So those awards and that kind of recognition - what does that mean for you?

SWANK: Well, I never became an actor for those types of - the accolades or - it wasn't something that I really thought much about. It leaves me speechless to think that, in living my dream and doing what I love, that those roles have been recognized in such a profound way by people who inspire me and that I respect so enormously.

RAJPAL: How do you feel about your own judgment now, when you look at the fact that, when you took on the role for "Boys Don't Cry" you were paid, what, $3,000?

SWANK: Yes, $3,000.

RAJPAL: And didn't I read that you didn't have health insurance?

SWANK: Yes, you have to make $5,000 a year to have health insurance. So -

RAJPAL: And so you didn't have health insurance?

SWANK: I had an Academy Award and no health insurance.

RAJPAL: That's just crazy.


RAJPAL: So do you feel that you make good choices?

SWANK: Yes, but you know - actually, Clint said it really well, "You always aim for the bull's-eye, but you don't always hit it". And that's just the way life is, so you can come on board with something and say, "I really like this. I really believe in this". And it doesn't always work. And that's just the way it is.

RAJPAL: You said you grew up, humble beginnings. There are people that judged - not maybe - not other kids, but kids' parents. What would you tell those parents, today? What would you say to them?

SWANK: I always try and take the high road and, again, going back to compassion - try and understand where, maybe, that was coming from. It's a hard one. I now have some of those people, when I go back to my hometown, say, "Oh we're so happy for you". And I have to bite my tongue to not say, "Really? Really? You're happy now? Now that I'm well-known?"

RAJPAL: I read that you went to India. You spent a month in Northern India?

SWANK: Yes, I did. Yes.

RAJPAL: Working with orphans and teaching English?


RAJPAL: Tell me about that. What prompted you to do that? Spend a month in rural India?

SWANK: I was going through a challenging time in my life and I felt like, you know, it felt like I just needed to get outside of myself and be reminded that there's other people struggling, too. And you're not alone in that. And there's harder things to deal with in the world. So I went to India for five weeks. Like you said, I worked with children in orphanages and in schools.

RAJPAL: What was that like for you?

SWANK: It was one of the most incredible experiences. Because one, I went by myself. But two, I thought it was going to be so easy - I don't know, to teach kids an alphabet. And I'm still, to this day, really touched.

There's this one - if I can tell the story, quickly - there's this one young girl who was kind of closed off. And, you know, she didn't really want to do it. And she was kind of just there. And, by the end, when I was leaving, all of a sudden, I heard, "A, B, C" really loud, and I turned around, and it was her, saying the alphabet really loud and looking right at me. And her teacher said, "That's her, thanking you". And I was just - I welled up and, afterwards, she was like, "Namaste".

RAJPAL: That's beautiful.

SWANK: And I, you know - and I carry them in my heart.

RAJPAL: What's next for you?

SWANK: I am going to do a movie with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, which I'm beyond excited about. And I'm also doing another movie called "Race to Save Nome" in Calgary.

RAJPAL: Well, we wish you the best of luck. Thank you very much.

SWANK: Thank you very much. It was a great interview.