Into The Wild - Emile Hirsch interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
EMILE Hirsch talks about the challenge of playing a free spirit like Christopher McCandless in Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, facing up to the physical challenges of the role and what he took personally from the experience.
I read that you were aware of the story of Christopher McCandless as a child. Now, having played him, were there ever any regrets that you said “yes” given the gruelling nature of the shoot?
Emile Hirsch: No. I was nine-years-old when I first saw the 20/20 episode about Christopher McCandless and Into The Wild. I remember watching it alone on TV and being really moved and haunted by it. I was just sifting through probably the hundreds of hours of television that kids watch these days and remembering those few minutes of something about someone who had the courage to go on this kind of spiritual journey. I didn’t understand it at the time. I was asking: “Why would someone do that?” It was almost like a question mark that was never answered. So, the process of playing the role was like answering all these questions about Chris and myself and what life really meant to me.
There must have been some lowlights as well as highlights from this job?
Emile Hirsch: There are always moments of struggle when you’re in environments like the ones we were in. We were in freezing degree conditions in Alaska and then 120 degrees Fahrenheit when we were in Lake Mead. So, there were moments where you’d feel overwhelmed by the nature around you. The days in the cold, when you’re shivering and you’re already really, really skinny and your shirt’s off and you’re on your hands and knees going through the bushes looking for berries, it’s tempting to feel like it’s a lowlight. But there was something so adventurous about what we were doing and the forward motion of what we were making – that kind of giddy sense of creation. So, I don’t look back on it and sigh at any particular memories. Most of the time I look back on my memories and those are the ones that give me the biggest smile, rather than the easy ones. It’s kind of a trick question because in the moment perhaps they were lowlights – but looking back on them, perhaps they were moments that defined the movie for me.
Sean Penn has said that he views travelling as an essential right of passage. Did you find that making this film represented a sort of rite of passage for yourself as both an actor and as a person?
Emile Hirsch: Yeah, I’m not going to get on a soapbox and thump my chest and say: “I’m a man now!” It’s not that. I just feel a higher level of endurance, and a higher level of curiosity about the world having seen more of it than I ever had. A lot of the stages of the film were stages of almost challenging your fears, but once you kind of meet those challenges you walk away and you don’t necessarily feel like a different person but you feel more like yourself. It’s kind of a vague answer but that’s it.
Q. Did you find that Sean Penn’s experience as an actor was an added bonus for you when being directed by him?
Emile Hirsch: Sean has said that directors don’t get performances from their actors; actors give performances. I agree. But what I will say is that what really benefited me about having Sean as an actor as well was that in some of the more gruelling times where you could ever question your commitment to what you were doing, it would be really easy for an actor in a kind of rage to turn their gaze to the director and say: “Well, you wouldn’t do that!” But my gaze would go to Sean and then it would be: “OK, you’ve got to go twice as high up the mountain buddy!” So that was very valuable to me.
Q. How much of you is featured during the rapids sequence? Was that really you in the boat at all times? Did you perform your own stunts?
Emile Hirsch: I did the rapids [laughs]! I’d spent a day in a kayak where I was basically on flat water with my rapids instructor who ended up playing Rainey in the film. So, we got to the location on the day and I was looking at these rapids that were bigger than I ever imagined and I don’t know why, but I somehow thought Sean would spare me. I was very naive [laughs]. But it goes back to what I was saying earlier about turning my gaze to the director and saying: “You wouldn’t do that…” Sean came up to me probably at my lowest point while looking at those rapids and said: “Will you do it if I do it first?” And he got in the kayak and did the rapids first.
Q. Is this the benchmark by which future roles will be judged in terms of scale and challenge? Or is it still going to be a case of mixing and matching for you?
Emile Hirsch: I would probably say yes but that won’t probably prevent me from being lazy at one point or another [laughs].
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- Sean Penn interview
- Emile Hirsch interview
- Into The Wild UK premiere gallery
- Read our preview & US reaction
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