NEW YORK — Emile Hirsch is one of those actors you might have thought was your own secret little discovery. He did the mainstream-teen-comedy thing with “The Girl Next Door” and the indie-Sundance-flick thing with “Alpha Dog,” but now it’s all coming together — and you’re just going to have to share Emile with the rest of the filmgoing world.
Already in the can for the 22-year-old California native is a starring turn in the likely 2008 blockbuster “Speed Racer,” and he’s earning all kinds of awards chatter for his command of the screen in “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn. “Wild” (based on the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer) depicts the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young adventurer who threw his life of privilege away to commune with nature until the elements caught up with him.
Hirsch stopped by MTV’s headquarters to talk about his life-altering role, how Sean Penn convinced him to ride the rapids, playing in “Speed Racer” opposite a chimp and what it’s like to sing karaoke with Lindsay Lohan.
MTV: When you take a role like this on, who are you trying to please first: the director, the real-life family, yourself?
Emile Hirsch: Well, you inevitably think about all the different factors. … Even more than the responsibility to Sean Penn, the director, or the studio or anything like that was really just honoring the memory of Chris McCandless, because … he really was a very special person who really was very unique and had really strong ideals.
MTV: What about Chris’ life did you connect with?
Hirsch: I connected with what I think everybody connects with: the wanderlust that we all share, the feeling of wanting to go on these adventures, wanting to see different parts of the world, wanting to just experience everything.
MTV: Before this film, were you much of an adventurer?
Hirsch: I tried to be, but I don’t think I was. That was one of the advantages to making the film … getting to go on this adventure or have a piece of it … something that Chris had. We shot at all the real locations on the film. We went to Alaska, went to South Dakota. We were in Mexico, Washington, Nevada, so many different places, and we got to meet so many different people and do things that I probably would never have in my life done. … We did rapids on the Colorado River in a kayak. I’ve never done kayaking [on] rapids! I mean, no, never! But leave it to Sean, and he’ll send you on down those rapids.
MTV: Was that a tough sell? Or was it more like at that point in the film if Sean Penn tells you to do it, you do it?
Hirsch: At that point … the commitment to the part was so strong that I wasn’t just going to say no. I just sat there and was staring at [the rapids]. And Sean kind of looks at me, and he goes, “Uh, would you do it if I go first?” And I look up and I went, “Yeah.” And he got in the rapids, and he went down, and he made it down three-quarters of the way and then just wiped out and ate it, but he’s so tough. He just got out and said, “Now it’s your turn.”
MTV: Sean Penn seems like he would be a committed collaborator, to say the least.
Hirsch: He spent 12 years trying to get the film made and he was uncompromising, in the fullest sense of [the word]. He insisted on everything being completely authentic. His nickname on the set became “Sean Patton,” because if he wanted a shot at the top of a mountain, we would hike to the top of the mountain with the gear and shoot it. … Also he wasn’t going to dumb the movie down for anybody. He didn’t care.
MTV: Was he intimidating?
Hirsch: He is a fireball of creativity, of experience, of intellect. Whenever you meet anybody that much passion going on, of course you can get intimidated by that. With all the courage and willpower he has sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming, but he also has a funny side, which is the saving grace.
MTV: You couldn’t go from more of one extreme to another with your next film, “Speed Racer.”
Hirsch: It was fun for me to go from a film that was mountains and nature to the most technological shoot you could ever imagine. We were on a green screen for 60 days using prototype cameras where there are only four of them in the whole world and we were using all of them! We were doing things that I didn’t even think you could do. It’s very stylized. It’s comic-booky.
MTV: Not only do you get to be directed by the Wachowskis, but you get the chance to work with a chimp.
Hirsch: Oh yeah, Chim-Chim. Well, his name is Kenzie and there was another one named Willy. They were a lot of fun. I mean, it was crazy. It was like you were sitting around and there’s a chimpanzee sitting at the table in suspenders rocking back and forth going [he makes loud chimpanzee noise].
MTV: Welcome to Hollywood.
Hirsch: Yeah, I was like, “Welcome to the circus.” Then, at one point, I remember Kenzie jumped up at the kitchen table and just [he imitates a crazy chimpanzee]. He just started jumping on everyone’s lap. Everyone was like, “Ah, help me! Help me, ah!”
MTV: What are you excited for an audience to see?
Hirsch: I think when they see the kind of visual aesthetic of the races and the way that the film is actually going to look, it’s going to surprise people. It’s the Wachowskis. They made “The Matrix.” Expect big things.
MTV: Here’s my annoying question of the interview: I hear you sang karaoke with Lindsay Lohan?
Hirsch: Oh, yeah. It was one time!
MTV: It’s even listed on your IMDb page. Does that bother you?
Hirsch: Oh, I don’t care. Who cares?
MTV: What did you sing?
Hirsch: “Superman” by Eminem.
MTV: Was it a duet? Or did you just each take a turn?
Hirsch: I think it was just like each take a turn, yeah.
MTV: That’s a memory.
Hirsch: Yeah, it was fun.
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