Jenny Cooney Carrillo
international entertainment and lifestyle journalist
Hilary Swank doesn’t want to shake my hand. “I woke up with a sore throat this morning and I don’t want to spread it,” she says apologetically as we meet for afternoon tea at the less-than-prestigious Sheraton Hotel at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The 32-year-old double Oscar winner has been dutifully filming some interviews upstairs for the studio behind her up-coming role in the Brian DePalma thriller, The Black Dahlia, with Scarlett Johannson and Josh Hartnett yet despite being clearly under the weather, she’s determined to carry on, and does so with enthusiasm, charm and dignity.
With her big brown eyes and perfect white teeth to set off any outfit, Hilary looks beautiful in a very ‘I’m not trying’ kind of way, wearing a simple green silk top over tight Seven jeans and multi-colored strappy high-heeled sandals. The actress who grew up in a trailer park and came out of nowhere to win two Academy Awards, for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, has also recently made a multimillion dollar deal with Guerlain to become the new face of their new perfume Insolence and she has no less than three major movies set for release: The Black Dahlia, The Reaping and Freedom Writers. A feel-good movie which has ‘Oscar’ written all over it again.
But during the most spectacular chapter of her career, her personal life came crashing down when she separated from long-time husband, actor Chad Lowe late last year. She’s acknowledged in other interviews that he had drug problems but that subject is off-limits today I’ve been told. After she charmingly convinces our smitten Mexican waiter Pedro to make her a special batch of spinach and artichoke dip served with tortilla chips which are not on the menu (“I’m just craving spinach,” she says sweetly), she sips an iced tea and welcomes the arrival of the food with genuine excitement. “This is my lucky day!” she exclaims, and you know she really means it.
What can you tell us about the movies you have coming out?
I did Million Dollar Baby and then went right into The Black Dahlia, which was really challenging because my character Madeleine is very troubled and rich and I decided to go for a very unique take on he with a certain cadence that I knew would either work or really not work, and Brian De Palma encouraged me to do it, was it was great to show a different side of me on screen. The Reaping is a horror movie and I play a missionary who has lost her faith and through the things that happen in this movie, she regains it. It’s not scary because someone is running through the forest with a knife but scary because of the idea that could this happen? It deals with religion and things that can’t be explained and a lot of issues and I found it a page-turner so I had to do it.  And Freedom Writers is the true story based on a schoolteacher who worked with inner city school kids and how she changed their lives and helped them find meaning. It was so inspiring that I knew I had to be part of telling that story.
How why did you decide to get involved with Guerlain?
It’s really fun to be the face of Guerlain. I’ve been asked to do a lot of campaigns and I really wanted it to feel right and this felt right because they’ve been around a long time and they’re very prestigious and I love their history with (the fragrance) Shalimar. I also liked that they consider themselves family and they committed to me for three years because they wanted to make me part of that family. I
What did you think of the name of their new perfume, Insolence?
They flew all the way from France to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I was filming The Reaping, to reveal what they were thinking and introduce me to this new fragrance, so they told me about Insolence in the middle of a swamp, which was pretty funny! I think the beauty of that name is that it can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. I love that this company is so supportive of women, and Insolence is kind of a way of saying, ‘this is the new woman’. You can be your own person and you don’t have to abide by any rules and so you can get out there and do your own thing, and that’s what it means to me. Coincidentally I can relate at this point in my life.
You recently spent a month volunteering in a school and orphanage in India. How did that experience impact you?]
It was so life enriching, I can’t even describe it. I always wanted to take a long amount of time to do something like that and I always wanted to go to India so I got on-line, looked up volunteer work in India, found United Planet and it was a perfect fit for me because I really wanted to work with children. It was a very remote place to get to and we lived in a volunteer house with mattresses on the floor but it was so rewarding and challenging.
And nobody recognized you?
There were volunteers from England, Switzerland and Amsterdam and one took me aside and said she knew who I was but wouldn’t say anything to anybody else and I think a few of the others knew but none of them said a single word to me, which was fantastic because I really didn’t want to talk about Hollywood or the business.
What were you doing in India?
I worked in the mornings at the school, then the orphanage. Working with the kids in the school was one of the proudest moments of my life. I learned a lot about patience because I taught them the English alphabet and thought that was going to be easy and then I realized it was just a bunch of sounds to them and I was a weird lady standing in front of them saying ‘a’ ‘a’ ‘a’ - and they’re looking at me like I had twenty heads! I had to start thinking of ways to get through to them to get them excited to learn so we sang songs and incorporated things they did when they were playing and by the end, they all knew the alphabet.
What did you get out of this?
I got married so young and was working, working, working all the time, so this was a great time in my life to reconnect to me and reflect on my connection with other people and do something good in the world to remind myself what is important in life.
What else are you doing with your free time now you are single?
I just love to travel. I’m about to travel around Europe and I don’t really have a set plan but will see where it takes me. Travel is an important part of my life because you see different cultures and experience people’s lives and that’s what my job is, to tell the stories of people’s lives, so the more I travel the more it helps with my job too. I’m learning Italian so I hope I get a chance to go to Italy and practice that, and I start work soon on a movie called P.S. I Love You, which will take me to Ireland for the first time so that is really exciting.
What was your impression of Australia?
I really loved Australia when I was there about twelve years ago visiting a friend, so I hope to get back there some time too. The people are so laid back and relaxed and such a joy to be around, not to mention the landscape is beautiful and I love the eucalyptus trees.
And they didn’t arrest you for having an apple in your bag?
Yeah, when that happened in New Zealand (Swank was fined $163 for bringing two pieces of fruit into the country in her hand luggage) my first thought was, ‘they wouldn’t have done this to me in Australia!’ It was a nineteen-hour flight and I forgot I had an apple in my bag, so that was all a bit ludicrous.
So what’s your relationship to fashion these days?
I’m not a slave to fashion and I don’t need the latest bag or shoes or outfit, but I definitely respect the art of fashion and creating a beautiful dress and I like to dress up as much as the next girl. I enjoy the process of getting my hair and makeup done and wearing high heels but my closet is pretty well balanced out with my H&M finds as well as my Marc Jacobs finds. There are definitely moments, though, when I get great bags and clothes sent to me and I think, ‘how is this possible?’ Still to this day I’m as surprised as the first day it happened to me!
Where are you living now?
I’m a total gypsy now our home in New York has been sold but I love New York so will want to stay there. I rent an apartment everywhere I go and have a rented place in New York now until I start traveling again.
How do you get along with Chad now?
I’ve known Chad for all of my adult life so we’re remaining friends through this, which is important to both of us.
Do you really feel single and interested in dating?
I do, because it’s been almost a year. I’m just now feeling I can start opening up to that possibility. I have no idea if I’m approachable, though, and I don’t get a lot of offers actually, believe it or not.
Why do you think that is?
Well I don’t know who is going to ask me out in India in an orphanage or in this lovely Sheraton Universal hotel - unless Pedro maybe wants to ask me out but he’s working up the nerve! I haven’t put much thought into it, to be honest.
So have you ruled out marrying again? What about children?
I’d love to be able to have kids someday because I think they’re amazing. Hopefully I’ll find love again. I believe in marriage. I believe in love and I’d never rule that out in my future but being lucky in your career is not the same as your personal life.
Jenny Cooney Carrillo
Jenny Cooney Carrillo interviews Hilary Swank for a Madison cover story