LOS ANGELES—Now that the movie “Into the Wild” is not only a done deal but is ready to hit theaters, Emile Hirsch feels confident enough to make a confession.
“If Sean Penn had asked me to be an extra in the movie, I would have done it,” the 22-year-old actor said with no hint of irony. “I really mean it. That’s how much I wanted to work on this movie.”
Into the Wild
Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 21 Sep 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release); 2007)
Of course, Penn, who spent 10 years trying to bring this real-life story to the big screen and then wrote, produced and directed it, had no intention of wasting the rising young star on a minor part. The director never wavered on his original decision to cast Hirsch in the starring role.
“I guess it was gut instinct,” a soft-spoken Penn acknowledged during a brief interview in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. “His performance in `Lords of Dogtown’ was wonderful, so I knew he could act. But I was looking for something else, and there was something else about Emile. There was a certain mischief about him, although that’s probably not the right word. I’m not sure what the right word is, but I liked his physicality. By that, I mean I liked the way he moved on screen. And don’t forget the face. He’s got a good mug.”
Hirsch, whose limited film resume includes the aforementioned skateboard film “Lords of Dogtown,” as well as “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” “The Girl Next Door” and “Alpha Dog,” plays Chris McCandless, a young man who shunned his family and his privileged upbringing after graduating from college to set off on a two-year adventure.
His search for “truth” and a life worth living eventually took him to the wilds of Alaska, where he lived in an abandoned bus for nearly four months and later died of starvation in 1992 at the age of 24. Inspired by the writing of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau, the free spirit’s life and death was recounted in a 1993 magazine article, which was later turned into a 1996 best-selling book (both written by Jon Krakauer).
Penn said he couldn’t stop thinking about the book after he read it, and began a decade-long quest of his own to secure the rights to McCandless’ story from his parents, who live in Virginia. His parents recently told Outside magazine, which published Krakauer’s original piece, that Penn was the only filmmaker who assured them that he would remain true to the story and not add Hollywood elements to it.
“It was their choice to have the movie made because they wanted Chris’ story told,” said Hirsch, who also met the McCandless family. “They miss him terribly, and they wanted people to know about him. I believe that Sean convinced them that he would stay true to Chris’ story, and that was very important to them because Chris believed that he didn’t get enough truth in his life.”
Penn, who won an Oscar for his performance in “Mystic River” and previously directed “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard” and “The Pledge,” said Krakauer’s book struck a nerve with him, and he knew the story would translate well to the big screen.
“It had all the elements that are enduring for me, including rites of passage, the pursuit of personal freedom and the journey to feel your own life. That’s the biggest struggle in life—to feel something while you’re doing it. I also felt that Chris’ story was relentlessly authentic.”
Once he had decided to cast Hirsch in the role, Penn said he went slowly because he didn’t want to frighten the young actor. He said he knew that the eight-month film shoot would not be easy.
“I didn’t lay out how difficult it would be at first,” the director said with a sly grin. “I didn’t want to scare him, but I also wanted to get to know him a bit. I wanted to get certain responses from him that I knew were necessary to play the part. In the meantime, I told him to read the book.”
(Steve K. Zylius/Orange County Register/MCT)
Hirsch, who grew up in Los Angeles and New Mexico and said he has wanted to be an actor since he accompanied his older sister to drama camp when he was 8, laughs when told that Penn eased him into accepting the role. The actor insists that the cautious approach wasn’t necessary.
“As soon as I read the book, I was chomping at the bit to the play the role,” Hirsch said.
As Penn explained what would be required of him during the shoot, Hirsch said it became apparent that he would need to get in shape, not only to resemble McCandless during his healthy period, but to survive Penn’s schedule. Later in the shoot, Hirsch had to lose 41 pounds as his character slowly starved to death.
The director pulled no punches and took no short cuts in injecting realism into his film. He moved the entire crew to three dozen locations, re-enacting McCandless’ journey, including his ill-fated stay in Alaska, although Penn chose not to film at the exact site of McCandless’ death because he felt it would be disrespectful to the family.
Hirsch said he bulked up by lifting weights, and enhanced his stamina by running every day. He practiced kayaking, which plays a significant role in the film, and said much of the experience was like summer camp. Other times, he said, it was nothing like summer camp.
“Was it dangerous? At times, I think I was in danger,” the actor said. “Any time you do outdoor stuff, you take calculated risks. But I had spent a lot of time outdoors in Santa Fe when I was a kid. I did not grow up a domesticated house cat of a kid. I had some experience.
“Of course, that didn’t help me in the scene with the grizzly bear,” he added with a laugh. “Now that was scary. Grizzlies are unpredictable, and I had to stand four feet from him with no one in between. It was just me and the bear, and I kept remembering that news footage of the bear attacking the lady reporter. She seemed a lot nicer than me, and that worried me.”
Penn said his actor never let on that he was intimidated or regretful that he had taken on the assignment.
“Emile never faltered,” the director said. “Oh sure, he got ornery at times, but it was a difficult shoot. But his unbelievable performance tells the real story.”
Hirsch said he never had second thoughts about his decision to play McCandless.
“On the hardest days, I never thought that it was a mistake,” he said. “I kept going because I believed in what I was doing. I was doing something that I loved.
“But I also wanted to tell Chris’ story. It’s an inspiring story, even with the tragic ending. He was not perfect. In fact, he was very flawed, like all of us. But he also was a complex guy. He could be selfish and arrogant one moment, and loving and courageous the next. Sean and I were never trying to make him heroic, but what he did could be seen as heroic.
“I think you can appreciate what he did without agreeing with it. What he learned on his journey is something we all need to learn.”