Swank Finds Her Next Thrill in ‘Amelia’
NEW YORK - If you're planning a long-distance rendezvous, don't tell Hilary Swank. She might show up and fly you there herself, as she did recently with her wary boyfriend, film agent John Campisi.
"He had a business meeting in Las Vegas, and I went and picked him up. I canceled his flight and I flew to Vegas, with my instructor. He was big-eyed. He's sitting in the back, white-knuckled," Swank says with a giggle.
It's a gambit that might make aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart proud. After all, it's thanks to Earhart, whom Swank plays in the biopic Amelia, opening Friday, that the two-time Oscar winner went airborne in the first place.
"You can't play Amelia Earhart and not learn how to fly. That's just wrong in every way," says Swank, who plans to earn her pilot's license after she's done promoting the film.
Flying, she says, "is something I take very seriously. I'm not a big sweater, but when I land, my back is drenched. It takes a lot of concentration. It's really exhilarating."
For her, so is acting. On the screen, she has played a boxer and a transgendered teen in roles in 2004's Million Dollar Baby and 1999's Boys Don't Cry that netted her best-actress Oscars. In person, Swank, 35, is elegant and composed, preferring English breakfast tea with honey and scones - or Italian red wine - to anything more rowdy, she insists. Still, there's a skydiving, plane-flying daredevil lurking within the refined actress clad in a flowered Reem Acra frock and open-toe stilettos.
It's why director Mira Nair cast Swank as Earhart, who disappeared in 1937 while trying to circle the globe. For Nair, Swank was the obvious choice to step into Earhart's cockpit.
"My Amelia is not a fuddy duddy. She's a force of nature. Hilary is full of fun and full of life," Nair says. "I think of Hilary as a spiritual actor, someone who embodies the character from within in a very careful way with a lot of preparation. There's so much about Amelia that exists in newsreels, and Hilary really took that seriously. But the most beautiful part is that it appears transparent. You don't see the work."
Like Earhart, Swank is driven and dedicated, and she knew from an early age what she wanted to do for a living. For her, Earhart was a personal inspiration, an outspoken woman who lived by her own rules.
"She really made no apologies for living her life the way she wanted to live it," Swank says. "In the end, we're usually either living for someone else, and somewhere in there we lose track of why we're here, for ourselves. I found it remarkable that she never veered from the path that was right for her."
The same goes for Swank. Her colleagues and friends speak repeatedly of her enthusiasm and buoyancy, as well as her work ethic, her preparation, her near-total immersion in her characters, down to the slightest tic and inflection.
"She's serious about her work," Nair says. "Her preparation is so deep. She really loved who Amelia was and is, the strength of her and the mystery of her."
To play Earhart, Swank studied hours of newsreels and spent eight weeks learning her speech patterns. "It was very specific, the way she spoke," Swank says. "That's where my passion lies in my job, in the figuring it out."
And she mimicked Earhart's short hair and distinctive appearance.
"We know what she looks like. Her pictures are all over the place. You don't want people saying, 'That doesn't look like her.' The physicality was one of the important things to figure out," Swank says. "I don't think there's a huge similarity. She had gray eyes. She had light skin and freckles. It's such a responsibility. She's an icon."
Like Earhart, Swank thinks of herself as a risk-taker, jumping out of a plane when she was 20 and making some surprising choices in her professional life. She says she never signs up for a project with the hopes that it will net her a slew of awards, or improve her asking price. She isn't wondering whether Amelia will earn her a third Academy Award.
"It's about the journey, the process. I get to learn how to fly, how to box. I love daredevil things. I don't know if it's my sign (Leo) or my makeup. I like to take roles that are challenging in a way that scare me. Can I figure it out? Can I crack this character?
"You either fall flat on your face or - it's certainly not the safe road. Safe road is not much my personality. It sets you up for getting mud thrown at you, too - people saying that either that really worked, or it didn't. It keeps it lively."
Her career has been anything but safe. For every Million Dollar Baby, there's a dud like 2007's P.S. I Love You. Still, Swank says numerous times how blessed she feels, to be able to do what she loves and get paid for it. And after a lackluster trio of films - 2007's The Reaping and Freedom Writers, and 2006's The Black Dahlia - Swank seems to be in prestige territory again with Amelia, even though she doesn't read her own press or reviews.
Having two Oscars seems unreal to her. "I don't think it's quite hit me. I do quadruple-takes when I look at my bookshelf. It leaves me almost speechless."
Quite literally, says Swank's friend Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who co-stars with her in next year's thriller The Resident.
"We don't sit around and talk about her Oscars. I've spent a lot of time with her, and they've never come up," he says. "She's in this for the right reasons. She's not after accolades. What I can tell you is, she isn't sitting on her laurels. She's not going into a movie thinking, 'I'm going to win an Oscar with this baby.' "
Swank listens and learns
Spend 15 minutes with Swank and you realize immediately why the lady has taken home two of Hollywood's golden guys. Nothing gets past her.
"I listen to the way people speak," she says, then analyzes the speech patterns of her table companion.
Her eyes discreetly roam around the room. The two women sitting in front of her? Swank instantly spots that both have been checking their cellphones and texting away and just apologized to one another for doing so. The ladies sitting next to her? They're speaking Italian, albeit very quietly.
"I hear it's a foreign language," she murmurs. "That's the fun part of my job. I listen and break it down. As a kid, my mom used to say to me, 'Hilary, stop staring!' I would watch everything. I find human behavior so fascinating."
It's what makes her such a formidable actress, says Sam Rockwell, who plays her brother in the upcoming true-life drama Betty Anne Waters.
"She's curious about life and people, and that makes you more open when you're that way," he says. "There's something different about her in that way. I don't think people realize how much homework is necessary to put together a three-dimensional person. She has detail and nuance in her performances. She does the work, and that's what makes her special."
No wonder Rockwell calls her "the hardest-working chick in show business. She's up there with Meryl Streep and Ellen Burstyn. What I see is that she's putting in the work and not on her cellphone when she's getting ready to do a scene. She's there to play ball, man."
Swank isn't one to gush in interviews. She reveals that she and Campisi are foodies - he cooks, she bakes pies. She's passionate about adopting animals from shelters and is the spokeswoman for the IAMS pet adoption campaign, and she lives with three rescue dogs in Los Angeles. And she's punctual - when she's not early.
"She's on time, man. It says a lot about her. That's her work ethic and being on time is part of that," Rockwell says.
She's also not quite as intense as people might think, as Nair saw while filming Amelia.
"During shooting, we were finally, after a 15-hour day, going on a little plane to go home for the weekend. It was her and me, and we were walking on the tarmac. She races in front of me, jumps up in the air, kicks up her heels and does it three times," Nair says. "She has a sense of joy in living."
And she has a deep attachment to her inner circle. Recently, when Nair had a pounding headache, Swank made her a massage appointment at her favorite locale. And when he needs to talk out a crisis, Morgan calls Swank.
"She's one of the few people I can go to and talk about any issues I'm having in my life. Her advice is real and from the heart," he says. "As a person, I don't know if I've met anyone more loyal. She's quiet and reserved if you don't know her. If you know her, she's the opposite: outgoing and friendly and supportive."
At home with Hilary
Her on-screen antics might be attention-grabbing, but her off-screen life in Los Angeles is anything but, Swank swears.
"One of my friends actually said, 'You guys want to go to this club?' My boyfriend and I were joking that the only club we know is the turkey club at Jerry's Deli. We go to bed at 9:30!" Swank cracks.
"My life, when I'm not on a set or traveling for movies, is really laid-back. It's all about friends and family. Hanging out with my dogs, going to the beach, hiking. It's about watching movies," she adds. "I'm learning how to speak Italian, just for fun."
Swank says she's very aware of how fortunate she is.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest girl on earth. I like my job," she says. "You can't fake enthusiasm."