Actress Got Lost in the Story of Brandon Teena

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hilary Swank, self-proclaimed "girly girl," remembers her first time. She was in the lobby of New York's Tribeca Film Center, decked out in her husband's clothes, her long, blond hair tucked under a $1 cowboy hat from a secondhand store. She was waiting to audition for the lead role in the film "Boys Don't Cry."

The doorman phoned the director and producers upstairs and said, "There's this guy here. He says he has a reading. Should I send him up?"

"That was the first time I passed as a boy," Swank said. "Needless to say it gave me an extra confidence boost. It was fantastic."

"Boys Don't Cry" is based on the true, tragic story of Brandon Teena, a young woman who daringly passed as a boy in rural Nebraska. As Brandon, Swank, 25, makes it hard to believe she's acting. Her already alto voice drops a half-octave. She catches girls' eyes. She swaggers. Already her performance has earned her flattering reviews and the best actress award at the Chicago International Film Festival.

It was an amazing turn of events for an actress previously best known for her role in "The Next Karate Kid"--not exactly a stepping stone for a role in an edgy indie film.

"I was so lucky because they didn't want to hire someone famous," Swank said. "They didn't want someone where people would say, 'Oh, there's so-and-so playing a boy.' They wanted people to get lost in the story. So I was afforded this amazing opportunity to stretch myself as an artist--and it just happened to stretch me as a human being."

Director Kimberly Peirce, who made a short film about Brandon before "Boys Don't Cry," had been hunting for the perfect actress for more than three years. When the feature secured financing last year, the search became more frantic.

"I was flooded by girls in 1998--but none of them had any idea what it was to be butch," Peirce said. "I was doing open calls. I finally walked into my producer's office and said, 'I can't make this movie unless Brandon is real. And I'm concerned that we're not going to find this person.' " Then, casting director Kerry Barden returned from Los Angeles with a videotape of Swank. The raw material was undeniably there.

"She's got a gorgeous jaw, and those hard lines in her face, the cheekbones, beautiful big eyes," Peirce said.

But what truly landed Swank the role, Peirce said, was that she tapped into the joy that Brandon felt being a boy. "She smiled throughout the audition. She loved being Brandon. And that was one thing I knew: Brandon loved being Brandon."

Born in Lincoln, Neb.--one thing she does have in common with the real Brandon--Swank spent most of her childhood in Bellingham, Wash., where she started acting in local theater at age 8. Eight years later, her mother acknowledged acting was more than a passing interest, and they moved to Los Angeles.

"My mom called an agency and said, 'My daughter is an actress and she's beautiful and you should see her.' And they did," Swank recalled. "I read a McDonald's commercial. They signed me and I was with them for five years." In her first year, she starred in a TV pilot and had a part in the film "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Later she appeared in several TV movies and had a recurring role on "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Immediately after being cast, Swank began her transformation. Peirce took her to Astor Place Barber Shop. Much to the dismay of the hairstylist, the blond hair that reached Swank's mid-back had to go. What hair remained was dyed chestnut brown.

Afterward, Swank walked across the street to meet her husband, actor Chad Lowe, at Starbucks. "He said the only reason he could find me was because I had his shirt on," she said. "I saw his face. He was speechless."

In Training to Be a Boy

Back in Los Angeles, Swank went on a physical and psychological regimen. A personal trainer helped the already slender Swank lose more body fat to accentuate her facial bone structure. She exercised the lower register of her voice. She read books about being transgendered and court transcripts about Brandon. And every day she would "strap and pack"--bind her breasts and put a sock in her pants--and try to pass as a boy in public.

"People used the pronoun 'he' all the time, but I'm sure not everyone thought I was a boy. There were people who were confused by my gender. And in those instances--if I blurred that line and didn't fit into the stereotypical image of boy or girl--people didn't want to have anything to do with me. They were threatened or just didn't know how to react. . . . I didn't realize what it was like to be out in the world as someone that people can't define. That's a really lonely place. I thought that becoming a boy I'd be treated with more respect--but I'm afforded a lot more respect as a girl that people can define."

Lowe helped, too, by introducing her as Hilary's brother, James, and gauging people's response. She fooled her neighbors. She ran into people who had directed her, and they didn't recognize her.

Still, nothing could fully prepare her for what it would be like to live and breathe Brandon's life for five weeks. On set, she was blurring the gender line from the beginning, said Peirce. Producer Eva Kolodner saw it, too. "She was immersed in this boyness. She left everything of Hilary somewhere else. Even as the movie is just coming out, I feel like I'm just getting to know who Hilary really is."

More than halfway through the shoot on location in and around Dallas, Swank began to wonder who Hilary really was, too.

"I felt like I lost every ounce of Hilary, that I was never going to find myself again. That doesn't mean that I wanted to be with women, or that I didn't want to go back to my lifestyle--but I looked in the mirror and all my mannerisms were gone. . . .

"I thought, 'I have to get away and get centered and be myself.' I put a little makeup on, put my own clothes on, didn't strap my breasts. And I just looked androgynous. I didn't look like a boy or girl. I was further from anything that I ever knew of myself, and that was scary. I never thought I was going to get it back."

She called Lowe, who flew to Dallas for the final weeks of the shoot. They've been married for two years but have been a couple for seven. "He was the only one who could see past my physical appearance and be there for me mentally and emotionally. . . . Without him I don't know if I would have made it through the rest of it."

The rest of it included scenes of brutal intensity, after Brandon's identity and his life in this small town unravels. Two of his friends, feeling betrayed and sickened, attack Brandon.

But despite the violent episodes at the end, "Boys Don't Cry" doesn't play simply as a tragedy. To Swank, the movie transcends questions of gender and intolerance.

"It's a story about a hate crime--but also about finding yourself," she said. "There's nothing more joyful or exciting than seeing someone who is living their dream. And you're magnetized to it, or you want to bring it down. And I think a lot of people were magnetized to Brandon, but eventually someone wanted to bring him down."

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