Swank is a fighter, and it shows

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hilary Swank had been looking like the poster girl for the Oscar actress curse.

Since winning the best actress Academy Award for her transformative performance in 1999's Boys Don't Cry, Swank was the mismatched lead in a failed costume period drama (2001's The Affair of the Necklace), an astronaut in a dud sci-fi thriller (2003's The Core) and the star and executive producer of a reverse-chronology car-crash drama that never reached theaters (2003's 11:14). She also acquitted herself honorably in supporting roles in The Gift (2000) and Insomnia (2002), and received acclaim for her portrayal of suffragist Alice Paul in last spring's HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels, but she was not exactly enjoying an A-list kind of career.

Yet Swank now is likely to do something that no one else who has won best actress since 1996 has done: merit a return trip to the Oscars. Her performance as boxer Maggie Fitzgerald in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is tough yet sweet, overpowering yet modest.

Just as Million Dollar Baby has come out of nowhere to become an Oscar front-runner, so has Swank moved into the elite group of surefire best-actress nominees. She was nominated for a best actress Golden Globe for the role.

"I don't think there is such a thing as a curse," the 30-year-old actress said over lunch. "I think it's that those roles don't come around very often."

It's a continuing indictment of the film industry that the pool of potential best-actress nominees seems relatively small each year -- at least compared with the men -- while gifted female performers note the scarcity of roles into which they can sink their teeth.

The last best-actress winner actually to be nominated again for a lead performance was Emma Thompson, who won the 1992 Oscar for Howards End and was nominated for The Remains of the Day (1993) and Sense and Sensibility (1995). So Swank is moving into rarefied company -- not that she's expressing anything but ready-for-prime-time humility about the prospect.

"I never really expected anything in life," she said. "I'm not that type of person. It is a great honor to have people saying that -- to have your work recognized in a movie that you're just honored to be a part of. But I never started acting to win awards, and the experience itself is so rewarding, and that's what you hold really close to your heart."

In person Swank looks very much a movie star, with her dramatically sculpted cheekbones, full lips, wide-eyed gaze and flowing auburn hair. If her slender, curvaceous figure -- accentuated by high heels and a snug, charcoal-colored jacket-and-pants combo -- didn't catch passers-by's eyes in the luxury hotel lobby, then Karoo, her Jack Russell Corgi who preceded her out of the elevator and accompanies her "everywhere," no doubt did.

With her gleaming smile and humble beginnings (she spent years in a trailer park in Bellingham, Wash., with her divorced mother), she might have been considered a Julia Roberts type, yet you can't picture Roberts inhabiting any of the roles in which Swank has thrived. Swank's characters often are driven by desperation, and their conflicts are played out physically and often brutally.

Her breakthrough role, after all, was The Next Karate Kid (1994), and the abuse she weathers -- and ultimately succumbs to -- in Boys Don't Cry is tough stuff. She played an abused wife in The Gift and suffers rough treatment in Iron Jawed Angels, and Maggie of Million Dollar Baby packs a fearsome first-round knockout punch.

To Swank, an athlete who enjoys skydiving and mountain-climbing, these physical conflicts don't necessarily represent a common thread. "I don't look at roles and think, 'I'm going to play a character who gets knocked around,'" she said. "The common thread is they're characters I can relate to in some way or learn something from. And with this movie in particular, I think it's the closest to me that I've ever felt."

Swank's battles haven't ended. "You're always continually having to prove yourself and to fight for things," she said. "Even after Boys Don't Cry, saying I would like to do this role or that role and fighting for it. I think that nothing is for sure. I'm a fighter, you know? I had to fight my whole life to break out of my circumstances. That's just part of my makeup."

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