Actor Emile Hirsch has played everything from a speed racer to a rights activist to the boy who lives next to The Girl Next Door. Perhaps his most famous and recognizable role is that of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild, in which he communes with nature. Now, Hirsch is back in the great outdoors on a rather less-grand scale in David Gordon Green’s new indie comedy Prince Avalanche. We spoke to Hirsch about playing a city boy in the wilderness, about working closely with co-star Paul Rudd, and about the joys of micro-budget filmmaking.
NERDIST: How did you come to be involved in Prince Avalanche?
EMILE HIRSCH: I had been working on a script that basically took place in one room called Shack. It was sort of about me and my buddies as alternate people, going on this guru shaman journey together, and then they accidentally shoot somebody. It was a script I’d been developing, and I called David because I wanted his input on making micro-budget movies and small dark comedies and I had some questions for him. So, he called me back and answered all my questions, but then, a few days later, he called me back and said, “By the way, when you called me the other day, you kind of got me thinking about you and what you’ve been doing, and I’ve been working on this project. Would you be interested in checking it out?” So, he sent me the script and I was just beside myself with feelings of happiness. It just seemed like such an awesome and cool script; it was only like a 65-page script, but there was so much meat in it and so much character. I called him right that day and said “this role almost feels like it’s written for me in a strange way,” and he was like, “Uhh, yes.” It wasn’t really, but he wasn’t going to argue if I was saying that, either. So, it was kind of a thing where, if I hadn’t been working on this little pet project of mine, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in his head about it. I don’t know; he might have called somebody else.
N: Lance is a bit of a departure for you as a character. He’s much baser and sort of simple. You said that you felt that he was written for you; how did you connect to him and what do you think you brought to what David had written?
EH: I think after working on the Shack project for awhile and doing a lot of readings with my friends, most of the comedy in that came from these kind of base guys. It was playing dumb for laughs at times, but doing it in a real, severe way. I’d been doing that for a little while, so when I read this I thought I would really apply what worked with a lot of my characters and totally use it here, and it was actually a great prep course on that kind of deadpan, playing it straight, but not necessarily the sharpest guy kind of comedy. Which is tricky, too. If someone feels like you’re going for a laugh, they automatically want to rebel and don’t want to laugh, and (they) resent you. I feel like, particularly when you’re playing a more base character, if people really feel like they’re catching you being dumb, they’ll laugh, whereas if they feel like you’re playing dumb, they move away from you.
After Into the Wild, I feel like I was so identified with a nature-loving, camping, tent-constructing dude, and there’s an aspect of me that really does embrace that, and ideologically, certainly, I love the adventure, but practical, day-to-day me does live in L.A. and is a bit of a couch potato at times and is kind of a party-liking dude. So, there was a lot of Lance that I really identified with and embraced about him. I was like, “I get it.” He doesn’t want to live out in nature, he does want to go out in the city and hang out with his friends and pick up girls at parties. I can get that; I’ve been there. I think it’s refreshing to get to play that after being so firmly identified with Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. I think there’s almost something comical about seeing me [in this movie] face some of the stuff after having known me for so long in this other construct.
N: It’s definitely true. In this, you sit alone in the woods and look bored.
EH: Yeah! And there’s something really fun and liberating about playing someone like that and knowing he’s got a different perspective and different argument. In Into the Wild, so much of the time, Chris is the only one on screen, so there’s no one to argue with his attitude as a nature-loving outdoorsman. There’s no counterpoint. In this, Alvin has that same love of nature but Lance is the opposite, and he makes the argument of why. He’s a skeptic, and from a certain perspective, you can’t really argue with what he’s saying. It’s just really a matter of opinion. A complete love of nature isn’t necessarily an empirical fact; it’s just an opinion.
N: And speaking of Alvin, the bulk of the movie is just you and Paul Rudd. You’d never worked together, but did you know him at all before shooting?
EH: I’d never even really met him before we all showed up in Austin together. But, I think he’s just such a sharp guy and he’s really good on his feet, and he’s a very in-tune-with-his-craft kind of actor, that I really feel like I tried to bring my A-game for him. He’s naturally so talented and so on-point. He was a really great scene partner to have, though, you know? Just a good dance partner; we were always in tune and I feel like finding these little gems in scenes would be a lot harder with any other actor. This was a pairing where we really complimented each other pretty well, I think. We’re a real yin-yang type of relationship and I think that’s one of the reasons, the people that think the movie works, it works for them.
N: How much did the burnt-out and picked-over wooded area in which you shot help get you into character?
EH: Yeah, it wasn’t all lush and, you know, birthing life from every crevice, it was like you said, this ashy, charcoal, burnt-to-the-ground forest, and I think there was something desolate about that, and stripped away, and Alvin and Lance kind of have their characters stripped down and built back up, similar to this kind of forest. There was something really beautiful for them to have this kind of cleanse for them and despite the chaos and destruction the forest really went through and the fire that Texas really went through, it’s beginning to grow back. It’s really beautiful when you see it, because you see nature working. Places that were black and ashen turn green and get life back into them. I think the movie is very positive, and it doesn’t have the tone of a nasty, mean comedy; there’s an inherent hope in it that’s endearing to watch. There’s something non-mean about the movie. I was shocked when it got an R.
N: Yeah, that’s surprising. It doesn’t seem like it really deserves one.
EH: Well, there is that masturbation scene.
N: Well, sure. I guess that’ll do it every time. What is it about this kind of quick, low-budget filmmaking that appeals to you? You said you were interested in making one yourself; what is it that speaks to you?
EH: It’s just fun. There’s speed, there’s less crew, there’s less of a machine you have to wait behind. I get bored on film sets really quickly. It’s fun between “action” and “cut,” but, for me, it’s just really, really boring. There’s just not enough for my mind to do all day. I have to do something, whether it’s reading or writing or talking to people on the crew. It’s just simply not enough in my mind to occupy. Not just my mind, but most actors feel this way. So, when you’re shooting really fast like we did on Prince Avalanche… On a big studio movie, you might shoot 2.5 pages in an entire day, right? That’s boring to me. When I started acting as a kid doing plays, we’re doing the entire play every performance, so I want to shoot as much as I can each day. Because, even if I shoot as much as I can, you can still only do like 10-15 minutes. Tops; absolutely tops. Some actors give tour-de-force performances in a two-and-a-half-hour play every single day. I’m ready to go, I want to make stuff, I’m ready to let loose and just not be bored on set, and the fact of the matter is the more you shoot per day, the less bored you are.
N: Are you going to get a chance to make the Shack movie you mentioned?
EH: I don’t know. The idea of one location kind of scared me off of making it for a little bit. I feel like if I’m going to write, direct, and act in something, I want it to have a slightly more cinematic feel. Part of the appeal of Shack initially was that it was just one room, but at the same time, I would like to make something where the visuals come a little bit more into play. Shack might be a really good stage play or something. So, I don’t know. I’m always writing something and I figure through consistency, I’ll eventually write something where I’ll be like, “All right, let’s go.”
You too can get back to your roots when Prince Avalanche comes to theaters, VOD, and Digital Download August 9th.