NEW YORK - On screen, Hilary Swank incarnates the larger-than-life Amelia Earhart, pioneering aviatrix, as a towering figure. Yet in life the two-time Oscar winner, 35, is of medium height, slim as a tulip stem.

Despite a chilly hotel suite, she radiates warmth.

Clad in a cobalt-blue minidress patterned with polka dots the size of her large brown eyes, Swank improvises a cocoon out of an assistant's flannel shirt. Don't tell her stylist, but the actress is about being comfortable, not glamorous.

Amelia, directed by Mira Nair, almost certainly will earn Swank her third Academy Award nomination. It is typical of the actress' atypical roles in that it's about a character who flies against the prevailing winds.

The first Oscar was for the transgender Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, a girl determined to live as a boy. The second was for Maggie Fitzgerald, scrappy boxer of Million Dollar Baby, a waitress determined to train as a prizefighter.

"What grabbed me about Amelia is that here is a woman who made no apologies for pursuing her dreams," Swank says of Earhart, who lived from 1897 to 1937 and was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo.

How does Swank admire Earhart? Let her count the ways.

"She was honest about the life she wanted to live, she was supportive of other women, she wrote her own prenup!" enthuses the actress, flashing her panoramic smile.

Indeed, the Kansas-born Earhart - who briefly attended Philadelphia's Ogontz School (now Penn State Abington) - fought to get her pilot's license when women were perceived as too hormonal to fly. She founded the 99s, an organization that helped recruit and support women in aviation. When her agent-manager, George Putnam (Richard Gere in the film), proposed, Earhart accepted on condition of an open marriage.

"She was ahead of her time then," Swank says. "She'd be ahead of her time now."

Amelia, chronicle of that most iconoclastic icon, is one in a trio of biopics on 20th-century women that are Oscar front-runners. The others: Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep as cookbook innovator Julia Child, and Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel, with Audrey Tautou as fashion revolutionary Coco Chanel.

"These are women who composed the music they danced to," says Amelia director Nair. "That speaks to audiences." What also speaks to audiences is how the filmmakers tenderly show how these pioneers of flying, food, and fashion were buoyed emotionally by the men in their lives.

Not unlike the character she plays, Swank became romantically involved with her agent, John Campisi. Previously she'd been married to childhood sweetheart Chad Lowe, at 23, then divorced at 33. Like Earhart, does she worry that domesticity might clip her wings?

"I enjoy sharing life with a partner," she says matter-of-factly. "I love being around my family. They ground me."

On screen, Swank looks remarkably like the weedy, windblown Earhart, all cheekbones and cheek. "That's what people tell me," she says, "but I don't see the resemblance." Besides, looking like someone wouldn't be a reason to play her, says the actress, who has blazed a trail from Washington state trailer park to Hollywood A-list.

"For me to accept a script, it has to light a fire in me," she insists. "I want something that scares me. I want a challenge."

"I read an Earhart script 10 years ago, and it just didn't capture her," she says. However, the screenplay sent over by producer Ted Waitt, founder of Gateway computers and an Earhart buff, drew her like moth to fire.

"Hilary loves to be scared by what she doesn't know," observes Nair, who calls her "a spiritual daredevil." The filmmaker sees a lot of aviator in the actress: "They both have this 'I want to do it because I want to do it' philosophy. They're both can-do and accessible."

"As Hil became the embodiment of Amelia Earhart, it looked effortless," Nair says. The process was anything but.

"She wallpapered her trailer with Amelia photos," Nair recalls. "She studied the newsreels of Amelia diligently. She downloaded Amelia's radio speeches and listened to them on her iPod."

At one point Nair was overwhelmed by Swank's intense channeling of Earhart. "A little less Amelia here," the director remembers prompting.

"People think Hilary's such a serious person," Nair says, pulling a long face. "But much of the time between scenes she was all about the laughs. She would surprise us by jumping around and caressing Amelia's plane. She has a great flair for physical comedy."

Although primarily known for inspirational dramas with elements of tragedy, Swank did make the successful 2007 rom-com P.S. I Love You, opposite Gerard Butler. She says she's eager for more opportunities to flex her comic muscle.

"But you know," she reflects, "I made Boys Don't Cry exactly 10 years ago, and a common chord runs through my movies since then.

"From Maggie to Erin [the teacher in Freedom Writers] to Amelia, I play strong women who are passionate and driven."

It wasn't a conscious decision, she says. "I wasn't aware of the persona I was creating. When you're making movies, there are so many other things to worry about that you're not thinking of your screen persona."

"Clint has this great line," she says, invoking her Million Dollar Baby director and costar, Eastwood: "We always aim for the bull's-eye. We don't always make it."

Ask if there is an actor whose career inspires her, Swank beams. She volunteers a name she might soon encounter on the awards circuit, one "synonymous with bull's-eye."

"It's a cliche, I know," she says, "but isn't it Meryl Streep?"