Few actresses win one Oscar—let alone two. Hilary Swank did it in just five years, for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, all before she turned 30. Since her first break in a 1990s Karate Kid sequel, Swank has come a long way in a short time to reach such a lofty plateau in the biz. It’s no surprise she likes to take on tough leads that others might not even attempt. This year alone she played a young wife afflicted with ALS in You’re Not You (a film she also produced) and a pioneering woman on a treacherous journey in the Tommy Lee Jones-directed The Homesman, the latest in a remarkable career to create yet more Oscar buzz. Like so many of her roles, Mary Bee Cuddy in Homesman was no easy task.

I would call this a feminist Western, which is an angle we don’t ever see in Westerns.

That’s exactly what I call it. I think it’s completely original. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a movie quite like this, and that’s partly why I love it so much. I can’t think of one Western that was about women, and usually the women who are in them are, I don’t know, some sort of prostitute, or taking care of the farm, you know? They’re not the heroines.

Is that what appealed to you when you read the script?

Well, that was a big part of it. It takes place in the mid-1800s and yet, to me, it parallels a lot of the things that us women deal with now in 2014—the objectification of women, the trivialization of women. And so, when I read it, I immediately was drawn to that fact. I also really loved the character because I feel like she had morals and she had manners and she had values. These are all things that I think we are lacking in our society today. I love that she was so multifaceted. She had strength. She was independent. She had opinions, but underneath that was a real vulnerability and a desire to love and be loved. So all of those things I saw right off the page.

This movie is about needing that human connection. Your character was looking for that, but it’s heartbreaking in her case.

You can almost make anything happen but you can’t make somebody love you, and that’s the thing that we all relate to. We’ve all had our heart broken. We’ve all wanted that person who has said no.

The physicality of this production looks pretty amazing. What was it like shooting it?

Well, I love a physical challenge. That’s a thing that’s always attracted me to roles. My horseback (riding) experience was very little. And then, obviously, learning how to drive mules, the plowing. I have such a newfound respect for farmers. They are stronger than any bodybuilder. You have to steer the plow at the same time you’re steering two mules, so you have four reins and two handles, and it is not easy. So there’s that, and then pulling a carriage with three women. I take safety seriously on a set, as I think we all do as actors, so learning how to pull that wagon was also a challenge. On top of that, I had on a 25-pound dress with the petticoat, culottes and corset. I can’t even bend in those things.

Did you bond with your horse? Do you know its name?

Every single second that I wasn’t on set, I’d get on my horse. I never went back to my trailer. The (horse) wranglers became Hilary’s wranglers because I’d get on my horse and be like, “Yee-haw,” and ride off into the distance and Tommy would be like, “Follow her.” I was always on my horse to the point where they gave me the horse at the end. So, not only do I know her name, but she’s now my horse. Her name is Juicy.

It’s hard to find really great roles to play. You now have a production company and you’re developing them for yourself. Tell me about that.

Yeah, but my production company isn’t just for me. I became an actor because I love people and I love their stories and I love what makes us similar, but also what makes us different… So I just thought, “I want to be a part of telling stories.” That’s how I become an actor. And then I thought, “Well, there are more stories that I want to tell, not just for me to star in.” So then I started my production company and it’s a really rewarding experience, but it’s super hard in its own way. I didn’t really know the depth of it.

You’ve also worked with Clint Eastwood, another actor-turned-director. Could you talk about working with both Clint and Tommy Lee?

When I first started working with Clint—and you’re this close to each other—in the first few days he was looking at me like he was looking at a monitor, because he was my director. I thought, “I can’t look at him. It’s Clint Eastwood watching me.” Then, as we became more comfortable, just with each other in general, he became more trusting of what I was doing. He became more my costar, and it was more in character… Tommy Lee is very specific. He pays attention to detail in every single way, and because he co-wrote the script, he would say things like, “There’s no ‘but’ here. There’s no ‘and.’ There’s no ‘the.’ Let’s not add words. There’s a rhythm to this.” I respected that because it’s true. When you read the script, it’s very poetic. It didn’t need fillers.

Hilary Swank photographed by J.R. Mankoff