A professional actress since the age of 16, when she moved to Los Angeles from Bellingham, WA, Hilary Swank first appeared onscreen in 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two years later, she earned a rudimentary degree of fame when she was picked to star in The Next Karate Kid, but this recognition proved fleeting. Swank subsequently appeared in a number of minor films and did a year-long stint on Beverly Hills 90210. In 1999, however, she won both acclaim and recognition for her lead role in Kimberly Peirce's independent drama Boys Don't Cry. Based on the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a woman whose decision to lead her life as a man met with dire consequences, Boys Don't Cry was one of the year's most lauded films, with particular praise going to Swank for her stunning performance. She went on to win a number of honors for her work in the film, including Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Best Actress, at the mere age of 25.
Predictably, Swank's workload increased significantly after her Oscar win in 2001, and the actress found herself starring in several lesser known but nonetheless challenging roles, including Sam Raimi's psychological thriller The Gift, as well as The Affair of the Necklace with future Oscar winner Adrien Brody. She also accepted a meaty supporting role as an eager-to-please rookie detective alongside Hollywood veteran Al Pacino in 2002's Insomnia. However, Swank did take a break from brooding period pieces and serious explorations of sexuality for one unapologetic big-budget summer blockbuster -- Jon Amiel's The Core (2003), in which she co-starred as one of several individuals chosen to journey to the Earth's core in hopes of jump-starting the collapsing electromagnetic forces.
Though she may have cut loose in a few post-Oscar popcorn munchers in a bid to blow off some steam onscreen, Swank had already gained a reputation as a serious-minded actress whose quickly evolving onscreen talent pointed to many great things to come in the future. Meanwhile, Swank and then-husband Chad Lowe (brother of Rob Lowe) mounted Accomplice Films, a Big Apple-based production house, in early 2004. Swank inaugurated this triumph with an executive producer credit on the quirky, little-seen auto-accident drama 11:14. Swank took the lead in the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated 2004 HBO women's suffrage drama Iron Jawed Angels, which also featured Anjelica Huston and Frances O'Connor. Soon after, Swank starred as a South African-born attorney in Tom Hooper's political drama Red Dust.
If audiences awaiting another knockout performance from Swank failed to catch her winning turns in Iron Jawed Angels and Red Dust, there was virtually no escaping her unforgettable evocation of a determined female pugilist in director Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004). As Robert De Niro did for another boxing picture over 20 years prior, the already tough-as-nails Swank physically transformed herself to an astonishing degree for the role, immersing herself in a holistic diet of egg-white shakes, fish, vegetables, and protein bars, and testing the barriers of endurance with 4 1/2-hour-a-day, six-day-per-week workouts. This harsh regimen enabled her to pack on 19 pounds of muscle. The gamble paid off onscreen as well. Swank's remarkable vitality and sincerity buoyed the film, which took home the Best Picture prize at the 77th Annual Academy Awards and netted Swank the highly coveted Best Actress award at the same ceremony -- a win that helped to bring Eastwood's critically lauded film a total of four well-deserved Oscars.
Doubtless encouraged by the success of Baby, Warner Bros. extended a one-year production deal to Accomplice Films in March 2005 -- an offer that Swank and Lowe immediately embraced, even as they filed for divorce in early 2006.
Meanwhile, if Swank stayed offscreen in 2005, she quietly geared up for a full slate of roles. The first in production was a Warners horror picture called The Reaping, produced by Joel Silver and Bob Zemeckis' Dark Castle Entertainment and directed by Stephen Hopkins. The film starred Swank as a professional defrauder of religious miracles overwhelmed by her inability to account for the Biblically overtoned horrors that plague a small town. In fall 2006, Swank co-headlined Brian De Palma's noir flop The Black Dahlia with Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, and Aaron Eckhart -- an adaptation of James Ellroy's novel based on the infamous, still-unsolved L.A. murder case of the title.
More successfully, Swank also began a two-picture collaboration with director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud, A Decade Under the Influence). The first, Freedom Writers, was adapted from Erin Gruwell's memoir. Essentially a reworking of Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, the picture dramatized Gruwell's (Swank) successful attempts to turn "at risk" children around in the classroom. Swank's second LaGravenese effort, P.S., I Love You, was an adaptation of Cecelia Ahern's novel about a widow who is launched on a series of jaw-dropping adventures by some letters bequeathed to her by her dead husband.
Swank took on the role of the legendary aviator Amelia Earhart in 2009's biopic Amelia, and in 2010 starred in the courtroom drama Conviction, for which Swank portrays the fiercely devoted Betty Ann Waters, a woman willing to go to extreme lengths to free her brother from an unjust prison sentence. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi