As I wrote the opening for this article, I heard the New York City Marathon on television in another room. It got me thinking about how the journey of a friendship mirrors the journey of a marathon.
We all move at such a frantic pace. We run toward some destination, appointment, obligation, or deadline every day. But it’s those everyday moments in this marathon called life that bring friendships together. You look up, and right next to you is this person who you now realize has been running alongside you for a long time. You recognize that she is there to be by your side through all the ups and downs, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how long it takes. That’s the friendship I share with Hilary Swank.
This city has been both our homes. It’s been our refuge and our workplace, the place where our lives have happened, and where we have logged the most miles in this friendship we treasure so deeply.
MARISKA HARGITAY: Let’s talk about your new movie.
HILARY SWANK: It’s called New Year’s Eve. Essentially, the idea behind the movie is every year we get a second chance to do better, to do more, to forgive, to love more, to give more.
MH: You worked with Robert De Niro, which is a dream of mine.
HS: Who in this business doesn’t dream of that? I was speechless that day driving to work, thinking, I’m about to work with Robert De Niro!
MH: Talk about a New York moment—it doesn’t get more New York than that. And it’s fun to see you in a romantic comedy.
HS: I’m really not this serious, dramatic person, so to be able to show a different side is fun. I don’t get to show that side in my work as much.
MH: Is there anything that you’re scared of? You seem so fearless in your work and in the way you approach life.
HS: Then I really must be a good actor! I love that you asked, because I go after things the way that I do because I am scared. I go gung-ho and dive in because it’s my way to be prepared, physically and mentally. My fear control mechanism is to be overly prepared.
MH: Have you ever read a script and said, “I don’t know how to play that?”
HS: I would say every time, even with this movie, because comedy is not something I have a lot of experience with. It’s a huge cast, and they’re all really talented and funny. I don’t want to be that one thing where they’re like, Oops, what’s she doing in the film?
MH: The night I came to the set, everybody at the monitors was cracking up. The scene with you and Matthew Broderick? It was so charming and so adorable and so you and so funny and so sweet. I was proud.
HS: [laughing] We are one and the same, you and me. But going back to the fear, anytime I do a dramatic role, I think, I don’t want to mess this up, and that’s why I prepare. I don’t want to mess up what is already so beautiful on the page. People work so hard—the writer, the director, everyone that’s come on board; people want the movie to work and be successful. You have to be willing to fail to succeed, so the idea of jumping in and risking looking foolish—that’s a scary place to go.
MH: In Boys Don’t Cry, did you know the quality of the work you were doing as you were doing it?
HS: I don’t think in any film you know what you’re doing when you’re doing it. It’s like looking at a photograph really close—it’s just the pixels.
MH: When you read the scripts for Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry, for which you won your Oscars, was there something you connected to?
HS: I feel that innate connection to all the characters I play. There’s something within all of them I can relate to, or that I learned and hadn’t thought about until I played that character. In Conviction, the connection to her brother and how her family is her whole life; if he dies, she feels like she dies. We all know what it feels like to need that connection with somebody. In Million Dollar Baby, it was the idea of having a dream but not being able to achieve it on your own and needing people to believe in you. In Boys Don’t Cry, it transcended gender and was about wanting to love somebody and be loved in return. These are key things in your life; it’s completely universal, and that’s why film and television are some of the great art mediums. People can literally relate or learn something new or escape. And I learn something new in every single character I play. I get to see the world in a deeper, more profound way, through someone else’s eyes.
MH: If you could show someone a moment that summed up what you’re about in your work, what would that moment be?
HS: It would definitely be Maggie Fitzgerald [in Million Dollar Baby] because of where we both came from, and the idea of not feeling like you have a strong family presence, at all times, behind you, and the great desire to escape the situation you’ve come from and make something of yourself—and, ultimately, needing someone to help you get to that place.
MH: Is there a scene you’re most proud of, which conveys that?
HS: There’s a scene with the wonderful, iconic Clint Eastwood. We’re at the speed bag and he basically says, “Why don’t you just go home? I’m not going to train you. When are you going to give this up?” I go on to tell him where I’ve come from. If I weren’t here achieving this, that’s where I’d be, and he has to understand. It’s a moment where she’s at her wits’ end and doesn’t know what to do—it’s pivotal. We all feel like an outsider at some point in life. It reminds me of the moment when I was a little girl and people said, “When are you going to give up your hobby?” and that just lit my fire even more. I thought, This isn’t my hobby, this is my life. Because when I was a little girl—not having a lot of friends, recognizing classism at a young age—my friends were the characters in books and movies.
MH: Was there a certain movie or book you connected to when people didn’t understand you were going to dedicate your life to this?
HS: The first two movies that made a great impact on me were The Elephant Man and The Miracle Worker. Talk about extraordinary characters and outsiders. My desire was to become an actor to experience those feelings on a deeper level and connect with other people. That’s why I love my job.
MH: You inspire people because you continue to beat the odds. So many people give up on themselves, but you never did. You and I connect over what your mom did for you, of believing in you, and what my dad did for me—never wavering, but believing in me.
HS: But also in our work, playing the types of characters I’ve been so blessed to play, I’m constantly reminded—Amelia Earhart; Betty Anne Waters, who devoted her life to helping her brother get off death row; Erin Gruwell, helping and believing in kids that people have given up on.
MH: What is the moment in your life when you said, “I will not give up on myself and I will do this”?
HS: When I was eight years, I was playing Mowgli in The Jungle Book, and I knew I wanted to be an actor. Then later, my mom was at a crossroads in her life and she said, “If you really want to do this, we should go to California.” And my mom and I picked up and went to California.
MH: I want to ask you about something more serious concerning your travels. Much has been said about your recent trip to Chechnya. Can you share what happened?
HS: Invitations to make appearances come up all the time. In this case, a Turkish real estate company invited me to help promote peace by celebrating the rebuilding of a war-torn city and meeting people who were rebuilding their lives. That’s how it was presented to me, and I thought, Absolutely, yes. When I was there, I was asked to wish the president a happy birthday, and I did. Shame on me for not having researched the trip more fully, but I didn’t know President Kadyrov’s record. Human rights organizations had tried to warn me, but those warnings weren’t shared with me. The things that have been written about me in the press are totally contradictory to who I am. It’s on me for having gone, and I regret it. Believe me, I’m never again accepting an invitation before I have all the information I need.
MH: What is the question you most want to be asked?
HS: I know what I don’t want to be asked: “When are you going to play a pretty girl?” I think it’s insulting. Not to me, but to the characters I play. I get asked that all the time. First of all, beauty is such a subjective thing. I struggle when I see young girls striving to be like the cover of a magazine, thinking they have to look a certain way to be beautiful, when it’s so much more than that. So I struggle with that question.
MH: How does it feel to be back in New York?
HS: I love this city—it inspires me and makes me feel like I don’t ever want to leave. I love running in the city because of the seasons. When it snows or rains, it’s my favorite time to run because no one is ever out, so it feels like my city. I live downtown and run by the river, and that’s another thing I love about New York—you have the city, but you also have nature.
MH: Do you have a favorite restaurant?
HS: Babbo is my favorite Italian restaurant, and we like the Waverly Inn.
MH: Which is where I got to meet Bono, which was the thrill of my life, when he came over to the table to say hi to you.
HS: Those are the moments when you’re like, Bono knows who I am?
MH: You’re a serious world traveler; what is your next trip?
HS: I’m working with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. They fit hearing-impaired kids in third world countries with hearing aids. I’m hoping to, along with my producing partner, Molly Smith, do a documentary on the foundation. I would love for you to take one of these trips with us.
MH: I’m in; let’s go!