Back in the ring

USA Today

New York:

Hilary Swank has knocked out critics and nabbed her second best-actress Oscar nomination for her role in ‘Million Dollar Baby’. She’s brawny, resolute boxer Maggie, an upstart determined to succeed with the help of a crotchety trainer played by Clint Eastwood, who also directs. The movie, gritty and deadly serious, is up for seven Academy Awards. And Swank, who has been showered with prizes, including her second leading-actress Golden Globe two weeks ago.

“It’s just as amazing, exciting and totally unbelievable. I am speechless right now,” says the actress, who won an Oscar in 2000 for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.

And, in a case of history repeating itself, the Oscar race once again pits Swank squarely against ‘Being Julia’s’ Annette Bening, who lost to Swank five years ago when Bening was nominated for ‘American Beauty’.

“I don’t necessarily feel like I’m the favourite,” she says. “I don’t think like that.” Don’t tell that to Eastwood, a man of few words who becomes uncharacteristically effusive when he speaks of Swank. “She’s the best. She’s absolutely charming, and she’s the most real person you’ll ever meet,” he says. “What you see is what you get.” The director, 74, and Swank, 30, formed an unlikely bond, reminiscent of the one his cantankerous coach and her fierce fighter forge in the film. The two, Swank says, “When I start talking about it, I always get welled up. I hold him really close. He’s so genuine, without a superiority complex.”

Swank is understated and direct. She smiles often but doesn’t laugh all that easily. In fact, she’s much like Eastwood, firm and unfailingly polite, and, according to her ‘Baby’ co-star Morgan Freeman, “very unassuming” with “no pretences about her.” Swank, who yawns repeatedly, could use a night in, busy as she has been promoting the movie for two months — and before that, pushing herself “to the limit” to get ready for it. She trained for three months before filming started, spending four hours each day with legendary boxing coach Hector Roca at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn and slugging it out with real fighters. But her inner pugilist took a while to emerge. To her trainer’s chagrin, Swank apologised to her opponent the first time her fist connected.

To bulk up, Swank lifted weights and ingested 210 grams of protein each day, drinking 60 egg whites, eating every hour and a half and waking up in the middle of the night to down protein shakes. She gained nearly 20 pounds of muscle, and her entire body changed, she says. She is still happily five pounds heavier than before the film.

“It all put me in the mind-set of a boxer,” she says. Giving vanity the heave-ho, Swank got into the ring without a nose guard because wearing one “hurts your peripheral vision,” she says. After popping a blister the way she thought a boxer would, Swank developed a dangerous staphylococcus infection in her foot, she told “60 Minutes.”

Like Maggie, the blue-collar fighter single-mindedly determined to make it, Swank grew up in meagre circumstances in Bellingham, Wash. “I felt that parallel, that connection to having a dream and coming from nothing. Growing up in a trailer park, her growing up in a trailer park. That drive, passion, determination.” Says Eastwood: “She works incredibly hard.”

Swank rolled with the punches while fighting with boxing champion Lucia Rijker, who spars with her in the film. Once, Rijker recalls, she accidentally head-butted an unfazed Swank, giving her a swollen lip. Another time, a tired Swank forgot to duck when Rijker attacked. “She started laughing and said, ‘Wow, OK, I got hit!’ “ Rijker says. “She told me to do what I had to do, to make it feel real.”

She works at her marriage as well. Swank and Chad Lowe, 37, met 12 years ago at a party and tied the knot in 1997. “He has a heart of gold,” Swank says. “I certainly knew that I wanted to hang out with him. We’ve been together ever since that first dinner.”

You can spot Swank jogging with her dog or running errands or lunching with friends. “I lead a very low-key life,” she says. “I’m a boring girl who has a bunch of animals and cleans up bunny poop.” She’d like to laugh onscreen as well. Next up for her is Brian De Palma’s ‘The Black Dahlia’, the story of the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1940s Los Angeles. But Hollywood casting directors, listen up: Swank would love to do a romantic comedy with Ewan McGregor.

“I can do weird things like bend my fingers back,” says Swank. “I’m really Jim Carrey as a woman.” But can Swank, like Carrey, talk out of her posterior? The actress breaks into her first real, hearty laugh of the interview and shakes her head. Still, she says, “I think Jim Carrey and I should be brother and sister. I told him that at the Globes.”

His response? “‘We do look alike!’”