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In 2005, Hilary Swank became only the fourth actress ever — and first in more than a half-century — to win Academy Awards on her first two nominations (the first three were Luise Rainer, Helen Hayes, and Vivien Leigh). Not only that, but she won for two lead roles (Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby), and over a span of only five years. It was a dramatic accomplishment for the Nebraska native, who famously said while accepting her second Oscar, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”
Swank, 40, is once again in awards contention for the Tommy Lee Jones-directed period drama The Homesman, which, like Boys Don’t Cry, brings her back to her home state (at least in setting). She plays a pioneer who helps transport three troubled women across dangerous and desolate terrain from Nebraska to Iowa, with the help of Jones’s expectedly grizzled claim jumper.
It’s been quite the journey for Swank so far, who made her movie debut in 1992 and has transitioned from teen breakout to indie darling to marquee movie star. She talks about her most famous roles in our latest edition of Role Recall, which you can watch above.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
After a few guest appearances on TV shows like Harry and the Hendersons and Growing Pains, Swank made her big-screen bow at 16 in this teen comedy best known for introducing the world to Joss Whedon and leading to his more popular TV spinoff. “I was completely nervous because I didn’t want to mess up,” she says of her supporting role as the bratty Kimberly. “All the sudden got this opportunity to live my dream. I was living the high life!”
The Next Karate Kid (1994)
Swank stepped into her first lead role — and had big shoes to fill, taking over for Ralph Macchio — in the fourth installment of the popular martial-arts franchise co-starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi. She says she took the role of brooding teen Julie Pierce very seriously — maybe even too seriously. “That character was so intense, and had those teenage troubles and angst. I remember feeling like if I ever let any of my happiness seep in, I would lose touch with my angst,” she explains. “So I would walk around Method. … I had this constant scowl on my face.” Not even Miyagi could get her to lighten up.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Swank’s early experience in method acting would pay dividends when she was cast in Kimberly Peirce’s devastating drama about Brandon Teena, a real-life transgendered man who was brutally raped and murdered in a Nebraska hate crime. “I walked around trying to pass as a boy for five weeks before filming that movie,” she says. “Seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and losing a bunch of body fat so that my face would be thinner. My neighbors thought that I was my cousin Billy from Iowa.”
The role, which earned Swank an Academy Award for Best Actress, has had a lasting effect on her. “Knowing that it really happened to someone, to this day still makes me emotional,” says the actress, who regularly campaigns for LGBT rights. “And to know this is still happening. We’re still fighting for gay marriage. Fifteen years later it’s still important to talk about.”
The Gift (2000)
Swank’s first post-Oscar appearance came in this star-studded, Sam Raimi-directed thriller about a psychic (Cate Blanchett) whose powers are tapped into to find a missing woman (Katie Holmes). The actress says the cast, which also included Keanu Reeves and Greg Kinnear, bonded by attending local North Carolina cultural attractions like a monster truck rally. “You’re just in there, breathing fumes,” she says after offering up her best impression of a truck noise. “We were laughing so hard.”
The actress teamed up with director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar) and two of the biggest stars in the business for this trippy mystery. She played a young Alaska cop who aids a grizzled detective (Al Pacino) in investigating a creepy murder suspect (Robin Williams), and it was a case of art imitating life: “My character looked to Al Pacino’s character as almost a saint,” she says. “He was doing what she wanted to do in her life.”
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Swank gained 23 pounds of muscle to play amateur boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning drama, and that was no easy feat for the actress, who was a vegetarian at the time. “My trainer begged me to please eat a steak,” she says. “I had to eat something like 210 grams of protein a day, and that entailed eating every hour-and-a-half. So I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I would drink protein shakes that were next to my bed. And I trained five hours a day, six days a week, for three months.” Once again the intense preparation paid off. Swank won her second Oscar for the role.
Freedom Writers (2007)
It was not just her character, real-life inner-city teacher Erin Gruwell, but also her real-life students, that inspired Swank on the set of this motivational drama: “All of these kids had been either shot at or shot at somebody, and none of them were expected to graduate high school … and by the time she got through the school year, all of them graduated,” she says. “Meeting those kids, who were no longer kids anymore when they came on set was a reminder that we’re so much more than what people put on us. … We’re so much more than our covers.”