In Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch gives an Oscar-worthy performances as Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who shuns his family, friends and possession in California to set out on a trip to Alaska while braving the elements of nature. Along the way, he meets a few people, such as Jan (Catherine Keener), Tracy (Kristen Stewart) and Ron (Hal Halbrook), who all befriend him and have an impact on his life. Based on a true story and on the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Emile Hirsch has previously starred in Alpha Dog, Lords of Dogtown, The Girl Next Door, The Mudge Boy and The Emperor's Club. He will be seen in the upcoming action film Speed Racer. I had the privilege to interview him.
Paramount Vantage releases Into the Wild on September 21st, 2007.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel when you read the book?
EH: As I was reading the book, I started to get that wanderlust feeling of me wanting to do that. That’s a feeling that I felt other times in my life and I probably just ignored it, but here I was seeing the intellectual construct that I could understand readily.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What made this role so challenging?
EH: It was the most challenging period of my life that I had to go through because of a combination of physical and, also, mental demands. Chris McCandless was a character that really required me to look at the world in a much different way. When you spend a lot of time growing up in LA, especially in your late teens, there’s a lot of negative bullshit that the city almost tries to inundate you with. It was great [acting in Into the Wild] because it was stripping all that stuff away layer by layer until you start to feel like a real person again. That was one of the things I love the most about it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Were you completely prepared to do all those dangerous adventure scenes?
EH: Yea, but sometimes I took a little convincing, though. I was surprised how gung-ho I would be at certain points in the film.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you immerse yourself in Chris’ life?
EH: By talking to Chris’ friends and family. Carine, [his sister], was an immense help to me [as well as] his parents. [I spoke to] Wayne Westerberg, who still calls him Alex because that’s how he knew him in South Dakota. I was also reading the books that Chris was reading, which fueled his philosophy background. I read [the works of] Jack London, Henry David Thoreau--Walden was a really fantastic glimpse into the mind of Chris.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How often was Chris’ family on the set?
EH: When we were doing those scenes, the family wasn’t on set. They were on set in very select scenes that Sean felt would be conductive to both parties.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to have Sean Penn as a director?
EH: He’s completely keyed into what all of his actors are going through at all times, even if it’s very hard. He has been through all that [before] as an actor. That kind of commitment is what he brings as a director. He’s very into getting what he wants and having everyone do their best. There’s a huge amount of respect he has for everyone, but he’s not afraid to also put you in line when you need to be. If there’s no whining allowed, it helps you to just do it and not think about it so much.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was is like working with Vince Vaugh?
EH: Vince Vaughn was so much fun to work and spend time with. He’s hilarious and we had a fantastic time. When I went on an ultra-mega diet in South Dakota and I went into his trailer. He had, like, twenty protein bars that, for some reason, they put in his trailer. I’m sitting there and he’s, like, “You know, it’s Hollywood. You gotta eat, man. This is a movie. Have a protein bar and don’t worry about it so much.” So, I open up a protein bar and eat it and he’s like, “Yea, screw it, eat what you want.” Then I’m opening up a second one and a third one. On my sixth one, he goes, “No, no, no. What are you doing, dude?” I was like, “You said I can have a protein bar.” He’s, like, “Yea, but you’re on, like, a crack binge right now. I’m not watching someone eat food; I’m watching someone overdose.” Then he started collecting all the protein bars and said, “You’re not eating any more.” All of a sudden, he turned on me and was like, “I thought you were my friend!” He didn’t get why there was this quarantine of food on the set. He saw the crazy wild beast of hunger come out of me and then he turned into the biggest beast of all.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel while you were so skinny?
EH: When I was that skinny, I didn’t have all that much energy or anxiety. I was taking my pulse a lot and it was really slow. I had been working with a doctor, so, for the most part, I felt pretty confident with the way I lost it. There were a lot of feelings like I was almost disappearing. It was a strange thing. Looking in the mirror at, times, was kinda creepy.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Could you relate to other people who also experienced starvation?
EH: I was at the airport in the middle of the weight loss and Eric Gautier, the cinematographer, had me read If This is a Man which is Primo Levi’s book on the Holocaust. It’s not easy to read a book about pain. When you’re not starving, it’s hard to understand what that means. I was nowhere near their level of hunger, but I had a real physical reaction to reading those pages.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think Sean Penn identifies with Chris McCandless?
EH: There are probably a lot of parallels that Sean Penn identified with when he first read the book. Sean is an explorer by nature and so was Chris McCandless. He told me he probably done twenty trips across the United States back and forth since he first got his license. This is a guy who likes new places to traverse to. Sean’s a very idealistic person—he genuinely wants the world to be better.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you identify with Chris McCandless?
EH: I don’t agree with what Chris McCandless started on this journey and what he believed in, but I agree with where he ended up.