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Stepping ‘Into the Wild’ with William Hurt

[IMG:L]A quiet man with a loud presence, classically-trained actor William Hurt has been praised for his outstanding work in theater and films over the years. His memorable role as Viggo Mortensen‘s ruthless brother in History of Violence (2005) had audineces begging for more of the modest actor’s active return to the screen. Most recently playing a serial killer’s alter ego in Mr. Brooks, the Oscar-winning actor has charted a steady path since his splashy ’80s film debut in the sci-fi film Altered States, followed-up by the likes of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Broadcast News (1987), the Accidental Tourist (1988) and more.

Embracing the real life role of a volatile NASA aerospace engineer, Hurt readily transforms into the anguished Walt McCandless, the father of the late Chris McCandless in Sean Penn’s daring new adventure, Into the Wild. Although the blame for Chris’ dysfunction and reason to go missing is clearly posited in his parents’ relationship, Hurt telegraphs complex, sincere concern as a man who may otherwise be portrayed as a heartless materialist. Playing opposite the riveting Marcia Gay Harden, who portrays Chris’ shaky mother, Hurt‘s damaged father figure is clearly preoccupied by regret.

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The affable, grounded actor appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival where he disclosed his own thoughts about his son, the craft of acting, and working on Sean Penn’s visually stunning work.

[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: What if your real life son chose to wander off and become and adventurer, like Emile Hirsch‘s Chris?
William Hurt:
I’d worry. That’s why I chose to play it the way I did because no matter what he [the father] was in his shell of his exteriors, he desperately wants his child to succeed.

HW: What is your son up to these days?
WH:
He just got his first principal role in a play.

HW: How do you feel about him following the same career path as yourself?
WH:
I’m worried. There are three times as many people on the planet now and they’re all fighting for some space and air to express themselves. I do want him to do what he wants to do and to try [at it]. We all want that.

HW: What are your thoughts on young actors in Hollywood?
WH:
There are lots of schools for acting. You can act in a way that doesn’t sell you out or drive you crazy. Or force you to wear your heart on your sleeve or prostitute your feelings. Or prostitute your psyche for attention! That’s the wickedness of it.

HW: What is your advice?
WH:
Train, train, train! That’s my advice. My advice is go to school, get an education and then learn the craft of acting. It’s hard. It’s something that you are in control of. You choose the circumstances, your base and then inform your base–and that way you’ve got something to stand on. Actors think that they have to take it on a plate, but you don’t. You can go and make tools in your head, in your heart and in your body. Then the tools stand by you.

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HW: What should they watch out for then?
WH:
If you demean yourself by not honoring your equipment–your natural born talents–then you’re going to have a rough ride. Then you’re going to end up driving for somebody.

[IMG:L]HW: You’ve had some wonderful supporting roles, including this role and the one in Cronenberg’s History of Violence. Can make a better mark by taking supporting roles over leading ones?
WH:
I don’t think my objective is to ‘make a mark’. My objective is to act well. “There are no small parts, only small actors.” I really believe that.

HW: Was the harrowing scene in the street towards the end, where you truly feel the loss of Chris, written that way?
WH:
No. I wanted to juxtapose that scene to a real character. All parents love their children even if their parents are seriously messed up.

HW: How did this emotional and cinematic moment come about?
WH:
 Sean [Penn] is very smart. I’d never been on a set that was like that before. Sean had this amazing relationship with [director of photography] Eric Gautier. I got onto the project relatively late in the schedule, so it had a momentum…so you have a job [and an actor] to help out. You try to get on the boat wherever the boat is–and it was a fast boat [smiles].

HW: How many locations were there?
WH:
A lot! It’s the most amazing film I think pictorially of America in a long time. If I was going to critique its greatest individual part, it’s one of the greatest tapestries of America. It’s really a beautiful film to see. I haven’t seen a film this astounding, to me, in terms of visual awareness of America and the relationship of its people and its scene since The Grapes of Wrath.

HW: Where did you shoot?
WH: I only shot in Portland, Ore., for a week.

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HW: Lastly, did you speak with the real Walt McCandless?
WH:
I was headed that way and then reared away from that. I’m not here to judge anyone. I have questions about the story, but I don’t think it makes them any more valid because it’s a real story. I really don’t know how they’re going to feel about the real product [pauses]. I took the script and book and tried to make it a real part.

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