“Into the Wild” opens the same weekend I get married. It’s a story about running away from society with no plan, no money and no family contact and I absolutely loved it. Please keep in mind that I have no plans in following Christopher McCandless’s footsteps, played perfectly by Emile Hirsch, nor am I worried about entering into marriage with the woman I love. I just think it’s one of those funny coincidences that should be noticed and appreciated. I swear. I sat down with Hirsch, the 22-year-old who’s best known for starring in “Lords of Dogtown” and “The Girl Next Door.” But after his performance as McCandless, the 23-year-old who left modern life behind, he’ll be best known for “Into the Wild” — and maybe even an Oscar nomination.
We talked about white-water rafting, looking authentic and his new perspective on life. Before we started, he carried his coffee cup on a saucer toward the table, being insanely delicate, yet still almost spilling throughout the entire 8-foot journey. Clearly he never had to pay the bills as a waiter.
Beep: More than your other films, this role has a chance to change a person. What perspective did you gain from “Into the Wild”? Hirsch: That is a hard question. You’re not messing around here. You’re right. More than any role I’ve had, this role did change me as a person for the better. I hadn’t worked for probably a year. I’d been eating and drinking more than I should have, and it really just was this amazing adventure that came along and woke me up. Director Sean (Penn) was knocking on my door recruiting me for this. Telling me, “You’re going to start running every day, you’re going to start reading Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir. You’re going to think about what this young man’s life meant to him and other people and what he wanted and didn’t get.” It really changed my perspective of family. It really made me appreciate my family and everything I’ve been given. The whole time we were filming, I talked to my sister and parents all the time on the phone. I thought it was really important to do … to learn from Chris.
Beep: How was braving the rapids on the Colorado River? Were you scared? Hirsch: Yeah, I’m not a professional kayaker. If you’re not, you know, if you’re a little nervous around rapids or have a drowning phobia. … I was very scared.
Beep: Did you fake that you had experience when they asked? Hirsch: No, I had no experience and they didn’t want me to have any. (Penn) goes, “You’re just going in there. It’s not about being good or bad, it’s just about doing it.” I did it even though I was scared. And someone told me, that’s what courage is; it’s doing something even when you are afraid, but still doing it.
Beep: During the filming, how often did you shower? Hirsch: There were certain aspects I kept the same and some I had to change just due to the fact that I had to wear makeup. There are certain glues you have to take off every day. There’s a certain level you have to work with otherwise you aren’t going to achieve the results you want.
Beep: And was that your facial hair the entire time? Hirsch: Yes, but there were parts of it that they had to fill in. With the glue, it will accumulate dirt and then you’d see it.
Beep: During the film, you were pretty isolated. Did you feel isolated? Did they want you to be removed from everyone? Hirsch: I did and I didn’t. I did feel isolated because I wasn’t going out and having beers with everyone. But inevitably, you’re going to be around people when you film a movie, so there was that sense. There’s going to be people around, you accept that, and you work from that. I didn’t need to do any (BS) where I’m looking past people like they’re not there. For eight months? (Eff) that, make some friends, you know. Before the shoot, I spent a lot of time alone, four or five months.
Beep: Do you still skate? Hirsch: From “Dogtown?” yeah. On “Into the Wild” sometimes I would grab my board and just go skating around. I go back to L.A. and just to have that freedom of movement.
Beep: When Christian Bale was in town, he kept saying everyone told him to do a Western. Any genre out there that you want to do? Hirsch: I don’t know. I’m not really sure. “Into the Wild” is an adventure film I guess, and if you would have asked me before what I wanted to do, I would have said an adventure. That was what I wanted, and that’s what kind of came about.
Beep: Do you map out where you want to be in five or 10 years? Hirsch: No, not really. Because then it becomes a job to get there. And as soon as it becomes a job, it’s like my job. It’s always a debate, is acting a job? It’s a job in the technical sense, but I feel pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing.
Beep: Do you like the idea of being nominated for something besides a Teen Choice Award or MTV Movie Award? Hirsch: I don’t know. That’s for other people to decide. That’s something that is healthier not to think about too much. Let other people decide that and put it into perspective.
Beep: Talk about Hal Holbrook. Hirsch: First off, his Mark Twain show is arguably the longest running longest show on theater in world history. World history. The history of the world of acting. He’s done over 2,000 performances in 56 years as Mark Twain, in a one-man show. This guy is a historical actor. To be able to work with him, he’s so nice. And he personalized it so much.
Beep: In the book and film, when Chris takes on the persona of Alexander Supertramp, you can feel the excitement. Did you feel anything? Hirsch: Yeah, it’s such a weird, liberating idea. Sean gave me so much freedom as an actor. There were a lot of times when I would determine what the character would do. There’s a whole scene in the bus, where I’m talking to myself, none of that was scripted, none of it was preplanned, it’s just something that became.
Beep: Was the conversation with the apple scripted? Hirsch: No. The film is filled with those moments. And it wasn’t off the cuff adlibbing. It was born in research, preparation and thought.
And finally here’s some more thoughts Hirsch had on his safety, Penn and his next project, “Speed Racer.”
On filming … Hirsch: It was eight months of shooting, but we had a couple months to lose the weight and gain the weight. We shot on all the real locations. I was cutting wheat in South Dakota on a combine, doing the kayaking on the Colorado River. Out of all that crazy stuff that I did, I never got hurt. Not only could I have gotten hurt, I could have died.
On Sean Penn … Hirsch: Catherine Hardwicke, who I had worked with on “Lords of Dogtown,” showed (that film) to Sean. He saw it and responded to it and the performance. He called me on my cell phone. We had a great conversation. Told me good job, great instincts, and that was the end of it. And like a month later, he called and wanted to get together for lunch and talk about a couple projects. So I went out to Malibu to this hotel, and he was bare foot walking around, total manic, and he told me about this book, “Into the Wild,” and then he talked about the bus. And all the sudden I had this memory come back to me when I was nine years old, I had seen “Into the Wild” on a “20/20” episode. That made a huge impression on me as a kid, the idea that someone would be willing to go into the dark and live alone. So that made me even more excited knowing it was this amazing memory I had. And I read the book that night. And we had a series of meeting. I didn’t know they were auditions, we’d just get together and go out to dinner. I got to know this family. I just thought (Sean Penn) thinks I’m cool. … Then he calls me out of the blue one day and goes, “I finished writing the script, the part is yours, if you want it you have to come up to San Francisco right now.” And I literally went up to San Francisco within two hours.
On what “Into the Wild” taught him for his next project, “Speed Racer” … Hirsch: Endurance. I really needed it on “Speed Racer,” shooting on green screen is very difficult for an actor. And it’s a much different style than “Into the Wild.” The Wachowskis, it’s more deadpan, Matrix-style delivery that works perfect for those kind of movies. It’s going to be awesome. I just finished it three days ago. I think it’s going to be really sweet and really funny … which is something people aren’t expecting at all. They think it will be this serious, dark, Wachowski brothers’ film. It’s not. It’s colorful, playful, crazy, true to the cartoon movie. … I watched it growing up when I was 6. All the projects I work on somehow I have seen when I was a kid.