The independent film boom of the 1990s launched many brilliant actors, but perhaps none flew higher than Hilary Swank. She took the chance on a risky role in a micro-budget film with a provocative subject matter and an unknown director — and walked away with an Oscar. Then a relatively unknown TV actress, she was paid $3,000 for the film. (As she often said, “I had an Academy Award, but no health insurance.”) However, in a recent interview at the Crosby Street Hotel to promote the Netflix movie “I Am Mother,” she lit up when discussing the heyday of independent film.
“I thought, ‘Wow this is my opportunity to break into film,” she said. “Famous people weren’t taking the risk on independent film, and they weren’t getting paid to do independent film, so there was no interest for them. But, newcomers couldn’t break into film because the studio system was like, ‘We only use famous people.'”
Directed by Kimberly Peirce and produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, “Boys Don’t Cry” is a seminal work in the queer film canon. Distributed by Fox Searchlight in 1999, it was a critical and box-office surprise success that went all the way to the Oscars. At the time, Swank took a huge gamble on an incredibly challenging role and what was then an incendiary topic.
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“I broke into film with that movie. But it was like such a long shot,” said Swank. “It was made for nothing; I made $3,000. The idea of making a movie for a certain budget, it was just this brilliant idea of being able to take a risk on telling a story that there is an audience for, you just have to make it to be able to find that audience. Right? Build it, they will come. So it was a super exciting time. Super exciting time for film. And then obviously it took off.”
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With sensitivity and heart, the film tells the story of transgender man Brandon Teena’s (Swank) first exploration of his gender, early pivotal romance, and tragic murder, all anchored by Swank’s powerful breakthrough performance. The effects of the film rippled into audiences who had never seen a sensitive portrayal of a transgender person, much less given any thought to the violence they face every day simply for being themselves.
“I believe [‘Boys Don’t Cry’ will] for sure be the most important thing that I was ever a part of,” Swank said proudly.
Following the film’s release, Swank became the spokesperson for The Hetrick-Martin Institute, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ youth services organizations. During her 10-year tenure, she helped find a home for New York’s Harvey Milk High School, a public high school catering to at-risk LGBTQ youth.
“There are so many hate crimes that are still occurring in the world, not just in our country, that people weren’t even aware of until [‘Boys Don’t Cry’] was made,” Swank said. “At the same time, Matthew Shepard and the horrendous crimes against him were like blips in the news here and there. But with that movie, they became more of a conversation.”
In many ways, it kicked off the conversation around transgender representation in film that continues to this day. But in recent years, some activists in the trans community have criticized the film for casting Swank, who is cisgender, as a trans man, and for having been directed by Peirce, a cisgender lesbian. On a 2016 visit to Reed College, the filmmaker was greeted with protests.
“I think in some ways it’s been criticized and in others it hasn’t. And I think if people knew the outpouring of letters and people on the streets who have come up to me in tears, thanking me for telling their story,” Swank said. After pausing for a few seconds, she added: “I hold on to that. That’s important to me, and to be that spokesperson for that amount of time. I’m happy that times are evolving and changing and that people are getting the opportunity to tell their own stories.”