A different Hilary Swank – after working with Clint Eastwood

September 2007 By Philip Berk

In Freedom Writers, Hillary Swank  plays Erin Gruwell, a real life California high school teacher who transformed her “unteachable, at-risk” students into critical thinkers and aspiring college students, who dubbed themselves Freedom Writers.

Q: Is this the first time she’s played a real person?

“The first time I’ve played somebody who is still alive. The biopics I have done before were of people that have passed away, but either way you always feel a responsibility to portray them honestly. In this case it was great to be able to talk to her and get a sense of her energy. I didn’t want to mimic her, but I thought it would be important to understand who she was, and what she was about. Of course, Richard (La Gravanese, the writer- director)Q: had put it on the page, but I wanted to bring my own sense to it as well. I didn’t want to just copy her. I wanted to get a sense of who she is, although she has such great mannerisms which I couldn’t resist using. But she’s that rare person who’s kind of a force of nature.”

Q: The power of writing she espoused, has it encouraged her to express herself in her own life?

“Absolutely. In the last couple of years I have really come into my own, achieved an understanding on a deep and profound level of who I am. I had never allowed myself that before. I don’t know why it came about, but even before this movie, I found that by writing it down, you have a choice how you want to live your life, what you want out of life, what makes you happy. Last May I went on a trip to India. I was there for a month. It was a great time for me to reconnect, and writing it down allows your thoughts to flow, it gives you a better understanding of who you are. It’s empowering and interesting to know who you are, and I think what Erin did encouraged me.” 

Q: Her trip to India, was that a spiritual journey?

“Not at all. I love to travel. It’s been a passion of mine, and I’ve always wanted to go to India. So I just said okay, this is the perfect time, I’m between movies, and there’s a big change in my life; so it seemed a great time to go.”

Q: But there was a humanitarian aspect to it?
“ I did want to do some volunteer work there, do something for other people and it was life changing and amazing and everything I hoped it would be.”

Q: How has she adjusted to the “change in her life”?

“It was a strange thing, but people go through divorces, people have bad times. We’re all human and nobody’s perfect. We all try the best we can. But during those times we have to have people we can turn to, and in my case I have two very, very close friends who helped me through my time. I’m certain without them my recovery would have been a lot harder, but I’m in a new relationship now and he’s a great guy.
(By the change in her life she was referring to the dissolution of her long marriage to Chad Lowe. The two met in 1992, were married in 1997, separated last year, and announced they were divorcing in December.) 

Q: Could she talk more about her trip to India? 

 “It wasn’t like to do yoga or meditate. I chose India because of the culture. I don’t do yoga,” she jokes.

Q: So what inspired her?

“I grew up as you already know with not a lot of money, in a trailer park, but I had shoes and I had toys, and I had food and I had a roof over my head and I went to school. So we have this idea when we go there, we see these poor kids. They don’t have shoes and they don’t have clothes. But I have to tell you, I met some of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life in India because they don’t know any different. It’s an idea we put in our head of what should make us happy, but when you’re there you realize that what’s important in life is family and there family is everything.” 

Q: Was she careful about the food she ate, the water she drank while there?

“For some reason I think I’m missing that gene. I’m really not afraid of things like that. I’m like my mom, you can worry your whole life away. I just figured if that happened I was prepared. I had medicine, I took my shots. I am not naïve. I go into situations trying to do the best. I protect myself. I don’t drink water out of a tap. I brush my teeth with bottled water. I make sure to eat cooked food. I try not to eat raw food. But I think if you get caught up in being afraid in life of certain things it keeps you from experiencing life to the fullest. I am someone who jumps out of planes, skydives, I try to live life to the fullest and take everything as it comes” 

Q: Has she spoken to Clint Eastwood and is she amazed that at seventy six he’s made two ambitious movies at the same time?

“It’s no surprise to me. If he was about to climb Mount Everest I’d be, yup, that’s Clint.  That’s a man that will never ever cease to amaze me.  He’s a constant source of inspiration to me whose advice I take to heart and whose friendship I hold dear to my heart. The great thing about Clint he always says, ‘You aim for the bull’s eye but you don’t always hit it.’ He’s just so humble. 

Q: Do you miss his no nonsense direction?

“He knows what he’s doing that’s why he doesn’t over think things. He trusts his instinct and surprisingly Richard LaGravenese does that too. I’m doing my next movie with him too, P.S. I Love You. To do back-to-back movies with somebody you have to really really like them. I adore this man. I have so much respect for him. He’s such an extraordinary brilliant director. I really look forward to his career as a director blossom in the way his writing career has. I’ve been really blessed to work with such great people.”

Q: The kids in the movie gravitate to their own kind (the Cambodians, the jocks) Which group was she part of?

“I don’t know if I was in any group. I kind of floated around. I was friends with a lot of people within those groups but I don’t really feel a lot of them were really friends. It was that awkward time where I felt I didn’t flit in with any group. I think we’ve all experienced that. But I had a couple of good teachers who helped me through that process. But it was a time I really wouldn’t want to go back to.”

Q: Is she happy to be a spokesman for Guerlin?

“Absolutely. It’s a classy company. They’ve been around for years. A lot of people approach you, want you to do this for three months or six months  but they came in and said they want to do this for three years, and I said, You know what “You believe in me and that means a lot. That you would commit to that amount of time that’s something I am looking for and I think it’s great that we have made that commitment to one another.”

Q: In the movie Erin treasures her pearls. a gift from her parents. Is there something she treasures?

“It’s the gift my mom gave me. I’ve talked about it before, it’s the gift that hands down is the most important gift I will ever receive the gift of believing in myself. ‘You can do anything you want in life, Hilary, as long as you work hard enough, and don’t let people tell you no. Keep pushing through. And you’ll see your dreams realized. That’s the most important gift you can give a child. Not that I was knocked down a lot but if I was she was there to pick me up.