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Hilary Swank: From unknown to first-class contender

Hilary Swank says working on "Million Dollar Baby" was a great learning experience.

Hilary Swank will quite possibly win the Oscar as best actress this year, for a role in a movie nobody had heard of two weeks ago. The movie is Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which wasn't in any of those stories we were all reading about Oscar "front-runners," because crafty old Clint doesn't believe in a lot of foolish publicity before he has a movie to show you. Oh, and the movie will be a contender for best picture, actor, supporting actor and director, too, and cinematography, editing, all those categories.

What happened was, Eastwood showed it to Warner Brothers, which had no plans for an Oscar campaign until studio executives realized they had an amazing movie on their hands.The first press screenings were held only two weeks ago, and word began to spread: Tear up your Oscar predictions and start over again.

The movie stars Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, a girl "who has always been told she is trash," who grew up in a welfare family in a trailer park, who has been waitressing since she was 13, and who at the age of 31 wants to become a boxer. Eastwood plays Frankie, the veteran trainer who doesn't approve of "girlies" who want to box, and Morgan Freeman is Scrap, his oldest friend and resident manager of his run-down gym.

"I'm a girl who grew up in a trailer park," Hilary Swank told me quietly last week. "Maggie Fitzgerald is the closest I've felt to any character I've ever played. We're both girls who had a dream, worked hard and were diligent and driven and focused. I was lucky I had someone who believed in me."

That was her mother, Judy. "She said to me, 'Hilary, you can do anything you dream in life as long as you work hard.' " Her dream was to be an actress. Perhaps even her mother did not dream Hilary would win an Oscar, but she did, as best actress, for "Boys Don't Cry" (1999). She played a girl who tries to live as a boy, and who is killed when her secret is discovered.

That was a great performance. Her Maggie Fitzgerald is, I think, probably even greater, because she takes us on an even longer journey. Maggie is direct, sympathetic and believable. You care about this woman. You feel protective. "Million Dollar Baby" is the kind of movie where people look you in the eye and tell you to see it, and their voices have a curious intensity.

How did you get from the trailer park to the Oscars? I asked Swank.

"My mom got fired from her job. My parents were separated. She said, 'OK, let's go to Hollywood,' and we drove to Hollywood in our broken-down Olds Cutlass Supreme. We had 75 bucks and we drove there from Washington state, and we lived off our Mobil card. We'd buy food in the gas station minimart, and my mom would slowly pay it off.

"There were a few weeks when we lived out of that car. People say, 'Oh, that's so intense and difficult and sad.' It wasn't any of that to me. I was in Hollywood and for me ... every single minute of it was ecstatic."

You sense stability and thoughtfulness as she speaks, and you see that in the character of Maggie, too. There's not a lot of behavior and acting out going on; she's not nodding and smiling and looking for feedback.

"What we'd do is, we'd find a friend who was moving out and their house was for sale. There'd be nothing in the house. We'd blow up air mattresses and sleep on those at night and roll them up in the car. My mom got a job after about a month of that, and we rented a room for $500, lived there for a year, and things slowly built up."

Many such stories, most of them, end in disappointment. But there was a plucky quality about Swank that had attracted the Seattle casting director Suzy Sachs, who worked with her and put her in local productions from the age of 9. "In Hollywood, my first movie was 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' in 1992, and then came 'The Next Karate Kid.' "

That was in 1994, when she was 20. She was a troubled teenage girl who Mr. Miyagi heals through the lessons of karate. Swank has worked more or less steadily ever since, sometimes forgettably ("The Affair Of The Necklace") sometimes not ("Insomnia"). She said her marriage to actor Chad Lowe "comes first," and acting is the rest.

Seeing her in "Million Dollar Baby" and "Boys Don't Cry," you realize that the right role is crucial. Frances McDormand was great but unsung before "Fargo." Halle Berry and Charlize Theron were skilled professionals before "Monster's Ball" and "Monster," but those roles transformed them. Swank has had two roles like that in five years. Meryl Streep knows what that feels like, but most actresses can only wonder.

Of course somebody has to make it happen. Do people realize how good Clint Eastwood is as a director? He's been a movie star so long, it obscures the view.

"I would work for the rest of my life with Clint, if I could," Swank told me. This was last Thursday morning in Chicago, on a press tour that became necessary when the movie went from obscurity to contender in a few days. Eastwood's strategy of no advance publicity had been brilliant. Why tell people your movie is going to be great, when you can just show it to them and let them see for themselves? There was another reason to keep it under wraps: You don't want to know too much about the plot before you see it. It's not really a boxing movie; it's about Maggie as a person.

"The early reviews that have appeared in the trade papers have avoided revealing too much," Swank said. "Thank God for that."

As for Eastwood: "There is a quiet presence about him that's not arrogant or egotistical, it's just that he's been around and knows what he wants. His belief in you makes you believe in yourself, which makes you follow your instincts. Then you watch the finished film and you realize his fingerprints are all over it. You were being guided so subtly and simply, you never felt like anything was being forced on you. You felt like everything was your idea. It was the best experience I've had in my career so far."

What she saw in Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as actors, she said, was an unadorned and effortless approach, with everything unnecessary stripped away: "You don't know where the acting starts and stops. Morgan will just be talking to you and you'll realize, 'Oh, we're rolling,' and he's saying his lines! I was all the time just trying to observe Morgan and Clint. All I did was stare and gawk. I was on the set even when I wasn't in the scene. I just wanted to sponge it up."

Tom Rosenberg, the Chicago-based producer of the film, told me that working with Eastwood was a revelation: "Always under budget, always ahead of schedule, and he makes great movies. How many directors can you say that about?"

Hilary Swank nodded. "Tom was around all the time. He's hands-on. He was involved in my training. He was concerned we only had two months to build me up to look more like a boxer. Well, finally we had three. I put on 20 pounds of muscle." She talked about her training: six days a week, 2-1/2 hours of boxing, two hours of weights, then the endurance training and protein, protein, protein: "I just plugged my nose and downed these egg whites, flax oil, raw fish, cooked fish, green vegetables ..."

She agreed with Rosenberg about Eastwood's discipline as a director. "He gets everything he wants, and doesn't waste one additional moment. Our longest day was 12 hours, and that included moving the company to another location. Sometimes we would finish the day's shots before lunch and he'd tell us to go home and he'd see us tomorrow. He was like one of the crew. He stood in line for lunch like everybody else. He'd never think of cutting in, which is the director's right. He was always on the set, never in his trailer.

"Every day that went by, it was a day I was sad because it was a day less that I had to spend with them. I would joke around at the end that I might not know my lines tomorrow, just so that we wouldn't finish early. I just didn't want it to be over."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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