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A role worth fighting for

Times Staff Writer

She was a little-known actress when she won over critics and captured an Oscar for her raw portrayal of a woman whose sexual identity crisis ends in murder.

But Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with Hilary Swank after 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry.” She seemed out of place playing a countess in pre-revolutionary France in “The Affair of the Necklace.” And while she held her own in a supporting role in the crime drama “Insomnia,” she was largely forgettable in the popcorn sci-fi thriller “The Core.”

There were whispers about the Oscar “curse” as Swank slipped further and further off Hollywood’s radar.

Now, with “Million Dollar Baby,” the 30-year-old actress is poised to try to prove herself all over again. In the film, which opens Wednesday in L.A., Swank portrays a rough-hewn country girl named Maggie Fitzgerald who dreams of becoming a boxing champion. But she must first convince aging trainer Frankie Dunn, played by Clint Eastwood, to set aside his bias against “girl” boxers and tutor her in the sweet science.

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Just as Eastwood’s character nurtures Maggie’s rise in the ring, so does Eastwood -- as director -- guide Swank to the kind of performance that is already generating Oscar predictions.

Swank said she relied heavily on Eastwood’s “quiet presence” and put her trust in him and in the critically acclaimed performances he elicited from the ensemble cast in “Mystic River” and Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County.”

Most of all, Swank said, Eastwood’s confidence in her shored up her own confidence.

“Clint brings people into the movie that he feels are right for the job and then he lets them do their job,” Swank said. “It’s Acting 101. He says, ‘Trust your instinct. That’s what it’s there for. That is what it is all about.’ ”

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The role itself, though, represented the kind of physical and emotional terrain she wanted to move in again. “I read this and every cell of my body said I want to be part of it.”

Seeing eye to eye

Watching these Academy Award winners -- he for best director for “Unforgiven,” she for best actress for “Boys Don’t Cry” -- it’s clear that the father-daughter relationship the two forged on-screen continues off-screen. It was evident during a recent interview at Eastwood’s Spanish-style office on the Warner Bros. Burbank lot.

Swank, in a breezy dress, sat on an L-shaped sofa. Watching over her from a seat nearby was the movie legend himself, sporting a golf shirt and corduroy pants. He couldn’t suppress a smile as the comparative youngster talked about working with Eastwood on their new film. Before hitting stardom in Kimberly Peirce’s provocative indie “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank had been living out of the un-swanky Oakwood Apartments just up the hill from Warner Bros.

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“I used to drive by the studio and think, ‘God, someday I want to work on that lot,’ ” Swank recalled. So, when she auditioned for Eastwood, the memories of her struggles early in her career flooded back.

“I drove down the same hill, drove by the Oakwood Apartments and was driving onto the Warner Bros. lot to meet with this icon. And I thought, ‘Wow! It’s amazing how this has come full circle for me.’ ”

The screenplay, written by two-time Emmy winner Paul Haggis, is based on a short story from the collection “Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner” by F.X. Toole, the pen name of the late veteran ringside “cut man” Jerry Boyd, who died in 2002.

A fatherless Southern girl, Maggie tries to escape from a world where her mom lives in a trailer and collects welfare.

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If the character of Maggie resonated with Swank, it’s because of her Middle American roots. “I was born in Nebraska,” she said with a twang that her years in Hollywood have not erased. “I’m a Cornhusker!”

Swank, raised in Washington state, pulled no punches about her early life.

“I myself grew up in a trailer park,” she said. “I grew up poor.”

Swank came to Hollywood, hoofed it to more auditions than she cares to remember and appeared in a variety of TV shows and films such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Next Karate Kid.” Her early outings nearly had her typecast for sitcoms.

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“I had an executive, when I tested for a one-hour [TV] drama, say, ‘We think you’re good. We’d hire you for comedy. But you’re too half-hour,’ ” Swank recalled. “But then, four months later, I got ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ ”

In the movie, which is based on a true story, Swank portrays Teena Brandon, who cuts her hair boyishly short and takes to wearing loose-fitting flannel shirts to transform herself into a young man in a small Nebraska town. In Swank’s wrenching performance, which was hailed by critics, the complexity of her character’s secret life unfolds as she falls for a local girl (played by Chloe Sevigny), which leads to the film’s tragic conclusion.

Swank was catapulted almost overnight from obscurity. Hers was a Cinderella story and the press responded. There was the oft-repeated tale that she had lived out of her car while working as a struggling actress.

“I did it for only two weeks,” she explained, “but someone got hold of that and thought I’d lived in my car for a really long time and wanted me to be a spokesperson for the home- less. I said, ‘No, no, no! You’re getting it wrong! It wasn’t that big a deal!’ ”

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Eastwood enjoyed the story. “You come out here with shopping carts?” he asked with a laugh.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she replied sarcastically, running with the joke. “All my stuff. I had to audition with my stuff [in a cart].”

Filmmaker Peirce said she searched for three years before casting the role of Teena Brandon. Too many actresses had difficulty taking on the role of a boy. They became hard and serious, she said, but Swank “retained her charm and warmth and sense of personality. She was the one person who could transition to Brandon without losing the essence of herself.”

Swank can also turn glamorous if the role calls for it, Peirce said, “That’s bone structure! She is gorgeous. She was gorgeous as a boy and as a girl.”

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Swank recalled that some writers would ask, “How do you feel getting a once-in-a-lifetime role? Where do you go from here? Does that make you worried?”

“At the time, I thought, no, wow, I just feel what a great opportunity I was given. I was so lucky. It was such an important story. Then after the movie, I realized that those great roles don’t always come around very often. It’s hard enough to find a good script, and for a woman it’s even harder.”

But Swank doesn’t believe in Oscar curses.

“I didn’t see it as a negative. I don’t look at any of the experiences I had as bad or not great or they weren’t as challenging as the next. I’m proud to be part of them. I’m proud to have worked with Al Pacino and some of the people that I worked with like Robin Williams and Christopher Nolan [in ‘Insomnia’].”

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Peirce said that Swank has been going through the process of finding roles that suit her.

“I do think Hilary is meant more for certain roles than others,” the director said.

“I would say Hilary draws from a kind of essential truth of her class ... and people are responding to that truth,” she added. “She is best when she is in that element.... Notice the roles she has excelled at: Brandon [Teena] came from a lower class. The character she plays in ‘Insomnia’ is not lower class but not upper class either,” and her character in “Million Dollar Baby” is Middle America.

Screenwriter Haggis thinks Swank became so identified with the role of Teena Brandon that even Hollywood was unsure what she would be best at next.

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“If you embody a character so well, even we [film] professionals say, ‘Oh, look, she’s that character. I guess we don’t have other movies for that character,’ ” Haggis said. “If you do such a good job and disappear into the part, we buy it.... It’s the curse.”

Don’t expect the traditional “Rocky"-esque story line in “Million Dollar Baby.” About two-thirds of the way in, the movie takes an unexpected turn that, emotionally, packs the wallop of Maggie’s uppercut and, in the end, raises questions about life and death that test a man’s religious convictions.

For Swank, the chance to be mentored by Eastwood is a dream as unimaginable as Maggie’s.

“There is that parallel,” Swank said. “I think the relationship that I forged with Clint is very similar to the one Maggie forged with Frankie. I think it comes with the job. When you are working that intimately and that closely all the time with material like that, it just happens.”

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Eastwood, now in his 70s, offered Swank some sage advice during the interview: Don’t fret about being typecast, he said.

“You learn every time you suit up. Even in a movie that is unpleasant or is bad, you learn something. Maybe it’s something you’d do differently. Like I remember years ago doing westerns and they said, ‘Aren’t you afraid of being typecast in westerns?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? As long as I’ve been unemployed in this business, beating on doors, just type me in anything. Don’t worry about getting me un-typed.’ ”

Eastwood is famous for his speedy film shoots and “Million Dollar Baby” was no exception.

“Everyone says, ‘How’s doing it in one or two takes?’ ” Swank said. “But ultimately, it is because your instinct is in those one or two takes. It’s not about ‘quick.’ He works quickly and, yes, we finished early and every day it was decent hours. It’s just about trusting your instinct and in doing that it’s in the first or second take. If you are thinking about it, then you’re putting too much into it.” Eastwood wasn’t there to be her acting coach, she said; he was there to create an atmosphere that would lead to “the best performances possible.”

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Eastwood said, “There’s a saying in golf, I think by Chi Chi Rodriguez, who said trust your swing. You’ve swung thousands of times, hit thousands of balls, now you are there. You step up there. Trust your swing. Trust your ability. [Hilary] knows what she is doing. She has a feeling for the character. Morgan [Freeman, who plays Scrap] has a feeling for his character. Everybody is ready to go. You just do your best. Sometimes there is improvisation involved, which I encourage, and sometimes when you have really good material, as this script was, it comes out easy.

“I find a director who is talking all the time, he’s usually trying to talk himself into it and he’s abusing the actors by using them to sort of free his own inhibitions. I try not to do that. I guess I’m at a stage in life where I feel, what more can they do to me? I’m going to move on, we’re going to do this and that’s the way it is.”

Swank also has a lot of admiration for Freeman, who plays the part of a disabled boxer who works in Dunn’s shabby L.A. gym and throws Maggie tips to improve her technique: “He’s awesome,” Swank said of Freeman. “I was just trying to [be] a sponge and absorb as much as I could. He just walks in and starts talking and the next thing you know the scene is starting and it’s over and it’s effortless.”

Haggis said the first script he handed Eastwood was the one the director filmed.

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“I sent him my first draft, and two or three weeks later, he started casting,” Haggis said. “He called and said, ‘I’d like you to write this other project for me,’ and I said, ‘That’s very flattering, Clint, but you’re directing my first draft. We should get together and you should give me your notes.’ He said, ‘The script’s good.’ ”

Looking the part

Eastwood said he knew Swank had the acting chops for the role of Maggie. But when she came in to read for him, he took one look at the lanky actress and voiced his one concern: “How are you going to bulk up to be a prizefighter?”

“And I said, ‘I’m ready!’ ” Swank interjected.

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Eastwood chuckled. “She put in the work that was necessary.... She had a work ethic that was unparalleled. She built herself up, she put on weight.”

A former Junior Olympics swimmer, Swank went to work at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. She skipped rope, learned footwork and how to hit a speed bag, and even took a few unintended punches.

“I still have a T-shirt that says, ‘I got hit by Lu Rijker and survived,’ ” a reference to a female boxing champion who plays a nasty rival in the film.

“I think I ended up [putting on] 19 pounds,” Swanks recalled proudly. “I was 129.”

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“All muscle,” Eastwood added.

At times in the film, Swank resembles a victim of a car wreck with blackened eyes, broken nose and bloodied tissue stuffed up her nostrils. But she isn’t just a boxer, just as the movie really isn’t about boxing.

Haggis said Swank embodies the kind of young woman he envisioned when he wrote the screenplay. “I wanted an actress who was of the landscape, meaning if you saw her in a small town you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, there’s that movie star.’ You’d say, ‘There’s that girl who lives in that trailer over there.’ A combination of movie star and character actor is what you want and she fits the bill.”

Now she would like to fit a different bill. With her husband, actor Chad Lowe, Swank has formed a production company, and she confesses that she’d like to star in a comedy someday. “I started my career in comedy.”

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Eastwood seems to enjoy Swank’s turn in the spotlight, but he jumped in several times to answer queries put to Swank -- an old hand at the publicity game trying to show the relative newcomer the ropes.

Before Swank could respond to questions about how “Million Dollar Baby” might fare this Oscar season, Eastwood interrupted, downplaying expectation.

“If you start thinking about motion pictures with that end result,” he said, “you’re destined for disappointment.”


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