INTO THE WILD written and directed by Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer, with Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook. A Paramount Vantage release. 140 minutes. Opens Friday (September 28). Rating: NNNN
When I meet Emile Hirsch at a downtown hotel, my first instinct is to order him some room service - soup and a sandwich, maybe a slice of apple pie and a chocolate milkshake.
Rail thin and porcelain pale beneath a Nike swoosh of dyed black hair (for his role as Speed Racer in next summer's should-be-blockbuster by Matrix makers the Wachowskis), the 22-year-old looks like he's spent the last year playing video games in his parents' basement while surviving on a diet of Red Bull and Doritos.
It's not far from the truth. Just a few days before our Toronto Film Festival conversation about Into The Wild, Hirsch was in Berlin wrapping up Speed Racer, shot entirely on a sound stage in front of skin-sallowing green screens.
"I haven't seen daylight in a while," admits the Girl Next Door star, so youthful in appearance and attitude (cringingly, he calls me "sir" on several occasions), he'd probably get carded at his own after-party.
Making the effects-heavy live action adaptation of the 60s cartoon series was the refreshing antithesis of the arduous Into The Wild shoot. Filmed on more than 30 locations from Mexico to Alaska, Into The Wild casts Hirsch as doomed Kerouac- and Thoreau-wannabe Chris McCandless, a role that required the actor to kayak rapids, rock climb, stare down grizzly bears and, ultimately, to lose 40 pounds for the sake of emaciated verisimilitude.
"I don't really like to talk about the details of it, because people get too wrapped up in it," he says of the weight loss. "It can come to the forefront of the discussion, and it's harder for people to enjoy the film."
Into The Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's riveting real-life account of McCandless, an idealistic some would say deluded and charming college grad who ditched his privileged life and abandoned his family to pursue a Jack-London-meets-Mountain-Equipment-Co-op hitchhiking adventure.
It was a pilgrimage both physical and spiritual that ultimately killed McCandless, who died of starvation after four long months of eating berries and small game in the Alaskan wilderness.
The film was adapted and directed by Sean Penn, who had pursued the project since Krakauer's book was published in 1996 and who originally envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio, to whom Hirsch has been compared, in the role.
"He's pretty tall. I wish they'd compared me to someone I could take in a fight," Hirsch jokes.
Surprisingly, Hirsch landed the role without auditioning. Penn had seen him as a brooding, sensitive zipper-headed skateboard phenom in Lords Of Dogtown, inspired by the doc Dogtown And Z-Boys, which Penn narrated.
"Sean called me out of the blue and wanted to get together, so we had lunch and he mentioned this book," Hirsch explains. "Over the next four months, we'd just get together and hang out, go out to dinner, go for drinks. We never really talked about the movie. I just thought he thought I was cool: "Damn, does Sean Penn think I'm cool?' Then he called one day and said the script was done and it was mine if I wanted."
To prepare, Hirsch studied McCandless's tersely written journals, read some of McCandless's literary idols, like Thoreau, London and Emerson, and spoke with members of McCandless's family.
During filming he basically lived as McCandless had lived, pitching a tent where McCandless had.
"The only way you could make it through the day was through complete commitment, going for it hardcore," says Hirsch matter-of-factly, mirroring Penn's suffer-for-your-art credo.
As Hirsch speaks, the way he looks at me and challenges some of my suppositions not unlike McCandless's adolescent self-seriousness I can see why Penn cast him. It's almost like looking at a Spicoli-era Penn, and before the interview's over I half expect him to light up a cigarette.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Emile Hirsch on researching the role
Emile Hirsch on the book Into The Wild
Emile Hirsch on landing the role
INTO THE WILD (Sean Penn) Rating: NNNN
In 1990, rich kid Chris McCandless abandoned his car in the Arizona desert, burned his cash and took to the open road in a fool's quest for enlightenment.
Two years later, he starved to death after eating some bad berries in the Alaskan wilderness. While his could easily be a cautionary tale for impromptu campers, Penn, in what is easily his best film as writer-director, accomplishes a heartbreaking yet surprisingly uplifting - not to mention aesthetically beautiful - paean to wanderlust, youthful arrogance and stupidity that only occasionally threatens to tip into hagiography.
And in Emile Hirsch, Penn has found a young version of himself, someone wild-eyed and willing to go to extremes - like kayaking whitewater rapids or losing 40 pounds - to fully embody a free-spirited lunatic who is never less than likeable.