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Talking With Emile Hirsch

Emile Hirsch, hitchin' a ride in
Emile Hirsch, hitchin' a ride in "Into the Wild." (Reuters)

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Friday, September 21, 2007; 2:00 PM

Emile Hirsch is only 22 but already has an sizeable stack of film roles to his credit. His first major movie was 2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," in which he starred opposite Kieran Culkin and Jodie Foster. Since then he has appeared in "The Emperor's Club," "The Girl Next Door," "Lords of Dogtown," and "Alpha Dog."

He next stars in "Into the Wild," a film directed by Sean Penn and based on Jon Krakauer's book. In it, Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, a college graduate who abandons everything to live in the Alaskan wilderness.

Hirsch was online Friday, Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss "Wild" as well as his movie career and upcoming roles, including a gig as Speed in the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer," slated for release next summer.

A transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: I went to high school with Christopher McCandless, although I didn't know him. I used to hear his name announced on the speaker system occasionally for track stuff. I actually got the book not really knowing what it was about. I'd just read "Into Thin Air" and wanted to read something else by the same author. I was startled to get the book and see the name of someone from my high school.

Did you meet the McCandless family while filming?

Emile Hirsch: Yes, I did. I had the opportunity to meet Walt and Billie his parents and Kerin, his sister. They were all very supportive of me and were very helpful. I was very careful to respect them and didn't want to seem just like an actor who was using them for research.

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Veenendaal, The Netherlands : Hey Emile,

How are you?

I want to know how was it to work with Sean Penn?

Hugs.

Emile Hirsch: It was a very challenging experience. Sean demands the most out of everyone who works with him so I wasn't allowed to cut any corners ever. He would have me do things the hardest way they could be done, but it was such a wonderful experience to be challenged in that way.

One day Sean made me climb up a snowy hill with a 30-pound backpack over and over. And he woudln't let anyone help me when I got stuck in the snow. I had to dig my way out.

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Asheville, N.C.: Was preparing for the role difficult, meaning having to lose so much weight and quite quickly? Did you have to "starve yourself" even before the movie started? Do you also think by undertaking this role you have experienced what it was like to get out of your comfort zone and experience, on some small level, what it was like for Christopher McCandless?

Emile Hirsch: I definitely think I as put outside of my normal comfort zone and am grateful for the adventure we all had making the film.

As far as dieting and weight loss go, all I can tell you is diet and exercise actually works. Lots of running and healthy eating.

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Falls Church, Va.: I recall that Christopher McCandless' family played a role in the book, and were obviously conflicted over a lot of things about his last years. Did they have any involvement in the film, or any reaction to it that you know of?

Emile Hirsch: They were involved in the film. It was their decision to have the film made. It took them ten years to come to that decision. But after the book came out and they saw what a positive thing it was for so many people, they thought the movie would be good.

They tremendously support the film.

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Charlotte, N.C.: If there is one piece of advice you can pass down to an actor after working intimately with a great talent such as Sean Penn, what would it be?

Emile Hirsch: To believe in yourself because by believing in yourself you gain confidence, which allows you to relax. And relaxation is one of the most important parts about acting.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, as an Emory graduate, I'm just wondering if any kind of charity has been set up in this man's honor (of if it's in process)? Seems like a good idea. Thanks.

Emile Hirsch: Yes, there is. Walt and Billie McCandless are the ones behind it.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How did you get the role of Speed? Did they recruit you or did you audition? Has your part been done yet or, if not, when is this movie being made?

Emile Hirsch: I auditioned for the role of Speed and we shot the film in Berlin over the summer. It is now finished shooting. Expect a wild ride with the Wachowski brothers. It comes out next summer.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you actually like the book "Into the Wild"? Do you "connect" with Chris McCandless in a more in-depth way than as the actor portraying him?

Emile Hirsch: I loved "into the Wild." I think one of the reasons why the book is so successful and why people are clicking with the movie is becayse everyone can somehow identify with the quest for adventure, the wanderlust inside us. I was able to go to so many wonderful places, meet so many interesting people and do so many things that i never thought I'd get the chance to do, such as kayaking down rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, jumping off the cliffs into water far below, running with the horses in South Dakota and floating down icy cold rivers naked in Alaska. Maybe the floating down the rivers part I wouldn't want to do again, though. It was mighty cold.

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Washington, D.C.: Welcome to the District! I got to see "Into The Wild" at a preview this week and it was great! I read that you had to lose 40 pounds for this role. How did you lose all of that? Also, had you ever kayaked before? You looked like a pro!

Emile Hirsch: I had maybe two or three days of experience kayaking. Two of them probably were from when I was about 11 years old in summer camp on a flat lake. I had definitely never done rapids before and was not prepared at all when I got there. It was sheer survival instinct that kept me afloat, paddling as hard as I could to stay above water.

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Warrenton, Virginia: I teach this novel in high school. Interestingly, most of my students come away feeling that McCandless was too selfish and egotistical. They cite the way he (in their view, unnecessarily) hurt his family as a particular problem. I'm always intrigued that they don't feel more sympathy for him.

Having been in Alex's skin, what's your take?

Emile Hirsch: I think Chris was a very complicated person. I love his courage and quest, yet myself don't fully agree with all of his actions. It is this, to me, that makes McCandless such a compelling figure, his contradictions. It lets people talk about it and examine it and come to their own conclusions about morality and ethics. Which I think any type of discussion is good.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you and the crew ever think of this filmmaking process as ironic? I know you had to train hard and work under challenging conditions, but having read Krakauer's book I have to think Chris would've despised having his story made into a mainstream movie. He lived on the fringes of society and the book never indicated that this was a "last hurrah" before he would return to the mainstream.

Emile Hirsch: I firmly believe McCandless would have been amused at the fact that his life story was made into a film and book. But after talking at length about it with his sister, I now feel like she does, that Chris would have loved something that could help change people's hearts and minds about how they see the world. Which is what he always wanted to do.

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Bethesda, Md.: I really liked "Lords of Dogtown." Were you aware that in Bethesda, MD (right outside of Washington, D.C.) we completely idolized the Dogtown crew probably more than any place in the country. This can be seen in the DVD "Dogtown and Z-Boys" where local skaters for the Finnegan and Roberts Sunshine House team, Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye, provide commentary. So your portrayal of Jay was really watched carefully by a bunch of 40-year-old government employees reliving their childhood. You captured the late '70s vibe pretty well.

Emile Hirsch: Thank you very much. Us long-haired Dogtown dudes tried our best to stick to a very hard story to tell. Hopefully our skate moves proved worthy to those old-school baddies.

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Washington, D.C.: Filming a movie with Elisha Cuthbert: great experience or greatest experience? Did you intentionally make mistakes during the scenes you filmed with her just so you could spend more time with her?

Emile Hirsch: I am a gentleman. But it was absolutely a fantastic experience that I am well aware tons of dudes are jealous about. But there is nothin' I can do about that. Ha ha ha.

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Chicago, IL: Have you had a chance to hear the tune "Sahara" by Eddie from Ohio (from Northern Virginia) about this topic?

That's how I learned about Chris's story and am happy to see this movie was made.

Emile Hirsch: No, I have not heard that but I originally saw the "Into the Wild" "20/20" episode when I was 8 years old. That was how I found out about the story.

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Washington, DC: I'm glad that the film was made with the family's support. When I read the book I kept thinking, someone's going to do a movie of this that upsets the family. Did the parents pick Penn to direct the movie, or did he approach them?

Emile Hirsch: Penn approached the parents to do the movie, as did many, many other directors. A lot of bigtime ones. The family didn't identify with anyone else other than Sean, though, who wanted to make the film. They respected Sean's integrity more than anything and felt like he would be someone who would stick true to the story and honor Chris in the best way that he could.

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Champaign, Ill.: How much of the skate boarding in "Dogtown" is you (and fellow castmates) vs. professionals?

Emile Hirsch: Lots of it is me and the other guys, but there are certain very hard things, like parts of the pool skating, that my kick-butt double Griffin Collins was brought in to do. I always called him Jay's Better Half while we were shooting, because he really did rock.

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Bethesda, MD: Was this movie emotionally difficult to make? I loved the book but found myself angry at Chris for so many careless and selfish things he did. By the end of the book, I was emotionally drained and I can't imagine how hard it must have been for you to take on that role.

Emile Hirsch: It was very challenging and hard at times. But the traveling and adventure always left my spirits soaring with exhileration. So I can't complain.

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Boston, Mass.: Before doing this movie, how long do you think you could have lasted alone in the Alaskan wild? How are your survival skills now?

Emile Hirsch: I could have probably lasted 10 minutes before I took on the part. And now I think I'm looking at a good 20.

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Carrollton, Tex.: What is the most fun you've ever had on a movie set?

Emile Hirsch: Most fun I ever had ... there are so many different days of interesting experiences, it's hard to single just one out. I had a lot of fun the day I worked with the grizzly bear and it was even more fun when we finished that day and I was still in one piece. Sometimes good days are not always fun, sometimes they are good because of how hard they were and gratifying for those reasons.

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Washington, D.C.: Saw you and Sean Penn on Oprah yesterday. Great job! I'm a

huge Penn fan and after hearing about the life of the Into the

Wild's character, I thought that Sean Penn must love this

story because he, too, is so anti-establishment. Did he talk

to you about this during the filming?

Emile Hirsch: We never really discussed that, no. It was more focused on Chris's story, although I am sure there is a lot of Chris's story that Sean does identify with, as he is a very strong-willed person with very strong opinions about the world, much like Chris.

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Wilmington, Del.: I think you did a great job in "Alpha Dog". Your character was snively and overwhelmed, but kept making mistakes. Very well done on your part.

I really enjoyed this book and look forward to the movie. How would you compare your role with Tom Hanks' role in "Castaway"? Both of you seem to be alone in wilderness. Aside from the different environments, how are you playing this role differently?

Emile Hirsch: Well, the biggest different is that in "Castaway" he is not there by choice. In "Into the Wild," Chris McCandless decides to go out on his own. He is ready to live in the wild. Tom Hanks has to adapt to this new world of survival.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Emile,

What's your take on Alex's demise, was he a hero for following his dreams, or foolhardy for his lack of preparedness?

I'm looking forward to the release, big Sean fan -- good luck to you and the movie.

Emile Hirsch: No one can ever completely know everything about Chris. I don't think people should be criticized for having courage, yet the mistakes they make along the way cannot be dismissed or overlooked. McCandless was a compelling, tragic, inspirational figure to so many people, myself included. It is these complications that make him human, that ground him in the reality we all live in. But as far as making final judgments about him, I can't answer that for you. You must all go see the film and answer that for yourselves.

Thank you so much for all the questions. See you later.

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