Emory Report
October 1, 2007
Volume 60, Number 5

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October 1, 2007
Q&A: Emile Hirsch

By Kim urquhart

Emile Hirsch stars as Christopher McCandless in “Into the Wild,” a film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller that chronicles the true story of the Emory alumnus who journeys to Alaska to live in the wilderness, where he eventually perishes. Hirsch speaks with Emory Report about wanderlust, working with director Sean Penn, and sharing a scene with a 9-foot-tall, 1,000-pound co-star.

How did you approach playing Chris in an authentic way but still remain enigmatic?
Hirsch: I tried to learn what I could about Chris: talking to his family; going over his journal and the photos of him. It’s trying to absorb information and give it interpretation.

How did you prepare physically for this role?
Hirsch: A lot of it is getting your body in shape. In terms of [scenes such as kayaking the Colorado River] rapids — that was more of just willpower and learning to face challenges that are mentally daunting and fear-inspiring. One of the things I took away from the movie is that a lot of the time you feel like you can’t do something, but you really can. It’s only your own fears that are holding you back.

What was it like to work with Sean Penn, who was with you every step of the way — including boating down the rapids?
Hirsch: He was the general with the mad glint in his eye. He was really on a mission to make this film authentically as pure and honest as he could make it. And he inspires people around him to do their best.

Did going to all the places McCandless visited help you get into the character?
Hirsch: Sean says it best when he said, “Everything was made more authentic because nature is relentlessly authentic.” You can’t help but be affected by that. There were times when it felt so real. Where we were — it was such a tangible environment, so non-theoretical, it brought out the reality in all the situations.

What were the best and worst parts of the whole experience?
Hirsch: The best day and worst day were the same day. The worst day was the day where I had to work with the grizzly bear — this was a 9-foot-tall, 1,000-pound grizzly bear. Even though he was trained, he was a method actor ­— very prone to improvising. The best day was the end of that day, when I walked away with my limbs intact.

Do you think Chris McCandless was coming home?
Hirsch: I won’t say that I know; no one knows where he was going. He was alone in Alaska for 113 days. After doing something like that, it could profoundly change you. I will say I think he would have gone back to society.

Has experiencing Chris’ journey rubbed off on you?
Hirsch: Identifying with that need for wanderlust is something I responded to, the urge for adventure, the “itchy feet.” I think it’s the adventures that he had that sparks people’s imaginations — what can I accomplish, where can I go?