When was self-doubt first introduced to your life? The chipping away at the spirit is taught to us so early. For Hilary Swank, the first blow that stuck with her happened when she was seven. “I learned about classism at a really young age,” says the Nebraskan born, Washington-raised actress. “I didn’t know at the time what was happening,” she remembers, recounting a moment when she was told by a friend she wasn’t invited to stay for dinner. “They don’t approve of where [you] live,” her friend explained, referring to their trailer park address. “I’m so grateful for where I grew up because it was outdoorsy, it was liberal, kind of farm-to-table food before that was a [phrase]… I didn’t see the trailer park as something that was considered negative. I had a roof over my head. That’s just not what you think about.”
But she was asked to think about it, and, in the process, was hurt. “I wanted to work so hard to be approved. You don’t even recognize, of course, that that’s what’s happening. But that becomes your makeup.” Swank found a great equalizer in sports—swimming, basketball, gymnastics. “When we all got on the court or we got in the pool, [your socioeconomic background] didn’t matter.” Friends with whom she could commiserate were found in books and movies (she cites The Elephant Man, The Miracle Worker, and The Wizard of Oz), where characters grappled with their own sense of belonging and fulfillment. Through reading, watching, and eventually trying on other character’s lives via acting, Swank found it therapeutic not to find approval, but to recognize that she wasn’t the only one seeking it. Feeling less alone in her insecurities was a path toward surmounting them.
It’s a theory that she’s proven beyond herself. Swank launched her charity, The Hilaroo Foundation, last year as a healing place for abandoned animals and children she describes as “given up on.” When paired together, “they have this instant connection. These dogs who love unconditionally—they don’t see the lack of money, they don’t see color, they just see a person for who they are.” In return, the children feel compassion toward the dogs, whose circumstances they unfortunately recognize. And by extension, says Swank, they get in touch with their own feelings. “That’s when healing can start to occur.” Having compassion toward others is, of course, a surefire route to finding compassion toward yourself. Swank has experienced this first hand, too.
It goes without saying that she has a lot on her plate. Like many modern women, Swank performs the daily juggling act of maintaining a successful career and a myriad of relationships. Her day might see her flying between cities, taking morning to night meetings, after-hours interviews, calls to her new company, a meal with her boyfriend. “Everything I have on my plate I have asked to be on my plate, so I don’t want to complain about that. I’m really grateful for this.” But if she falls short of expectations—hers or others’—she makes an effort to start the next day off with a clean slate. She calls it a zero-zero day. It’s something she picked up from her newfound love of tennis. “I didn’t learn how to play tennis until right before I turned 38.” An ex-boyfriend got her started. “I’m obsessed, to the point where it probably is the only other thing that I would be interested in doing as my career.”
Aside from being thrilling to play, tennis has become Swank’s incidental life coach. “It’s such a mind game. You can be winning and then you get confidence and play better. And then the second someone gets [a point] on you, it starts chipping at your confidence. You’re like, ‘I must not be as good as I thought,’ or whatever your mind makes up.” No matter how far ahead she or her opponent gets in a match, she finds her game is more consistent when she plays each point as if they were just starting, in other words from a zero-zero perspective. “You have to be in that mindset.” Off the court, it proves just as beneficial. “If yesterday was a bad day, I’m going to chose to learn from it, grow from it, and start at zero-zero right now. Me and the day. It’s how I get back to neutral and not allow something to beat me up.” It merits mentioning that, in tennis, zero translates as “love.”
Being in the moment, without fear and anxiety, allows Swank to hear herself. And it’s following her gut that has led her to everything she loves in life. For example, an early flair for acting in elementary school was a seed that she grew until, at age 15, she and her mother drove to Los Angeles with $75 and the car they would live out of so Swank could try her hand at it professionally. A little money was spent on a book of agents at the Samuel French bookstore. “My mom would stand with a roll of quarters calling at a pay phone, saying, ‘Hi, my daughter is talented and you should meet her.’ And they’d be like, ‘Great, send in a photo and resume and we’ll think about it.’” It was a seemingly futile exercise until one day it wasn’t. “An agency, it was called Harry Gold at the time, said ‘We’re actually meeting new talent on Wednesday, so come in and we’ll meet her.’” Swank was given a commercial script and asked to read it cold. Then given some notes and asked to read it again. The woman on the other side of the script, Bonnie Liedtke, said, “You have an agent.” Liedtke would get Swank her first big break in The Next Karate Kid, and herald the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey MaGuire, and Leelee Sobieski not long after. “She was a real talent discoverer, and an incredible woman in my life, clearly.”
With each foothold Swank has found in acting since—starring roles in Oscar-winning movies and two Best Actress Oscars for herself among them—the outsider feeling she once carried around is starting to dissipate, but the work on doubt is far from over. In acting, she says, “It’s really easy to be defined as something.” Studios are quick to pigeonhole her as a dramatic lead, she has to fight for trust that she can play a variety of roles and tones. “But that’s also a great analogy for life. As individuals we have to constantly say, ‘I’m more than this.’” It’s a truth that revealed itself when Swank took two years off of acting to help her father while he was waiting for and recovering from a lung transplant. Stripped of the label she fought so hard to earn, “actress,” she discovered unexpected room to grow. This is when she founded her charity, and began work on her latest project, Mission Statement after encountering more moving stories of women overcoming adversity—and of women who were inspired by her own against-the-odds tale. “I think that’s part of the beauty of social media, that you can connect with people who are struggling and say, ‘Oh wow, yeah, we all have our struggles and we’re all trying to work through our stuff.’ You just feel less alone.”
Mission Statement, aside from being a line of clothing that meets the needs of her own multifaceted life—taking her from the morning exercise she calls part of her “marrow” to a full steam ahead day—is designed to keep the authentic, concentric circle of encouragement and inspiration growing for Swank and a community of women she has yet to meet. “I want to be open minded. We can be so myopic sometimes. People blow my blinders off how I see the world. [It’s] so exciting.”