How Hilary Swank Gets the Job Done
Badass Woman celebrates women who show up, speak up and get things done.
For one of her New Year’s resolutions, Hilary Swank has taken up tap dancing. It’s something she has wanted to do ever since she became obsessed with 42nd Street as a teen. Now, at age 44, she’s eight lessons in. And while she’s not aiming to be musical-lead good, she thinks that, with enough practice and perseverance, anyone can get there.
“I believe that applying yourself in something you really want to achieve is of the utmost importance,” she says. “As far as we know, we have only one life. And how do you choose to live it? If there’s something you can’t stop thinking about, like, ‘Hey, I want to tap like in 42nd Street,’ why wouldn’t you just go every night and tap for a couple of hours?”
Call it the Hilary Swank method, this mix of grit and tenacity—a do-the-work approach that has yielded handsome dividends: two best actress Oscars (for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby); longevity in a notoriously fickle industry (she’s wonderful in Danny Boyle’s FX drama Trust, about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III); and a thriving business (her luxe leisure line, Mission Statement, hits Nordstrom in August and Net-a-Porter this fall. Also coming soon? Shoes).
“I love to challenge myself,” says Swank. “I’m a fire sign.”
It all started, in large part, with sports when she was younger. She grew up in a low-income family in Bellingham, Wash., and the local YMCA made for a cheap babysitter while her parents were working. “For $20 a month I could swim every single day,” says Swank, who went on to compete in the Junior Olympics and state championships. She also did gymnastics for several years. “I think one of the most important things you can give a young girl is the ability to understand what her body is capable of doing, whether that’s through a team sport or karate or whatever it is,” she says. “You’re given the tools to push yourself and interact with other girls for a shared purpose and goal.”
When you look at the 25 pounds of muscle Swank gained for Million Dollar Baby, you can just hear Swank’s old gymnastics coach saying, “ ‘Can’t’ means ‘won’t’ and ‘won’t’ means ‘push-ups.’ ” And that same steely resolve comes to mind when you learn that Swank spent a month living as a male before filming Boys Don’t Cry, or when you watch her dignified and devastatingly moving portrayal of a woman with ALS in You’re Not You. “I like the idea of stepping into someone who’s experiencing something so different from who I am in my own physical world,” she says about her character choices. (On her wish list: an action movie. “It would be great to do a Bourne [film] for women.”)
And then there are the transformations you don’t see onscreen. “As an actor, you can logically say that something didn’t really happen. But whatever emotions you’re going through, your body is experiencing them chemically, whether or not you’re saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine.’ There’s a lot of bouncing back from that.” Now more than ever, Swank is playing gatekeeper to her mental and physical well-being in a way she might not have done before. “If I get offered a role that would take me to a place I don’t want to go emotionally, or if it’s going to affect other things I want to do in my life, I’ll just say no.”
Deepening her relationship with herself, tuning in to the wants and needs of both brain and body, is something Swank set out to do five years ago, and it all circles back to those New Year’s resolutions, which she is fastidious about making. Is she resting enough? Does she have enough balance? Is she managing her time so she can be her most productive? (That was this year’s goal, along with the tap lessons.) She then divides each objective into monthly achievable tasks. “I don’t put so much down that it’s not all going to happen and then I feel bad about not hitting the mark,” she says. “If you set goals you can hit, it gives you a sense of accomplishment and more confidence.”
Swank has also gained valuable perspective from the three years she took care of her father, who moved in with her after he underwent a lung transplant in December 2014. “People always say, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ ” she says. “You hear that constantly, but it’s true. It’s just not worth it.” And no matter what, she sets aside an hour a day to do something for herself—a principle she’s woven into the (Italian-made) fabric of Mission Statement. “The underlying purpose of the brand is to live your own personal mission statement, and so I encourage women to take that time in their day to work toward that.”
For Swank, that could mean reading a book, meditating, road-tripping (as she did across the U.S. in May), walking one of her three dogs, or, as you can guess by her rock-hard abs, going to the gym, which she does twice a week. But to be clear, she does not do so for said rock-hard abs. “I often find that my mind can be my biggest obstacle,” she says, “And so I have to get out of my own way, and I do that by moving my body.”
Today, Swank is in “a great place” and totally gets why, as so many women have promised her, being in your 40s is the best. “I think in your 20s and 30s you feel kind of alone in your insecurities,” she says. “But you get to a place where you realize everyone’s experiencing them.”
And these days she’s more interested in overcoming internal struggles, such as an ever-present critical voice, rather than focusing on physical hang-ups. “I think we talked about [the physical] forever because women have been objectified and trivialized for so long, and now the conversation is about something so much bigger,” she says, addressing the current cultural shift from focusing on how we look to how we feel. “We’re so much more than our outward appearance,” she says. “And I think this is just the beginning of a movement.”
Photographer: Anthony Maule. Fashion editor: Jessica de Ruiter. Hair: Giannandrea. Makeup: Pati Dubroff. Manicure: Nettie Davis.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 6.