While Hilary Swank was making the inspirational drama "Freedom Writers" with writer-director Richard LaGravenese, he told her that for her next film, "I want you to do something lighter and funny and girlie. You are such a girl, and you are so funny."
Despite having won best actress Oscars for 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" and 2004's "Million Dollar Baby" -- or maybe because of it -- the whippet-slender 33-year-old Swank knows she isn't the first person who comes to mind for a romantic comedy.
"I'm known for my dramatic work, and there aren't a lot of great comedies out there. So actually finding a good comedy is challenging in itself. When you do find one, there are obviously a niche of girls for those roles."
But then LaGravenese presented her with his adaptation of "P.S., I Love You," based on Cecelia Ahern's first novel. It's a story that gives Swank a chance to elicit tears, but she also cracks jokes, sings karaoke, takes a few pratfalls and is romanced by a trio of guys.
Over brunch on a cloudy day at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica, the actress is a chatterbox with high cheekbones and a warm, open smile. Her long hair cascades down her back -- in just two days, Oprah Winfrey would be cutting Swank's locks on TV for a wig program for chemotherapy cancer patients. The actress orders scrambled egg whites with tomato, onion and feta cheese, even though she just ate a fruit plate and other goodies less than an hour before while sitting for hair and makeup. An athlete in school, she's never struggled with her weight.
"I have my dad's genes, and my metabolism works so quickly," she says. "I have to really constantly eat."
Though Ahern's novel is set in Ireland, LaGravenese has switched the majority of the action to New York City. Swank plays Holly, a 30-year-old woman grieving over the loss of her husband, Gerry (Gerard Butler), to a brain tumor. Holly soon discovers that Gerry had prepared for his death by writing her 10 letters aimed at helping her get through her grief and get on with her life, to be delivered consecutively at the beginning of each month.
Swank says that "P.S., I Love You," which opens Dec. 21, is "one of those movies, I think, that remind you of what life is about. The importance of not taking people for granted and that you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, and the importance of friends. This movie is so much about how love is illuminating. I think Gerry just gave her such a gift in helping her rediscover herself through that love."
For a comedy newbie, Swank might have been expected to go for a lighthearted romp rather than a story with such tragic overtones. It did present certain challenges, Swank says.
"It's not your obvious comedy. So it is finding the balance of the comedy that is based in reality, and the flip side of those emotions -- to be honest [about] the grieving and the anger and the loss you feel when someone dies. It was that fine line to walk back and forth."
Of course, working opposite Kathy Bates and the men in the film -- Butler as well as Harry Connick Jr. and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the new men in her life -- certainly made her work a bit easier. "Such a great trio of guys," she says with a grin.
Especially Butler, whose turn as Gerry is engaging and sexy. "My feeling is that we don't go on this journey with Holly if you don't love Gerry and what our relationship was," Swank says. "It's only in the first 10 minutes of the film, but because you love him so much you can't believe he's gone too."
Seven months ago, Swank relocated to Los Angeles from New York after her divorce from actor Chad Lowe. She had first lived here as a teenager, but back then, she and her mother briefly lived in their car.
"My mom is an incredible woman," Swank says warmly. "We weren't in our car very long, but for me it was an adventure. I was in California meeting agents, so it wasn't in any way a downer."
Still, Swank, who will be playing doomed aviator Amelia Earhart in her next film, says she contemplates daily "where I am now from where I was growing up and how lucky I am."