Emile Hirsch Steps Into the Wild

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By Ray Rogers

pf_main_emile2.jpg ‘Wild’ One: Emile Hirsch, above, at a park in Berlin.

He won accolades for his roles as a skate rat in Lords of Dogtown and a hit-ordering teenage drug lord opposite Justin Timberlake in Alpha Dog, but the part that��������s finally going to put Emile Hirsch on the map, as it were, is his starring role in Sean Penn��������s Into The Wild (based on the nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer). Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, a stubborn, troubled soul who skips out on law school (donating what would��������ve been his tuition to charity), burns his spare cash, and rechristens himself Alex Supertramp. Dropping out of conventional society and the career path his parents have paved for him, �������Alex������� hits the road in search of a purer existence��������ultimately disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness, where he died alone of apparent starvation in 1992. Getting into his skin was no small feat: Hirsch dropped 41 pounds, more than a full quarter of his starting body weight. He��������s now going the distance for the Wachowski brothers (the Matrix directors), burning rubber as the leading man in Speed Racer. We caught up with Hirsch while on a break from shooting in Berlin (click the jump).

pf_main_emile1.jpg BLACKBOOK: What did you make of Chris McCandless?

EMILE HIRSCH: I was fascinated and really inspired by everything about Chris. When Sean Penn gave me the book, I stayed up all night reading it. What struck me was his will to do things. We all have so much untapped potential. Maybe we think, �������I really want to, but what about this, what about that, what about my money��������arrgh.������� But he said, �������Fuck it,������� and did it.

BB: Alaska was the Holy Grail for McCandless, the place where he thought he��������d find his truth. What was it like for you filming there?

E.H.: It had amazing energy. I feel alive normally, but I felt super-alive in Alaska. BB: How much did that character stay with you?

E.H.: Not a day goes by that I don��������t think about him.

BB: I really felt for his parents, who were left without a clue as to his whereabouts while he traipsed across the country. Watching the film made me want to go home and call my mom. Are you close with your family?

E.H.: Very. His story makes you look at your own life and the people in your life. I love that it��������s not just about parents��������he met so many people along the way, so many helping friends.

BB: It looks like it was a pretty grueling experience��������you appeared so gaunt and skinny in the end. What did you have to go through physically��������and mentally��������to get there? E.H.: Hell. That is what I had to go through. It was a huge challenge, losing that much weight. I lost 41 pounds. I had a completely different body than I had six months earlier. I thought about food all day. I was running all day, like a track runner, going out for six miles, and I had never even jogged before the part. I dealt with extreme cold in Alaska, and Sean would have me shirtless in a scene.

BB: A 41-pound weight loss sounds terrifying for someone of your stature.

E.H.: I started at 156 pounds and ended at 115 pounds. I��������m a little thinner now��������only 130 pounds. Sean got me at my city boy, McDonald��������s-eating phase and whipped me into extreme shape first. I went from being kind of pudgy to fit to extremely skeletal.

BB: How did you do it?

E.H.: I worked with a really good doctor, read a bunch of books, and studied a lot of actors who had done it before: Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Adrien Brody. I was pretty diligent. I lost most of it on exercise. There was very little starving going on, in terms of method. My doctor was pleased.

BB: What did you learn from working with Sean Penn?

EH.: So many things about how to be strong and sensitive at the same time. BB: You��������re now filming Speed Racer in Berlin, in which you play the title character. That��������s quite a change of pace from the �������leather tramp������� of Into The Wild.

E.H.: I play a quiet and determined guy. He��������s kind of cool, with a ��������60s Elvis�������� meets��������James Dean style. It��������s a fantastic adventure. We��������re shooting it all on green screen. Definitely a different world than Into The Wild, that��������s for sure. There is no real car in the whole movie.

BB: You certainly don��������t play it safe in your film choices. How about in daily life, are you a risk-taker?

E.H.: I think so. I had three scoops of sugar in my coffee this morning!

Photography by Oliver Helbig.