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By ROBERT WELKOS



Published: Sat, January 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ROBERT WELKOS

LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- She was a little-known actress when she won over critics and captured an Oscar for her raw portrayal of a woman whose sexual identity crisis ends in murder.

But Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with Hilary Swank after 1999's "Boys Don't Cry." She seemed out of place playing a countess in pre-revolutionary France in "The Affair of the Necklace." And while she held her own in a supporting role in the crime drama "Insomnia," she was largely forgettable in the popcorn sci-fi thriller "The Core."

There were whispers about the Oscar "curse" as Swank slipped further and further off Hollywood's radar.

Now, with "Million Dollar Baby," the 30-year-old actress is poised to try to prove herself all over again. In the film, which opens Wednesday, Swank portrays a rough-hewn country girl named Maggie Fitzgerald who dreams of becoming a boxing champion. But she must first convince aging trainer Frankie Dunn, played by Clint Eastwood, to set aside his bias against "girl" boxers and tutor her in the sweet science.

Just as Eastwood's character nurtures Maggie's rise in the ring, so does Eastwood -- as director -- guide Swank to the kind of performance that is generating Oscar predictions. Already, she has earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a drama for her work in "Million."

Swank said she relied heavily on Eastwood's "quiet presence" and put her trust in him and in the critically acclaimed performances he elicited from the ensemble cast in "Mystic River" and Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County."

Most of all, Swank said, Eastwood's confidence in her shored up her own confidence.

Back to basics

"Clint brings people into the movie that he feels are right for the job and then he lets them do their job," Swank said. "It's Acting 101. He says, 'Trust your instinct. That's what it's there for. That is what it is all about.' "

The role itself, though, represented the kind of physical and emotional terrain she wanted to move in. "I read this and every cell of my body said I want to be part of it."

Watching these Academy Award winners -- he for best director for "Unforgiven," she for best actress for "Boys Don't Cry" -- it's clear that the father-daughter relationship the two forged on-screen continues off-screen. It was evident during a recent interview at Eastwood's Spanish-style office on the Warner Bros. Burbank lot.

Swank, in a breezy dress, sat on an L-shaped sofa. Watching over her from a seat nearby was the movie legend himself, sporting a golf shirt and corduroy pants. He couldn't suppress a smile as the comparative youngster talked about working with Eastwood on their new film. Before hitting stardom in Kimberly Peirce's provocative "Boys Don't Cry," Swank had been living in an apartment just up the hill from Warner Bros.

"I used to drive by the studio and think, 'God, someday I want to work on that lot,' " Swank recalled. So, when she auditioned for Eastwood, the memories of her struggles early in her career flooded back.

"I drove down the same hill, drove by the Oakwood Apartments and was driving onto the Warner Bros. lot to meet with this icon. And I thought, 'Wow! It's amazing how this has come full circle for me.' "

Award-winning writer

The screenplay, written by two-time Emmy winner Paul Haggis, is based on a short story from the collection "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner" by F.X. Toole, the pen name of the late veteran ringside "cut man" Jerry Boyd, who died in 2002.

A fatherless Southern girl, Maggie tries to escape from a world where her mom lives in a trailer and collects welfare.If the character of Maggie resonated with Swank, it's because of her Middle American roots. "I was born in Nebraska," she said with a twang that her years in Hollywood have not erased. "I'm a Cornhusker!"

Swank, raised in Washington state, pulled no punches about her early life.

"I myself grew up in a trailer park," she said. "I grew up poor."

In "Boys," which is based on a true story, Swank portrays Teena Brandon, who cuts her hair boyishly short and takes to wearing loose-fitting flannel shirts to transform herself into a young man in a small Nebraska town. In Swank's wrenching performance, which was hailed by critics, the complexity of her character's secret life unfolds as she falls for a local girl (played by Chloe Sevigny), which leads to the film's tragic conclusion.

Swank was catapulted almost overnight from obscurity. Hers was a Cinderella story and the press responded. There was the oft-repeated tale that she had lived out of her car while working as a struggling actress.

"I did it for only two weeks," she explained, "but someone got hold of that and thought I'd lived in my car for a really long time and wanted me to be a spokesperson for the homeless. I said, 'No, no, no! You're getting it wrong! It wasn't that big a deal!'"




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