Hilary Swank Teaches Freedom Writers

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In the new movie Freedom Writers, two-time Oscar-winning actress Hillary Swank stars as Erin Gruwell, a real-life teacher who inspired her class of “at-risk” high school teens to translate their experiences on the streets of L.A. into journals, which were turned into the bestselling book “The Freedom Writers Diary.” Through tireless persistence, Gruwell managed to break through bureaucracy and prejudice to prove to everyone that these teens had a bright future, especially to the teens themselves.

Swank recently sat down in New York to discuss the role and how it profoundly connected with her.

ComingSoon.net: You didn’t grow up in a violent neighborhood but you did grow up poor. Did that part of your life enable you to relate to these kids?
Hilary Swank: Great question. I feel like I was an outsider. I didn’t feel hopeless, that was the biggest difference. My mom believed in me, so I felt she gave me a great gift by saying you can do anything you want in life so I didn’t feel hopeless. I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t feel understood, didn’t feel like my teachers cared. It just was not a good place for me. I feel like the education system in our country is really messed up. It’s really unfortunate. For so many different reasons. That’s what makes kids figure themselves out, makes them feel confident, gives them hope, makes them realize what their dream is. It’s everything. It’s sad that teachers aren’t paid very much, it’s sad that they’re underappreciated, it’s sad that you have to pay a lot of money to get an education, and it makes people like Erin Gruwell even more rare.

CS: Did you feel responsibility to play Erin Gruwell the way she really acts, using her mannerisms?
Swank: I didn’t really want to be spending a lot of time with her ’cause I didn’t want to be mimicking, I felt like the last thing you want to do is mimic somebody. You want to get at the heart of who they really are, what their story is, but Erin’s mannerisms are really important to who she is, ’cause she uses her body to communicate. She brings you in with her hands, and she’s talking with her hands a lot. She has good posture, she looks at you and shakes her head when you’re talking. You really know she’s listening and that’s an important thing as a teacher, especially at the beginning when the kids are like, “Who are you? You’re invading my space.” She got in their face, and that was a really important thing. If you play it any differently manner-wise… that was a whole part of it, the kids had a reaction to her physical being, so that was important. Like I said I got an idea of it from the first meeting you get a real sense of how open she is and optimistic.

CS: She’s really earnest without being condescending, and that’s really hard to pull off without turning into a caricature.
Swank: You’re really right, that’s really true. The thing about Erin is she looks right at you. Instantly you feel like, “She gets me”, and it’s a great feeling and that’s part of why she really succeeds. Succeeds with kids, succeeds with the government in trying to help kids. Any situation she’s in she’s going to leave getting what she wants just because she’s Erin and she knows how to do it. Not in a manipulative way, not an arrogant way, not an egotistical way but a really smart logical “these are the facts and what does it hurt?” kind of way.

CS: Have movies made a difference in your life the way this film might for young people?
Swank: Yeah, many many many. What drew me to being an actor was when I would go to a movie and feel understood, or I’d read a book and I’d go, “That character’s like me and they feel the same things I do.” So of course it made me want to continue to read and continue to watch movies ’cause it was the one place where I felt like I wasn’t alone. One of the first movies I remember watching, besides “Wizard of Oz” and “E.T.”, were “Elephant Man” and “The Miracle Worker”. I was like, “Whoa.” It was life changing. It was kind of a no-brainer for me to want to do this and tell stories. If I can tell a story and change one person’s life because of it… from any of my movies whether it be a kid with a sexual identity crisis who watched “Boys Don’t Cry” and says, “You know there’s someone out there who’s gonna understand me,” or “Million Dollar Baby” or this. “If my parents don’t believe in me, and I don’t have that teacher I can believe in myself.” It’s an amazing feeling. It’s not why I got into the business but it has become one of the wonderful side-effects.

CS: Is there a particular book that you read growing up that had an impact on you the same way The Diary of Anne Frank had on the kids in “Freedom Writers”?
Swank: There were a few books, actually. “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” probably.

CS: Was there any part of the film resonated the most to you?
Swank: I don’t know what part resonated the most but I can tell you this: I went to work every day scared because I didn’t want to mess the story up and I felt like it was written so well. I got so much out of it, just being with those kids. The lives of the kids in the movie were so similar to the kids who the movie was about. I got so much as a human being and as an actor that I could never even begin to explain to you how life changing it was. When you see these kids and talk to them and hear what their stories are you realize how we’re all the same. It moves me, it really moves me and it’s a constant reminder to myself about staying open, not judging a book by its cover, giving people wide berth, it’s okay to make mistakes and try to learn from them. That’s what life’s about. I love this movie, I love these kids. These actors in the movie, there were only two kids who were actors and the rest were kids that they found. They just are amazing. They’re amazing. I’m so proud of them and the obstacles that they have had in their lives at such a young age and how quickly they’ve had to grow up. They’re not bitter… it just reminds you that we have a lot to be thankful for and it’s easy to complain about nothing. You have a choice every day to live your life a certain way.

Freedom Writers opens on Friday, January 5.

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