When Hilary Swank was 16 years old, her mom asked her what she would do if her dream of becoming a famous actress went up in smoke.
“We’d only been in Los Angeles auditioning for about a year, but she said, ‘This getting rejected every day is difficult. If I can do that, I can do anything,’ ” recalled Swank’s mother, Judy.
Last week, just nine years later, Judy Swank asked her 25-year-old Oscar-nominated daughter a new version of the old question: After all the hoopla surrounding her star turn as a woman-in-man’s-clothing in “Boys Don’t Cry,” was she prepared for Oscar night? Hilary’s feet were soaking in soap suds at the time at Frederic Fekkai’s beauty salon in Beverly Hills.
“We were getting pedicures, and she looked up and said, ‘You know what? No matter what happens, I’ve had the time of my life,’ ” Judy Swank recalled proudly. “Hilary is just a very grounded person.”
That’s a good thing, because what happened Sunday night was the culmination of a monthlong emotional hurricane that would have tested the sanity of even the most level-headed cross-dressing actress. Swank beat out Annette Bening, Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep to win an Academy Award for best actress. And in so doing, she not only raised the profile of a tiny movie, she potentially transformed her career.
“I do feel like a princess. It’s been quite an amazing journey,” she told reporters backstage at the Oscars, though she seemed more determined to talk about the movie’s role in breaking down stereotypes. “To see this movie get this recognition is quite spectacular.”
Part of the goodwill Swank has enjoyed since her Oscar nomination is surely a result of her graceful way of deflecting most questions about herself, choosing instead to talk about the lessons she learned when she stepped into another person’s shoes.
Sunday night was no exception: “I can’t honestly stand here and say I know what it feels like to be a boy, but . . . I know how it feels to be a human being with dreams and desires,” she said after winning. “I think this movie opens the door to letting people know what goes on in society and putting an end to intolerance.”
Even if such earnest selflessness didn’t move you, it would be difficult to begrudge Swank anything after hearing her story: As she mentioned briefly in her acceptance speech, she and her mom came to Los Angeles with just $75 in their pockets 10 years ago, living in their Oldsmobile Delta ’88 until Swank found work (on the TV show “Growing Pains”).
“I said to her the other night, ‘We’ve come a long ways since the inside of that car, haven’t we?’ ” Judy Swank said, adding that she always believed her daughter--a one-time Junior Olympic swimmer and gymnast--could go the distance.
“I used to tell her when she was in competition, ‘Remember who you are and where you’re from.’ We’re Midwesterners--she was born in Nebraska, 300 miles from where I was born and raised, in Iowa. And that’s a solid basis,” Judy Swank continued. “There are times when I look at her and--aside from thinking I changed her diapers once--I say to myself, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like her.’ ”
Before “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank was best known for one season on “Beverly Hills, 90210" and her lead performance in 1994’s “The Next Karate Kid.” Now, she’s everywhere. In addition to the Oscar nomination, she’s got a Golden Globe Award and numerous other nods ranging from Los Angeles and New York film critics honors to her recent coronation as ShoWest’s Female Star of Tomorrow. Her picture is in all the glossy magazines--Talk even crowned hers the body that most designers wanted to dress for this year’s Academy Awards.
(She opted for an iridescent olive Randolph Duke gown that was inspired by an idea of Swank’s, and a 17th century vintage diamond necklace.)
But the most lasting impact of her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a doomed young woman who lives life as a man, is the caliber of work--and talent management--she’s been getting. She’s signed with a new agent (Hylda Queally at the William Morris Agency), has met with directors like Michael Bay and Ridley Scott, and has watched her paycheck rise, she has joked, “about 1,000%.”
“I’ve always read good scripts, but I’ve not always had the opportunity to be a part of them,” Swank said diplomatically the other night at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, sporting black leather pants and a dramatic black pashmina wrap at the chilly outdoor bash hosted by Killer Films, which produced “Boys Don’t Cry.” And now? “This is a dream come true.”
When Swank was nominated for the Oscar last month, she was on the set of “The Gift,” in which she plays a battered wife married to Keanu Reeves. She called the role “very, very supporting"--the plot revolves around Cate Blanchett, who plays a psychic called upon to find a missing woman (Katie Holmes). Nevertheless, she was thrilled to work on a script by Billy Bob Thornton, be directed by Sam Raimi and benefit from the wisdom of two recent Oscar nominees: Blanchett and Greg Kinnear.
“That was actually really nice, to be with Cate and Greg,” she said. Their advice? “Just enjoy every moment. And breathe.”
That’s what she’s been trying to do. Last week was a whirlwind of parties, dress fittings and attempts, occasionally, to stay calm. Swank, her mom and her best friend got massages, facials and manicures and pedicures courtesy of Fekkai on Thursday. Friday night was a string of parties. On Saturday, a few hours before attending Elton John’s birthday party, she donned a black silk crepe flapper dress (complete with a feather on her head) and won a best female actress statuette at the 15th annual Independent Spirit Awards.
“Well, you must be having a relaxing little weekend!” director John Waters teased her as they presented a Spirit Award together on the beach in Santa Monica on Saturday. But there, as seemingly everywhere in recent weeks, the embrace of Swank was exceedingly fond--even when the relative newcomer to indie filmmaking made the faux pas of mistaking actor Steve Buscemi for Waters (Buscemi good-naturedly told the audience about it).
Next week, Swank begins preparation for her role in “The Affair of the Necklace,” based on the true story of Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a woman who left her adopted home in search of her royal heritage in late 18th century France. Directed by Charles Shyer (who made “Father of the Bride”), the film starts shooting in June.
“The Oscars have always been such an exciting thing all throughout my life,” Swank said two days before the ceremony, seeming truly pleased whether or not she took home the gold. “I’m someone who tunes in every single year and watches these people who’ve inspired me. And I get nervous for them! To think that I’m actually going to be walking down that red carpet, sitting in that seat! I’m so blessed.”
Times staff writers Eric Harrison and Lorenza Mun~oz contributed to this article.