NEWS

Swank takes a more lighthearted role in 'P.S. I Love You'

Ed Symkus

In the opening scene of “P.S.I Love You,” Hilary Swank pretty much runs the gamut of her acting chops. Sharing the almost 10-minute sequence with Girard Butler, she laughs, yells, throws things, gets all lovey-dovey, and still manages to hit all of her marks.

In person, she’s a bundle of energy, a regular chattering chipmunk, even at the tail end of a marathon three-hour interview session, during which she’s been moving from room to room, taking questions from different groups of journalists.

“That opening scene! How great!” she says, blindingly white teeth behind her impossibly wide smile. “It’s so rare to have a scene like that and it’s such a dream for an actor. In the golden era of movies they had those long scenes, the Katharine Hepburn scenes where they went back and forth for 10 minutes. But now you sometimes have scenes that are only a fourth of a page. You don’t have the color you have here.

“It starts out in the street, then we walk up and come in the house and turn on the lights — so we actually lit the scene ourselves by hitting the lights — and we were changing [our clothes] while at the same time saying our lines.

“It’s like going like this,” she adds, giggling, then starts patting her head with one hand and rubbing her belly with the other.

The mostly lighthearted and hopeful story is about a young, overly passionate married couple (Swank and Butler) who are eking by in New York. When he suddenly becomes ill and dies, she has trouble getting on with life — until she starts receiving letters that he wrote before his death, hoping to aid her in starting over, maybe even finding love again.

Swank made her name in far more serious roles, winning Oscars for her performances as a transgendered teenager in “Boys Don’t Cry” and as a waitress-turned-boxer in “Million Dollar Baby.”

“This is a departure from anything I’ve done,” says Swank. “To do a romantic and comedic type movie was a challenge in itself. This wasn’t challenging on the physical side; that’s usually my challenge, whether it’s passing as a boy or putting on 19 pounds of muscle. The challenge in this movie was finding the balance of reality and humor in the aftermath of what’s happened, while at the same time being true to the full range of emotions that’s associated with grief. It was a real emotional roller coaster.”

It seems that everything she’s doing in her career right now is a departure from her early days in the business, a time when she leaned toward becoming a Method actress.

“When you’re really new at it you’re afraid,” she says candidly of acting. “You have a lot of fear that you’re not gonna be able to do what you’re supposed to do. And believe me, I still wake up in really difficult scenes and say, ‘God, am I gonna be able to do this today? Do I have it in me?’

“In the beginning I felt like I had to live my character all the time. Because if I stepped out of it, would I be able to step back in. But I’m talking about ‘Next Karate Kid’ days. I was 18 and I walked around really tense and I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna be this character all the time and I’m gonna live it so I know it.’ But you find later that you can step in and out of it a little bit more.”

Yet she admits that while playing Holly in “P.S. I Love You” it was tough to keep stepping in and out because of the nature of the story and of her character.

“Holly’s grieving all the time,” she explains, “and you can take that home. You cry on the set and it’s not that it’s fake. You’re crying. You’re feeling something, and it’s real, and you get emotionally hung over. You go home and you’re tired, just like you were crying, and you wake up the next day and you’re feeling what you feel like when you’ve cried the day before.”

Swank hopes that the story about transition, about going from one phase of life to the next, will click with viewers.

“You just never know what tomorrow will bring,” she says softly, slowly shaking her head, but still smiling. “I’m not talking about the future, or months away. You never know what tomorrow’s gonna bring. But that’s kind of the beauty of life, once you become comfortable with trusting the unknown — that things aren’t always as you planned. I think that’s what this movie is a reminder of. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow so you should hold the people that you love dear and not take them for granted. Your family and your friends: Hold them closely.”

Next up for Swank is “Amelia,” a biopic about legendary pilot Amelia Earhart, to be directed by Philip Noyce (“The Quiet American”).

“I start that in January,” she says, “and I’ll approach it like every other character. I do all my research, and I like at least four weeks of preparation. There’s a plethora of literature on her, so I’ll have lots of reading to do. And I’ll be taking flight lessons. I’m really excited about that because it’s such a great role. And it’s another great challenge.”

She pauses, smiles, then adds, “I love my job.”

“P.S. I Love You” opens Dec. 21.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.