Emile Hirsch & Into The Wild

Emile Hirsch is a name you might not have heard before. The 23 year old Californian has only made a handful of movies and barring his debut in teen sex comedy The Girl Next Door, none of them have enjoyed popular success. There’s a chance too that his new film, Into The Wild, where he plays the real-life American hermit Christopher McCandless, might pass you by at the Cineplex. But it really shouldn’t, it is an astonishing performance and is the film that will make Hirsch’s name.

Directed by Sean Penn, who adapted John Krakauer’s best-selling book, the free-wheeling, poetic road movie introduces us to the idealistic McCandless as he graduates from university and prepares for law school. His demanding parents (played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are trapped in an unhappy marriage, staying together for the sake of their business. Shortly after the ceremony, McCandless gives his life savings to a charity, packs a few clothes into his car and hits the road, not telling anyone where he is going. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, Jack London and the woodsman stories of David Henry Thoreau, McCandless plans to travel across the continent of America, north to Alaska, seeking adventure. On the way, he meets a series of fascinating people, who shape his life and his attitudes and who he in turn inspires.

Towards the end of the film, Hirsch as McCandless has spent a season alone in the Alaskan wilderness, without much food. Penn had his young star lose almost 30 pounds for this section of the film, and as he wanders into the London hotel room, he doesn’t look like he’s put much of it back on. Although his face is open and fresh, Hirsch is a small-framed young man, lost in a blue suit jacket, loose white t-shirt and frayed, baggy jeans. His shoulders rattle as he coughs loudly and asks me for a cigarette, which he smokes slowly and carefully while gulping down a sugary, milky coffee. Before we start into the questions, he tells me he has gotten used to silence since he spent eight months touring America with Penn, shooting the film. Consequently, Hirsch hums and haws a lot, leaving long gaps between my asking a question and answering it, but there is no reticence or hostility in these pauses, just a quiet consideration and a desire to be precisely understood.

After making complimentary noises about the film, which left a deep impression with me, I ask Hirsch how he prepared for such a difficult role. “For a commitment like this part”, he says, slowly, “you have to fall in love with the material. You have to be moved in a real way by the story, otherwise as much as you want to commit, and play the character, whoever it is, you just won’t be able to. It’s like being in love. If you’re not really in love, it will show on your face.”

“You know what I mean, right?” No, I reply. Tell me. Hirsch squirms slightly in his chair, flicking his floppy dark fringe from his eyes. “See, I loved Christopher McCandless’ story so much, just the idea of going on a spiritual quest, that I wanted to do him justice. That was the hardest part.” Unusually, the young actor didn’t audition for the role, he was offered the part by Penn before the director had finished his script. “Sean saw a movie I had made called Lords of Dogtown (about the origins of skateboarding culture in LA) and he really liked that. I think he saw a physicality in my performance there, and thought to himself that I would be able to handle the rough stuff in this story. So he got in touch and we got together and we talked and he gave me his copy of Krakauer’s book. Reading it was a life-changing experience. Seriously, I stayed up all night that night, devouring it”. I ask him for his first impression of McCandless and Hirsch smiles. “I was thinking practically, you know? Like, there’s so much in this story, there are a lot of places to go and people to meet. I thought the whole thing would be such an experience. It awoke this spirit of adventure in me. I suddenly developed these itchy feet.”

Over the next four months, Hirsch and Penn would get together every couple of weeks and talk about McCandless and his quest. “We’d have dinner with Sean’s family or go drinking or just hang out at his house. I think what he was trying to do was get a sense of me as a person, and he’s very careful about that. The first thing he told me was, ‘I know you can act this part, but what I’m looking for is a commitment’. He told me he wanted to be sure that I was mature enough to be able to handle what needs to be done for this role, between the action stuff, the weight loss, the mental preparation. All of that. So I went away and made my considerations, then a while later Sean called me up and said he’d just finished the script and would I come up to San Francisco right then and there, to read it. ‘If you like it’, he said, ‘the part is yours’. I was on a plane a couple of hours later and a couple of hours after that I was sitting at his kitchen table reading the pages and that was it”. I tell Hirsch that my impression of Penn is that he would be the ideal man to take an epic, trans-continental adventure with and the young actor’s face light up. “Right on!”, he replies, lifting himself out of his seat. “Penn is a real man. He’s got a fire in his gut and he’s full of ideas and questions and answers. He’s got so much energy and passion. When we were shooting, if a scene called for a hole in the ground, say, Sean would grab a shovel and start digging. He’s a natural born leader, and when we set out on this adventure, an adventure that took eight months in total, we needed that”.

Into The Wild is as much about family and society as it is about the search for identity and philosophical truth. I ask Hirsch what he thinks an audience might take away from the film? He sighs a very big sigh and there is a long pause, twenty seconds or more. Finally he says, with a laugh, “I have no idea”. It's my turn to be quiet now, so I wait for Hirsch to speak again. “Hopefully an audience would come away with the same feelings that I had. This was an ordinary guy who was also extraordinary. McCandless asked himself the big questions: Why are we here? What are we doing? What makes a life worth living? These are not new questions, but nobody has really ever answered them satisfactorily. Look at the pile of books he brought with him, when he didn’t even bring a map. Look at Thoreau, who I also read before I set off. In ‘Walden’, Thoreau says “I went into the woods not to escape life, but to discover that I had a life worth living”. Those are valid questions, and they’re not ones you can answer two minutes after you walk out of the film. Hopefully, in the movie there is something that can help people. Not ‘help’ as in ‘self-help book’, but that there’s something in there that will excite people about life and remind them that they are alive in the world.”

I ask Hirsch if he was conscious at the time that he was making the movie that he was making a statement about the individual’s place in this huge American society. “Absolutely”, he says. “For me, McCandless was on a search for truth, if that’s not too simple a word. He wasn’t a hermit or someone who hated life. He was looking to define those core American values – like liberty and freedom and independence. Who knows where those values are today, but that’s what McCandless was looking for. Whether we like it or not, we are all in a rat-race, constantly rushing around concerned with getting the next thing done. The idea that you can just put that all away, and go and live a simple life as a human being, not worried about where you have to go, what you have to do, how you have to speak or dress or behave, that is an exhilarating notion.” Like when McCandless burns the last of his money and walks off into the Arizona desert? “Right! Isn’t that an exciting idea?”

Into The Wild is Hirsch’s third biopic in a row. I ask him if it is a conscious choice, to play real people, and the actor rapidly nods his head. “There is something about real-life people I find more interesting, you know? The idea that there was a reality there gives me as an actor something concrete to hold on to. Chris McCandless was not an ordinary guy. He was a complicated person, who got along so well with all of the various people he met on the road, but at the same time closed himself off from his family, or from people he thought were getting too close. He wanted multiple things, he could be social and anti-social. In the end, and this is the saddest part, he wasn’t able to satisfy any of them.”

And what about the actor himself? What changed in his mind, after making the film? “Well, even though there’s a crew around, I enjoyed being pretty much alone a lot of the time”. He launches into a little sing-song rap, out of nowhere. “The sensation of the isolation is not alienation in our nation”. He takes another gulp of coffee and sits back in his chair. “Up there in Alaska, that was totally freeing, man. I felt fulfilled and I felt content. I had a constant state of well-being. I never felt alone, exactly, because nature was there all around me. Looking out from the bus at Mt Denali, the highest peak in North America, as the sun rises was a wonderful thing. It was just constant sensation, the whole day long. I don’t want to sound hippy-trippy, but it does make you feel at one with the universe when you’re in a place like that for any length of time."

As soon as he wrapped Into The Wild, after what he calls “the best year of my life”, it was back to the business of making movies and the lead role in the Wachowski Brother’s Speed Racer, a live-action version of the classic Japanese kid’s cartoon. Quite a change of pace, according to Hirsch. “Well, it was weird, that’s what it was. Such a polar opposite, to go from the outdoors and the wilderness to this cutting edge technological wonderland of special effects and green screens and all the creature comforts that come with a big-budget movie. At the same time, those extremes were very engaging. It’s a fast, fun movie, but The Wachowski’s have added this very serious dramatic backbone that I could really get my teeth into."

Our time almost up, Hirsch stands as I stand and walks me out of the room. We talk in asides about a subject I didn’t really want to bring up, for fear of a jinx, next year’s Oscars. Into The Wild and Hirsch in particular are already being tipped by the internet nabobs for nominations in January. “Aw, man, don’t”, he says. “It’ll be cool, obviously but I don’t want to think too much about that. I am hoping that I’m not the kind of person who cares about that and nothing else, you know? Titles and honours are irrelevant, according to McCandless, so there would be a certain guilty irony there, if it happens.”

“If”, he repeats, opening the door and shaking my hand. “Big if...”


chantel said...

really enjoyed this interview! I got a feel for Emile, and he seems very down to earth. :) The experience from Into The Wild seems incredible and he did a good job explaining it. Overall, great interview

atsophie said...

This is fantastic! I am passionate about this film and glad to see Emile went on a simular journey to Chris. I saw Emile in a Cannes hotel in 2009 and didn't approach him because this movie was so important to me. But glad at the time of this interview it effected him.

Chris journey is one what we all want to take, and come back from. But very few actually do, Watching it at different stages in my life brings out all kinds of questions and thoughts.

Well written, with heart. Thank you.

Unknown said...

As if it didn't show enough in the movie, it is still a great relief to hear the inspiring words from the actor himself on how he was truly immersed in the role and enjoyed what McCandless really was. Great interview!

Unknown said...