A surprise Oscar winner five years ago for her haunting performance in "Boys Don't Cry," and a winner again this year for her riveting portrayal of a neophyte female boxer in Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," Swank is unlike any other movie star.
As Correspondent Mike Wallace first reported last January, Swank is beautiful, unaffected, down to earth, intelligent, sophisticated, worldly and articulate. She's also a high school dropout who grew up in a trailer park.
Swank lives in New York City, and she's a movie star who rides the subway.
"I used the subway all the time. It's my form of transportation," says Swank, "because it's quick. It's inexpensive."
And she says it's a great way for her to study her craft.
"My job is about playing people. And I think once you lose touch with people, what do you play?" she says. "So I'm here, and it's the best people-watching in the world."
Last year, Swank rode the subway to Brooklyn, six days a week, for three long months. Her destination was Gleason's Gym, where for more than 65 years now, thousands of boxers from Jake LaMotta to Muhammad Ali have trained. Swank went there to prepare for her role in "Million Dollar Baby."
Acting opposite Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a 30-something, down-on-her-luck waitress who dreams of becoming a professional boxer.
It's a demanding part, physically and emotionally. Eastwood, who also directed the film, says he knew Swank had the acting chops for the part. But her physique was a different story.
"I just thought, 'Yeah, this gal would be great, if we can get her trained up, if we can get a little bit more bulk on her, to make her look like a fighter,'" recalls Eastwood. "She was like a feather. But what happened is, she had this great work ethic."
So before filming began, Swank trained hard, nearly five hours every day.
"I could do half a pull-up when I first started training," says Swank. "I literally, I tried to pull myself up, and I was shaking. And I couldn't do it. And I couldn't believe it. I thought, you know, and as a kid, you had, doing pull-ups and stuff. And then when I was done, I could do 11."
Swank bulked up by 19 pounds and learned to box like a pro. Everyone back at Gleason's was impressed. But she kept a secret from the boxers, and from the filmmakers who hired her.
She had a potentially life-threatening staphylococcus infection. "I got a blister the size of my palm on the ball of my foot," says Swank.
Within 48 hours, the blister was infected, and staph bacteria spread through her veins. "There were streaks going up my foot," recalls Swank. "So, I went to the doctor that second, and he looked at me, and he said, 'This is really serious. And if you had waited two more hours, you would have been in the hospital for three weeks. And if it gets to your heart, that's it.'"
She didn't tell Eastwood what had happened. "I didn't tell Clint, because in the end, that's what happens to boxers," says Swank. "They get blisters, they get infected. They have injuries and they keep pushing through it."
Her secret didn't surprise Eastwood one bit. He says her plain-and-simple determination to play the part is in large part why the film turned out so well. "This is just another step in her path to greatness," says Eastwood. "She's the best there is, as good an actress as I've worked with."
Like her character, Maggie Fitzgerald, Swank grew up in a trailer park in Bellingham, Wash. Much of her childhood time was split between performing in school plays and competitive swimming. By 15, she had settled on acting, not athletics.
"I ended up dropping out of high school. I'm a high school dropout, which I'm not proud to say," says Swank. "I had some teachers that I still think of fondly and were amazing to me. But I had other teachers who said, 'You know what? This dream of yours is a hobby. When are you going to give it up?' I had teachers who I could tell didn't want to be there. And I just couldn't get inspired by someone who didn't want to be there."