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Hilary Swank: “I look for quality in a watch”
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Hilary Swank: “I look for quality in a watch”

Friday, 25 September 2020
By Frank Rousseau
Frank Rousseau

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7 min read

A double Oscar winner, for Boys Don’t Cry in 2000 and Million Dollar Baby in 2005, Hilary Swank now stars in Away as an astronaut heading a three-year mission to Mars, handling family and mission crises from millions of miles into space.

What convinced you to sign on for the series?

The fact the mission has a female commander, to start with, and that the crew is international with different sexual orientations. We’ve seen a lot of films and shows these past decades that are told through the white male lens. I call this a myopic view. Directors are still waking up to the fact the world has changed. In Away, we have storylines about LGBTQ relationships, for example. Why? Because this is representative of what’s happening in the world. You know, at NASA there are now as many female as male astronauts. It’s important this comes across on-screen.

As an actress, success didn't come easy...

I come from a lower socioeconomic background. My father was in the military, then a travelling salesman. My mother was a secretary. We lived in a trailer park near Lake Samish in Bellingham, Washington. When my parents separated, I decided to go with my mom, and my brother Dan, to California. I had a dream of becoming an actress. I’d known this was what I wanted to do since I was nine years old, when I’d played Mowgli in a school production of The Jungle Book. The applause, the connection with the audience… I truly felt I belonged. Of course, I was under no illusion about the amount of hard work it would take to make it happen. We arrived in California with $75 to our name. My mother worked low-paid jobs just to get by. We slept in our trailer and sometimes in our car, but we never lost hope in the future. I was sixteen and my mother was always encouraging me to try out for parts. It wasn’t easy: I didn’t look like your typical Californian girl and I wasn’t a conventional beauty. We were stony broke but that didn’t matter. For me it was an adventure, a new experience.

Hilary Shwank
Hilary Shwank
It can't have been easy...

Believe me, it wasn’t. My mom used her Mobil fuel card to buy sandwiches at gas stations and would pay off just enough each month so it wouldn’t be cancelled. We’d work out how much we could afford to spend to the nearest quarter. Occasionally we’d meet kind people who wanted to help. A girl I knew in South Pasadena let us stay at her house while it was up for sale, as long as we were out during the day when realtors came by. That’s when I found out what it meant to sleep in a comfortable bed. Until then, we’d spent most of our nights on air mattresses. A couple of weeks later, my mom found better-paid work and a nice lady rented us an apartment for $500 a month. When my mom wasn’t working, she’d be pushing quarters into a pay phone, trying to find me a decent casting agent who didn’t charge a fortune. You should have heard her! And she succeeded, through sheer perseverance. Agents started calling back, maybe because they were sick of my mother harassing them on the phone! (laughs) My first audition was for a McDonald’s commercial. My agent liked what I did and signed me. I stayed with him for the next five years. Thanks to the money I earned from acting, my mom and I were able to move into a small house. After that I landed my first two film roles, in 1992 in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in 1994 in The Next Karate Kid. I was athletic [she was a junior swimming and gymnastics champion] and both directors, Rubel Kuzul and Christopher Cain, wanted an actress who could take on a physically demanding role.

You mentioned Pasadena, an upscale Los Angeles community. Did you fit in there?

It was impossible for me to make friends at school. I came from a completely different background and the others made sure I knew that. Some of the girls wore watches that cost as much as my mother made in an entire year. I was never jealous, though. The thing that bugged me was how they treated them. I’d see them shooting hoops, banging and scraping this beautiful watch and it drove me crazy. It was obvious they had no idea of their value. And what a lack of respect for the people who had so patiently assembled them.

Hilary Shwank
Hilary Shwank
Do you remember your first good watch?

I won’t name the brand but I do remember being so afraid of damaging it that I hardly ever took it out of its box. I was worried someone might snatch it, too! (laughs) You take good care of your first “real” watch. It’s something you keep for special occasions. As someone from a modest background, I didn’t want to come across as a show-off or nouveau riche, either. I’d worked hard to buy this watch and even then I felt embarrassed about owning it. It was months before I was able to accept that I was allowed to buy myself nice things. There’s often this sense of guilt over spending money on a watch or some other item. You tell yourself you shouldn’t have, that now’s not the time. Fortunately you learn to get over these feelings. You know it’s not an impulse buy but something you truly want. An act of love.

Where do you think these guilt feelings came from?

A lot of people who start out with nothing and go on to achieve success cover themselves in bling. It’s their way of showing the world how far they’ve come. It’s only human, although I’ve never been a “look at me!” person. There was a time, if I went out in a couture gown or expensive jewellery, I’d hug the walls simply because I wasn’t raised in that kind of environment. Money was tight when I was growing up. Sure, I had a watch but it was for telling the time. It never occurred to me that a watch could be something of value that a person would collect. Back then, I couldn’t see how it was also a work of art.

Hilary Shwank
Hilary Shwank
You excelled at sport in high school, particularly gymnastics and swimming. Presumably you like a watch that can take a few knocks?

I’m into sport but I’m also a woman, and like most women I appreciate a watch for how it looks. I don’t want a hockey puck on my wrist! The more discreet, the better. As someone who likes to play sport and really push myself, I need a watch that will stand the pace. The first thing I look at is how well is it made. The form of the case is important. It has to be small and compact so it won’t snag. If it’s a leather or rubber strap, I check the quality of the stitching. For sport, I prefer a lightweight watch in a composite material I won’t have to worry about damaging. Basically, a watch that’s adapted to my lifestyle and not the other way around. I’d never spend hundreds of thousands on a watch, not even for a dress watch. I’m not the type to own houses all over the world or a garage full of cars. I’ve never understood this desire people have to show off their wealth. I invest in my family and loved ones. It’s a long-term and a safe investment. I also invest in my clothing line. If ever my career starts to slow down, at least I’ll have something to wear! (laughs)

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