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Hilary Swank talks about mastering Almelia Earhart's walk and Talk

Hilary Swank in Amelia

Fly Girl

“You may think you know how it ends,” Hilary Swank says about her new film, “but you have to see it to see if it ends the way you think it does, because there are a lot of theories about it.”

The film is Amelia, and she’s talking about it not in the standard hotel room but in a hangar in Fairfield, New Jersey’s Essex County Airport. Behind her is a carefully restored Lockheed L-10E Electra airplane, the same model that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan attempted to fly around the world. On July 2, 1937, somewhere between New Guinea and their next checkpoint (tiny Howland Island, 2,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean), they disappeared.

For years, rumors abounded: that Earhart, a world-famous celebrity in her time, was working as a spy under the personal orders of Franklin Roosevelt and that she had been captured and executed by the Japanese; at the other end of the spectrum, that she faked her death in order to assume a new, quieter life as a New Jersey housewife.

Amelia doesn’t go in any of these directions. But it builds on recent research (including rediscovered radio transmissions) to present a detailed depiction of the final hours of a woman who was one of the world’s most renowned heroines in her day, a fame that ebbed only slightly after her (presumed) death.

As directed by Mira Nair (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding), Amelia takes in the totality of the life of which breaking records in aviation was one part. Scripted by Ron Bass (Rain Man) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Girl, Interrupted), the film also delves into her business and teaching accomplishments, her marriage (with what we would now call a pre-nup) to publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere), her affair with aviator Gene Vidal, father of Gore (and played by Ewan McGregor).

Swank bears such a strong resemblance to the real Earhart that the casting was a natural. In fact, it wasn’t the first time she had been approached for the role. “I read a script about Amelia right after I did Boys Don’t Cry [in 1999],” she recalls, “but it didn’t capture Amelia to me, so it wasn’t a movie I wanted to be a part of. When this one came across my desk, I just felt that connection.”

Somewhat trickier for the two-time Oscar-winning actress was getting the voice and carriage of a woman who was conscious about her public persona. “She had a unique pattern in which she spoke,” Swank says, calling it “the most challenging accent that I have done to date. I spent over eight weeks trying to figure out how she spoke.

“There is that period way of speaking, the way Katherine Hepburn used to sound in movies. It can sound kind of upper class, but Amelia wasn’t that: She was a girl from Kansas. She sounded period yet different from that, and it was really quite a challenge to figure out. It was challenging to walk that line.”

Just as Mira Nair fought to get a real Electra to use in the film rather than have to rely on CGI, Swank studied the skill that was her character’s greatest passion. “Obviously, you can’t play Amelia Earhart and not learn to fly,” she says, smiling. “That would be wrong in every way.

“I didn’t realize the calculations that go into flying. It was like I was back in calculus. I’m not a big sweater, but I would find after a two-hour flight lesson that I would land and be drenched just from the calculation.

“It was so euphoric because it was like I was learning how to ride a bike. It was a first. You know, it takes all of your senses, and you’re completely immersed. It’s dangerous. It’s adventurous. It was exciting to learn some things new that really were challenging.”

Swank wasn’t able to go for her license because it would have required solo flight time, something the film’s insurers weren’t keen on. “Now they’re like—sure, go ahead!

“I like to see things through to the end. I’d like to get my license and continue to go up on my own. One of the great things about my job is that I get to do all these things that I may not experience had I not been an actor. And I think saying that I learned how to fly in order to play Amelia Earhart is pretty great.

“And this plane,” she says, looking over her shoulder, “is a beast to fly. It’s not easy. So to fly that around the world was really remarkable.”

The rainy weather today prevented a planned demonstration of the Electra in flight—not bad for a 70-year-old plane—but it does include a presentation by Swank and director Nair of props from the film to Susan Larson, current president of the Ninety-Nines, the organization for women pilots that was co-founded by Earhart. (According to the Federal Aviation Administration, of the nearly 600,000 active pilots in the United States today, only six percent are women.) The props will be displayed in the Museum of Women Pilots at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.

No one present denies that there’s a strong sisterhood buzz to the project. Swank admires that with projects like the Ninety-Nines Earhart was supportive of other women. “I feel like women aren’t always supportive of other women’s strengths. Powerful women are supportive of the underdogs, women who suffer from inequality, yet when it comes to other women’s strengths, they find it hard to muster up a lot of accolades. Mira Nair being at the helm of this ship was such a perfect match because she makes no apologies for her strengths. When you see a woman in a place of power, a lot of times they are apologizing for it, [like they have to say] ‘I am sorry, but…’ before they say what it is that they need. So to see her direct with the strength with which she carries herself, it was so perfect for her to direct this story. It is a hard enough world out there in general, so we just need to be there for each other.”

That’s not to say, though, that Amelia should be considered a film only for a female demographic. “A lot of people have come up to me and said, I cannot wait to see Amelia, more than any of my movies. That was something I kind of expected from women, but a lot of men too. I think people are magnetized to the idea of this person who lived her life the way she wanted to live it. She made no apologies for saying, ‘This is my life, this is how I see it, and this is how I want it to be done.’ And in 2009 that’s very rare. Amelia accomplished a lot in her life, more than most people do in a really long life. So it was certainly a reminder to me that you only have one life and its so short, you constantly have to look within and see that you’re living the life that you want for yourself and not for other people.”

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