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Hilary Swank on Her Return to the Big Screen in 'What They Had'

By Murat Oztaskin | February 27, 2018 | People Feature

She's baaack! Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank has returned to the big screen, re-enlightened, and ready for another close-up.


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"What’s that saying? About life and art?” When Hilary Swank speaks of her two newest projects, it’s unclear which is imitating which.

Her roles in the FX series Trust, which tells the story of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in 1970s Italy, and What They Had, writer and director Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature about Alzheimer’s, both pivot around the central subject of family—and, specifically, family in peril. It’s a theme Swank can relate to exceedingly well, having spent most of the last three years caring for her father.

What They Had—which premiered at Sundance in January to unanimously positive reviews, and which will release in wide distribution in the fall—frames Swank and co-star Michael Shannon as siblings struggling to agree on what’s best for their mother, Ruth, who is increasingly afflicted by Alzheimer’s and dementia. While Shannon’s Nicky pushes for the care of a nearby “memory center,” Swank’s Bridget more easily capitulates to the wishes of their father, a devout Catholic who’s neck-deep in denial about the advanced state of Ruth’s condition. It’s an opinion challenged by the film’s opening scene, in which Ruth wanders out of their house in the early morning, stepping into a Chicago blizzard in little more than a nightgown, and boards a train for north of the city.

Given Swank’s recent history, the attraction to the role was immediate. “It’s a story about what it means to be faced with a parent who has a lifethreatening illness, and how it reminds you of the priorities in life, how fleeting it all is,” she says. Swank, 43, found plenty of parallels to her experience with her father, Steve, who fell near-fatally ill in 2014, requiring an extraordinarily difficult lung transplant. In order to aid his convalescence, Swank moved him into her Westside, LA, home, becoming his primary caretaker in the process. All in all, she expected to take no more than a year off from acting. More than three years later, they still live together. “It’s been an incredible journey and definitely life-enriching in many ways,” she says. “It’s a reminder about what’s important in life, you know?”


Trust also focuses on protecting one’s family, albeit from a danger more urgent and criminal. Premiering March 25, the Simon Beaufoy-written and Danny Boyle-directed series follows a 16-year-old John Paul Getty III, heir to the Getty oil fortune, skipping around a highly stylized 1973 Rome in a fever dream of down-and-out, bohemian sprezzatura. When the haze of drugs, sex and adrenaline clears, young Getty realizes he and his friends are in debt to the wrong kind of people. Unable to come up with the money, he aids the mafia in kidnapping him, thinking his grandfather, J. Paul Getty, the patriarch of the family business, will settle his debts (and then some) in the form of a ransom.

Swank plays the boy’s mother, Gail. Having divorced John Paul Getty Jr. some years before, she now lives with her new family, also in Rome. When her ex-father-in-law, with his myriad depravities, refuses to pay, her son’s recovery falls mostly on her shoulders.

“She’s [driven by] her guilt, for anything she has done in raising her son that might have made this happen,” Swank says. Her guilt also extends to “her not being strong enough to make sure her son came first, before the dysfunction of the men she chose to bring into his life,” including her second husband, who helped drive him away from home. In that way, “Gail is the emotional anchor of the story.”

As, naturally, Swank is in hers. And while she hasn’t experienced the role of mother in her personal life, she can intimately relate to Gail. In a way, guilt is everything Swank’s own mother, in support of her daughter’s Hollywood dreams, tried hard to avoid.


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Swank moved to LA at 15 from her home in the Pacific Northwest. While she was born in Lincoln, Neb., her father’s work in the Air National Guard moved the family to Spokane, Wash., when Swank was 3, and then to Bellingham, some 20 miles south of the Canadian border, a few years later, by which time her brother, eight years older, was already out of the house. Swank spent most of her time playing sports; she was once ranked fifth in Washington in all-around gymnastics and swam in the Junior Olympics. Otherwise, she was outdoors, biking around Lake Samish, hiking, fishing, “jumping off docks, floating on inner tubes, swinging on rope swings”—in many ways, an idyllic, pastoral childhood that distracted her from her family’s working-class struggles.

She found further solace in the books she picked up from the RV library that would pass through the trailer park in which she lived. “They were a big part in [discovering] storytelling and characters who were feeling things that I was feeling,” she says. “That was all a part of informing my desire to be an actor,” a desire further fueled by her fifth-grade teacher, who she says recognized her engagement in writing and performing class skits, and who encouraged her parents to nurture it. “I had that feeling inside that I didn’t know at that time was my calling,” Swank says. “I came alive in a way I had never really felt. From there, it just kept going.”

At 15, she was ready to go all in. So was her mother, Judy, who Swank says was “at a crossroads in her life,” having recently lost her job and separated from her husband. She decided to drive her daughter down to LA herself. Once they got there, with little money and no advance plans, they had nowhere to go. So, while Swank looked for an agent and her mother looked for work, they lived for several weeks out of their car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that Swank’s aunt had sold them some time before. Not that Swank thinks much of the sacrifice. “So many people go, ‘Whoa, really? That’s hard.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? It was a dream come true,’” to be in Hollywood, pursuing her dream. “I didn’t look at it in any way as a hardship.” (Besides, she says, the Cutlass was “quite spacious.”)

Shortly, both mother and daughter found work, including for Swank a turn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then, on her 18th birthday, she booked her first lead role, in The Next Karate Kid—“kind of my moving out of the house.” Afterward, her lead in Quiet Days in Hollywood led to a brief stint on 90210, from which her character was written off after one season. But that opened up another opportunity: 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, for which Swank won her first leading-role Oscar, at the age of 25. From there, her career skyrocketed, and she picked up her second Academy Award five years later, for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, becoming the third-youngest actress to do so.


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Then, in late 2014, her father took ill, and her priorities changed. Suddenly, the two-time Oscar winner wasn’t acting, a decision that brought up questions she’d never had to ask herself before. “What happens when you take something away that has defined you for pretty much your entire life?” In that absence, she was forced to recognize other measures of identity. “After I got over the momentary anxiety that I wasn’t doing what I loved, and what that meant, I recognized that I’m so much more,” she says. Primarily, a daughter. But also, outside the context of family, a creative and caring soul.

During her hiatus, Swank founded a charity, Hilaroo, that pairs abandoned children and animals to help encourage rehabilitation through companionship. She also founded Mission Statement, her high-end “luxe leisure” clothing line, which she works on every day from home when not on set. But also, she says, “[my time away from the camera] allowed me to sit down in a way that I hadn’t in a long time and to recognize that there’s a lot of beauty in sitting and not always moving.”

Easier said than done for someone whose personal daily mantra is “make a choice, make it happen.” But that room to breathe also opened an avenue to be easier on herself. “I really like things done a certain way, and if I miss a beat, I get hard on myself. But now I’m just more forgiving.” It was one component of a larger self-discovery, a process she immediately recognized happening in What They Had. The movie is very much about “a woman my age kind of coming of age,” she says. “Really honoring her truest self. She’s saying, ‘There’s things here that I need to look at, to make my life the fullest it can be.’”

Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED BY JAMES WHITE. STYLED BY ANNABELLE HARRON AT THE WALL GROUP. Hair by Sascha Breuer at Starworks Artists using Bumble and bumble. Makeup by Monika Blunder at The Wall Group using Kosås