Growing up in a mobile home in the Pacific Northwest, Hilary Swank unwittingly found herself placed in her first role: trailer trash.
"My friends' parents didn't want me playing with their kids, and I didn't understand it, because I didn't think of where I lived as being that big of a deal. I had a roof over my head," Swank said last week as she bit into a cucumber finger sandwich at Santa Monica's Tudor House tea room, a world away from her modest childhood home. "But their parents would say, 'You need to go home now.' At 7 years old, I learned what classism was."
These days, the Poor Girl has become strongly identified with another character type close to her life story: the Bold, Resilient Woman. It's little wonder, considering Swank won two Academy Awards for portraying such characters - first as a girl struggling with a gender identity crisis in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," and five years later as a boxer in "Million Dollar Baby."
Her latest film, "Conviction," out this Friday, is no exception. She plays Betty Anne Waters, a real-life single mother who put herself through law school in an effort to free her brother from prison because she believed he was wrongly convicted of murder.
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But instead of rebelling against or despairing over what some might see as pigeonholing, Swank, 36, seems at peace with it. She doesn't care if she's typecast, she says, because she likes drama.
"Dramatic, yeah. That's how people probably think of me," she said. "The hardest thing for an actor is to break out of what they do. I want to do it all - but at the core of my passion is drama."
Swank's strong dramatic bones seem to show through even when she does attempt something less serious - such as the 2007 romance "P.S. I Love You." Early in the story, her character's fiance dies from a brain tumor.
"I thought I was doing something light, but I ended up crying every day of that movie," she said, laughing.
Still, repeatedly taking on sober fare can be taxing, Swank admits. She first read the "Conviction" script after completing "Million Dollar Baby" but decided she wasn't ready for it. "I had done so many real-life characters back-to-back, and I just needed to breathe for a moment," she said.
"I play a lot of these true-life stories, one, because there's not a lot of original, unique fictional stories," she said. "If there are, they're usually written for males."
"Conviction," set in Massachusetts, centers on the bond between Waters and her brother, Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell), who remained close even after they were sent to separate foster homes as children. When a diner waitress was found stabbed to death in her trailer home in 1980, Kenny - known as a local troublemaker - was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Waters, believing he was innocent, devoted the next 18 years to freeing him.
Tony Goldwyn, the director of the film, spent years trying to attain the rights to the story after learning about Waters on TV. He and screenwriter Pamela Gray repeatedly visited Waters to interview her, and they dug up court transcripts to piece together the script.
That strength of that story is what ultimately persuaded Swank to sign on to the film, Goldwyn said - plus, she had come to accept that this was the kind of part she played best.
"She said to me, 'I have realized that I was put on the planet to play a certain kind of character, and this is one of them. This is what I was meant to do. It's to bring to life people like Betty Anne Waters,'" he recalled.
Life since the Oscars
Swank acknowledges that her career has changed significantly since "two-time Academy Award winner" was added almost like a title in front of her name. She witnessed that power when she returned home to Washington. Those who used to pick on her, she found, had suddenly become her biggest fans.
"After my movies came out, I would go back to my hometown and everyone was like, 'We always knew you were so special!'" she said, a glimmer of sadness appearing on her face. "And I was like, 'Oh, you did? You always knew it when you took your kids away and wouldn't let them play with me? Is that when I was special?'"
But her ability to access those painful memories is at the core of Swank's talent, Goldwyn said.
"One of the reasons she's a great actress is that she grew up under tough circumstances," he said. "She didn't have it easy. We were filming one scene in a trailer park, and she said, 'This is very intense for me, being here, because I remember living in a place like this and not knowing if I would ever get out of here.'"
She credits her mother, Judy, for having enough faith in her to pick up and move to Los Angeles when Hilary was 15. Her mother went to a bookstore and bought a book listing talent agencies in Los Angeles, and the two would camp out in phone booths for hours, cold-calling agents.
"That was the biggest gift my mom gave me, was to believe in myself," said Swank.