PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG WILLIAMS
Hilary Swank sits at a table in a dim-lit trailer, sipping pomegranate kombucha and talking in a stage whisper. u201cIu2019m under lock and key,u201d she says. u201cIu2019m not allowed to be seen or photographed.u201d
Itu2019s a good thing, then, that weu2019re 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. Sheu2019s 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.
Itu2019s 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 Donu2019t 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 Soderberghu2019s heist flick Logan Lucky. Next month, sheu2019ll 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-oldu2019s comebacku2014not that she would call it that. u201cThatu2019s interesting,u201d she says, her tone suggesting otherwise. u201cYouu2019re the first person to tell me Iu2019m having a comeback.u201d
This flicker of irritation is surprising. Swank has a remarkable ability to foster immediate familiarity. Sheu2019s 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, sheu2019s feeling tired, she tells me, but then quickly dials back the remark. u201cLook, I still can talk,u201d she says with a smile. u201cYouu2019re not going to make me do jumping jacks, right? Youu2019re not going to make me cry?u201d Even the comeback miff doesnu2019t last long. u201cI guess I am,u201d she concedes as I study her traileru2019s flickering fake fireplace. u201cIu2019m coming back from taking care of my father.u201d
The decision to put her career on hold was easy to make, she says, but not so easy to honor. u201cEven 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,u201d she says. u201cRemember, I have been acting since I was 15. You donu2019t realize how much this defines you until you walk away from it. So there was a lot of, likeu201du2014she emits a shrill gasp, as you do when someone tips a bucket of ice water over your headu2014u201cWhat am I without this?u201d
Trustu2014directed and produced by Danny Boyle and written by Simon Beaufoy, the duo behind Slumdog Millionaireu2014would seem to be a good place to emerge from this existential muddle. Swank certainly seems to think so. u201cI feel blessed to be a part of something really great,u201d she says. u201cItu2019s jaw-dropping suspense, itu2019s tear-jerking, and itu2019s supremely entertaining. Some of the stuff we touch on, you cannot imagine it actually happened.u201d
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, u201chad a payphone installed in his house so he didnu2019t have to pay for peopleu2019s calls.u201d 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 familyu2019s 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. Itu2019s not a cheery storyu2014Gail must identify the boyu2019s earu2014but itu2019s 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: u201cTruth is stranger than fiction, right?u201d
Swanku2019s life story couldnu2019t be further from the Gettysu2019. 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 sportsu2014mostly swimming and gymnasticsu2014but an even brighter talent surfaced after a school production of The Jungle Book. u201cThey cast me as Mowgli,u201d she recalls. u201cI really wanted to play Baloo.u201d But she took the part and nailed it, shrugging off the trailer-trash sneers of her mean-girl classmates. u201cI donu2019t know if Iu2019d say I found my calling, because I was 8, but I loved it, and I kept doing it.u201d
With her father on his way out of the home, it fell to Swanku2019s mother to nurture her talent, which she did relentlesslyu2014to 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 Slayeru2014coincidentally, alongside one of her Trust costars. Assuming a sonorous Donald Sutherland-y voice, she recalls the exquisite terror of meeting the actor: u201cHe said, u2018Iu2019m going to give you some advice.u2019 I said, u2018Of course, anything.u2019 So he goes, u2018You should think about acting less with your forehead.u2019 But I was one of those characters who was, likeu201du2014she drops Donald and goes Valley Girlu2014u201cu2018Puh-lease, that is so five minutes ago!u2019 You had to use your forehead with lines like that.u201d
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 banknotesu2014the ransom money, furnished by the family only after the mailed-in earu2014puff 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. u201cHey!u201d she says, u201cthereu2019s someone under the table flashing me!u201d Later, after repeatedly being told to move to the left, she cries out, u201cI canu2019t! My left breast keeps getting in the way!u201d When the scene wraps, they all high-five and shout u201cYay!u201d
u201cI love this,u201d she says afterward. u201cIu2019ve always loved it, but stepping away made me love it even more.u201d
Back in the trailer, Swank produces a thick folder of scripts whose pages are scrawled with notes and symbols. u201cI write all my thoughts in here,u201d she says, flipping the pages. u201cSee, theyu2019re all broken down and separated, with my little u2018Donu2019t forget thisu2019 here, or u2018This is an important momentu2019 there. I write down all the things that are important for me to know about my characteru2014the details that make them human. Playing a character is about making them specific.u201d
Swank is known for her thorough and immersive preparationu2014spending weeks in the guise of a young man for Boys Donu2019t Cry, or packing on 20-odd pounds of muscle for Million Dollar Baby. She is also known for playing real-life figuresu2014Betty Anne Waters in Conviction, Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, Brandon Teena in Boys, and now Gail Gettyu2014many of whom show strength in the face of adversity. u201cI am drawn to salt-of-the-earth types,u201d she says. u201cPeople 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.u201d
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 clanu2019s visual archive. u201cA 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,u201d she says. u201cI 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.u201d
I ask Swank if her upbringing influences the kinds of roles she takes and the way she plays themu2014explaining that I donu2019t mean to imply a lack of range. u201cOh, I donu2019t take it that way at all,u201d she says. u201cThere have certainly been characters Iu2019ve played who donu2019t 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.u201d Swank will take this idea only so far, however. While allowing that she felt like an u201coutsideru201d as a child, she doesnu2019t believe this makes her especially qualified to play a character like Brandon Teena, the 21-year-old trans man who was raped and murdered.
u201cEveryone feels alienation in life; across the board, everyone has had that feeling that they donu2019t belong,u201d she says. u201cThereu2019s 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.u201d When pressed, though, Swank admits that she hasnu2019t fully freed herself from the stigma of poverty. u201cI do still get that feeling sometimes, that one of these things is not like the others, that someone is going to see that youu2019re the one who doesnu2019t really belong in this environment, and you can feel, umu2026u201d She pauses. u201cBut really, you get what you put in.u201d
Itu2019s interesting, given Swanku2019s personal circumstances, that her two most recent roles have involved the sacrifices family members make for one anotheru2014going up against the Mafia to rescue her son in Trust; putting her life on hold to care for her Alzheimeru2019s-stricken mother in What They Had. She doesnu2019t like to play up her own sacrifice in caring for her fatheru2014in fact, she says, the break did her good: u201cI realized that there is so much more to me than being an actor.u201d 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 womenu2019s wear that she launched to much fanfare in 2016. Swank tries to explain the collection to me, but soon starts laughing. u201cAre you not interested in triple-back bras, Chris? Thatu2019s OK. I wonu2019t hold that against you.u201d (Iu2019ve 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. u201cSeeing 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 lovedu2026u201d She wells up a little. u201cI have to step away because I donu2019t want them to see my tears, to think that Iu2019m feeling sorry for them, but it is so beautiful.u201d
Her time away from acting also provided Swank with a little more perspective. u201cIu2019m a confident person, but I do have feelings of insecurity,u201d she says. u201cEvery job, Iu2019m still afraid that Iu2019m not going to be able to do it justice. People say to me, u2018Two Academy Awards and you still feel that way?u2019 Well, two Academy Awards actually exacerbates that feeling. Itu2019s silly, but you feel like you have more to prove.u201d
Today, Swank doesnu2019t feel the pressure so acutely. u201cLook, 2005 was 13 years ago, so Iu2019m way past that thinking,u201d she says, smoothing her wig. u201cAnd Iu2019m firmly in my early 40s now. When youu2019re in your 20s and 30s, you feel alone in your insecurities. Now youu2019re like, u2018Oh, yeah, everyone feels like this.u2019 So now, for me, you either like what Iu2019m doing or you donu2019t.u201d She puts on a boo-boo voice: u201cu2018Ooh, you donu2019t like my movies? You donu2019t like me?u2019 I donu2019t get that now. Iu2019m doing the thing I love. I feel grateful.u201d