PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG WILLIAMS
Hilary Swank sits at a table in a dim-lit trailer, sipping pomegranate kombucha and talking in a stage whisper. “I’m under lock and key,” she says. “I’m not allowed to be seen or photographed.”
It’s a good thing, then, that we’re in a trailer in a muddy lot in Walthamstow, a neighborhood in the northeast London borough of Waltham Forest that does not generally teem with paparazzi. On this December morning, she looks more New Jersey housewife than A-list star, wearing a leopard-print shirt, tan slacks, and a frosty brown wig. She’s here filming Trust, a new limited series about the Getty family that will debut in March on FX, and the network has been keeping Swank and her costars, Donald Sutherland and Brendan Fraser, under wraps.
It’s sort of funny that Swank should find herself forcibly hidden, considering she spent much of the last three years doing that on her own. The two-time Oscar winner (for Boys Don’t Cry in 2000 and Million Dollar Baby in 2005) took a hiatus from acting to care for her father, who had lung transplant surgery in 2015, and tiptoed back into Hollywood only last summer with a role in Steven Soderbergh’s heist flick Logan Lucky. Next month, she’ll also star alongside Michael Shannon and Blythe Danner in the drama What They Had. Trust, though, may be the most significant step in the 43-year-old’s comeback—not that she would call it that. “That’s interesting,” she says, her tone suggesting otherwise. “You’re the first person to tell me I’m having a comeback.”
This flicker of irritation is surprising. Swank has a remarkable ability to foster immediate familiarity. She’s friendly and funny, an occasional face puller and serial beverage offerer. Today, almost ready to wrap after a six-month production that also took her to Rome, she’s feeling tired, she tells me, but then quickly dials back the remark. “Look, I still can talk,” she says with a smile. “You’re not going to make me do jumping jacks, right? You’re not going to make me cry?” Even the comeback miff doesn’t last long. “I guess I am,” she concedes as I study her trailer’s flickering fake fireplace. “I’m coming back from taking care of my father.”
The decision to put her career on hold was easy to make, she says, but not so easy to honor. “Even though I was doing one of the most important things I will do in my life, and I will never choose my career over my family, it was hard,” she says. “Remember, I have been acting since I was 15. You don’t realize how much this defines you until you walk away from it. So there was a lot of, like”—she emits a shrill gasp, as you do when someone tips a bucket of ice water over your head—“What am I without this?”
Trust—directed and produced by Danny Boyle and written by Simon Beaufoy, the duo behind Slumdog Millionaire—would seem to be a good place to emerge from this existential muddle. Swank certainly seems to think so. “I feel blessed to be a part of something really great,” she says. “It’s jaw-dropping suspense, it’s tear-jerking, and it’s supremely entertaining. Some of the stuff we touch on, you cannot imagine it actually happened.”
Along with being fabulously rich, the Gettys were fabulously messed up. The source of the wealth that sloshed around them, oilman J. Paul Getty (played by Sutherland), was a Scrooge-like man who, Swank points out, “had a payphone installed in his house so he didn’t have to pay for people’s calls.” The old man was also embroiled in sordid subplots involving drugs, violence, infidelity, and insanity. Swank plays his ex-daughter-in-law Gail, one of the family’s few solidly decent members; her teenage son, John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped by Italian mobsters, and she is pretty much the only Getty who cares enough to do anything about it. It’s not a cheery story—Gail must identify the boy’s ear—but it’s a compelling one. (Ridley Scott also made a film about the incident, All the Money in the World, which came out in December.)
As Swank puts it: “Truth is stranger than fiction, right?”
Swank’s life story couldn’t be further from the Gettys’. She spent much of her childhood in a trailer park in Bellingham, Washington, with an older brother and parents who were estranged long before they parted ways. As a girl, she had a flair for sports—mostly swimming and gymnastics—but an even brighter talent surfaced after a school production of The Jungle Book. “They cast me as Mowgli,” she recalls. “I really wanted to play Baloo.” But she took the part and nailed it, shrugging off the trailer-trash sneers of her mean-girl classmates. “I don’t know if I’d say I found my calling, because I was 8, but I loved it, and I kept doing it.”
With her father on his way out of the home, it fell to Swank’s mother to nurture her talent, which she did relentlessly—to the extent that she upped roots and drove her 15-year-old kid to Hollywood in a borrowed car that doubled as their home when they arrived. Within a year, Swank had landed a handful of small TV roles; shortly after that, she got her first movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer—coincidentally, alongside one of her Trust costars. Assuming a sonorous Donald Sutherland-y voice, she recalls the exquisite terror of meeting the actor: “He said, ‘I’m going to give you some advice.’ I said, ‘Of course, anything.’ So he goes, ‘You should think about acting less with your forehead.’ But I was one of those characters who was, like”—she drops Donald and goes Valley Girl—“‘Puh-lease, that is so five minutes ago!’ You had to use your forehead with lines like that.”
On set today, Swank appears much more relaxed. The shoot is taking place in a room in the local town hall, which has been made to look like a 1970s Italian bank. Smoke swirls in the air as the half-dozen clerks seated at desks piled high with fake banknotes—the ransom money, furnished by the family only after the mailed-in ear—puff on cigarettes. As they wait to start filming, Swank goofs around with the cash and then stands beside a desk, lit from below by a bright beam. “Hey!” she says, “there’s someone under the table flashing me!” Later, after repeatedly being told to move to the left, she cries out, “I can’t! My left breast keeps getting in the way!” When the scene wraps, they all high-five and shout “Yay!”
“I love this,” she says afterward. “I’ve always loved it, but stepping away made me love it even more.”
Back in the trailer, Swank produces a thick folder of scripts whose pages are scrawled with notes and symbols. “I write all my thoughts in here,” she says, flipping the pages. “See, they’re all broken down and separated, with my little ‘Don’t forget this’ here, or ‘This is an important moment’ there. I write down all the things that are important for me to know about my character—the details that make them human. Playing a character is about making them specific.”
Swank is known for her thorough and immersive preparation—spending weeks in the guise of a young man for Boys Don’t Cry, or packing on 20-odd pounds of muscle for Million Dollar Baby. She is also known for playing real-life figures—Betty Anne Waters in Conviction, Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, Brandon Teena in Boys, and now Gail Getty—many of whom show strength in the face of adversity. “I am drawn to salt-of-the-earth types,” she says. “People who get through life with a lot of grit and sweat and tears, who are not afraid to fight for the things they believe in.”
Swank had a harder time researching Gail, largely because the family has always kept a tight hold on the details of its internal dramas and an even tighter hold (thanks to Getty Images) on the clan’s visual archive. “A big part of it was sitting down with the scripts laid out in front of me and breaking them down, which is one of my greatest passions,” she says. “I became an actor because I find people to be endlessly fascinating. And what I love most is exploring what makes us different and what makes us similar. And the one thing is love, right? The throughline is love.”
I ask Swank if her upbringing influences the kinds of roles she takes and the way she plays them—explaining that I don’t mean to imply a lack of range. “Oh, I don’t take it that way at all,” she says. “There have certainly been characters I’ve played who don’t have a similar background to me. But I think, for all of us, our past informs who we are, no matter what we are doing.” Swank will take this idea only so far, however. While allowing that she felt like an “outsider” as a child, she doesn’t believe this makes her especially qualified to play a character like Brandon Teena, the 21-year-old trans man who was raped and murdered.
“Everyone feels alienation in life; across the board, everyone has had that feeling that they don’t belong,” she says. “There’s a lot of judgment put on a lot of different ways of living, no matter what your socio-economic background is or who you choose to love.” When pressed, though, Swank admits that she hasn’t fully freed herself from the stigma of poverty. “I do still get that feeling sometimes, that one of these things is not like the others, that someone is going to see that you’re the one who doesn’t really belong in this environment, and you can feel, um…” She pauses. “But really, you get what you put in.”
It’s interesting, given Swank’s personal circumstances, that her two most recent roles have involved the sacrifices family members make for one another—going up against the Mafia to rescue her son in Trust; putting her life on hold to care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother in What They Had. She doesn’t like to play up her own sacrifice in caring for her father—in fact, she says, the break did her good: “I realized that there is so much more to me than being an actor.” Her time away also allowed her to work on a couple of projects that are both, in their own way, close to her heart.
One of these is Mission Statement, a line of high-performance, high-fashion women’s wear that she launched to much fanfare in 2016. Swank tries to explain the collection to me, but soon starts laughing. “Are you not interested in triple-back bras, Chris? That’s OK. I won’t hold that against you.” (I’ve since done some research: The triple-back bra has a high neckline for extra coverage and a longer cut for added support.)
The other project Swank worked on during her hiatus is the Hilaroo Foundation, a charity that rescues abandoned dogs and then pairs them at camps with foster children, the idea being that the experience will benefit both parties. “Seeing these kids, who have nothing, not even a person in their lives, sharing something with these animals and stepping into their feelings again because they are being seen and being loved…” She wells up a little. “I have to step away because I don’t want them to see my tears, to think that I’m feeling sorry for them, but it is so beautiful.”
Her time away from acting also provided Swank with a little more perspective. “I’m a confident person, but I do have feelings of insecurity,” she says. “Every job, I’m still afraid that I’m not going to be able to do it justice. People say to me, ‘Two Academy Awards and you still feel that way?’ Well, two Academy Awards actually exacerbates that feeling. It’s silly, but you feel like you have more to prove.”
Today, Swank doesn’t feel the pressure so acutely. “Look, 2005 was 13 years ago, so I’m way past that thinking,” she says, smoothing her wig. “And I’m firmly in my early 40s now. When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you feel alone in your insecurities. Now you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, everyone feels like this.’ So now, for me, you either like what I’m doing or you don’t.” She puts on a boo-boo voice: “‘Ooh, you don’t like my movies? You don’t like me?’ I don’t get that now. I’m doing the thing I love. I feel grateful.”