Hilary Swank Is Back
The 46-year-old actress on her break from Hollywood, social justice, and blasting into the future with her new Netflix show, Away.
Talented. Uncompromising. Stalwart. All words that come to mind when you think of actress Hilary Swank (spoiler alert: her castmates feel the same way), and for due cause. Her body of work includes a starring role in cultural touchstone Boys Don’t Cry, as well as the part of teacher Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, and her reputation for prep approaches method acting territory (her daily weight-lifting and boxing sessions for her role as a boxer in Million Dollar Baby were five hours each). Swank’s two Best Actress Oscars come as little surprise.
Swank is also self-aware enough to be retrospectively critical of her own work. In recent years, as Hollywood has been called to task for casting cisgender actors to play trans characters, Swank’s role in Boys Don’t Cry (based on the true story of a trans man) has certainly been mentioned. Swank acknowledges the criticism, and believes adamantly that trans actors should be given the same opportunity as cis actors. However, when having these conversations, it’s important to remember just how much has changed since 1999. So much in fact that even Swank’s use of male pronouns when referring to Brandon during her Oscar acceptance speech for the film was considered "progressive," and sparked debate on what the correct pronoun usage should be for a transgender individual (Brandon’s own mother objected to Swank’s pronoun choice, stating her child was a girl who dressed like a boy). So while a similar casting today would not be received with open arms, in 1999, Swank’s performance was lauded by GLAAD and embraced by the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, Swank has shared that at a time when trans stories weren’t being told and hate crimes were rarely acknowledged, members of the community felt her presence in the film brought more eyes to a story that needed to be seen. Of course, the white savior narrative of Freedom Writers has also been flagged in recent years, but the students portrayed in that film have always stood by both their teacher and the film’s depiction of their lives.
When I met Swank, it was on set of her new Netflix space drama Away, in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was January, before it would occur to people to be leery of leaning their heads together to chat in between film takes, and when film production in general was still taking place (although production on Away wrapped in February, before COVID shut-downs began in North America). When Swank and I chatted, she was visibly excited about the project for many factors, one being its overarching statement on equality and unity. Actors Vivian Wu, Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, and Ray Panthaki co-star with Swank as an international space crew embarking on a mission to Mars, and the casting as well as the writing of their diverse, multicultural characters was quite intentional. “I am so excited about this project because of its diversity in class and background,” Swank shared. “I love the way it looks at space as a place with no borders.” While we were cut short before we could clasp hands and sing "We Are the World," I am convinced she would have been happy to join me in a chorus, however cliché, because you don’t have to spend long with Swank to see how genuinely she cares about equality.
While Swank has never been one to live in the limelight, she seemingly disappeared from Hollywood in 2017, leaving many fans wondering the cause of her hiatus. Often, when highly acclaimed actors take a noticeable step back from work, it is assumed the right project just hasn’t come along, but Swank’s substantial break came from a much more noble place. “I took three years off to be a health advocate for my dad when he needed a lung transplant,” she shares. Although the initial plan was for her time as his live-in caretaker to last only a year, the complexities of a lung transplant dictated a longer time frame — one she was more than willing to accept.
But while she wasn’t acting, Swank was far from idle. “I sought out new ways to be creative during that time, which has been incredibly edifying,” she shares. One of those pursuits was starting her own charity, which pairs at-risk youth with abandoned dogs to help heal and enrich the lives of all involved. As an avid animal lover and long-time advocate for pet adoption and rescue, Swank’s personal experience was the impetus for the organization, which is called Hilaroo — a portmanteau of Swank’s own name and that of one of her rescue dogs, Karoo, who has since passed away. Swank rescued Karoo on the set of the film Red Dust in South Africa, and the two shared such a profound relationship that Swank was moved to launch Hilaroo in 2015.
Her time away from Hollywood also afforded Swank the time to work on her clothing line, Mission Statement, a line of ‘luxury athleisure’ that she designed specifically to be functional, fashionable and practical — which in part means leather and cashmere pieces that are washable (by hand) at home. At its core, the collection is very uptown chic, and has a greater fashion sensibility than you find from many athleisure brands, but are at the same time still easy and wearable. Pandemic life gave Swank even more dedicated time to focus on the line, and she says, “we have some super exciting things coming up.”
Her time in quarantine has also seen Swank posting on Instagram more than ever before — for good cause. Considering the socially conscious roles she’s chosen through the years, it only makes sense that Swank has used her social media platform to be a voice for human rights issues, and during the past six months, she’s spoken out extensively about the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ rights. “Right now, silence really is violence,” she tells me over the phone, roughly eight months after our in-person chat. “We have to use our voices no matter what our platform is, and equality and justice for all is of the utmost importance, and we are long overdue for this change. So now more than ever, we have to use our voices and get out there and vote."
Now, as audiences watch Away, Swank believes it will strike an even deeper chord since the world as a whole has experienced quarantine and separation unlike ever before. “People know now what isolation feels like on a deep level,” she says. “And what it means to take for granted getting out and following your purpose, and also how important it is to be connected to the people you love.” All 10 episodes of the series dropped on Sept. 4, and tell the story of Swank’s Emma Green, an astronaut who must leave her husband (Josh Charles) and teenage daughter (Talitha Bateman) for three years as she leads NASA’s first manned mission to Mars. Of course, each of the other four members of the crew have their own complex stories and loved ones they, too, have left. Back in Vancouver, Swank shared, “I’ve been blessed to be a part of projects that challenge me to my core, so finding stuff that challenges me now is hard, but I’ve been challenged on this a few times so deep — like to my marrow — and that’s just so wonderful as an actor to find that 29 years in [to your career].”
The project also ticked off the "physically demanding" box that Swank clearly gravitates toward in her work. The show’s costumers goal for accuracy and realism resulted in a space suit that weighed 35 pounds. Add in a backpack weighing another 20 and learning to move in zero gravity (a task far more taxing than it sounds), and you could say her months of filming Away were perhaps enough of a workout to make up for the sweat sessions she’s since missed during COVID isolation.
Before our time together in Vancouver came to a close, Swank got a little fired up as she talked with me about how little progress Hollywood has made after its supposed reckoning regarding the gender pay gap, lack of women working in production, and dearth of honest female characters in scripts, sparked by the #MeToo movement in 2017. “There are such limited choices for women in a time when we said, ‘let’s make this better’, and it got better momentarily, but that didn’t last. Where are the stories that are telling anything other than the myopic view of the white male? They are so few and far between that it’s embarrassing,” she said. “But I loved this character because this is a woman who isn’t compromising her dream for love or her love for dream. Coupled with the fact that Swank wanted to be an astronaut as a child – “even before I wanted to be an actress” — and you could say working on Away was her proverbial dream project come true.