Hilary Swank back after hiatus: 'It's my second act'

Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank in "What They Had."
Blythe Danner and Hilary Swank in "What They Had."
Bleecker Street

The two-time Academy Award winner returns with family drama 'What They Had'

Hilary Swank was a two-time Academy Award winner by age 30. But in recent years, her most important role has been that of caretaker. 

Three years ago, Swank's father underwent surgery for a lung transplant. Swank put her career on hold to take care of him full-time: she made his food, took him to doctor appointments, helped administer his regimen of 35 pills a day and made sure he was on the mend. 

"It wasn't even a question, whether to do it or not," says Swank, 44, during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. "He didn't say, 'hey, will you do this for me?' It's just what you do." 

Swank is in Toronto promoting her new film, "What They Had," which hits theaters Friday. It's a family drama about two adult children (Swank and Michael Shannon) who come home to deal with their mother's (Blythe Danner) Alzheimer's disease, and to try to convince their father (Robert Forster) to put her into a nursing home.

After her experience taking care of her father, Swank could relate to the themes in the film, especially concerning the role reversal when children are called on to take care of their parents. 

"It was like, I got it," says Swank, who's sitting in a large conference room inside Toronto's Omni King Edward Hotel wearing a white dress, her arms and shoulders covered by a man's sports jacket. "You can't have an experience like that and not have it change you." 

Elizabeth Chomko and Hilary Swank filming "What They Had."
Elizabeth Chomko and Hilary Swank filming "What They Had."
Bleecker Street

But Swank says she wouldn't trade that time she spent with her father for anything, and she says the time she spent away from Hollywood helped her reaffirm her love for the movie business. 

Swank, who was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been acting professionally since she was 15. She was pushed toward acting because of her feelings as an outsider growing up, "so when I read stories, I found other people having feelings that I had, and it made me feel less alone," she says.

Her family lived in a trailer park in Washington when she was young, and after her parents split up, Swank moved with her mother to southern California when she was a teenager. 

After performing in several stage productions, she made her film debut in 1992's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and starred in 1994's "The Next Karate Kid." In 1997, she joined the cast of "Beverly Hills 90210" during the show's eighth season. 

But it was her breakthrough role in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" that put Swank on Hollywood's A-list. She won the Oscar for Best Actress for the role, starring in the true story of trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993.  

Swank won a second Best Actress Oscar for her role as a boxer in 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," joining the short list of actresses with multiple Best Actress wins. 

Swank then took on varied roles, starring in the ensemble comedy "New Year's Eve," the crime thriller "The Black Dahlia" and the romantic weepie "P.S. I Love You." She played a high school teacher in the inspirational drama "Freedom Writers," a woman fighting to prove her brother's innocence in the legal drama "Conviction" and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart in 2009's "Amelia."

She was taking on roles that interested her, a luxury she was afforded after her dual Oscar wins. But when her 67-year-old father's lungs were failing and he needed a transplant, Swank knew what she had to do, and she put everything on hold to be by his side.

"It's not that I couldn't have lived with myself if something happened to him," Swank says. "It's that you want to give everyone a fighting chance." 

In addition to caring for him and making sure he got to appointments on time, it was up to Swank to make major decisions on her father's behalf. "My dad was relying on my opinion, and I didn't want to make the wrong decision and have to live with that," she says. She did well: her father is currently stable and back on his own, she reports.

After taking care of her dad for three years, she has a newfound respect and empathy for caretakers. 

"I had empathy before, but of course when you step into that world, it's a completely different way of looking at it," she says.  

The time away also allowed Swank to look at her career in a different light. 

"I didn't know that was going to be a gift of doing something like that," says Swank. "But it made me appreciate the art of acting, the art of telling stories and how much I love that even more. And that's just because I love people, I love stories and I love walking in other people's shoes and seeing life in a deeper way." 

It also helped her realize that she's more than just an actor.

"It's not my whole life anymore," she says. "You realize you're so much more than that, and that's really powerful, especially as a woman." 

Swank returned to the screen playing a special agent in last year's caper comedy "Logan Lucky," and in addition to "What They Had," she also starred in the first season of FX's "Trust," as Gail Getty, the mother of John Paul Getty III. 

Of her return, "it's almost like it's my second act, in a way," Swank says. 

Adding to the sense of renewal is her recent marriage to entrepreneur Philip Schneider, with whom she tied the knot in August. 

And she's recently taken up tap dancing, of all pursuits. "I'm obsessed by it," she says, especially the old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routines. 

Dancing helps her let go, another lesson she learned by stepping away and reassessing her life and career. 

"There's something about dancing that's a good parallel to life," Swank says. "You can really feel when you let yourself go. And I think sometimes we hold too tight about looking a certain way or living a certain way, instead of just feeling it."


'What They Had'

Rated R for language including a brief sexual reference

Running time: 101 minutes

Opening Friday


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