In "Boys Don't Cry," a controversial indie based on a true-life tale, Hilary Swank stars as a woman raped and murdered after passing as a man. Critics are raving. Others are not.

By Dave Karger
Updated October 29, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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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.”

Once on the Boys set in Dallas, Swank rarely socialized during shooting breaks and clung to the only tangible connection she had with her real-life character: an audiotape of Brandon’s police interview conducted after she was raped by the two men who’d discovered her secret. “When we were shooting that [interview] scene, we were under all this stress,” says Peirce. “And she was listening to the Walkman. I thought, Is she listening to music? I turned to her and I just said, ‘What are you doing?’ She took the earphone and put it in my ear and she was listening to Brandon’s voice. It was just chilling.” Not long into production, Swank called her husband for backup. “I had planned to come in two weeks, but I got a call saying ‘You’re coming now,'” says Lowe. “She needed that reminder of who she was.”

Once production ended and Swank returned home to Los Angeles, it took a month “to totally detox Brandon out of my system,” she says. “I had been stifling my own mannerisms for so long. I was scared I was never going to be all the way Hilary again.”

In fact, nothing involving Boys Don’t Cry has exactly gone smoothly. The week it opened, writer Laurie Weeks complained to the New York Post that Peirce had broken a contract giving Weeks credit on the Boys screenplay; instead, she received an “additional dialogue” mention. Peirce maintains Weeks was treated fairly, and notes that the credit was vetted through the Writers Guild of America. “We settled on the credit in July, and it was fine [with Weeks] then,” says Peirce. “Now that the movie’s doing great, it’s not fine.”

“I know it puts me in the position of looking like somebody who’s coming out of the woodwork trying to cash in on this,” responds Weeks, who says she didn’t see any version of the shooting script until early September. “But they wouldn’t have the movie that they have without me. It’s insane that I don’t have credit.”

Actress Diane Keaton isn’t happy either. Her production company had optioned writer Aphrodite Jones’ true-crime thriller All She Wanted. Keaton and company cried foul when Fox Searchlight acquired Boys Don’t Cry at the Sundance Film Festival. The version that Keaton was producing, starring Drew Barrymore, was in development at the same studio. While the dispute is being settled, Fox Searchlight maintains that Brandon’s story is in the public domain, and Swank has her own opinion on Barrymore’s hypothetical performance. “I’m sure Drew would have been a beautiful boy,” she says. “But would people really have been able to get lost in the story? They’d be saying ‘Oh, there’s so-and-so playing a boy.’ I believe there’s a reason for everything.”

Boys Don't Cry

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