Her transformation from teen cutie into a boy won gold, but threatened her sanity

By Josh Wolk
March 27, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
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MALE FACTOR Swank, left, as a ”90210” babe and, right, as babe magnet Brandon in ”Boys Don’t Cry”

Hilary Swank’s dramatic transformation into a man in the Oscar-winning true drama ”Boys Don’t Cry” happened long before the word ”Action!” To get into the character of Teena Brandon — the young Nebraska woman who posed as a guy named Brandon and was killed in 1993 by the friends who discovered her secret — Swank spent four weeks prior to shooting living life dressed as a male.

This journey into gender confusion got her into her character a little too deeply, as she experienced firsthand how uneasy people become when confronted with someone who walks and talks like a man but still has a faint feminine aura. ”If you don’t fit into a black-or-white definition of boy or girl you slip between the cracks and it’s a lonely place,” says Swank. ”People don’t want to have anything to do with you, and it put me in a state of real hopelessness. I cried a lot for days.”

By the time she began the monthlong shoot, Swank, 25, had perfected her eerily accurate transformation, having lost weight, strapped down her breasts, and adopted male mannerisms in the way she walked and talked. In a scene when she approaches a girl for a blind date, she adopts a pointedly observed, cocky loping strut, and later when she wrestles with her new guy friends, she does it with a fervor that usually comes only from years of male bonding.

But the deeper she dove into the character, the more confused she got, soon finding herself unable to shake her testosterone-charged side. ”By the third week of filming I had lost every ounce of my femininity,” she says. ”I thought I was never going to be able to find Hilary again. I was totally lost.” At one point a good friend came to visit, and while they were out to dinner he told her, ”I’m having a really hard time, I don’t feel like I’m sitting here with Hilary.” Remembers Swank, ”It hit me so hard because I felt like I was being me.”

Now, more than a year after wrapping the film, Swank has hit the hair salon again, started applying makeup, and is free to don the occasional skirt. And thanks to that little golden man and her near universally resplendent reviews — EW’s Owen Gleiberman called her ”extraordinary” and gave the movie an A — Swank will finally be cut loose from the teen-movie track that she’s been stuck on, from 1992’s ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to ’94’s ”The Next Karate Kid” to a ’97-98 stint on ”Beverly Hills, 90210.” ”I’ve read the scripts for all the amazing movies that you see,” she says. ”But I never got a chance to do them. Because it’s a catch-22 in this business. To get a great movie, you have to be in a great movie.” Consider it done. And next time, she might even get to wear high heels.

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