DarkMode/LightMode
Light Mode

A One Way Mission ‘Into the Wild’: Emile Hirsch Pierces a New Reality

[IMG:L]At the age of 9, a mesmerized Emile Hirsch remembers first hearing about Chris McCandless when a bizarre story broadcasted on 20/20 about “this guy who went to Alaska” where he lived his last days. Since then, Hirsch has grown from pre-teen to young man, as did Chris McCandless from disillusioned youth to resourceful adult along the path of his ironically tragic journey into manhood.

Under the watchful helm of the uncompromising Sean Penn, the adept Hirsch portrays yet another riveting, real-life character in the adventure roadpic Into the Wild, shortly following his memorable turn as the volatile Johnny Truelove–a privileged, urban teen drifter who ultimately kills his callow hostage for drug money in Nick Cassavetes’ 2006 hybrid biopic, Alpha Dog.

This time, however, Hirsch’s character does not imprison an innocent teen, but is imprisoned by his own aching demons–also wrapped-up in privilege and violence–that are shoving him to grab hold of freedom at any cost.

- Advertisement -

We pick-up with Into the Wild‘s powerful lead Emile Hirsch as he talks about McCandless, Penn, and the restless quest, in each of us, to transform ourselves.

[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: What do you suppose Christopher McCandless would say about this film and your role in it?
Emile Hirsch:
I think that he’d like the inspiration people will draw from the movie. At least, hopefully they will. I think he’d really like that and appreciate that. This was someone who wanted to change the world since high school. He would go to downtown Washington, D.C., and buy McDonald’s and hand it out to homeless people and try to help them. On his own. On a Friday night. What I don’t think he would like is seeing his parents and sister in so much pain on the screen. I don’t think he’d like that at all.

HW: Shooting this picture seems almost as much of an adventure as Chris’ own odyssey. What were some of the more harrowing aspects of the shoot?
EH:
We were in all different types of climates. It’d be really cold in Alaska and you’d be climbing a snowy mountain one day, snowmobiling all around. Me and Sean [Penn] actually flew off of our snow mobile. Together! [Laughs] And, on the first day. The whole crew was running up to us saying, “Are you okay?! Are you okay?” And Sean turns back to me and says, “That was good how you jumped off the bike and went flying off. It’s good how you kind of lunged off. It’s safe so it won’t roll on you.” So I was like, “You’re trying to change our snow mobile wreck into a lesson on how to crash properly?” Every climate brought a challenge.

HW: To extreme points, no?
EH:
We’d be around Lake Mead where it was like 120-something degrees. Everyone was just hot. One of the guys had heat stroke and started vomiting and had to quit the whole film.

HW: It took a certain fortitude to do this part. What did you do to get steeled for the film?
EH: 
The physical training was really important–running, weight lifting and hiking. There was also a mental kind of exercising of reading a lot. Kind of rigid hours. Always reading, every day. Whether it would be Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Henry James/Theroux–or reading Walden and getting into that whole world. That kind of mental discipline would turn out to be really, really important through out the whole shoot.

[IMG:L]HW: Did you find yourself becoming reflective?
EH:
Absolutely you do! When you are reading about the world in a different way than you are accustomed to seeing it, it really kind of expands your mind a little bit. It definitely had me look at who I am in a different way and the world that I am in. Even the world of L.A. and Hollywood. When you’re reading Theroux, you look at Hollywood differently, let me tell ya’! [laughs].

- Advertisement -

HW: What was the driving force you created in your mind when playing this part?
EH:
It was a combination of the spirit of adventure that I felt in my life. I know what wanting and craving adventure feels like. I can really relate that. And when you combine that with a lot of pain and the need to seek love [pause] … to me, there wasn’t a lot of:  “Why would he do this?” or “why did he do that?” Even if I didn’t agree with the decisions he made, I felt like I understood why he made them.

HW: You can relate to that need for adventure?
EH:
Yeah. In one of the letters Chris wrote to his friends, he writes: “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” I think he really believes that and thrived off of those experiences. He sensed that he was living his life going forward, and continuously seeing new things.

HW: Isn’t that something an actor does–seeks out that natural high?
EH:
Absolutely. I related to it a lot, and on some level that’s what I try to do. I don’t know what the future holds for me. I don’t know what film I’m going make next. I don’t know what people are going to think of the movie. There’s that whole adventure aspect that I like of the unknown.

HW: How was it working with Sean being an actor and a director?
EH:
He gave me so much freedom. More freedom making the film than I could ever imagine having ever as an actor. I think that’s the way he would want to be treated in that [director-actor] situation. And I think that’s the way he thinks that’s the way to get the best work out of actors–giving them that freedom. So, I was overjoyed making the film because it was just working in a way I’ve never worked before.

HW: You experience a huge physical transformation in portraying Chris’ character, particularly surviving in the wilderness. How was that?
EH:
I went from 156 pounds when I got to the part to 115 pounds. So, it was 41 pounds. But, mind you, I was a little bit overweight when I got the part. I was probably 26 pounds overweight.

HW: How tall are you?
EH:
5 feet 6 inches.

- Advertisement -

[IMG:R]HW: How much do you weigh now?
EH:
Maybe 130 pounds now? Just to get into shape to play the part I had to lose 26 pounds. So, that was before on screen it wouldn’t look like I had lost any weight. I kind of made it harder on myself by being heavier than Sean wanted me to be in the beginning.

HW: What are your dietary secrets?
EH:
Ahhhh, man. Willingness to punish oneself!

HW: Did you not eat in preparation? Or, was it about working out?
EH:
It was working out. Not eating is just hard. You can’t do anything else if you’re not eating. That’s all you can really do and I had to be doing so much stuff while we were going through this process. It was just jumping on the treadmill an hour every day.

HW: When you were shooting the scenes of Chris, isolated and living on the bus, were you overwhelmed by his intense resourcefulness?
EH:
Yes. I always marveled at how self reliant Chris McCandless was. I still admire that. I aspire to me more self reliant. He was the guy who could find his own food. He could hunt. And fish. And take care of himself completely. Not just in a modern society take care of yourself kind of way like, “Okay, go do your laundry. You live in your apartment alone. Clean your apartment.” It’s much different in the Alaskan wilderness and I’m in awe of that kind of resourcefulness. In the scenes on the bus when I was really, physically making the shower and feathering birds and you’re like, “Wow. This guy had worked a lot.”

HW: Has your lifestyle changed at all after doing this film?
EW:
Absolutely it has. With the spirit of adventure inside me, I hope it never goes away. A lot of the physical aspects stuck with me, like I still run. I never ran before.

[IMG:R]HW: What was it like working with Vince Vaughn?
EW:
He’s hysterical. We had a great time. But, he’s also a very serious person. I’ve never met anyone who is just purely comedic or purely dramatic.

HW: As amazing as this experience was out in Alaska, what were some of the modern conveniences you missed at times?
EW:
Umm. A trailer? We’d be at the bus and it’d be like, “Yeah, 45 minutes until we’re set up.” So, I’d literally go and lie on the [ratty] mattress in the bus and pull up in my sleeping bag and shiver away.

HW: Did you meet Chris’ family? How did they react to you?
EW:
I met them before and during the film. You know, if I were them I’d also be very cautious of an actor coming through the door who’s supposed to be playing their son. I can’t imagine how they felt about that. I really loved talking to them and felt they were very courageous people. Them letting the film be made–and it doesn’t portray them in a perfect light! [Incredulous pause]. That takes a lot of courage as a parent and as a person. 

HW: Do you think if Chris had survived this he might have had a different attitude about going out into the wildness, alone? And about learning to treasure intimacy with others?
EW:
I absolutely think his final odyssey changed him as a person. If he were to make it out and do it again, I wouldn’t say he wouldn’t do it, but he’d do it differently.

- Advertisement -