NEW YORK – Hilary Swank (search) received some unsolicited career advice recently from a casting director: Enough with the tough-girl-in-a-man's-world roles. Embrace your inner supermodel.
But Swank seems to be doing just fine making her own decisions, thank you. After winning the best-actress Oscar at 25 for playing the sexually conflicted Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry," (search) she's the subject of that ethereal thing called Oscar buzz again at 30 for "Million Dollar Baby." (search)
She's already been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for playing the determined boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, alongside director Clint Eastwood (who co-stars as Maggie's reluctant manager) and Morgan Freeman, whose character helps run the gym where Maggie trains. The film received five nominations total, including best motion picture drama.
So back to that career advice, courtesy of a New York Times article written by casting director Felicia Fasano...
"I think it's great that I'm in a position that someone wants to give me advice. You know what I mean?" she told The Associated Press over dinner between bites of salad and salmon. "We all make our own choices in the end. People can give us advice — we can take it, we can leave it. We're adults. Like I said, I think it's great that someone even wants to write and give me advice."
She says this, and everything else during an hour-long interview, in a down-to-earth way and with an infectious enthusiasm.
"I follow my gut because in the end that's all you have. I shied away from playing just 'the girl' roles because I didn't find them inspiring," she added. "I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to push myself to the limit. I wanted to — I want to — do all that. That's where my passion lies, and it's not just playing the arm candy."
Eastwood thought Swank would be right for "Million Dollar Baby" because she comes from humble beginnings, like Maggie. Swank lived in a trailer growing up, and she and her mom (her parents are divorced) slept in their car for a few weeks after moving to Los Angeles.
"She's got that Midwestern normalcy about her. She hasn't been jaded by Hollywood or New York," Eastwood told The Associated Press. "It just seems legitimate."
Meeting Swank, it's easy to imagine her in more glamorous roles than she's played in the past, such as a detective in "Insomnia" and an astronaut in "The Core."
She's about 5 foot 7, and on this particular night she's even taller in a pair of flirty little pumps adorned with black ribbons. She's naturally athletic (she swam and did gymnastics competitively in her youth) but turned her body into even more of a physical specimen for this movie. And she has a broad smile that she flashes frequently, despite insisting that she's tired from having just flown home to New York from Los Angeles.
To get in shape for "Million Dollar Baby," Swank boxed and did weight training four and a half hours a day, six days a week, for three months before shooting began. She also had to consume 210 grams of protein a day, which required her to wake up in the middle of the night and drink protein shakes — though she swears she didn't wake her husband, actor Chad Lowe, with whom she lives in downtown Manhattan with two dogs, a cat and two parrots.
"He's a good, hard sleeper," she said, laughing. "I didn't turn the light on — they were just in these little boxes by my bed, and I would walk out of the room with it, shake it up, drink it, go to the bathroom, get back in bed."
At first, the producers suggested that she put on 10 pounds of muscle. And she did that, but she didn't think she looked believable enough. So she ended up gaining a total of 19 pounds of muscle.
"My back, my arms, my legs — everything changed," she said. "My butt, my stomach, everything."
Swank unhooked the buckle on her brown leather purse, reached inside and produced a photo of herself taken the previous day during a Vanity Fair magazine shoot. She's running along the beach — though calling it running wouldn't do it justice. Anyone can run. Swank is striding across the sand in the sunshine, dressed in a navy blue jog bra and tight shorts, the wind flowing through her long, brown hair.
She looks like something out of a Nike ad, and this is some five months after filming ended.
"It was weird," she continued. "It's not like I really changed sizes, but none of my jackets fit my shoulders. My shoulders got too broad, my arms got too big for my shirts, my jeans were really tight on my thighs. I lost a breast size because I lost body fat — it was just muscle I was gaining. But it was great because you realize that your body is a machine. It can adapt to whatever you need it to."
It's not the first time she changed her appearance — a then-unknown Swank first did it for the 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry," the devastating true story of Teena Brandon, a young woman who was raped and murdered for wanting to live life as a young man named Brandon Teena. Swank immersed herself by cutting her hair short and living as a man for weeks before shooting began.
She found it hard to recover afterward. "I felt like I wasn't feminine anymore at all. I just went home and started doing the things that I always do, hanging out with my family and my friends," she said. "And my hair grew back. But there were definitely moments when I was worried that I was gonna be stuck in this, like, somewhere-in-between boy-girl."
If you've seen the Calvin Klein lingerie ads Swank did this summer, though, you have no doubt about her femininity. The black-and-white ads, shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel, show Swank in an unexpectedly sexy, curvy way.
"People don't see me that way. People don't know me like that," she said. "I couldn't believe it was me."
Calvin Klein spokeswoman Kim Vernon said the goal was to create "pictures that stop people."
"We had this light bulb with Hilary. Everyone had this impression of her as this gender-confused girl from 'Boys Don't Cry,' and we knew with the right team we could create pictures that would show her in a way that had never been seen: extremely sexy, great body," Vernon said. "And she got so excited about the idea to do it, and to challenge herself like she always has in her roles."
And her husband's reaction? "He loved them," Swank said.
She met Lowe, an Emmy winner for "Life Goes On" who's now turning his attention toward directing, in Los Angeles 12 years ago. He was 24; she had just turned 18.
"We met at a party and he asked me to dinner and we've been together ever since," she said.
Being married to a fellow actor helps, she says, because "he understands the ups and downs, what they mean. A lot of people think that this life is, you know, so easy, and you get to fly around the world, and you wear fancy clothes. And I can see why it looks so glamorous, but in the end it's a really tough business, too. And having someone really understand that is important."