After retreating from the spotlight for a few years, the Academy Award–winning actor is back with a new project and a fresh outlook on life.

By Bethany Heitman
August 11, 2020
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Yu Tsai

Hilary Swank is surrounded by wildflowers on top of a mountain in Colorado. We are shooting her Health cover on the property where she and her husband of two years have chosen to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic. With her four dogs, she looks completely at peace—something that is apparent even from afar during this socially distanced photo shoot.

The 46-year-old is so relaxed on this mountaintop, it’s easy to forget that she’s one of Hollywood’s most esteemed actresses. As a two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Hilary has had a career that many only aspire to. In her memorable acceptance speech for Million Dollar Baby, she said, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”

While that’s true, it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Hilary didn’t just dream about being an actress—she worked her butt off to make it happen. In fact, she worked nonstop from the age of 15 until the end of 2014, when she made the choice to take a break for personal reasons.

Hilary’s dad needed a lung transplant, and she was determined to stay by his side. She had initially thought she’d take a year off. But she was committed to helping her dad until he fully recovered, and that wound up taking three years. That’s the thing about Hilary—she doesn’t do anything halfway.

Thankfully, her father is doing well, and she’s slowly begun to return to acting. Earlier this year, she appeared in the thriller The Hunt. And in September, you can catch her as the lead in Netflix’s new series Away. Her character’s dedication to her dream of being an astronaut parallels Hilary’s own devotion to her craft. And while she says she was excited to get back to work, she also acknowledges that she’s returning to it with some new life lessons.

Yu Tsai

What brought you and your husband to Colorado?

[This past spring] I was in Iowa for my grandmother’s funeral, and then suddenly isolation was in force and we thought, “Wow. How do we get home from here?” We didn’t own a car, so we bought a used car and started our drive back to Los Angeles. And that’s when we stopped in Colorado. We were going to stay four or five nights, and we ended up staying for months.

What has the isolation been like for you?

I love being a storyteller because I get to work with so many people. But then I like to go off and have my recharging time. For me, that’s in nature. It’s not unlike us to go months between jobs like this. So, for us, this wasn’t a big shock.

You have four dogs—are they all rescues?

Yes, I only rescue. Something like 6 to 8 million animals in the United States every year need to be rescued, and only about half of them find forever homes. The rest don’t make it. When you hear that, you’re like, “Of course I’m going to rescue.”

And you have a charitable organization around rescues?

Yes, it’s called Hilaroo. We bring youth who have been given up on together with animals who have been abandoned to help heal each other. It’s extraordinary to see at-risk, under-served youth connect with these dogs.

Yu Tsai

Did you feel that connection to animals as a kid, too?

Yes. I grew up in a lower socioeconomic background, so I learned classism at a young age. One of the things that filled my heart were animals, because none of them looked at me for anything other than for who I am. It quickly became apparent that they were going to be by my side and a part of my journey, forever. They touch my heart in a way that a lot of humans can’t.

Were you aware that you had less money?

Not until I was made aware of it. I had a roof over my head. It was important to my mom to find a way to always make sure I was eating. She would go into debt to feed us. And so, for me, there was a roof over my head, I had food, and I didn’t see anything other than “this is me, living my life.”

On social media, you recently participated in #ShareTheMicNow to help amplify voices of Black women. How did you get involved?

The incredible Glennon Doyle—whose brave, constant, and unapologetic work I so admire—reached out and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. She is always using her voice for other women, and, in this case, Black women. Without question, it is of the utmost importance for all of us to use our voices, our platforms, and our actions to help heal and balance racial inequality. Things are long overdue for change.

You also use your platform to be an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. Tell us more about that.

In 2000, after Boys Don’t Cry, I was humbled and honored to be asked to be the spokesperson for the Hetrick-Martin Institute [for LGBTQ+ Youth], which lasted for 12 years. Even though I realized that I wasn’t the best for the position at hand, as I wasn’t living it, I was fortunate enough to have people’s attention and saw the opportunity in using my platform to help the LGBTQ+ community in whatever way I could to amplify their voices and needs at that time. Twenty years later, I think there is a deeper understanding that to really understand the experiences and struggles within a community, the best thing to do is to make space for them so they can be heard. We can use our privilege to take down obstacles so that their messaging and stories can be heard by the broadest audience.

In 2014 you took a break from acting to help your dad recover from a lung transplant.

Yes. It was supposed to be a year, because it takes a year to see if an organ transplant takes. A lung transplant is the most difficult of all, as it’s an incredibly delicate organ. The plan was to take off a year. I became my dad’s health advocate. One year quickly turned into two, and then three. And, thank God, prayers were answered. He is healthy and doing really well five-plus years later.

Yu Tsai

What advice would you give to other people who become health advocates?

It takes a lot of energy, love, and edifying yourself on the matter at hand. The ups and downs are so challenging and can be overwhelming. Make sure that you’re taking time for yourself and that you vocalize what your needs are to the people who are around you so they can help support you.

What drew you to Away?

Before being an actor, I wanted to be an astronaut. I had such passion for, and respect for, astronauts and people who are exploring something that’s so much bigger than all of us. Something else, which was just as significant to me when I read Away, was that the script was unique in its inclusion of so many multiethnic characters. They too are all struggling with their own powerful personal stories, which really connects all of us. It also highlights the beautiful fact that space has no borders. We could use more of that down here right now.

The role looks like it was physically demanding, even just wearing the space suit!

So the space suit itself weighed 35 pounds, and then the backpack part was about another 20 pounds. Pretending you’re in zero gravity with all that weight was so challenging.

Have you always liked to work out?

Sports were my babysitter—they were what I could do after school while my parents worked. It’s such a healthy place for girls to be. Women have notoriously been objectified and trivialized, and so, for me, sports were an important part of making up my identity and making sure my body was being used for a goal. Instead of working out to look a certain way, I work out because it makes me feel good. It’s a stress relief. It helps me sleep better. I could not live without exercise. To me, it’s like the air that I breathe or the food that I eat.

Does healthy eating come naturally to you?

Going back to my childhood, we ate a lot of cheap food—I’m not exaggerating, Ho Hos and Ding Dongs. I drank six Mountain Dews a day, and I can’t explain the amount of fast food I had. [That said,] my mom did cook. I still have this mindset that I’m afraid I will run out of food. If you look in my bag, I have all types of snacks because I just don’t ever want to be without food. It’s my comfort blanket. And my husband makes fun of me because I will open a protein bar and have a few bites as my snack, but then I’ll wrap it back up. He will pull it out two months later, and he’s like, “Are you going to eat this? I’m sure it’s not even good anymore.” I’m like, “Yeah, I am going to eat that, and it’s there because I’m going to need it one of these days.” I don’t like to waste.

In 2016 you founded Mission Statement, a line of clothing. What makes it unique?

Mission Statement grew out of the time when my dad was resting in the hospital. I was thinking, “I may not be able to be on set being creative, but I can still find a way to be creative.” I wanted to create luxury clothing that you can wash at home, including leather and Italian-sourced cashmere. It is made in the same factories as [luxury] brands but at a quarter of the price. We call it “liberating luxury.”

What does wellness mean to you?

I think it’s just asking ourselves, “What do I need?” And, by the way, it can change daily. It can change hourly. But it’s the idea of honoring what it is that you need for yourself, and doing it.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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