Amelia Earhart’s name is synonymous with extraordinary adventure, incredible perseverance and groundbreaking audacity. She was a pioneer whose tremendous work was done in the face of incomprehensible danger and general disbelief of a woman’s capabilities.

She will always be remembered for her achievements, but, perhaps, it is her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific as she embarked on the final leg of an around the world flight that keeps her legacy so shiny. She didn’t fail; she merely evaporated into the skies she loved so devoutly.

But who was the woman outside of the bomber jacket and leather flyboy cap? That is what director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding) and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank set out to investigate in their new film, Amelia.

“What I tried to do was make a film that goes behind the icon and shows a woman who’s flesh and blood and extremely modern,” Nair, an elegant, soft-spoken woman, says. “I was interested in how [Earhart] navigated the seesaw between the ecstasy she felt in the sky and the responsibility she felt on this earth. How do you balance your responsibility with your passion? Especially in that time, in a man’s world?”

“She was living in a time where living your dreams was something men did,” Swank adds, her long, tapered fingers sweeping through the air. “It wasn’t something women did or, if they thought about it, it was farfetched.”

The star reveals that Earhart often spoke at universities, encouraging woman to pursue careers, dreams and desires before settling down with husbands and families. “That was extraordinary in that era,” Swank marvels.

Earhart’s forward thinking drove her, along with Gene Vidal, to form what is essentially the FAA today and to envision a world where flight was in the hands of the people. Nair describes the late ’20s and ’30s, when Earhart was making her monumental mark on the world’s consciousness, as “a time when aviation was truly a dance of death. Very primitive. [Amelia had] dreams and made them happen so that now you and I can jump on a plane from L.A. to New York and it’s completely commonplace. This happens because that happened. I’m intrigued by people who make a difference.”

For Swank, playing an icon was both daunting and familiar. She calls Amelia “a kindred spirit,” one who was a passionate dreamer hell-bent on making that dream a reality. That was something the actress, raised in a trailer park, deeply related to. But her admiration for Earhart was much greater than their shared gumption.

“Amelia is this woman who made no apologies about living her life the way she wanted,” Swank says. “I find that so ahead of her time and very difficult to do, even now. That’s something we all find challenging. She was not afraid to live life for herself, and I think that’s really brave and difficult.”

While her fortitude and resolve are legendarily impressive, her demise is just as famous as her achievements. So how does a filmmaker compose a compelling film where the last few moments of the story are a foregone conclusion?

“It’s a brilliant challenge,” Nair grins. “I loved that challenge because everyone knows the ending, but I’ve been to a number of screenings, and people get so involved. [Audience members have] said to me ‘No, no, no. You won’t let her die. Something different will happen.’ And I just smile at them because we all know that she didn’t come back, but I think that’s the beautiful challenge of drama and filmmaking. You know the ending and yet you still create this love, drama and tension.”