How Clint Eastwood Knew Hilary Swank Was Perfect For Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood's 2004 film "Million Dollar Baby" is one of his best, a grim and haunting portrait of the relationship between young female boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank) and her elderly trainer Frankie (Eastwood). The movie's bleak subject matter and dark, confessional photography somehow resulted in a major box office success and an Academy Award win for Best Picture.

While it shared DNA with some classic sports films (the plucky beginner, the cranky old-timer, the road to the main event), it ultimately ends at a place far sadder and more complicated. The toll the sport takes on bodies is never far from the movie's mind, giving it a uniquely hard edge. The movie's success rested largely on Swank's performance.

In playing Maggie, Swank brought a lived-in vulnerability to the role. Eastwood had a role that was easy enough for him, one in a vein he'd played many times before. His portrayal of Frankie was cantankerous, monosyllabic, immediately skeptical of Maggie's talents. For his hard facade to break down, the audience would need to believe in his relationship with Maggie, that she would draw out whatever warmth he had left. They needed to believe in this girl who had given up everything.

Given Eastwood's directorial tendency of only shooting one take of most scenes, that would be a tall order for Swank. But Eastwood knew she would hit the mark.

Girls from the trailer park

Part of what makes Maggie and Frankie, as well as Scrap (Morgan Freeman, using his famous voice to narrate the film), such compelling characters is their humility and realism. All three of them look and move as if they're beaten-down, holding onto one small kernel of optimism in Maggie's career potential. Essentially, they look and feel like real people, in a way that's become increasingly uncommon (and consequently refreshing) for Hollywood.

There's no glamour to Maggie, who randomly shows up in Frankie's Los Angeles gym one afternoon. All we know about her is that she was a waitress, that she's somewhat estranged from her family, and that said family is deep in poverty. Because of that, her quest appears desperate, a one-in-a-million attempt to escape the life that's been set for her. Frankie refuses to train her, but Scrap convinces him otherwise.

Hilary Swank shared much with her character, as another young woman coming from poverty chasing a dream in LA. According to, she distinguished herself as an athlete and actor from a young age, her mother Judy fiercely believing in her abilities. The two moved to LA once Hilary turned 16, briefly living in Judy's car while she looked for work. Acting opportunities arose eventually in the early '90s, but Swank never forgot her humble upbringing, her major connection to Maggie. As she said in her Oscar-victory speech for "Million Dollar Baby," "I'm just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream."

Dedication and staph infections

While Hilary Swank had similarities with Maggie in her spirit and upbringing, there was one problem: she didn't have the muscles of a boxer. As if to reflect the tension between Frankie and Maggie in the movie, Clint Eastwood had some difficulty imagining Swank's performance, telling CBS News that she looked like "a feather" when he first met with her. But he knew she had the acting chops necessary, telling Film Comment that Swank's knowing poverty was a big factor. The sense that she "understood this girl completely" let Eastwood overlook her physicality, at least in the casting process.

But she trained. For four hours a day, Eastwood told FilmComment, Swank would train until she got very muscular and "about 18 pounds heavier." While it wasn't quite like Christian Bale's skill for dramatic and rapid weight loss or weight gain, it still demonstrated an immense degree of commitment to playing the part of Maggie. Given how Maggie's strength, and propensity for knock-outs, is a major plot point of the film, it needed to be immediately apparent in her body, and it is.

When Swank developed a staph infection from a blister during her nonstop training, she got it quietly resolved before telling either her trainers or Eastwood. Eastwood told CBS News that her determination, demonstrated there, was just "another step in her path to greatness."

The final product

Hilary Swank gave her all for "Million Dollar Baby," shepherded warmly by Clint Eastwood, as well as the actual female boxer Lucia Rijker. In the film, Rijker plays Billie Osterman, or "the Blue Bear," a tough fighter who ends up in a title fight with Maggie that goes horribly awry. But behind the scenes, Rijker served as an advisor to Swank on the finer points, including the many difficulties, of being a woman in the sport. As Eastwood told Film Comment, Rijker "helped Hilary a great deal."

Eastwood's commitment to authenticity, and Swank's commitment to the role of Maggie, resulted in an Oscar-winning movie and performance. It was perhaps as significant for Swank as his "Play Misty For Me" was for Jessica Walters. From the training she underwent to her clearheaded understanding of poverty, she truly created a wonderful, tragic character.

If the movie's bleak ending was controversial, even more than the Eastwood-starring chimp comedy "Every Which Way But Loose," much of it had to do with the attachment audiences felt towards the character. It was a testament to Swank's difficult, painful work that viewers felt moved by the character's plight. Eastwood's intuition regarding Swank played a major role in that. As he told Film Comment, he "knew she would be ready for this, if she was willing to put out the work to be that athlete. And she was."