By Margy Rochlin
A change in diet is one thing, but reconfiguring your life is trickier. In January 2006 Swank announced she had separated from her husband, actor Chad Lowe, whom she'd been with for 13 years and married to for eight. In the wake of the reports Swank fled the country for a remote part of northern India. She talks now about how she made her decision to journey to Palampur, a hill town in the eastern Kangra valley, to live in a no-frills volunteer house and work as an assistant schoolteacher in energy-sapping 110-degree temperatures. "I just sat with myself and thought, 'what do I need right now? What do I need to do for myself ?'" Her sojourn began with a 7,300-mile-plus plane ride from New York City to New Delhi, all alone -- no Mom, no Chad, no handlers -- for the first time since she was 16. "It was a time in my life where I felt I had so much...what's the word? So many eyes were upon me. And that's so unhealthy, for so many reasons. One, you just think way too much about yourself. Two, what I was going through wasn't anything bigger than anything else people go through all the time. I just thought, 'I've really got to get out and get back into the world and back into what's important in life.' No scrutiny, no 'what am I wearing through this?'"
She calls her monthlong stretch in India "getting back to basics," which is significant given Swank's impoverished trailer-park past in Bellingham, Washington. With a father who abandoned the family and a mother who struggled to pay the bills, Swank was a high school junior when she and her mother drove 1,200 miles to L.A. to find young Hilary an agent so she could give professional acting a shot. For the first few months they slept in a borrowed Oldsmobile or camped out in sleeping bags on the floor of a friend's house. Consider the pressure: How she did in an audition determined everything -- the full weight of her and her mother's destiny rested on her teenage shoulders. Yet Swank thinks of it as an exciting juncture in her life instead of something scary and definitely worth forgetting. "People say that to me, and I say, 'No, I was 15 1/2 years old' -- and I say 1/2 because I had my learner's permit and I remember that specifically -- I was coming down to California to pursue my dream, which I'd had since I was 9 years old. So there was nothing in any of it that worried me or upset me. It was an adventure. It was a great adventure."