It’s so boring to play the pretty girl,” says Hilary Swank. And she should know.
Less than two years after a season of major primping on Beverly Hills, 90210, Swank, 25, is now generating a different kind of excitement in the new indie film sensation Boys Don’t Cry. The movie is based on the true story of Teena Brandon, a 21-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in 1993 near Falls City, Neb., after passing as a man named Brandon and seducing several of the town’s women. While director Kimberly Peirce has received praise for her feature debut (”stunning” is how The New York Times described it), Swank’s performance has been singled out as the film’s most striking element.
The film — which is expanding to theaters nationwide — has earned an impressive $238,000 on just a handful of screens in the New York area and has placed Swank securely in the running for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. For nearly the entire movie, she performs under the guise of the male alter ego Brandon, with her breasts taped flat, hair shorn, and tattered jeans outfitted with a strategically placed sock.
Swank’s highest-profile movie gig to date was the title role in 1994’s The Next Karate Kid, and she’s best known as single mom Carly on 90210. Director Peirce wanted an unknown for Boys Don’t Cry, so to audition for the part, Swank, who had been carving out a career in indies since her 90210 days, hastily borrowed clothes from her husband, actor Chad Lowe, and swirled her flowing hair up into a cowboy hat.
”She blurred the gender line,” says Peirce. ”And even more important than that, she smiled. She loved being Brandon.” After landing the role, Swank embarked on a more dramatic physical transformation: She chopped off her hair and dyed it dark brown, then trained two hours a day, building muscle and dropping what little body fat she had in order to accentuate her jawline. And since a dialect coach was out of the question on a $2 million production, Swank, who was raised in Bellingham, Wash., commissioned her cousin in Iowa to read for an hour on tape so she could emulate his flat Midwestern accent.
For research purposes, Swank also invented her own male alter ego and lived as a man for 30 days in Los Angeles. ”We would run into people that we knew as a couple,” recalls Lowe (brother of Rob and now on CBS’ Now and Again). ”They would look at me, like, Aren’t you going to introduce your friend?”
”I said to her, ‘Go pass as a boy for four weeks,”’ recalls Peirce, who served as a kind of drill sergeant during Swank’s preparation. ”’And if you f—- up and people discover you, you better go back home and feel embarrassed. Feel terrified about what it means to be an impostor. Go home and look in the mirror and figure out what went wrong. Did you not bind your tits tight enough? Was your haircut wrong?”’
”I don’t think I was really prepared for what I went through,” Swank says of her gender-bending research. ”There were people who couldn’t figure out what I was. They didn’t look me in the eye. I was treated poorly by people in stores, people that I had known as Hilary. I cried for two days straight.”