Amelia - Hilary Swank
Hilary Swank © Fox Searchlight Pictures

She was a visionary, a dreamer, a fighter and an icon – aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and afterwards was thrust into a new role as America’s sweetheart. But even with her global fame solidified, she longed to continue to break records, and her legendary solo flight around the world in the summer of 1937 has become one of the most talked-about journeys in history.

Two-time Academy Award winning actress (Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby), Hilary Swank, portrays Amelia, a role she admits was ‘irresistible.’ I spoke with her at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on the eve of the movie’s premiere.

What was it about Amelia Earhart that fascinated you?

Amelia was such a trailblazer and I think we have her to thank for girls today feeling like it’s okay to follow a dream. She had a quality that I admire: the drive to follow her heart, no matter what, even in a man’s world. What I think the movie shows is that she lived life on her own terms, she believed in having fun and doing what you love and also in helping other people and she accomplished a lot because of that.

How much footage is there of Amelia speaking? I’ve always seen footage of her just waving from a plane.

Amelia (Hilary Swank) © Fox Searchlight Pictures

I know exactly to the minute how much there is out there. There are about 16 minutes of newsreel on Amelia. The actual things that we have of her speaking are limited, and a lot of the stuff that we have of her speaking are when she had her public persona on.

I found about 45 seconds of when she didn’t know the camera was actually on, and so I got a little bit of an insight of her non-public face, which was very obviously insightful for me and something I really grabbed on to.

I didn’t want to parody her, that accent was very specific, the cadence in which she spoke was very specific, the way she carried herself was very specific, as it is for all of us. They were big shoes to fill. I couldn’t take a lot of fictional-license, so it was a daunting task.

When you were exploring the character, beyond the icon what were the elements of her personality that most surprised you?

I really think that I didn’t recognize truly how unapologetically she lived her life. It’s something that I touched on. I found it quite remarkable, but at the same time she wasn’t threatening to people. She didn’t live it and say, ‘Screw you all, this is my path,’ and leave a bunch of people behind.

She cared about people at the same time. I found the more that I read about her, the more endearing she became. Usually someone will do something remarkable, and as you read you’ll kind of go, ‘Oh’ (said in a disapproving tone). And to me, I just kept going, ‘What? This is someone I wish I could meet and talk to,’ and I think that’s why people are so excited about her story.

She was an inspiration to the women of her time, what do you hope that young women today will take away from this?

Hilary Swank and Richard Gere © Fox Searchlight Pictures

I think that she’s an inspiration to women of today too. What’s incredible about this movie to me is that I have never had such an outpouring of people come up to me and say, ‘I cannot wait to see your film,’ more than any of my other films.

I think what a lot of people know about Amelia is what you learned in text books, this iconic image of who she was, but I think people also realize that this was a woman in a time when following your dream was a man’s job, which is an inspiration to us.

But even to take it a step further, I think this was a person who made no apologies for really living her life the way she wanted to live it, and I think that that’s something if she was living in 2009 would be ahead of our time. I think it’s very challenging to live our lives on the path that we want, whether you’re a woman or a man.

Can you talk about your own flying?

I did learn how to fly. You cannot play Amelia Earheart and not learn how to fly. It was just as exhilarating and freeing and exciting as she writes about. I realized that she loved flying because she loved feeling free of the constraints she felt on the ground.

I think she also loved being able to see the world – and you have to understand in those days very few people had that chance – experiencing new cultures. Most of all, she was driven by the promise of always trying something new. That’s why she was always going after a new record or heading to a new place, and that’s something I could relate to.

Doing all the research you did on this, do you think the end of this movie is how it really happened?

Hilary Swank and Ewan McGregor © Fox Searchlight Pictures

I do. I do believe she ran out of fuel. I know there are a lot of different ideas about what happened, was she kidnapped by the Japanese? Was she stranded on an island? Doing my press for this, a lot of people say, ‘I don’t know if that was really the way you should have ended the movie,’ and I appreciate that there could be a lot of different ways to end it.

Maybe if the movie’s successful we’ll pretend she did land and make a sequel!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane