Emile Hirsch Got History Lesson in Film About Gay Rights Activist Harvey Milk

Emile Hirsch, left, plays Cleve Jones in the film "Milk," about slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Jones, right, was a friend of Milk's.
Emile Hirsch, left, plays Cleve Jones in the film "Milk," about slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Jones, right, was a friend of Milk's. (Photos By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Emile Hirsch was born eight years after Harvey Milk was assassinated. He had to Google the name and watch a documentary on the man before he really understood why Milk, the activist and the country's first openly gay elected official, mattered.

So it was a profound benefit that the real Cleve Jones, whom Hirsch portrays in the new film "Milk," was on set every day during filming.

Jones took Hirsch under his wing, showing him the city of San Francisco and explaining what it was like in the late 1970s, when Milk was alive and a revolution was underway.

"I had a lot of things I wanted to know, and I think Cleve also had a lot of things he wanted to get off his chest," Hirsch says. "He'd point down Market Street, and he'd go, 'At midnight, 30 years ago, I was leading 10,000 screaming drag queens down the middle of the road.' And I'd just squint my eyes and try to imagine it."

Imagine was all he could do; there was nothing familiar to Hirsch in his role as a 1970s-era street kid who transformed into an activist leader under Milk's tutelage.

The actor knows that some people will assume it was Sean Penn who got him cast in "Milk." It was Penn, after all, who gave Hirsch the lead in his film "Into the Wild." And it's Penn who plays Milk in the new biopic.

But in reality, Hirsh says more credit goes to Penn's personal trainer.

The 23-year-old actor had been working out with the same trainer, who mentioned Penn's new project. Immediately, Hirsch began asking around about the film.

Six months later, Hirsch got a call saying "Milk" director Gus Van Sant wanted to meet with him about playing Jones. So when Hirsch, who fell in love with acting at summer camp and was working professionally by 15, showed up to star opposite his former director, it was like "a basketball player suddenly being asked to play a game with their coach."

But as soon as filming began, he says, that dynamic melted away, and "it was very clear to me that we were gonna have that ease and the creative exchange we had on 'Into the Wild.' "

Becoming immersed in a movement he never knew but now admires was, Hirsch says, "an amazing experience." And he hopes that as others in his generation see the film it will have "the same effect it had on me: the discovery of a person who I think is a unique American hero."

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