Sean Smith
October 23, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

By many measures, Hilary Swank should not have a career. Despite two Oscars, she’s almost impossible to cast in mainstream films. She doesn’t play ”the girl” opposite Will Smith or hop a pirate ship with Johnny Depp. She is not Megan Fox. ”Her look and demeanor are not soft,” says one industry exec, ”so it’s hard to see her as vulnerable or as a love object.” (Remember, P.S. I Love You didn’t exactly rock the world.) And yet, Swank, 35, has scored some of the finest roles for women her age — a transgender murder victim in Boys Don’t Cry, a boxer in Million Dollar Baby, and now aviation legend Amelia Earhart in Amelia. While other actresses are relegated to decorative roles opposite male A-listers, Swank — like Jodie Foster before her — is always at the center of her films. (And in the right project, she’s capable of filling theaters: Baby brought in $217 million worldwide.) She’s the hero, not the heroine. And that could keep her flying high in Hollywood.

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