Born of Spanish and Native American heritage on July 29, 1974, in Washington state, Hilary grew up in a mobile home park on the outskirts of the small town of Bellingham.
She first tried her hand at acting when she was nine-years-old after landing the lead role as Mowgli in a production of The Jungle Book. Theatre remained a passion during her school years, although she also proved her prowess as an athlete. She competed in the Junior Olympics and Washington swimming championships, while ranking fifth in the state in gymnastics. Though Hilary eventually settled on acting, she never lost her love of sports and continues to enjoy such adrenaline-inducing activities as skydiving, rafting and skiing.
While her father, a former National Guard and travelling salesman, was not around much when Hilary was growing up, mum Judy was an ardent supporter. Convinced of her daughter's acting abilities, she suggested they relocate to Hollywood and in 1990 - with separation proceedings initiated - mother and daughter set off for Tinseltown with little more than a car and $75 between them.
To this day Hilary continues to describe her mum as her biggest hero. Although she initially enrolled at South Pasadena High School, Hilary soon dropped out, citing a lack of support for her acting. Concentrating on her career she began landing roles, starting with a small part in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But her first big break came when she beat hundreds of other actresses to the lead in The Next Karate Kid. Her climb to stardom was not without its challenges, however. Hilary and her mother spent time living out of their car and scraping enough money together just to eat.
A role on the teen drama Beverly Hills 90210 seemed heaven sent, but when Hilary was abruptly fired from the series she began to seriously question her chosen career path. In the end she decided to persevere, and went on to score a major comeback with her portrayal in Boys Don't Cry of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was brually murdered in 1993.
Immersing herself in the character, Hilary cut off her hair and lived as a boy for a month. It was an approach that paid dividends as, although she was paid a mere $75 a day, her hauntingly powerful performance earned her a best actress Oscar in 2000. Suddenly she was a hot property in Hollywood, and has been in demand ever since, accepting roles in such diverse vehicles as Insomnia, alongside Al Pacino and Robin Williams, and The Affair Of The Necklace, in which she played a penniless young aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France.
Hilary won her second Oscar in 2004 for her performance in the boxing flick Million Dollar Baby. Co-star Clint Eastwood was in no doubt about the calibre of his leading lady. "This is just another step in her path to greatness. She's the best there is, as good as any actress I've worked with," he said.
Off-screen the actress married Chad Lowe, the brother of The West Wing and 9-1-1: Lone Star actor Rob Lowe, in 1997 but after eight years they announced their separation and dvorced. She married entrepreneur Philip Schneider in 2018, after two years together, and on April 10 2023 she announced that they had welcomed twins, a son and a daughter.