AWFJ Women On Film – Hilary Swank On Feminism, Flying and Being Amelia – Jennifer Merin interviews

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Actress Hilary Swank has become a feminist icon for her portrayal of women who are uncompromising in their determination to live life as they please and accomplish the goals they set for themselves. In her latest film, “Amelia,” the two time Academy Award winner plays strong-willed Amelia Earhart, the real life aviation icon, who broke flying records and helped to establish the airplane as a means of transportation. Swank, who’s known for honoring the characters she plays, says she learned a lot from being Amelia.

SWANK: You know, it’s a big responsibility to play someone who really lived — and an especially big responsibility to play someone as iconic as Amelia. I mean, we all have ideas of who she was and what she looked like. So, there wasn’t a lot of room for fictional license. I felt I had to do the best I could to honor to her.

MERIN: In what way is Amelia iconic?

SWANK: I was quite surprised by how important she is to people. A lot of people — more than for any of my other movies — have come up to me and said, “I cannot wait to see ‘Amelia.’ “

That’s something I kind of expected from women, but a lot of men are also coming up to me, too. I we’re kind of mesmerized, drawn to the idea of Amelia, who lived her life the way she wanted to live it. She made no apologies for saying, “This is my life, this is how I see it and this is how I want to do it.”

I think that’s really rare. Even in 2009, and especially for women. It’s still a male-centric world and men — well, they’re able to lead lives they envision for themselves. But women not as much, even in 2009. So, when we’re talking about a woman who lived in the ’20s –when women just got the right to vote– and ’30s, you know, it’s incredible. She’s incredible.

MERIN: What did you learn about your life from recreating hers?

SWANK: She’s a reminder that you only have one life and it‘s very short. Amelia’s was certainly short. And she accomplished a lot in her lifetime. More than most people do in their really long lives. So, she’s a reminder that you have to constantly look within and continue to live the life that you know you want for yourself. And not live for other people — like when I’ll look at my life and say, “I might be doing this because it’s my mother’s idea of my life.” Or a friend’s idea. Or your partner’s idea, or whatever it is.

Yes, Amelia was a great reminder that you can live your life the way you want it, find love and experience your dreams. That’s what I really learned by diving deep into who she was, and that’s why she‘s an icon for me and other people.

MERIN: How did you research Amelia? What did you learn about her that most surprised you?

SWANK: Well, I read the book she wrote, “20 Hours and 40 Minutes,“ and all the literature about her to try to understand who she was. There’s a lot of literature about her.

For me, getting under the skin of a person I’m playing is important. We’re all specific human beings. We know what our favorite color is. We know what we love. We know what we don’t like. And trying to figure that out about a person that you’re portraying is very important.

I think Amelia was a very private person. So, you know, what she was expressing out in the world might not necessarily have been what her true thoughts were. I think I was impressed by how her childhood formed who she was.

MERIN: There’s a lot of archival footage of Amelia, some of which is used at the end of your film. Did you use that for research? What did you take from it?

SWANK: The footage on Amelia in the film — I think there’s maybe 16 minutes, or it might be 12 — is from newsreels so it’s more her public face. But there are moments within the newsreel where she doesn’t know the camera’s on, and you actually see her tone down her way of speaking and her physicality. Amelia had a specific physicality, and a unique speech pattern — which was really the most challenging accent I’ve done to date. I spent over eight weeks trying to figure out how she spoke.

You know, there’s that period way of speaking, you know, that you hear from Katherine Hepburn and in the old movies, and there’s that way of speaking which can sound, for lack of a better word, kind of posh. It sounds kind of upper class.

Amelia wasn’t that. She was a girl from Kansas. She sounded period, yet she sounded different than that. Trying to figure out that cadence and distinguish her speech in private from the elevated public persona that she put on when she needed it, was quite a challenge. Thankfully, I had Mira Nair saying, “Push it a little here, bring it back here, that’s a little too much here.” Because it was challenging to walk that line, to find the human quality and also to relate to it now because we don’t speak like that.

MERIN: I understand you took flying lessons for the film. That must have been challenging, too….

SWANK: Obviously, you can’t play Amelia Earhart and not learn how to fly. That would just be wrong in every way.

MERIN: True. But was it scary?

SWANK: It’s euphoric. You know, it’s like being a kid, when there are so many firsts. You’re learning to ride a bike, to read. There’s so many things you haven’t experienced. When you’re an adult, there aren’t many firsts. But, for me, flying was, and it was exciting to have that challenge. It takes all your senses. You’re completely immersed. You’re really in the moment.

I love to learn and I love a challenge. I didn’t realize how much calculation goes into flying. It was like being back in calculus. And, I’m not a big sweater, but after a two-hour flight lesson, I’d land and my back was drenched– just from the concentration. It’s dangerous, adventurous — all the things I love and that I think Amelia loved. And it was really wonderful.

MERIN: Did you qualify for your pilot’s license? Will you fly yourself to film locations in the future?

SWANK: I flew 19 hours. I wanted to get my pilot’s license. But for obviously reasons — for insurance purposes — they couldn’t let me go up by myself to do that– especially before filming a movie. I’m sure now that the movie’s done, they’re like, “Sure, go ahead.”

You know, I like to see things through to the end. I don’t want to just say, “Yeah, I flew.” I’d like to get my license and continue to go up on my own.

One of the great things about my job is I get to do all these things I might not experience had I not been an actor. And, I think saying I learned how to fly to play Amelia Earhart is pretty great.

MERIN: Aviation has developed so much since Amelia’s day. Some people might not understand what a pioneer she was. How do you think she’d feel about the growth of aviation and how we take it for granted now?

SWANK: I think she’d be thrilled. It was something that she was always commenting about — the progress of aviation. You know, flying was dangerous when Amelia was flying. Really, really dangerous. Taking that into consideration, she was all the more remarkable. When we had her plane, the Electra, on set, I didn’t get to fly it, for obvious reasons, but I did taxi it, and it’s a whole other thing. This particular plane is a beast to fly.

I think it’s interesting how people take flying for granted now. I mean, look, as I was telling you, I just spent 36 hours in the air in the last five days. So. I was in the air practically more than I was on the ground and, you know, I just got onto the flight and sat back and enjoyed it. I mean, think about it, we fly all the time. There’s hundreds of planes in the air right now. And they’re going to be there tomorrow. They’re flying all the time. When Amelia was flying, it was a sport. She hoped that someday it would be a way of transportation. And she was right. That’s what happened, and she was partly responsible for making that happen.

MERIN: Amelia was often on the road to promote her flying, and you often fly to promote your films. Did you find common ground there with Amelia?

SWANK: Well, she loved to travel and I love to travel. I’ve been fortunate in my career to travel all around the world. And part of that is to talk about the films that I am a part of. You know, it’s– I’m not going to lie — sometimes very grueling and difficult. I mean, in the last two weeks, I’ve been to Italy, then back to Los Angeles, then Dubai, then London, then back to Los Angeles, and then New York. I mean, I’m constantly in the air and promoting my films. Flight attendants I’ve gotten to know say, “Hilary, it’s illegal for us to fly as much as you fly.”

Amelia was the same way. She knew that without understanding the business side of things, you can’t have your career. That makes complete sense to me — I understand the business side of it, and I really love the art side of it– and I think they’re intertwined. You try to do the best you can. But I wonder what Amelia would say. I mean, there’s that line in the movie, “I feel like– I’m– I’m jumping through hoops. This white horse jumping through hoops.” Sometimes you feel a little bit like your in a circus. But, I’m really just an actor trying to talk about my love for movies, I just have to remember why I’m doing it and be in touch with that really.

MERIN: It seems you’ve become close to Amelia. Is she someone you’d always wanted to play?

SWANK: I wouldn’t say I was always longing to play Amelia Earhart, but I do long to play roles that challenge me and scare me and make me learn new things about the world, about myself, about my art. I’d read a script on Amelia about ten years ago, right after I did Boys Don’t Cry, but it didn’t capture Amelia for me. Obviously, I didn’t become part of that movie. When this script came across my desk, I just felt that connection. It captured Amelia’s way of going about her life, the way in which she carried herself and the way she expressed herself.

MERIN: And, it was very up front about her open marriage. How did you feel about her relationships with men?

SWANK: If we could all be so up front and forthright about our feelings, our emotions — our desires and needs– it could, I think, manage our expectations about relationships. But I think it’s really challenging to be that honest. And, even with the people you really love and you feel love you unconditionally, it’s really hard because — well there’s a lot of reasons why and we could sit here all day and talk about that. But I think that Amelia’s way of living her life was to be very honest and very open about what she wanted t do. She expressed what she was going to do. So, it wasn’t like she was hurting anybody along the way. Her marriage was like she said it would be, and that made it an unconditional sort of relationship — which is really rare. You know, I respect anyone who is able to be so forthright about themselves. Again, I think that’s a lot of what life is about — figuring out how we can we be honest ourselves, and live honestly in our relationships.

MERIN: Of all the fascinating characters you’ve played, some of whom were real women, do you think you feel closest to Amelia?

SWANK: You know, I feel about all of my roles that they’re in my heart. Amelia is certainly there. And, my life’s just richer with Amelia in my heart. She’s right in there. And, it’s really wonderful. And, when I’m thinking about some things I’m experiencing, I try and remind myself, you know — I often think about what would the characters I play do in these situations? What would Amelia do? So, it’s– it makes for a really rich life, and I‘m grateful for that.

MERIN: Do you have any intuitions about what happened to her? In the end?

SWANK: There are a lot of theories out there, but nobody knows the answer to that. I do know, ‘though, that she lives on in our memories, and that she changed the world.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).