For me,” says Hilary Swank, thinking back to a preteen fashion highlight, “ultrafancy was Esprit. If I owned an Esprit sweater, I was lucky.” These days, at 28, the Academy Award–winning Swank is pals with designers like Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs, and the proud owner of a closet overflowing with couture. Sometimes the clothes she gets to wear are so nice she can’t even bring herself to actually put them on. “They sit in my closet, and I look at them and I touch them and I feel them,” she says, “and I say, ‘Oh, this is so pretty!’ ”
Swank is settled into a table at Craft, one of her favorite restaurants, to talk spring style. Today—which is not exactly springlike—she is dressed in jeans (Paper Denim & Cloth), sneakers (Adidas), a wine-colored turtleneck sweater (Marc Jacobs), and a black overcoat (Calvin Klein). During high school in Bellingham, Washington, where Swank competed as a Junior Olympian swimmer, fashion wasn’t exactly her focus. “I didn’t really know, or really understand, the depth of the artistic ability in a designer,” she says, digging into an arugula salad. “It wasn’t something I really appreciated, because I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I remember when I first started making money, I still said, ‘I’m not going to spend all that on a sweater or a pair of pants when I can get a nice pair of black pants here at Banana Republic!’ ” She smiles, and with her makeup-free face, she looks like a college co-ed. “Then I was in a really blessed position where designers would want me to wear their clothes, and from the things that were given to me, I realized the difference in how they made me feel. Not because they were brand-name, but the cut just feels right. There’s something to be said for putting on Chanel—there just is.”
Two years ago, Swank and her husband of five years, the actor Chad Lowe, moved to New York from Los Angeles. They recently settled into a West Village brownstone where the closets are not big enough to handle her shoe addiction. “I love them all for different reasons at different times,” she explains. “Manolo, Pierre Hardy, Sigerson Morrison, Jimmy Choo. Lots of Marc Jacobs, the high pastel wedge ones. I take good care of them; I keep the little inserts in them and all their little bags.”
“I love to ride the subway. I just don’t do anything weird like wear sunglasses. Who is going to be in the subway with sunglasses on, except for a celebrity!?”
But Swank doesn’t always dress like a red-carpet exhibitionist. What she puts on depends entirely on her mood. “It’s like my music. I love James Taylor, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Pink, Stevie Wonder, Bach. It’s so eclectic. Sometimes I’ll wake up and want something cozy on. When I want classy and elegant, I wear Calvin. I have this coat that goes to the floor. You can’t see how it zips, but it starts a little higher than mid-thigh and goes up to here,” she says, motioning to a high turtleneck. “When you walk, your legs come out, so it’s really fun to wear a little skirt with it. You know, be warm, but have some leg show.” She smiles. “You don’t want to hide everything!”
Since her famous gender-bending turn in Boys Don’t Cry (it’s hard to imagine that at any point since puberty, Swank could possibly have played a boy), she has come full circle and, like a lot of her fellow indie-bred actresses, recently opted to star in a commercial sci-fi action flick. In The Core, directed by Jon Amiel, which hits theaters next month, Swank plays straitlaced flying ace Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs, who pilots a mission (along with foxy Aaron Eckhart) to the core of the Earth, which has mysteriously stopped spinning. Most of Swank’s scenes call for Army fatigues, but she still manages to eke out a fashion statement. “There was a pair of pants that were really reminiscent of Tom Ford or Yohji Yamamoto a couple of years ago. They kind of hang over your boot and have that zipper all the way up the front. I kept those,” she says.
For Swank, clothes are an integral part of figuring out her characters. She spends lots of time talking with the costume designer before a shoot about what she sees them wearing. “The way you open my closet and you see shoes, well, that’s me—I like to figure out if you opened your character’s closet, what do you see? I think Beck would be more of a jeans girl,” she says. “Pressed jeans, though.”
Swank just spent three months in period costume for Iron Jawed Angels, an HBO movie about the women’s-suffrage movement. She plays Alice Paul, one of the driving forces for getting women the right to vote. “The designer had me wearing long, really flowy pants that looked like a skirt from the front. We didn’t have to wear corsets. Thank God! If you meet an actor who says they like them, they’re lying.” For her next project, however, Swank will have to get used to lacing up again. This week, she begins rehearsals for a revival of The Miracle Worker, a play about Helen Keller, directed by Marianne Elliott. Swank will play Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, the same role that earned Anne Bancroft a Tony in 1958 and then an Oscar for the film version. “Back in July, I was told there was this opportunity, and I said yes right away. The Miracle Worker, The Elephant Man, and E.T. were the first movies I saw,” says Swank. She empties a brown bag of library books onto the table: three encyclopedia-size volumes on Helen Keller. “My weekend reading,” she says.