Hilary Swank – How watching her work can make you both a better actor and a better person

January 9, 2012

Everyone wants to know what makes a great actor. While there are so many intangibles, most would agree that actors like Hilary Swank and others who have won Academy awards or who continue to touch us in some way have common qualities in their work.

Depth, passion, authenticity, believability, vulnerability, commitment, and versatility are some of the fundamental qualities that amazing actors share. They are also qualities that can be consistently nurtured and developed by both beginning and advanced actors.

But let’s focus on depth. What does depth mean and how do you develop it?

I’ve chosen to focus this blog on Hilary Swank as she always brings a genuine depth to all of her work. The technique that I use personally as an actor and have shared with my students for the past 15 years encourages you to identify what the character’s issues are and then to relate to them personally. So if the character is dealing with loss, you need to dig deep within yourself and connect to your own sense of loss. And basically, the deeper you’re willing to dig, the more affecting your work becomes.

Watch these 2 clips from Boys don’t Cry



Each shows this incredible depth; you know that Hilary Swank as an actor is going to a very deep personal level of pain, shame, fear, and such a heartbreaking need for love. This is the kind of depth that requires you to take risks and go to places that most non actors are afraid to explore.  Other actors who don’t know how or aren’t willing to go there never seem to move us as much.

And that’s what affects us ..the depth, the point at which she’s willing to expose and explore the depth of her emotions. When an actor touches us, it’s because we can relate on some primal or soul level and so we recognize it as true behavior and we’re moved. As an acting coach it’s my job to help guide an actor to deeper and deeper levels in their work. This means that you, the actor has to have the courage to look at your own issues, family history, fears, etc. and really “go there”.

Let’s watch another clip from Conviction.


We connect to her character’s pain and need in the scene because Swank goes the distance and we believe her. Now watch the scene again and focus on Sam Rockwell. I think Sam Rockwell is such an interesting actor. But in my humble opinion he doesn’t match Hilary’s depth in the scene. I just don’t believe that in this scene or throughout the film he goes to the same level of depth. Do you believe watching this scene that he’s writhing in pain inside? Do you believe that he’s a man who tried to kill himself? Though I think Sam Rockwell is capable of doing amazing work, I think he falls short here. And one reason perhaps is, he didn’t dig deeply enough to find that part of him that wants to die, that is filled with such shame and pain and hopelessness.

So how does watching Hilary’s work also make you become a better person?

The answer is two fold

One, when you have the courage to look at your own issues and emotional pain, it makes you a more aware person in general. It can also help you have more compassion  for others because you realize that we all have so much pain and beauty inside. It can help you be less judgmental of yourself and others.

Two, is that Hilary Swank and other actors that we love simply give more. They give more of themselves and throw more of themselves into their roles. And this is a simple but profound principle whether it’s in your acting work or in your life.


When you give more love to others you get more love.  Whatever you really want in life, learn to give it to others and you’ll end up getting more of it in return.

What tends to hold us back from giving either in life or in our acting work is fear, fear of making a fool of ourselves or fear of people not loving our work, us.

But where you have the most fear is also where you have the most light and the most to give. Let Hilary’s work in Boy Don’t Cry inspire you to take risks. She could have easily chosen not to do this role for fear of how people might judge her or find her unattractive or not feminine etc. but her willing to “go there” enabled her to break through so that now she has the ability to choose roles that inspire her…and  she makes lots of money doing it!

The bottom line is that as actors we have the ability to connect more deeply to our emotions and our emotional needs. When we’re willing to do that is when we can truly touch our audiences. And that’s really what it’s all about.

So use the techniques in MASTER YOUR AUDITION  or whatever tools you can and

make a commitment for 2102,

make the commitment to work with more depth that you ever have!

Feel free to respond with your comments here and also on my facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Master-Your-Audition/256854351010044

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