Hilary Swank seems to have a thing for reality. Since winning her first Oscar for best actress in 1999 for playing real-life transgendered teen Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, Swank has channeled teacher Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, suffragette Alice Paul in HBO's Iron Jawed Angels and pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart in Amelia.
Now she's returning to theaters with another real-life character, Betty Anne Waters, in Conviction. Waters, a high school dropout, is so sure her brother has been wrongly convicted of murder that she works her way through college and law school just so she can free him.
"Life is stranger than fiction," says Swank, 36, who won a second best-actress Oscar in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby.
"What happens more often than not is you can't find very compelling fictional roles for women," she says. "I can't complain, because I think I've had some of the best roles of the last decade; but when it comes to finding fiction, it's a real challenge."
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Playing Betty Anne Waters is a bit different than playing Amelia Earhart, she says, because Waters is still alive.
"You have a pretty big responsibility telling the story of someone who's living and on this earth, and Betty Anne is my hero," Swank says. "I don't want to be sitting next to her at the premiere, like I did two nights ago, and have her go, 'That's not at all how it happened.'"
So Swank took her time meeting the real Waters.
"There's obviously a physical side, and we don't look alike, and that's important because she's not a public figure and you don't have to emanate," she says. "I wanted to understand her inside — her will, her strength, her selflessness and humility."
She listened to hours of taped interviews with Waters. "I would listen to the nuances of her spirit and emotion, and that told me so much about her," she says. "And ... about eight weeks later, then I met her."
Swank knew she would have to tone down her own admiration for Waters in the role, or things would get corny.
"She's my true-life hero, but I can't portray her like a saint." She says she and co-star Sam Rockwell, playing the imprisoned brother, knew "you have to play them with all their flaws and humanity."
Swank started acting in her teens. She had a small role in the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992, starred as The Next Karate Kid in 1994 and had a recurring role on the original Beverly Hill, 90210. Her stock skyrocketed, though, with Boys Don't Cry.
She traces her need for acting to her trailer-park roots in Washington state. "I grew up poor," she says. "I didn't understand why, because I lived in a trailer park, I couldn't play with your kids. So I started getting into books and movies. And it's like the characters became my friends."
"There was a place where I understood myself and belonged because there were characters, like the Elephant Man or the Miracle Worker, where I said, 'Oh, these are people I relate to, these are my peeps.'
"And I thought, I want to be an actor so I can tell these stories and really find my place."