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The Transformation Of Hilary Swank From Childhood To 47

Hilary Swank smiling

Throughout her career, this actor has made a name for herself playing tenacious, outlier characters — and as the transformation of Hilary Swank from childhood to 47 suggests, her steely spirit may have begun as a child. In 2018, the star told The Guardian that she “felt like . an outsider” while growing up in Bellingham, Washington, where she “was from what people perceived as the wrong side of the tracks.”

The double Oscar winner “grew up in a trailer park . with not a lot of money,” as she previously told Emanuel Levy, but she found a sense of kinship and validation in books and movies. Characters gave Swank an escape, but she didn’t just want to enjoy them, she wanted to embody them — an acting gave her a gateway to do so. “It was natural that I became an actress,” she once explained to Hello! magazine, “because I longed so much to be those other people, or at least to play them.”

As described by The Guardian, Swank enjoyed her first acting role in grade school, where her “deep, raspy voice” got her the role of Mowgli in a production of “The Jungle Book.” She got deep into the arts thereafter, while also enjoying some formative success as an accomplished athlete. As a teen, Swank was a triumphant swimmer, competing in both state championships and the Junior Olympics. However, acting continued to call to her, and Hilary Swank followed.

A teenage Hilary Swank hit Hollywood

Hilary Swank yearbook photo

At 15, Hilary Swank moved to Hollywood with her mom to pursue her acting dreams. According to The Guardian, they had “just $75 in savings and spent two months living out of their car” in order to make the teenager’s dreams come true. “My mom really believed in me,” she told the newspaper, “and her belief made me believe in myself.” Which is for the best, considering it must have felt, for a time, as though nobody else did.

The young star-in-waiting had enrolled at South Pasadena High School, where she struggled to feel “seen or understood,” and even felt like the teachers didn’t want her there, per TimesLeader.com. She eventually dropped out, but not before a teacher attempted to crush her dreams by asking her (via The Guardian), “When are you going to give up your hobby?” However, the teenager refused to shelve her ambitions, and with the loving support of her mom, she started landing jobs.

“My mom called an agency and said, ‘My daughter is an actress and she’s beautiful and you should see her.’ And they did,” Swank told the Los Angeles Times back in 1999. “I read a McDonald’s commercial. They signed me and I was with them for five years.” She subsequently landed herself a couple of great early roles, making appearances in a couple of episodes of movies-turned-TV-shows like “Harry and the Hendersons,” as well as the sitcom “Growing Pains.” It was a start.

The building blocks of her career

Hilary Swank in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Personally and professionally, some huge turning points in Hilary Swank’s transformation arrived around her 18th birthday. For starters, the young budding star fell in “love at first sight” with her future husband, Chad Lowe, when she attended “a party with Leo DiCaprio,” per an interview with People. As their romance blossomed, Swank’s career also started to heat up when she landed roles in the ensemble teen show “Camp Wilder” — alongside rising stars like Jared Leto and Jerry O’Connell — as well as the cult comedy flick, 1992’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Recalling the “stressful” experience of filming the two projects simultaneously, Swank explained to Collider how filming “Camp Wilder” during the day and “Buffy” at night was “fun, but . also not.” Speaking with Yahoo! Entertainment, she elaborated that, regardless, she “was living the high life” and enjoying her new career — but there was also a lot of pressure to live up to the reality of her dream. “I was completely nervous because I didn’t want to mess up,” Swank said.

“Buffy” was something of a critical and commercial disaster upon release, but it’s since garnered a significant cult fan base. Swank’s acerbic depiction of a salty Valley Girl remains a standout of the hip ’90s ensemble, even if co-star Donald Sutherland apparently advised her to “act less with your forehead” during it, per The Guardian. Clearly, she didn’t take the advice, as Swank’s sassy forehead acting perfectly salts every scene she serves it in.

Hilary Swank went crane kicking into the lead

Hilary Swank in The Next Karate Kid

Having found success in supporting roles, Hilary Swank left behind her teen years with her first lead: As resilient martial arts outsider — and double denim enthusiast — Julie Pierce in 1994’s “The Next Karate Kid.” The character would be the first to push Swank into her career comfort zone. As she once told The Guardian, she “love[s] people who persevere through adversity,” and by all accounts, her most successful characters reflect that, Julie included.

The character had to push through personal trauma and the feeling of being a misfit within her community to become a karate champion. Like many of her roles to come, Swank prepared rigorously for the physicality of the part. According to Movieweb, the actor practiced tang soo do, doing between two and five hours of training each day during pre-production. “I woke up bruised and sore all the time,” Swank told the Chicago Tribune around this time. “But I want to keep training because I feel really confident now.”

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Apparently, the folks behind “Beverly Hills, 90210” didn’t get the memo that Swank was now a legit karate heavyweight and probably not to be trifled with. After being cast as a single mom for the eighth season of the teen soap, she was unceremoniously cut from the cast after fans wrote in to complain about her character, per Stuff. “I was devastated,” Swank told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007. “I thought, if I’m not good enough for ‘90210,’ I’m not good enough for anything.”

A 9021-oh-no led to Oscar gold

Hilary Swank holding first Oscar

Like the characters she loves so much, Hilary Swank pushed through adversity and came out the other side better for it. As described by The Sydney Morning Herald, losing her “Beverly Hills, 90210” gig may have crushed her, but it also led to the star being cast in Kimberly Pierce’s 1999 indie hit “Boys Don’t Cry.” Depicting the true story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was murdered because of his identity, Swank immersed herself in the character. To fully understand and deliver upon her performance, she lived while presenting as a man for five weeks.

In doing so, she found that people treated her much differently, and not for the better. “I didn’t realize what it was like to be out in the world as someone that people can’t define,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a really lonely place.” In 2000, her performance earned her the best actress award at the Oscars, where she used her acceptance speech to suggest, “I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences, but . celebrate our diversity.”

Swank accepted the accolade in a bronzed Rudolph Duke gown which wrapped the actor’s body like a polished cocoon she’d pushed her acting wings through upon receiving her award. Rugged but feminine, it complimented Swank’s perspective as an artist. And it also gave the designer a chance to play against what Duke called “the beauty-pageant parade of Barbie doll dresses” to The New York Times.

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Hilary Swank’s post-Oscar experiments

Hilary Swank in band jacket and denim skirt

Following her first Oscar win, Hilary Swank felt pressure to live up to the promise of the accolade and wondered, “Where do I go from here?” per The Sydney Morning Herald. The answer, it seems, was to experiment. She raised eyebrows by starring in the schlocky disaster flick “The Core,” but she also chose interesting work with respected filmmakers like Chris Nolan for “Insomnia,” as well as Sam Raimi for “The Gift.”

As noted by Marie Claire, it was around this time that a pattern emerged in the sorts of gritty roles that Swank was choosing — making “a career out of playing characters whose lips run the risk of imminent bloodiness.” On top of “play[ing] an abused wife” in “The Gift,” she also depicted “a no-nonsense detective” in “Insomnia,” where she rocks “a bloody lip” for a number of scenes. It’s an oddly specific way to be typecast, but it complimented Swank’s desire in wanting to “chang[e] the way people see women” — providing tough alternatives to the norm.

The actor told Emanuel Levy she’s always been driven to be “taken seriously, about not just being seen as a girl.” Instead of playing “eye candy” or “girlfriend” roles, she’s long been attracted to roles showing “there’s strength in being physically strong or living your life the way you want.” Swank explored these facets not only in her performances, but also on the red carpet, where she proudly flexed the complexity of her gender in looks as gloriously girly as they could be tough and dynamic.

Million dollar baby got back

Hilary Swank posing with second Oscar

Hilary Swank entered her thirties with prosperity: Her second Oscar win, earned for her performance in Clint Eastwood’s boxing tragedy “Million Dollar Baby.” Like several of her acting gigs before, her approach to the character required her to get deep into the role, and she “lived, slept, ate, breathed, and drank boxing” while preparing and filming the Academy Award hit, as she told PopEntertainment.com.

Having bulked up for the role, she “gained nineteen pounds of muscle” — despite only being “asked . to gain ten” — and endured a rigorous training schedule requiring her to work out about four hours per day, six days a week. It made her performance more believable, but as “Boys Don’t Cry” director Kimberly Pierce told Entertainment Weekly, it also drew on the star’s physical strength as a performer. Notably, her “protean ability to transform.”

For the 2005 Oscars ceremony, Swank continued her determination to showcase alternative celebrations of womanhood with a jaw-dropping Guy Laroche dress featuring a dramatic reverse V-neck. The decision to flash her muscular back — as opposed to a more traditionally feminine aspect like her legs or cleavage — was joyfully subversive: The brawny flex of a champion. However, in classic Swank form, the gown was still glitzy and glamorous enough to garner swoons from the fashion set. The dress was celebrated by publications like Vogue and Variety as one of the best ever worn on the Academy Awards’ red carpet for years to come.

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Inside Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe’s divorce

Hilary Swank looking pensive with curled hair

Despite her professional achievements, Hilary Swank was sadly dealing with personal troubles behind the scenes. A year after her second Oscar win, it was announced that she and husband Chad Lowe were getting a divorce after eight years of marriage, following a trial separation earlier that year, per Today. Some outlets, such as The Hollywood Reporter, suggested that the divorce may have been expected given that Swank forgot to thank Lowe in the acceptance speech for her first Academy Award.

However, the truth was obviously a great deal more complicated than just a fumbled speech. A TimesLeader.com interview with Swank suggested the star’s success had overshadowed Lowe’s, with her saying, “I just think it’s rare to find that person who isn’t threatened [by your good fortune].” Meanwhile, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Swank revealed that Lowe had been experiencing “substance abuse” issues, which had caused what the outlet described as an “erosion of trust” between the two.

Speaking to Larry King in 2007, Lowe countered his ex-wife’s remarks by expressing how “disappointed” he was that she felt the need to publicly share his struggle with addiction. He likewise suggested he never felt overshadowed or burdened by her success, but “was always just very, very proud of her,” per CNN — even when she forgot about him in her acceptance speech. He added, “I felt bad for her. . I felt for her more than I felt for myself.”

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She served up flops with optimism

Hilary Swank in little black dress

Ever the optimist, Hilary Swank reflected to In Style that, while others may “look at divorce as a failure,” she instead saw her relationship with Chad Lowe “as 14 years of success” (via Digital Spy). She likewise approached her career with a similar bright slice of optimism and explained to Female.com.au in 2006 that she “was never a snob” about the work she took on, nor did she dwell on any perceived failures. Instead, the star approached “anything that [she] did” — even the bad stuff — as “an opportunity to learn.”

Unfortunately for Swank, the rest of her thirties were likely a huge opportunity to learn as she enjoyed a greatly uneven career. While films like the tear-jerker “P.S. I Love You” and supernatural thriller “The Reaping” were more obvious in their potential dud-nature, even higher-end movies like Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia” and the tragic aviation biopic “Amelia” were mostly met with groans.

In their 2007 review of “P.S. I Love You,” USA Today opined that it “ha[d] not been a good year” for the actor, with the publication asking, “What’s a two-time Oscar winner to do? Get a new agent, perhaps.” Ironically, she was dating him. Marie Claire stated that the star was in “a fizzy new relationship” with John Campisi, her CAA agent. The two dated for five years before breaking up in 2012.

Hilary Swank became a punchline

Hilary Swank wearing gold Calvin Klein dress

Like her characters, Hilary Swank has always found a way to forge forward through life’s various obstacles, and her style has consistently reflected that fact. As her film career appeared to be growing dim, the actor’s wardrobe made her shine on the red carpet, regardless. Be it the little gold Calvin Klein number she glimmered in at Elle’s Women in Hollywood event in 2010 (pictured above), or the Grecian Donna Karen gown donned at the premiere of “Conviction,” Swank appeared glowing and defiant: A titan prophesying her own hopeful comeback.

Sadly, it was still a little while away, as critics continued to scratch their heads over Swank’s downward career trajectory. Entertainment Weekly, for instance, pointed out that the multiple award winner has “a virtual monopoly on roles that call for scrappy women who take no guff,” which made them question: “Why would she agree to play the victim in a flashy, trashy woman-in peril flick like ‘The Resident?'” In their review of the malaria “factoid” flick “Mary and Martha,” meanwhile, IndieWire accused the film of “play[ing] like a dramatized charity infomercial” and called it “another wide misstep” by the double Oscar winner.

Right when she was at her lowest career-wise, “The Office” featured a running joke in an episode, which asked whether Swank was hot or not. Understandably, the star was not amused. “It really does a disservice,” she told Time in 2010 in response. “There’s so much more to life than looking a certain way.”

Hilary Swank’s temporary hiatus

Hilary Swank in black suit

If ever there were a good time for Hilary Swank to take some time out to re-calibrate, it was in the mid-2010s. At the end of 2014, the star stepped back from her career to help care for her father, who received a lung transplant. Per Health, the actor “initially thought she’d take a year off,” but “wound up taking three years” so her dad could fully recover. In 2015, she told HuffPost Live that the opportunity was giving the star a chance to repair their relationship, having lived apart from one another in her youth. She explained (via The Guardian), “There is nothing I want to do more other than being with my dad in this time of need.”

Before she began turning down roles, Swank enjoyed an impressive performance in the ALS drama “You’re Not You.” In their review of the movie, The Hollywood Reporter applauded that Swank’s “emotionally and physically committed performance” was a reminder that “few act[ors] suffer so movingly onscreen as [her].”

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Those roles may see her at her best, but they can also be emotionally taxing. Luckily, she was able to sling off the weight of some of those roles with a cameo in Fergie’s 2014 music video for “L.A. Love (La La),” where Swank shimmy-shook to the tune. “Living in L.A. isn’t like this,” Uproxx complained of the jubilant Day-Glo party bus video. But for a peak-confident Swank — hitting her prime years, feeling refreshed — it could be.

She was feeling fierce at 40

Hilary Swank in an ombre two-tone petal dress

Entering her forties, Hilary Swank confessed that she was “really excited” to do so, as she’d observed that her friends who were over 40 “were more confident in who they were as women.” She was likewise eager to embrace her “imperfections and . messiness” as they had, telling the Independent, “All the things that they used to worry about just kind of fell to the wayside.” This may explain her somewhat messy relationship timeline: Knowing yourself better can also mean knowing what you want from a partner, too. Why compromise?

In 2015, she started dating tennis pro Ruben Torres, and the two were engaged a year later. However, as reported by the Daily Mail, the engagement lasted just a few months before the couple split. Still, she moved on quickly enough. In 2018, Swank posted a joyous Instagram post of her “enchanting” wedding to “the man of [her] dreams,” social venture entrepreneur Philip Schneider. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the couple “were set up on a blind date” and then got engaged in 2016 while vacationing in Colorado.

Professionally, Swank was also finding her feet again. She joined forces with Helena Bonham Carter to “invigorate” what The Washington Post described as the “otherwise dry legal drama,” “55 Steps.” Intriguingly, she also came full circle in her career by starring opposite her “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” co-star, Donald Sutherland, in the Danny Boyle series “Trust.” Hopefully he didn’t criticize her forehead acting this time around.

Sartorial success: Cyborg edition

Hilary Swank in Azzedine Alaïa gown

For Hilary Swank’s next evolution, she was able to serve a gift to her devastated teenage self. According to Radar, the actor allegedly “refus[ed] an offer to guest star” in what’s been perceived as the woefully mishandled “BH90210” — a meta reboot of the classic teen soap that few seemingly wanted, and particularly not Swank. Instead, the star continued to opt for a mixed bag of performances, including a voice acting role in “BoJack Horseman” and appearing in the sci-fi flick “I Am Mother.”

The film itself was a quiet hit on Netflix, where it received praise from The Verge for exploring the strange bond between a robot mother and an artificially gestated child with plenty of “startling reveals.” For her part, Swank copped to not being “a huge sci-fi fan” to Uproxx, but she regardless stepped up to the genre for the film premiere’s red carpet. Rocking a molten two-piece Azzedine Alaïa gown with her hair slicked back like Ellen Ripley in “Alien Resurrection,” Swank knew how to nod to the genre without having to love it, per Just Jared.

Certainly, genre films seemed to be a solid fit for the star, whose “ambiguous physicality,” as The New York Times put it, often went underused. In 2020, controversial horror thriller “The Hunt” understood the assignment, however, and gave Swank a role wherein she enjoyed a dynamic showdown scene requiring seven months of training for “[seven] minutes of combat,” per the outlet. There’s surely a killer action role awaiting the star, somewhere.

Hilary Swank on moving forward and looking back

Hilary Swank in sequined caped dress

Somehow, Hollywood has remained a little confused as to where and how to get the most of Hilary Swank’s rare talents. In 2020, she led another quiet Netflix sci-fi vehicle — the Mars expedition series “Away” — only for it to be cancelled after just one season, per IndieWire. Meanwhile, her turn in the low-budget erotic thriller “Fatale” was panned by critics, with the outlet slamming the film for being “nutty” and simply “a bad movie.”

Maybe the way to move forward was for Swank to look to her past? At the end of the decade, the actor reflected on her “Boys Don’t Cry” role by suggesting to Variety that today, the role would rightfully be open to the growing community of openly “trans actors who would obviously be a lot more right for the role” — the type of onscreen opportunity that didn’t necessarily exist in Hollywood at the time of the 1999 film. Meanwhile, with the surprise success of “The Karate Kid” reboot series “Cobra Kai,” fans were eager to see Swank’s Julie Pierce jump back into her double denims for the show.

But was it possible? Speaking to Uproxx, the actor confessed she “didn’t even know” that the show existed, but found the popularity of “Cobra Kai” “pretty fascinating.” As executive producer Jon Hurwitz told Fandom in 2021, the team couldn’t say if or how the character would or could return, but that they always “welcome the question” of whether Julie ever will. Them, and everyone who watches the Netflix show, too.