Penn’s Good Boy

“It was almost like time-lapse photography,” says Mr. Penn of Mr. Hirsch’s performance in Into the Wild, “because one of the demands on the actor cast to play that part was that he had to be on the cusp—I had to be able to have him go from boy to man on camera, and that was just the place Emile was in his life.”

“I can’t say enough about how … as young as he was, when we first met, and is today, this is a very talented actor,” said Mr. Penn. “But he, as a person—his desire to pursue this kind of thing at the level that he did it, in combination with being so gifted, makes it pretty exciting to see what tomorrow is going to bring with this guy.”

 

SITTING AT THE REGENCY, it’s difficult to see the man Mr. Hirsch portrays so heartbreakingly on film. As McCandless, he has an enthusiastic arrogance, a heady self-righteousness, not to mention a big, wild beard. In person, Mr. Hirsch’s natural intensity flickers on and off—he has a penetrating focus and a wicked smile—but he just seems so, well, young.

“This chicken noodle soup is really good!” he said, picking up his bowl and drinking the remains.

“We went to 31 different locations,” said Mr. Hirsch, cataloging his adventures as if he’s recounting a vacation. “We were in South Dakota cutting wheat on a combine; we camped out on the Grand Canyon for a week. We were doing Colorado river kayaking around, ended up doing the rapids …

“There were times when it was really, really, really hard,” he continued. “But there were times when Chris [McCandless] was on the road and it was really, really, really hard. I just knew that that was part of the commitment. I didn’t go into it thinking it was gonna be a ball. It’s amazing how you can go into it thinking it’s not really gonna be a ball, but you really don’t realize what that means until you’re doing it.”

“I think it’s important to be willing to suffer, if that’s what it takes,” said Mr. Penn of his expectations for his star.

Despite losing 40 pounds for the role (a feat necessary for the scenes toward the end of McCandless’s life), Mr. Hirsch doesn’t seem to have suffered at all, really. He shies from saying too much about his dieting (“I don’t really like to talk about the details of it because people get too wrapped up in it and it sort of trivializes it and it’s harder for people to enjoy the film,” he said), and tosses off the question like anyone could do it if they had to. And despite Mr. Penn having worked him to his physical limit, at times putting him in some danger, filming Into the Wild was nothing short of exhilarating.

“He’s a mixture of incredibly demanding, but so smart and so confident in you as a person, you don’t feel intimidated,” said Mr. Hirsch of Mr. Penn’s directorial talents. “It’s the calmest I’ve ever been on a set, ever. It’s extraordinary. You feel safe with him. And he just gives you this kind of freedom that I’ve never had before. I don’t know what my process is. I don’t have a process. But I just felt free.”

For his role as Speed in the much-anticipated Speed Racer, from The Matrix’s Wachowski brothers—expect this to be next spring’s huge movie—Mr. Hirsch basically had to do a 180. After rumoredly beating out indie darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt and little-man-on-campus Shia LeBeouf for the role, he shot the entire film, which is based on the 60’s anime cartoon, inside on a green screen in Berlin. For that film, two of his co-stars were chimpanzees named Kensey and Willy, who alternate (à la the Olsen twins in Full House) as Speed’s pet Chim-Chim. “It’s pretty amazing when you sit down for the first scene of a movie, take one, scene one, and they’re like, ‘Put Kensey in!’ and there’s a little chimp in overalls just rocking back and forth at the dinner table”—Mr. Hirsch rocked back and forth making a hoo-hoo chimp sound—“while you’re trying to read your lines.”

That was about the only taste of the great outdoors he got in Berlin. “I was really happy to be in nature so much, before being indoors for so long, that was for sure,” said Mr. Hirsch, who did manage to get some exercise by skateboarding around the set.

As we were about to say goodbye, Mr. Hirsch explained a magic trick from the night before that involves a quarter with his friend’s name written on it that Mr. Blaine magically curled inside his palm. “The quarter was bent in half,” he emphasizes. “That was like real magic.”

Did Mr. Blaine explain how he did it?

“Oh, I wouldn’t want him to,” said Mr. Hirsch. “There’s something about magic that I think is very similar to acting. You never want to reveal too much to people, because it’ll ruin it for them. You have to preserve people’s chance to watch, to enjoy it.”