Emile Hirsch's films include The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The Emperor's Club, The Mudge Boy, The Girl Next Door, Imaginary Heroes, Lords of Dogtown, and Alpha Dog. Writer-director Sean Penn chose Hirsch to play Chris McCandless in the screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, which eventually led the young actor to face the press at San Francisco's Clift Hotel.
G: Before Into the Wild, you played a number of characters who were based on real people. I wonder what your approach has been in the past, and if this kind of took that to a new level.
EH: You know, I don't really have a process of acting. I don't know what it is even if I had one. I mean, I don't know what it is. You know, process: I don't know. So it's a real person; definitely you want to find as much information as you can. And this was a pretty, I thought, extraordinary human being in Chris McCandless, so I really read as much about him as I could and I met with the family—Walt and Billie, his parents, and Carine, his sister—which was a really big help and made me look at Chris in a different way. Even though when I met them, I knew I was the Hollywood actor coming in through the door, so I treaded lightly, you know?
G: You said that the most useful aspect you got from talking with his family was understanding how he thought, his attitudes.
G: How did you try to get that into yourself, or put it into practice?
EH: Well, there was a point where I started to read a lot of the philosophy books that Chris was reading at the time, which were very helpful. Thoreau, his book Walden, really echoed a lot of the same philosophical sentiments that Chris had. And Call of the Wild by Jack London kinda had this kinda wild, wanderlust, kind of beckoning into the wild feel.
EH: Yeah, this primal nature feeling. Once you start reading this, I mean you really get into it. I mean, I really was all about purity and kinda the nature and reality as opposed to kinda the construct of the human society based on money and, you know, a bunch of stuff that is superficial and ultimately kind of just another layer on the ladder of society that isn't really even dependent on survival, just status.
G: It seems to me that this process might be tailor-made to you if your acting is very intuitive and you're responding to being in as real a situation as possible, or reacting in the moment. Can you talk about—the film has amazing location work, so what was your experience of following in Chris' footsteps, and did you have any kind of opportunity when the cameras weren't rolling to explore on your own?
EH: Oh, yeah, I mean, you know, we were in those locations, all the real locations, and we were there, you know? We were there when the cameras were or weren't rolling. You couldn't get away from it; that's where we were. We were really in South Dakota on all these grain elevators and farms and stuff. We were really up in Alaska in the middle of nowhere, you know? We were really camped out on the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River for a week and a half.
G: Deliverance just came back out on DVD, reissued, and I couldn't help but think of that when watching the film and seeing you kayaking and seeing you hiking and seeing you climbing. Is it true that everything we see is you? Did you ever have to be doubled?
EH: I did all my stunts. Every stunt I had to do, I did it.
G: Let me get some quick tips, now that you're an expert. What's the key to river rafting?
EH: Um, really just summoning the courage to actually do it.
G: Cause once you're there, you can't get out.
EH: Once you're there, you can't get out, and you gotta just dig and paddle, just—dig that arm to the wave and paddle really hard, as hard as you can. You know, that's really kind of the--
G: What about jumping on a boxcar?
EH: Um, just make sure you got a good running start.
G: What about gutting a fake moose?
EH: Um, it wasn't fake.
G: Oh, really? Was it—wow, yeah. (Laughs.) Let's go back a moment to the months leading up to production, when you were periodically hanging out with Sean Penn. What went on during that time before he popped the question?
EH: Well, he just wanted to get to know me and make sure I had the will and commitment. You know, I think he was really kind of like testing me to make sure I had the right stuff.
G: Did you two bond over Brando?
EH: You know, I'm a huge Marlon Brando fan; I always have been, since I was about fifteen, and you know he, obviously—well, not obviously, but he had a relationship with Marlon Brando, a pretty close one, so. He knew Brando, I didn't, but we both have a huge appreciation for his work, and it was fun to hear any kind of little story about Brando I could get my ears on.
G: One of the things that I understand Sean Penn had you do to live the experience was to have some kind of a "monastic" experience or sort of withdraw somewhat from society. What did that really mean for you? How did that play out? Did you kind of try to avoid socialization during the shoot?
EH: No, I mean you can't do that. At the end of the day we're shooting a film, and there's certain realities that are just necessary to shooting: there's people. But, you know, it was all part of a kind of, the way of—everything was simplified a little bit.
G: There's some self-deprivation involved in getting—
EH: Yeah, but that's stuff that I felt enlivened me a little bit.
G: One of the things that really comes through in the film is it seems to be a film that has none of the bullshit boundaries that you sometimes sense between actors that get in the way of it being natural. It seemed like when the cameras weren't rolling you were having the same kinds of conversations—
G: That were on screen off screen, with Vince Vaughn and Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook.
G: Is that a correct assumption?
EH: Um, you know. Uh, yes and no, you know. We were all there, and we were all participating and felt like we part of an authentic experience.
G: What actor has taught you the most about acting on screen, just by working with them?
EH: Probably Sean. By a lot.
G: By osmosis.
G: What kinds of things did you learn from him?
EH: I mean, you know, it was more about just the trusting instinct. You know, trusting your instincts and intuition. I was really—and having courage to do things that you may not think you can do but you really can.
G: I'm curious if, from your perspective as an actor, you saw Chris' "Alexander Supertramp" sense of self as being distinct or kind of a different identity from his own Chris McCandless self, that kind of hurt guy that was on his way to finding serenity.
EH: You know, Supertramp—yeah, it was this kind of nickname he came up with. It was like a new—he was a new—he was reborn. You know, definitely it's different. It was like the fearless survivor and gainer of experience and knowledge and living anywhere and doing anything.
G: As an actor, you go onto a project, you embed yourself in this stuff and then you step back out of it. When you stepped out of this film, what do you think will really stick with you that won't kind of go by the wayside?
EH: A lot of just the core philosophy about family and love and certain cautiousness when it comes to money and materialism. A lot of that stuff really resonated with me. And also the whole wanderlust and adventure of it really—I feel like, for a lot of people, just watching the film can ignite their urge for adventure.
G: I would agree with that. What assistance was Jon Krakauer able to give you?
EH: Krakauer was very helpful. I talked with him on the phone for a couple hours when I was in Alaska, and he just—he was the guy who retraced McCandless' steps. No one would ever have known what McCandless had done before he died if Krakauer hadn't tracked down the trail of the two-year journey. And it was pretty amazing that he did that much investigative journalism. I mean, he was pretty obsessed.
G: When the production followed that path, went back in those footsteps, you were able to meet with some of the real people who met with Chris along the way—is that right?
EH: Mm-hm. Yeah. Wayne Westerberg, and Tracy, who is Kristen Stewart's character in the film.
G: What sort of insight were they able to give you?
EH: (Pause.) They gave me, you know, their first-hand experience. Each one was—Chris made a really big impression on 'em: a very positive, deep-thinking person. Who wasn't just another person but was really thinking about what was going on. And inspired both of them to try new things.
G: Was there any particular moment that stands out, looking back over the pre-production and the production, that you would characterize as a breakthrough in feeling like "That's it—I've got it now. This is what I want to latch onto and use."
EH: What was the question again?
G: Was there a breakthrough for you in the role, a particular time or moment or comment by someone that you said, "This is sort of the core."
EH: I think I looked at one photo. There was something about the photo. I don't want to say which photo, but it was one of the photos of Chris. And it said so many volumes about who he was and his positivity, and just everything about him. And just him. Just changed who I thought he was completely.
G: The physical transformation that you went through was actually the starting point for the film, and you actually started with the end of Chris' story.
EH: No, that's actually not—no, it's like three-quarters through the film we did it. It was all mixed up, yeah. I don't know; someone—
G: It is in the press notes. That's how I got that.
EH: Oh, the press notes did that? Yeah, that's been a—a lot of people have been kinda—yeah, I'm sorry they gave you that information. Yeah, it was three-quarters of the way through the shoot.
G: Okay. Yeah, well I won't ask you about that. (Laughs.)
EH: No, I'm sorry about that.
G: That's okay! That's alright.
EH: It's bogus.
G: Since doing Into the Wild, you wrapped Speed Racer.
G: Can you give a little preview of what we might expect from that as a film experience?
EH: Expect the unexpected. Don't expect anything like The Matrix from the Wachowski Brothers again. They made a completely visually new aesthetic for the film, and it's going to be really kooky and crazy and funny and ridiculous and emotional. And, I mean, just a really really really insane film.
G: And what did it allow you to add to your ongoing catalog of adventures, in terms of what you got to do in the film?
EH: Well, acting alongside the chimpanzee every day was pretty cool.
G: (Laughs.) You can't get much more natural than that.
EH: No. One of—the most spontaneous actor I ever worked with was Kenzie the chimp.
G: That's what Uta Hagen used to say is you should try to be like the cat. 'Cause you go to see a stageplay with a cat on stage, everyone's riveted to the cat because the cat will do anything.
EH: Oh yeah, I mean it was—this chimp was a pretty amazing improviser, let me just tell you.
G: That must be hard to keep up with. Well, thank you very much.
EH: Thank you!