Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar at age 25 for her performance in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” knows a thing or two about great expectations. The award immediately placed her in rarified company, and under the microscope.

“People talk about pressure and expectation,” says Swank. “Certainly there is a fair amount of that. But I also think its narcissistic to think that everyone is waiting for your next move. The biggest expectations we put are on ourselves.

“I do realize that the great roles are few and far between, especially for women, and that has nothing to do with having an Academy Award or not. As an actor you have to work — you can’t just wait for all the most amazing things to come along.”

If there was a perceived fallow period after “Boys,” it wasn’t for lack of work or challenge. She acted opposite Cate Blanchett in “The Gift” (2000) and held her own with Al Pacino in the under-regarded “Insomnia” (2002). This year her career pendulum is decidedly on the upswing.

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She just earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as suffragette Alice Paul in HBO’s “Iron Jawed Angels” as well as for her part as an aspiring boxer trying to transcend her hardscrabble roots through ring glory in “Million Dollar Baby.” The role would not have landed in her lap if it wasn’t for the hard work and determination.

“This script was sent to me by (producers) Gary Lucchesi and Tom Rosenberg, who said, ‘We have this really great script that should really be your next movie.’ I read it and I was transported. I called them back and said ‘Thank you and I loved it.’ And they said ‘Well, we have some new news: Clint Eastwood wants to star and direct.’ I was speechless. And in that one sentence it became an actor’s dream.”

It didn’t take long for Eastwood to settle on his leading lady.

“Meeting her, I liked her right off,” says the director, who also plays Swank’s trainer Frankie Dunn in the movie. “She really dove into the part and worked extremely hard, and got herself built up over several months’ preparation.”

If reviews were uniformly strong, she credits Eastwood for laying the groundwork.

“The man is truly an anomaly,” she says. “He creates an environment in which you feel just really safe and protected, and in which you feel like you can play and create. It’s the way it should be. You realize that movies don’t need to be as difficult as they are sometimes.”

Already athletic by nature, the actress was asked to gain 10 pounds of muscle, but felt it wasn’t quite enough.

“I ended up gaining 19 pounds of muscle,” says Swank, who worked out 4½ hours a day, six days a week for three months before filming started. “I ate 210 grams of protein a day. I was drinking egg whites; I was drinking protein shakes, and eating protein bars, fish and vegetables.”

The result reflected not just brawn but also heart.

“This is not an actress for surfacey roles,” says Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “Swank’s gift is bring complete believability to the most extreme, most willful and passionate of characters.”