Hilary Swank Interview

After her butch turn in 'Boys Don't Cry,' Oscar-winning actress goes full-on feminine for costume 'Affair'

After her butch turn in 'Boys Don't Cry,' Oscar-winning actress goes full-on feminine for costume 'Affair'

There is an innate, swan-like grace to Hilary Swank that must have been a challenge to repress for her Oscar-winning role as a redneck tomboy transvestite in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry." The fact that she came off so convincingly butch is a testament to her talent, because except for having such slim hips that it's a wonder her low-riding slacks stay on, in person she exudes femininity.

Both her talent and her femininity are in great evidence in her latest performance, a role that is the absolute antithesis of the swaggering and Wrangler-wearing Brendan Teena from "Boys." Set in grandiloquence of pre-Revolution Paris, "The Affair of the Necklace" stars Swank as Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a beautiful, elegant outcast aristocrat who masterminded a conspiracy against Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that inadvertently helped bring down the monarchy.

Jeanne's intent was only to persuade the crown to restore her family name and property -- when she was a child, her anti-monarchy father was murdered and his lands were usurped by the king. The catalyst of her plan, conceived with the help of her chevalier lover (Simon Baker), was the most ostentatious piece of jewelry in French history -- a 2,800-carat, 647-diamond necklace -- purchased by a crooked cardinal (Jonathan Pryce) who was lead to believe by our heroine that he was acting on behalf of Antoinette.

To bring the story to life, Swank herself conspired with director Charles Shyer ("Baby Boom" and the "Father of the Bride" remakes), who was more than happy to provide the actress with this unabashedly effeminate role, to which she brings passion, beauty and conviction.

"She understood Jeanne and understood the soul of the movie," Shyer says in praise of his star. "She really got it. I just hired (her) because I believed in (her)."

So now Swank sits in a, well, swanky San Francisco hotel room, in all her contemporary and fashionable gorgeousness. She warmly fields questions about the film although she seems a little weary of this press tour, which is unlikely to be taxing the intelligence that's very evident in her deep, dark brown eyes.

But if there's one question Swank seems enthusiastic to answer for the thousandth time, it's the one about how it feels to play someone exquisite and feminine after becoming famous for wanting to be a cowboy.

Q: When you first saw yourself all gorgeous and gussied up in pre-Revolutionary elegance -- after two back-to-back white trash roles -- was it a thrill?

A: Yeah! [Laughs] It was definitely fun to be a girl, you know? A pretty girl with breasts and hair!

Q: Before this film caught your fancy, what kind of scripts were you seeing in the wake of "Boys Don't Cry?"

A: Oh, everything. Everyone said, "You're gonna be so inundated with gay issues stories and stories just like this." But up until "Boys" I'd never read a story about a person passing herself off as a boy, so it's not like they're running rampant out there. People thought I'd be stereotyped, but I don't think I've read one story where the girl's even a lesbian! I'm really blessed with the opportunities I'm getting to choose from (and) I'm trying to be choosy about what I do. I never signed up in this business to make money. Most actors never get to that place, so I figure why do it (for the money) now?

Q: Prior to "Necklace" you don't have any period pieces in your filmography. Was this an intimidating project?

A: I'm really not intimidated by much. I found the character was a challenging one for me, and that's definitely something I look for roles. Of course it was a little scary, but that's a good thing. If we're not being challenged and we're not a little scared, we're doing something wrong.

Q: How much reading and research did you do in preparing for this role?

A: I read all the material that Charles (Shyer, the director) had complied so we'd be on the same page. I started working with a movement person, an etiquette person, and dialect.

Q: Did you read any of the books (written by Jeanne's lover and others) that came out in the wake of the scandal?

A: Mmm hmm. Parts of them. Absolutely. We drew from all of that literature, you know, for our back-story.

Q: There's a balancing act in the film: your character's honor and earnestness versus her conniving and scheming. How did you find a balance you were happy with?

A: I think you need to get to the heart of what the story's about. When you can figure that out, you base everything off that. I felt like this is a story of someone who was trying to regain what was rightfully hers, and in doing so missed the opportunity for a chance at love and family. If (the character) is based in that, that's a beautiful thing, a human quality we all have. We all make mistakes and we all learn from them. Sometimes before it's too late, but not always. This is about someone who found out just a little bit too late. (She's a) complex human being. That's definitely why I was drawn to her.

Q: But how do you decide how much venom to put into her scheming?

A: I don't think she came from a place of maliciousness or even manipulation. Again, I think it was all about getting back something that was taken from her unjustly. So she never meant to hurt anybody -- I really believe that. When you get involved with something and it takes on its own life, it starts to snowball and you can't stop it.

Q: Before I go, I wanted to ask you about "Insomnia" (Christopher Nolan's follow-up to "Memento," in which Swank stars with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams). I'm sure it's something that makes your head do summersaults. Was it fun to try to wrap your head around it?

A: Well, it's not quite like "Memento." It's a mystery, but the audience is in on it...My character is not.

Q: And I get the impression that's all you can say.

A: [Smiles.]

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