Interview: Emile Hirsch and William Hurt on Into the Wild

The two recount their experiences on the Sean Penn film set.

by | October 2, 2007 | Comments

As chronicled in the best-seller by
, Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless excommunicated
himself from friends and family in 1990 and embarked on a cross-country journey.
By 1992, he had made his way to the Alaskan wilderness, where he died during the punishing winter at the age of 24. Some consider him an inspiration, others a fool, while director
Sean Penn
wisely leaves room for both viewpoints in his film (though he clearly leans
towards the former), which opened September 21 and continues expanding nationwide this Friday.

After starting as a child actor in TV shows,
Emile Hirsch
has gone on to surprisingly mature roles in films like
Alpha Dog
The Mudge Boy
, with
only occasional detours into teen territory (The
Girl Next Door
). Now, Hirsch is receiving near-universal acclaim for his
approach to the complex role of McCandless. We spoke with Hirsch at a
roundtable in Toronto, touching base on youth and rebellion, losing weight, and
his upcoming starring role in
Speed Racer

(An interview with
William Hurt,
who play’s Hirsch’s father, follows on the second page.)

Was this story particularly resonant at your age?

Emile Hirsch: I think it was really relevant in my life. I can’t speak
for every young person. It was one of those things that I went into and it
wasn’t like I looked at it from an older person’s perspective, like "Oh, this is
that point in your life." I looked at it as a very in the moment kind of thing,
and I was really excited to go on the adventure of it. Maybe something when I’m
older I’ll look back and really be able to evaluate what was going on. But for
me it was more of the, "Yeah, rock and roll!"

Do you think that you’ll feel differently about the character than you do now
in the future? Or do you see flaws in his character now from your perspective?

EM: I would probably not be comfortable not talking to my parents and my
family. But that was something that he did. And that is something that I
probably wouldn’t do.

What do you think Christopher McCandless would think of this film?

EM: I think he’d be pretty excited about it and the effect it could have
on people in a positive way. He [was] a person of action who wanted change. He’s
a person who studied humanitarian things. Even in high school, he was so
concerned with Apartheid. Anything that he thinks can help change the bigger
picture, I think he would think is a good thing. And his sister Carine has
verified that.

I can’t speak for what I think it will do for everybody,
but just for me, it was a very inspiring story for me in my own life. That’s the
only gauge that I can have. Just living life to the fullest and the message
[that] happiness is only real when you can share it with someone else. [Chris’s]
own epiphany that he was looking for was right under his nose. It was a sign
posted throughout the journey and his travels, the people he met along the way.
And it took him to be isolated and in the middle of nowhere to realize it.

Into the Wild Movie Stills: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Sean Penn

Can you talk about your casting process? It sounds like there was a little
back and fourth with you and Sean Penn.

EM: Sean had seen
Lords of Dogtown
The director,
, had actually screened it for him up in San Francisco in the hopes
of getting him involved in a project that she was going to do at the time. He
had just got the rights for Into The Wild, and he was on the lookout for
an actor for it. So, he responded to the performance, or parts of it. And he
called me directly on my cellphone. He was like, "Hey." I was like, "Whoa."

We got together and he was really vague. He was like, "I’ve
got all these projects," like multiple things he didn’t want to commit [to]. But
he knew the whole time that it was really just this one thing. He told me to
read the book and I read the book that night and was just floored by it and
loved it and called him and told him that. Then over the period of
four-and-a-half months, every three weeks or month he would call me and we’d go
out to dinner or go drinking or something. At that point we stopped talking
about the movie, and I thought that Sean thought I was cool and just wanted to
hang out.

Then all of a sudden he called me and said he had completed
the draft of Into The Wild. I guess though our meetings and hanging out,
he decided that I was right for the part and he wanted me to do it. It was a
really amazing kind of feeling for me for that to happen. It immediately started
what would become a long physical process.

So you lost the weight before the movie?

EM: I weighed about 156 pounds when I got the part, and I weighed 130
pounds throughout most of the film. So I lost the 26 pounds to get in shape for
the film. And then I went down to 115 pounds for the weight loss in the Alaska
segment. So it was a lot of running and being very hungry and dreaming of candy
all the time.

Did you visit the actual location where the bus was in Alaska?

EM: I did. I took a snowmobile ride out with this guy named BJ. It was a
90-minute snowmobile ride out to the bus, and the bus is still there. The boots
are still there. And now there is all this writing on the bus from all the
people who have visited the bus and written little notes. It’s great because
it’s all so positive and no one goes all the way out there to bitch.

Did you write anything on the bus?

EM: Maybe…

How’s Speed Racer coming along?

EM: It couldn’t be more different that Into The Wild. Expect thrills, chills, and a heckuva good

After gaining instant notoriety for his debut role in 1980’s
Altered States

(at the age of 30),
William Hurt
has so far accumulated a rich resume of starring and supporting roles,
culminating in three consecutive Oscar nominations in the 1980s, and a recent
fourth for A
History of Violence
.  In
Into the Wild
Hurt plays Walt McCandless, the father grappling with his son’s newfound
independence and eventual death.

Being primarily an actor, what does
Sean Penn bring
to a movie as a director

William Hurt: It’s a different dynamic. I’ve never worked on a film
like this, where the feeling on the set was, "Okay…what are we doing next?"
And he would be sitting there, thinking, [imitates Penn mumbling]. [And then he
goes], "Try this." "Okay…I’ll try that."

He’s real smart.  It seems like he’s always catching you doing things even
you don’t know you can do yet. Which is kind of exactly what you want.  You want
someone to find you a moment where you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The character you play is based on a real person.

WH: That’s the nut that I still turn over. You find an acorn on every
project and you keep turning it over all your life.  That’s the one here, that
so-called "real" family. 

I’m an actor.  I play roles in films and theaters.  I don’t act out and I
don’t play people. So that’s been the tender part of this. Is it legitimate?  Is
it a legitimate thing to do at all?  Does it make the thing more believable or
meaningful?  I don’t think so. But you respond to your primary instincts, you
train your instincts to be more sensitive. And my primary instinct was that this
was an artistic project that’s worth doing.  But I do have questions about the

Did you ever meet them?

WH: No. I was trying to, but then I shied away from that.

Had you read the book prior to the project?

WH: I had read the book independently, because I was interested in
Krakauer’s work.  There’s something unsettling about [Into the Wild], but
something extremely intelligent about it at the same time, the way [Krakuer]
probes the whole world. I don’t know if he’s arrived to his conclusions about it
yet but I think he says he has.  And I like that. Though I think the film’s more
conclusive as a work of art than the book.

Mr. Brooks Movie Stills: Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore, Bruce A. Evans

William Hurt in Mr. Brooks.

Do you have a natural inclination to play these buttoned-down characters?

WH: Don’t do that to me! Just because I am a WASP… [laughs]

The reason I ask is because of your recent roles in
The King

and another movie no one saw, because it was for TV, The Flamingo Rising.

WH: The DP on [Flamingo Rising] was the clapper boy for
Altered States
!  Unbelievable, unbelievable. He and his brothers would bike
out to work everyday and drink beer at night.

Was that a common thing on the Altered States set?

WH: I never did the drugs.  I couldn’t.  I was already there [and] if
I did anymore I’d be irretrievable.  I’d be out there with the satellite near
Pluto. [laughs]

[Altered States director]
Ken Russell
must’ve pushed you pretty hard for the movie.

WH: Ken didn’t really understand the movie. Paddy Chayefsky understood
the movie.  It’s Paddy Chayefsky who’s the hero of that film. 

Altered States is the story about a guy whose frontier is
internal.  Do you relate to Chris’s external journey, whose impulse is get close
to nature?

WH: Yeah. The best summer I had was when I was in [Northern Onatario]. 
We were canoeing for weeks without seeing another human being. That is where I
was forgiven, the first time I knew forgiveness. To know some form of
all-encompassing love with nature. 

The first experience I had [like this] was at boarding school. We had these
woods.  And I could go in these woods and feel something I never felt before. 
Beauty. Uncompromising embrace. 

How much do you think Christopher’s parents were responsible for what
happened to him?

WH: Saying that publicly… I have no idea.  I don’t know. I don’t
know the balances of nature versus nurture. There obviously are relationships
there, there are reasons to look at it. But am I going to sit here in this
position and say what I think about them…

When I look at a person, or a character, it is in every case the beginning of
an endless journey.  And I don’t suppose I know where that starts.  I know that
I have to, like every other person, make decisions and have opinions.  But I’m
real careful in this position to not judge crassly or cheaply someone else’s
life.  The art form is about opening, it is not about prejudice, it is not about
contempt prior to investigation. It’s about endlessly trying to keep from having
contempt by admitting that you don’t know.  Even if you know a lot compared to
some other people, usually, I think, the honest experience would be: "God, how
little I know!  And how much I need to have compassion for myself and for other
people."  And in my personal experience that is better for people.  That is more
— and I use the term hesitantly — productive.  So quick summations of someone
else’s existence are not what I do.

Then how do you go into a role without somewhat summarizing who they are?

WH: I was reading this lady who had written a book describing her
process [of how to get into character].  And people would say, "Are you like
this?  Are you not?" Because, yeah, the leading character did have two kids and
she had two kids.  But, no, I’m not a lawyer.  No, I’m not a homosexual.  No,
I’m not a physiologist.   No, I’m not a button-down WASP.  Well, sometimes I am.

What you’re doing is trying to build something that directs energy towards
"the question."  And you’re doing it with as much information as you can.  Can I
say that I don’t think [Walt is] neurotic?  No, I think there’s
neurosis there.  Do I think that there [are] mutually self-canceling goal
orientations?  Yes.  Can [I say the same for] all the people in this film? Yes.
Do I think they’re trying to work that out? Yes. Do I think these superficial
summations are going to help? No. 

So, in my role, what I had was a description of tendencies of his that are
observed by some people.  So you have to answer to those opinions.  "Okay, I can
see how someone can think that." But that doesn’t mean you know what the person
was thinking or feeling, or where they were coming from, or what their final
plans were.  And you juxtapose that with the scene which you know much exist,
which is the experience of [Walt’s] horrible and tragic loss.  And how he may
have been penned in by wrong ideas. Or a hoax could’ve been perpetuated by his
culture that [gave him] a certain idea of courage or intellect.  He may be
suffering from bad information from a misinformed culture.  And you can build
those things.  You can build a psyche that’s a result of those impulses and you
can mingle it with other things like predisposition. But really what you’re
doing is you’re trying to get it towards "the question," which is him.  Which is
the son.  Which is Chris and his experience and what that experience means for

So the very huge picture is very specific.

WH: That’s right. God is in the details.

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