It’s hard to be horrified at the sight of Hilary Swank.
The two-time Oscar winner is graceful and coltish in the flesh, given to sly jokes and lots of laughter. Nevertheless, she’s determined to make audience squirm and jump out of their seats in her upcoming horror film The Reaping, in which she plays a professional spiritual debunker who suddenly finds herself facing an onslaught of plagues the likes of which haven’t been seen since Biblical times. Still, we can’t accuse Swank of not saying “boo!” to Hollywood.com—she said a whole lot more as she sat down to fill us in on her forthcoming frightfest.
Hollywood.com: What was it that attracted you to the character in The Reaping aside from the fact that being a spiritual debunker is pretty cool?
Hilary Swank: There were a lot of elements about this movie that I really liked. One was that I have never seen a movie like this. It was very different, and I couldn't pinpoint anything else that reminded me of it. It's a supernatural thriller where there are scary elements, but it's scary because could it happen—did it happen back in Biblical days? It's dramatic and has religious undertones, and the idea of the analogies to life for me—like things not always being what they seem, and how I make quick judgments on things or experiences or people, and always trying to remain open. I loved how she had such a strong belief in something and she lost her faith because of something had happened to her, and how she regains her faith through the film, because things that have happened that she can't answer. I just found it all really intriguing. I thought about it so much. After I finished the script I kept thinking about it and the twist. There is a twist that I didn't see coming—I see twists coming a million miles away and I didn't see it. And I couldn't believe that I didn't see it. I was like, “What?! How did I miss that?” I went back and looked, like, “How did I miss it?!”
HW: How much could you really relate to your character in the film?
HS: Not so much to her exact experience, but I react strongly to the things that are happening in the world when I look at the cover of The L.A. Times and The New York Times nowadays. I'm devastated by what's happening in the world and I can relate to that on a humanistic level, but certainly never endured anything like that my whole life.
HW: What was the worst of the plagues in the film to deal with while making it?
HS: There are all of these locusts and they are supposed to hit me from behind and fly off of this porch. They fly off with dirt and sand and you are breathing it and every take and like you said the fans. You are like “Turn them off!”—these huge, huge fans. They are just blowing your hair and dirt everywhere. You know you should be worried when the whole crew has like special breathing masks on and special eye goggles, and we are just standing there with nothing.
HW: I know you did a lot of research for this role. What did you specifically pick up that helped you with this character?
HS: Well, like I said, I did a lot of reading. Stephen [Hopkins] gave me a lot of books and a lot of literature. I think that the most interesting thing was that publication called The Skeptical Enquirer, and meeting him. He was fascinating and so smart and really believed what he writes about and what he thinks. There are a lot of different ways in life. There are a lot of different ways to look at life. There is a lot of different ways to go about living life, and I think that allowing people the freedom to have their own beliefs as long as it's not hurting anyone, I think, it's an important part of living. I think that celebrating people and our differences is really important.
HW: Did the research stick with you and change your perspective on some things?
HS: It did not make me a skeptical enquirer. I don't subscribe to the magazine and read it every month. I'm not like that. I don't believe that way or think that way. But it was definitely something that learned. I didn't even know there was something called that. It's just interesting to be an actor and to be able to look into and learn about different ways of life and different ways of looking at things.
HW: Have you ever had any sort of supernatural experience or something that happened to you that made you go “What just happened there?”
HS: Only while filming this movie. [Laughs] While we were actually filming the movie something actually happened. We were filming this scene and the sound went out at this particularly revealing point. It didn't just go out, but started making this fuzzy sound and the first time you're like “Okay, whatever.” And they were like “Oh, we are all loaded up—what happened? What's going on?” We reloaded and went again. We went again and at that exact moment it happened again. Five takes later it kept happening—Take 2 the exact same point, Take 3 the exact same point, 4, 5—and they finally said, “Okay, forget it. We'll just do ADR later.” I don't know. That's weird. It didn't just happen at different takes in the movie, either. And I definitely was like “Okay, what just happened?”
HW: What was the scene then? Was it a scene that some spirits might have had a problem with?
HS: Yeah, it was. I can't really say.
HW: When you guys hear or see things about paranormal experiences would you say that you're open to the idea or skeptical about it or interested in it as fiction?
HS: I'm always fascinated by what makes life work, what's behind it all, what it's all about. This movie has those elements to me. It asks a lot of those questions.
HW: What do you learn when you work with someone fresh and new like AnnaSophia Robb?
HS: That's a great question, because what you realize is that sometimes you can over think things and it's nice to see someone young who hasn't lived a long life and had specific ideas about how something should be. She's just really in the moment and free and playing. You go, “Oh, right. That's what it's about.” It's a good reminder.
HW: You portray lots of very empowered, independent, very strong women. Have you made a conscious decision to keep that as a role model for others?
HS: That is a good question, because it would certainly seem that way when you look at the career choices that I have made and I think in the end this is what I might be drawn to.
HW: Every actor has to have at least one good horror film under their belt because from horror films, if they are good, allow you to paint with a full palette that you have as an actor, in emotional extremes. Do you find that to be the case?
HS: Yes, this definitely has a lot of those elements, and there are certainly funny things in this movie, and certainly frightening things about this movie. It's not frightening because of the fact that someone is running around yielding a knife. It is scary because of the idea that this could happen and did it happen? The idea of questioning things, are things always as they seem? I had a lot of fun filming this movie…We had a lot of fun so I am not one to say “Oh yeah, I did my horror movie—I'm done. Done deal, I am not going to do any more.” If a great scary movie comes along again that I find really intriguing, then of course I want to be a part of it.
HW: Who do you play in your upcoming film The Black Dahlia?
HS: The femme fatale.
HW: Did that take much transformation on your part?
HS: I don't know. You will have to make that judgment when you see it.
HW: How was your experience working with director Brian de Palma?
HS: Brian is such a character. He is so great and so passionate and he is hilarious. He cracks me up. He would watch the tapes and he would be cracking up, and I'd be like “We are doing a drama here, this is not a comedy. Are you laughing at my performance? What is going on over there?” I love Brian.
HW: How has the Comic-Con experience been so far? How have the fans been treating you?
HS: I love Comic-Con because I love to go anywhere where people are passionate and have opinions. There is nothing wishy-washy about being here. The people here really have an opinion about movies and are loyal to what they love, and I love that.
HW: What are you passionate about like that?
HS: Movies. Definitely love movies and traveling.
HW: Did you go on a safari in Africa recently?
HS: I did, yeah. I went to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. And I just go back from India. I went on my safari for personal [interest] and I just got back from India for personal, too.
HW: Were your trips to India or Africa spiritual journeys at all?
HS: I don't know if I went thinking that it was going to be a spiritual journey. I didn't think that, but I think that a lot of my travels end up making me realize something deeper about life and people and that's part of why I love to travel so much, certainly.
HW: Is it as important as an actor when you are doing a film like this to go on location to the city like New Orleans, which has so much culture and history and a darker side that is connected with the plot of the film? Does it help your performance, as opposed to being on a set some place?
HS: Any time that you can be on location it is great—any time. It adds an element of realness that you don't have to pretend, you can just react to something real. That is always going to be helpful. I loved doing the film there, and I was a real supporter of it. There was a couple different locations, the very beginning, we were thinking of, and I was all for Louisiana from the beginning.
HW: Hurricane Katrina hit the city while you were down there filming. What were the effects of that on the cast and crew?
HS: The last thought on our minds was, “Are we going to finish this movie?” It was about all the people that lost their lives and the flooding and being so close to it and seeing the devastation—the utter devastation. Your heart went out, and you didn't even think are we going to go to work tomorrow. It was like “What can we do to help?” Thankfully, the producers and Warner Brothers decided we are staying, and we went five weeks over because we stayed there, but they weren't about to pull out when the state needed the jobs and the economic help having the film there.
HW: What was it like going back after the first storm hit?
HS: I was gone for both of the hurricanes, and when I came back a lot of the crew members had been affected, and it was nice in a way that the crew had became a lot closer. Everyone just pulled together, and my Mom and I did some volunteer work. Everyone just really wanted to help and make things better, and that is another reason why I had a great time doing this film.
HW: How does it feel when you hear the phrase “Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank?”
HS: Every time I hear it I think that something… I can't even talk. I'm like, “What? What did you say?” I don't know. It's very surreal. It's a very, very surreal thing. It's so strange.