Cover Story: The Portrait of a (Lady) Boxer

Hilary Swank takes on another serious, typically male role in Million Dollar Baby

Dec 22, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Clint Eastwood andHilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — Hilary Swank stops eating her shrimp pasta at the hotel café and laughs — giggles, really, with a quick "nah, ha" — at an outsider's observation about her career.

She'd been explaining, in a surprisingly self-deprecating way for a young woman whose smile and intensely wide brown eyes can melt the food on her plate, why she hasn't cashed in on her Best Actress Oscar for 1999's Boys Don't Cry with glamorous parts in expensive blockbusters. She is dressed nicely — jeans, tan high-heel shoes and matching soft sweater with a white scarf tied around her neck like a bow — but not like a fashion model.

"As you can see, I don't choose the stunning knockout roles, the arm candy," she says.

But Swank literally does have a "knockout role" in Clint Eastwood's new film, Million Dollar Baby, a tough and elegiac boxing movie based on the book Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner by the late F.X. Toole. Swank plays a "trailer trash" émigré to L.A. from the Ozarks who wants to box. Eastwood is the reluctant aging trainer who becomes her father figure.

She laughs when I say that.

"I mean the knockouts, the lookers," she further explains, then resumes her lunch at our window-seat table. "It's not that I don't want to ever do that.

But I've just wanted to do serious roles."

Serious, for Swank, also often means traditional male roles. In Boys Don't Cry, she played a young woman pretending to be a man — a task made easier by her slight figure and the ever-present hint of a tough snarl in her otherwise engaging, vulnerable smile. In Insomnia, she played a police officer. In The Core, a sci-fi movie, she was an astronaut. Only in Affair of the Necklace, a period piece, did she take a traditional glamorous role.

And now she's fighter Maggie Fitzgerald, participating in what trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) calls a "freak show" — women's boxing. Swank's performance is such a confident mixture of bravado and sweetness, action and quiet introspection, that it already has engendered Oscar talk and earned her a Golden Globe nomination. The film is playing in limited release nationwide and slowly broadens in January.

Million Dollar Baby isn't a clichéd rags-to-riches boxing story, which is why the film is already an Oscar frontrunner like Eastwood's last one, Mystic River. The source material by cut-man Toole (whose real name was Jerry Boyd and whose job was to stop boxers' between-round bleeding so they could continue fighting) is too bluntly honest for easy lessons learned. Eastwood's direction, Henry Bumstead's Edward-Hopper-inspired production design and Paul Haggis' screenplay are too faithful to that source to allow for trite sentimentality.

While it irks Frankie that Maggie is a woman boxer, he's most concerned that she's too old to become a professional — she's 31. Swank, who recently turned 30 and is married to actor Chad Lowe, realized she had to physically transform herself to be believable as a tough, imposing fighter. She had to be able to stand up to a pummeling — and to give as bad as she gets.

So before the film started, she spent three months working with a boxing trainer, Hector Roca of Brooklyn's Gleason's Gym. She put on 19 pounds of muscle in three months.

Before her pasta lunch, while talking to several journalists in an upstairs hotel room, Swank recalls that regimen.

"My training was four to four-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week for three months," she explains. "I boxed for two hours a day, lifted weights for one to two hours a day and ate exactly 210 grams of protein a day.

"Your body can only assimilate so much protein at a time. I had to eat every one to two hours. I was drinking egg whites. I drank flax oil. I would have to wake up in the night and drink protein shakes — I couldn't go nine hours without eating.

"When I started this movie I was 110. I went to 129. My body fat would go away. I lost a breast size, because your breasts are really fat. When I said my bras aren't fitting, my trainer said, 'Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that.' "

Swank also explains that such extensive training wasn't startlingly new to her — while living in Washington State, she'd gone to the Junior Olympics as a swimmer. (She's also an accomplished gymnast whose first major Hollywood role, in 1994's The Next Karate Kid, involved athleticism.)

Later, as she savors the carbohydrates of her lunch downstairs, I point out that there's a fundamental difference between swimming and boxing — nobody punches you out while doing the Australian crawl. Didn't she fear a disfiguring injury? Didn't she want to flinch rather than punch?

"When you decide to take on a role, you have to go for it," she answers. "I was playing a boxer, so I had to go and become a boxer. That's part of my job and the part of my job that I love.

"I was never worried about my face. The first time I hit somebody I said, 'Sorry.' And the first time I was hit, it hurt. But, oh my God, I'd lose all the respect in the gym so fast if I complained about getting hit. It'd be a bad day for me in that gym. And I never got hit to the point where I got really hurt, where there was long-lasting damage."

Million Dollar Baby is also a relationship movie. Maggie's relationship with the dedicated, circumspect Frankie mirrored her relationship to Eastwood. In the film, Maggie calls Frankie "boss" in a memorable way that combines tenderness with respect.

On the set, the response to Eastwood is much the same, she says.

"People did call him 'boss,' " she says. "The people who work for him all the time say, 'We always call him boss.' He's such a collaborator that it was their way of saying, 'Thank you for letting us do our job and believing in us and teaching us to trust our instincts. We realize you're the boss and at the helm of this.' "

It's understood that Swank feels the same way about Eastwood. She doesn't worry that, in a Hollywood where the youth market defines so much, Eastwood and his stately, carefully paced movies might be a little out of touch with pop culture's trend-setting edge.

"Never, ever did that enter my mind," she says, using her fork for emphasis and sounding protective of her beloved "boss." "He's pretty on top of things. He's pretty on top of his game at 74. Even if Mystic River wasn't there, Clint Eastwood is an icon, an amazing legend. The more experience you have, the richer your work is. And I think Clint has been proving that over and over again."

Los Angeles-based STEVEN ROSEN is a contributing writer for CityBeat. His last story was a story on local art collector Andy Stillpass and his outdoor sculpture exhibition, High Desert Test Sites.