Hillary Swank: Photograph by Tony Duran
Scott Brown
December 21, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

”I got hit with a hook,” Hilary Swank recalls happily, feinting and jabbing in her seat at a SoHo restaurant. With fluid grace, she’s physically reliving a teeth-rattling memory of making Million Dollar Baby, a boxing drama where she plays a plucky pugilist under the tutelage of Clint Eastwood. The movie has come out swinging, racking up Golden Globe nods for costar Morgan Freeman, Eastwood (who also directed), and Swank, who’s doing her best, most brutal, most visceral work since Boys Don’t Cry. But at the moment, it’s hard to imagine those fabled cheekbones on the receiving end of someone’s glove.

”Sorry,” says the 1999 Oscar winner, waving off her perfectly made-up movie star kisser as if it’s an unsightly shiner. ”I was at a photo shoot.” And then she’s back to pantomiming her rough-and-tumble reminiscences: ”It was my close-up. There was this one five-move combination we were doing. I was supposed to go under her right hook. And I forgot. I saw it coming, so I went with it. Go again! Go again! Right away. And then it happened again. I forgot to go under her hook. Oh s—! Go again! Go again! It got my adrenaline up. I think they ended up using it. They just cut right between the Oh s—s.”

Swank, 30, has never earned her living making it look easy. If there’s any pattern to the roles she’s chosen — and honestly, how could there be, considering her Oscar-winning star turn was transgendered Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry? — it’s a pattern of pain, sacrifice, and striving. Her first big-screen lead was in The Next Karate Kid — and we all know what a hard-ass Mr. Miyagi can be. Later, when she was just 24, there came Boys, with its obvious challenges. And then the toughest test of all: success.

”People asked me, Where do you go from here?” she recalls of the confusing period following her Best Actress win. ”At first I didn’t know what they were talking about. And then I realized really great roles in really great stories are really few and far between. This is what people were talking about: You’re an actor, you need to work. You can’t wait 5, 10, 25 years for something to jump off the page.”

So she didn’t. Having committed, pre-Oscar, to The Affair of the Necklace, a period intrigue set at the dawn of the French Revolution, she corseted up and tried something completely different. But not without reservations. ”I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun,” she recalls, describing that patch of extreme self-doubt. ”I just had to realign myself. I got back in touch with [myself] quickly, thank God.”

Audiences didn’t get back in touch with her quite so speedily, however, and Affair was a critical and box office disappointment. Shortly afterward, she tried another strategy: big-budget disaster flick. In The Core she played an astronaut who helps crash-land a shuttle, then tunnels to the center of the earth. But the public’s appetite for global destruction was minimal in 2003, and the real-life shuttle tragedy didn’t exactly prime the public. She fared better in HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, in which she played pioneering suffragette Alice Paul (and garnered a Golden Globe nomination) — but television isn’t typically where actresses choose to spend post-Oscar capital.

Part of the stall was Swank’s avoidance of stock roles. ”I think I made a conscious effort at the beginning of my career to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to be ‘the girl.’ Because how boring is that?” Thus the astronaut suit and the corset.

”She’s very contemporary and very physical. It’s probably not playing to her strengths to put her in costume,” says Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. ”My experience with her is that protean ability to transform, loving the physical.”

Enter Million Dollar Baby.

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