Hilary Swank is known for her dramatic, Academy Award-winning roles in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby — but her current dream role is to take the lead in an action movie.
"I don't want to be the girl in the bikini in James Bond. I want to be Jane Bond," she told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg.
In her latest project, Swank plays astronaut Emma Green in the Netflix series, Away. Her character commands the first manned mission to Mars. Swank talks about what goes into preparing for a role as an astronaut, including speaking to real-life astronaut Jessica Meir from the International Space Station, and getting her pilot's license while playing Amelia Earhart on-screen.
Swank is a lifelong animal lover. For her Ask Me Another challenge, she guesses whether luxury pet services are real or fake.
On receiving an unexpected phone call from The International Space Station
"I get this phone call on my cell phone and she was like, 'Hey, it's Jessica from ISS. I just thought I'd call and follow up with you.' ... And I was like, 'What? Am I being pranked right now?' It's just unbelievable, someone's calling me from the ISS!"
On acting as though there's zero gravity
"So, the wires, you're being held at the lowest part of your hips. So not in a very comfortable place. Kind of like, you know when those low-riders were in? ...That's where these harnesses are, way down there. And so, you don't feel that supported, and you're not. But you have to squeeze your glutes to go forward, so you're like, squeezing and trying to talk normal, then you have to squeeze your abs really hard to go back, like this. And then you have an emotional scene... and so, it was actually more challenging than I had expected, and a pretty solid workout."
On driving to Los Angeles with her mom to pursue her acting dream
"I was actually 15-and-a-half, and I say that because you get your permit then. So, we were driving down, my aunt had loaned us her car. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. It was supreme, and it was fancy, you know? And, I had these bear claw slippers that I would wear, and I was wearing them on this drive down. And so, I remember my mom saying, 'Do you want to drive?' And I was like, 'I have my bear claw slippers.' She goes, 'That's okay.' So I was driving down to L.A. with my learner's permit and my bear claw slippers, through that long stretch of desert."
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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
It's time to welcome our special guest. She's a two-time Academy Award-winning actor for her roles in "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby," and she stars in the Netflix series "Away." It's Hilary Swank. Hello.
HILARY SWANK: Hello.
EISENBERG: So I guess you've been hanging out in Colorado for a little while.
SWANK: I've been in Colorado for a little while. I think it's indicative of my flannel shirt...
SWANK: ...And the cow outside my window.
SWANK: The cow or my flannel shirt?
EISENBERG: I would say, really, the flannel shirt.
COULTON: It is an amazing flannel shirt.
EISENBERG: I was going to be like, wow. Things have really changed for you.
SWANK: The cow does not want to get out of your way, but I was trying to get in my driveway to do this because...
SWANK: ...It was the only place I could find Internet. And I come zooming in, and this cow's like, no - not moving. I weigh more than your car, too, so deal with it. I finally got it around, and it gave me the longest, biggest, deepest moo.
COULTON: Do you know whose cow it is?
SWANK: Well, it's one of my three neighbors.
SWANK: They all have cows.
EISENBERG: One of your neighbors is sending that cow over.
SWANK: Yeah. Well, no, I think they just break out. They're like, no.
SWANK: You can't keep us in.
EISENBERG: You have a new Netflix series called "Away" where you play an astronaut - not only an astronaut, an astronaut who is on a mission to Mars that's going to leave Earth for three years, leaving her husband and 15-year-old daughter behind. As someone playing an astronaut, did you consult with other astronauts or NASA?
SWANK: Yeah, I did. I spoke to so many astronauts, and it was such a gift. That's one of the greatest things about being an actor. First of all, you get to walk in someone else's shoes, and you get to see through someone else's eyes. And it just completely blows open your blinders of how you see the world and how you walk in the world, and it enriches you as a human being. But then you get to talk to the people, the best in their field at whatever it is you're playing.
So I spoke to Peggy Whitson. She was really kind of the first and foremost person that I went to because she was a commander, and she commanded a bunch of different people including, you know, the Russians. And we have that storyline in our show, so that was really something that I (inaudible) her to impart on me. But just, like, Jessica Meir who was up on ISS - she was on the International Space Station when I spoke to her.
EISENBERG: You talked to her on the space station like this.
EISENBERG: I mean, honestly, right now I could tell you I'm in the space station.
SWANK: You could, but your hair is not floating.
EISENBERG: That's true.
SWANK: Yeah, I spoke to her up there. And what was so crazy is after we had a conversation like this, like, two days later I get this phone call on my cell phone. And she was like, hey. It's Jessica from ISS. I just thought I'd call and follow up with you because, you know, we were being recorded then. And I was like, what? Am I being pranked right now? It's just unbelievable. Someone's calling me from the ISS.
EISENBERG: Right. She was like, oh, I forgot to tell you this.
EISENBERG: Yeah. When you are playing this part, you know, just from the physical point of view, other than the magic of making television and what you can do, what was the physical aspect of trying to...
SWANK: Of pretending you're in zero gravity?
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
SWANK: So the wires are - you're being held at the lowest part of your hips - so not in a very comfortable place. Kind of like - you know when you - when those low-riders were in? And Jonathan's like, yeah. I know.
COULTON: Totally. Yeah - worst pants.
SWANK: That's where these harnesses are - way down there. And so you don't feel that supported, and you're not. But you have to squeeze your glutes to go forward. So you're, like, squeezing and trying to talk normal.
SWANK: And then you have to squeeze your abs really hard to go back like this.
COULTON: Yeah. Meanwhile, you're also acting presumably...
COULTON: ...On top of that. Yeah.
SWANK: And then you have an emotional scene, and you're...
SWANK: And so it was actually more challenging than I had expected and a pretty solid workout.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) No kidding. I was going to say it's like the glute-ab workout everyone's been trying to replicate.
SWANK: This could be the next workout.
EISENBERG: Yeah, when we all go on our missions to Mars.
EISENBERG: Fingers crossed.
COULTON: I know. Let's go.
EISENBERG: You are someone that I admire specifically with your roles - of your commitment to your roles. And I found out as I was reading about it, the skills that you gain in a film often become part of your life. You became a real pilot after portraying Amelia Earhart.
SWANK: Thank you for that nice compliment. I feel so lucky. You know, there's a bunch of stuff you have to do to get your pilot's license. But one of the things is to have 20 hours under your belt.
SWANK: And I easily got that in.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's awesome.
SWANK: I know, right?
EISENBERG: Working and getting it in at the same time.
SWANK: I know. And I had a logbook and everything, so I was able to actually log it in.
EISENBERG: What about - you learned to ride a horse when you were cast in the Western called "The Homesman."
SWANK: Yes, and I still have that horse.
EISENBERG: That horse?
SWANK: Yeah, they gave me the horse. And so...
EISENBERG: So, Hillary, I've heard people, like, steal a jacket from set.
EISENBERG: But that's...
SWANK: A horse - that's a horse of a different color.
EISENBERG: You're like, bye, everybody. You just ride off.
SWANK: Ride off into the sunset.
EISENBERG: Yeah, but - so afterwards, you asked for the horse, or was that a cast gift?
SWANK: Well, I said, I really love this horse. Is there any way that I can get this horse? And they said, I think we can work that out.
COULTON: Why was I - why did I become a radio personality? All I got was this dumb ring light...
COULTON: ...For Zoom calls.
EISENBERG: I got a ring light, too, for radio.
EISENBERG: We got ring lights for radio. That's all you need to know about radio when you're given ring lights for radio.
EISENBERG: So is there any other skill that you're just hoping you get cast in a role that will be able to, you know, put you in a situation where you can learn it - you know, deep sea scuba diving? I don't know. Maybe you already know how to do that.
SWANK: No, actually, I don't. That's a good one. But I'd like to do an action film.
EISENBERG: So - but you would like to do a, you know, James Bond, "Mission Impossible" but female-driven?
SWANK: Yeah, but I don't want to be the girl in the bikini in James Bond.
EISENBERG: No, no.
SWANK: No. I want to be Jane Bond, right? Like...
COULTON: (Laughter) Jane Bond - there it is. That's a million-dollar idea right there.
EISENBERG: I mean, I've been deeply desiring that my entire life, to watch that. That is - I watch it from the point of view of I am James Bond pretending.
SWANK: Yes. Yes. Me, too. So where is it? I mean, we're 2020 now. Come on.
COULTON: Yeah. Is there not a lady Bond in the works? There must be a script going around. There has to be.
EISENBERG: Well, the new Bond introduces another secret agent, basically, that is a female lead.
EISENBERG: But it's not - yeah. And I don't know if that will spin off and...
SWANK: I'm going to kill my agents. Hold on - beep, beep.
COULTON: I know. I know. Hilary didn't even get a call for that.
SWANK: I need to know why you didn't sign me up...
SWANK: ...For Jane Bond - (singing) secret agent Bond.
SWANK: I'm seriously going to have a talk with them.
EISENBERG: I mean, I just watched the trailer yesterday, but I did watch it about 40 times.
EISENBERG: So you grew up in Washington state, and then you and your mother moved to Hollywood to pursue your dream of acting when you were 16. And although it sounds like you lived out of the car, you have a lot of happy memories and look back at this time very fondly. What - can you share one of those happy memories?
SWANK: Yeah. So I was actually 15 1/2, and I say that because you get your permit then, your...
SWANK: And so we were driving down. My aunt had loaned us her car. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. It was supreme. And it was fancy, you know? And I had these bear claw slippers that I would wear. And I was wearing them on this drive down. And so I remember my mom saying, do you want to drive? And I was like, I have my bear claw slippers. She goes, that's OK. So I was driving down to LA with my learner's permit and my bear claw slippers, like, through that long stretch of desert.
And, you know, again, it's like you were saying. It - for me, it was - I mean, I was embarking on this journey to follow my dream. My mom was taking all the worry, you know? We had $75 and a gas card to live off of until either one of us got a job. But for me, it was just pure heaven.
EISENBERG: The scene that you just described, too, you as a young woman, a teenager in these slippers through a desert just, like, gunning the gas through a desert is just like, you know...
SWANK: It's very Jane Bond.
EISENBERG: It's very Jane Bond, exactly - Jane Bond's backstory. Also, I know that you rescue a lot of animals. You love animals, and you love especially dogs. How many dogs live with you at any given time?
SWANK: Well, right now, we have four. But we had - let's see - four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10...
SWANK: ...Ten dogs because we picked one up on the - remember the super wolf blood moon in - it was, like, January of 2019.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.
SWANK: We were driving on this, like, really - why are you laughing?
EISENBERG: Just - I just remember...
COULTON: It's just a funny thing to remember (laughter).
EISENBERG: I remember, and I remember people had T-shirts. Like, it - there was a branding moment around it.
COULTON: Super wolf blood moon.
EISENBERG: Yeah (laughter).
SWANK: But what's crazy is on that exact day, we were driving on this - because we road trip everywhere because of our dogs and our parrots. And we were headed back from Colorado to Los Angeles, and we were going through this long stretch of, like, 200-mile desolate highway. And we stopped at the only gas station, and there was a dog that someone had dumped on the side of the road. It was 28 degrees, and she was pregnant. So that jerk that did that - but it was a gift to us.
And she is white, and she has little red spots under her white hair. She looked like a super wolf blood moon because she was big and fat and pregnant. So we called her Moon. We put her in the car with all our other dogs, and we drove back to Los Angeles. And two weeks later, she popped out nine puppies, and we gave them all astral names - Cosmo, Nova, Jupiter, one of them Lupo, after wolf. And we found them all - they stayed with us, and we helped raise them for, like, 12 weeks and then found them all really good homes.
EISENBERG: Oh, that's amazing.
SWANK: It was one of the most fun things I've ever done, I'm not going to lie. Having puppies all over you...
COULTON: Yeah. It's the best.
EISENBERG: And parrots. We have to address parrots.
SWANK: So I got - before I would have - I would never buy a parrot now, especially just with my understanding. But as a teenager, I bought - I did a photoshoot, like, around 16, and the guy was so eccentric. He lived in Hollywood in this apartment, and he had parrots all over. And they were, like, flying, and he would just go over and, like, take one out and put it on his shoulder and then another one here and one on his head, and he was photographing me with all these parrots. And I just thought that was the coolest thing, and I had to get a parrot. So, of course, I didn't do any research, like a teenager. And - well, sorry - not all teenagers.
COULTON: (Laughter) Most.
SWANK: Most, yes. And so I just went out, and I bought an African Grey, which is supposed to be the best talker, without realizing they live 80 to 90 years.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.
SWANK: And I - it's good. I got her when I was young. We're like - we're going to have our life - we're going to live our lives out together. But she's hilarious. And she has gone on location with me to France and Prague and Canada twice, and, like, she goes with me everywhere.
EISENBERG: All right, Hilary, based on your love of dogs, we have an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge perfect for you. It's called Swank Dogs. I'll describe a luxury dog product or service. You just have to tell me, is it real or something we made up?
EISENBERG: All right, I'll give you the first one. Dog Wine - yeah, Dog Wine, a company in Denver, Colo., sells wine for dogs. Varietals include ZinfanTail, CharDOGnay and Malbark. An eight-ounce bottle costs only $15 - real or fake?
SWANK: I'm going to say because of those names, it's real - without any alcohol, clearly.
EISENBERG: You are absolutely correct. It's real. The company started with cat wine, and then they expanded to dog wine (laughter).
SWANK: Well, what is it made - is it - what is it?
EISENBERG: Yeah. Supposedly, it's a mixture of herbs meant to freshen dogs' breath and relax them.
SWANK: That's interesting - herbs. Well, Colorado is - I think it's a state that, like, you can have weed. So maybe they did that.
COULTON: Yeah, it's just - yeah. It's a tincture for dogs.
SWANK: No. Everybody, don't do that. It's not good for dogs.
COULTON: You should not give a dog wine either, I would say.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) No, no wine.
EISENBERG: I know you're lonely.
EISENBERG: Just give your dog some water. You have a glass of wine.
COULTON: All right, here's another one. Dog concert - turn the mosh pit into a mutt pit. An artist has performed concerts outside places like the Sydney Opera House and Times Square featuring sounds in frequencies that only dogs can hear. Is that real or fake?
SWANK: Well, I would say fake. But it's just kind of - I can imagine someone doing it, so I'm going to say it's real.
COULTON: You are absolutely correct. And according to Billboard, the concerts were performed by avant-garde artists and musician Laurie Anderson. And they included, quote, "thumping beats, whale calls, whistles and a few high-pitched electronic sounds imperceptible to human ears."
SWANK: So pretty much it was a mutt pit of dogs going like this.
EISENBERG: (Laughter). Right - just their heads just twitching and trying to figure it out.
EISENBERG: Where is that sound coming from?
COULTON: Unclear if the dogs actually enjoyed it or were just sort of bothered by it.
EISENBERG: But later at the dog park, they were like, they were much better live.
EISENBERG: OK. How about this one? A personal chef for your dog - if your dog has tastes so refined that even for the very fanciest dog foods just won't do, consider hiring a personal chef. Some pet chefs will also cater parties to your furry friends so they don't feel left out at your next Bat Mitzvah or family reunion.
SWANK: A hundred percent.
EISENBERG: Yes, that's totally real.
SWANK: But by the way, this is...
SWANK: I mean, I don't know if I win a prize if I get everything right.
EISENBERG: I mean, yeah. You're - yes. It's inner bragging rights. That's the prize we offer.
COULTON: (Laughter) Yeah, it depends on what you mean by prize. Yeah.
SWANK: But it's, like, you know, dog is a multibillion-dollar business. So none of this surprises me.
COULTON: Here is another one - dog sunglasses.
COULTON: Companies called Doggles and Rex Specs offer sunglasses for dogs rather than human shades. They look more like a pair of tinted goggles. You can customize the color lens to fit your dog's unique style and attitude.
SWANK: Yeah, I wanted to get some for my dog, but my dog would never have any of it.
COULTON: You've already looked into this. Yeah, that's a real - it's a real thing, yes.
SWANK: A hundred percent. My dogs hang out of windows. They go on little prop planes. They're, like - they won't even wear the headphones.
COULTON: You're telling me your dog won't even wear headphones. What a (laughter)...
EISENBERG: Yeah, what are you talking about?
COULTON: What a monstrous creature. How dare he?
EISENBERG: (Laughter) All right. This is your last one - dog Zoom. For the socially distanced dog, Zoom's introduced a new dog version with a stripped-down interface that's so easy, even humans can use it.
SWANK: I'm going to - this is, like, a two-part question. I do think there is a dog Zoom, but I don't think it was created - called Dog Zoom. It's just dogs that use human Zoom.
EISENBERG: I mean, you know, I'll give you about 14 points for that answer. It is fake, as in, true; there is no such thing as actually dog Zoom. You saw right through us on that one. But could you put your dog on Zoom, and could they enjoy themselves? Of course they could.
COULTON: Clearly, people are putting their dogs together over Zoom. Clearly, that is happening.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) But yeah, you saw all the right - you know all the dog stuff. You did fantastic. Thank you so much.
SWANK: Thank you guys for having me. It's fun to be on your show. Thank you so much.
Hilary Swank's new show "Away" is on Netflix now. And that's our show. ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey. My name anagrams to thou jolt a canon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Camilla Franklin, Mary Tobler, Cara Weinberger and Emily Winter. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber and Rommel Wood. This week, we'd like to say hello to our new intern Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and farewell to our producer Kiarra Powell.
COULTON: Lowlier parka.
EISENBERG: Kiarra is such a rock star that she managed to land a new gig during a pandemic. Kiarra, best of luck to you, and we look forward to working for you very soon. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neal, and our bosses' bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner WNYC. I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR.
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