It might take a moment to consider his filmography, but Emile Hirsch is one of the most intriguing young actors working today. In the last five years or so, 28-year-old California native achieved recognition for his acting chops in Sean Penn's adaptation of "Into the Wild," took an audacious leap into trippy science fiction territory with the Wachowski brothers' "Speed Racer," and played a demented white trash schemer in William Friedkin's "Killer Joe." This week, he appears alongside Paul Rudd in the playful two-hander "Prince Avalanche," in which the duo spend most of the film wandering through the Texan wilderness cleaning up after a forest fire. Directed by David Gordon Green and remade from an Icelandic film, "Prince Avalanche" is yet another curious showcase for Hirsch, whose fame has yet to force him into a predetermined acting mold. In New York for the premiere of the new movie, Hirsch spoke to Indiewire about how he manages to try so many different types of projects and where that sensibility might take him next. He also touched on his role as Clyde in the upcoming TV mini-series directed by Bruce Beresford for Lifetime and A&E Networks, which will air in December.
Did you get a chance to watch "Either Way," the Icelandic movie that inspired "Prince Avalanche," before acting in this project?
I didn't. My philosophy is that if there's any kind of remake -- and I did the same thing on "Bonnie and Clyde" -- I don't watch the original because it's so easy to get swayed by the actor's interpretation. Within that, you don't know the right decision to make, and you start second-guessing yourself, so you go, "Oh, I don't wanna be like this actor's performance, so I'm going to do the opposite." When in fact, you shouldn't do the opposite, you should do the same thing because that's the most appropriate thing to do in those circumstances. So you can start being different to be different, so then you can do the same thing without copying them.
David Gordon Green made a trio of dramas before veering into studio comedies. "Prince Avalanche" is sort of a hybrid of the two sensibilities. What did you expect the tone of the film to be?
I didn't necessarily see the script as a comedy when I first read it. It didn't play for jokes, because there were no jokes written, so it read relatively straightforward with a little bit of absurdity at times but just enough so that it didn't seem like an outright comedy at all, it was just flavors of a drama. And when I started to work on the role, I talked to David briefly and I was like, "Oh, maybe the character's just like me." And he said, "I think it's a slower version of you." He wanted this kind of naivete and innocence. He wanted Lance to have that fool element. So I kind of went from that point and I started to work with the dialogue and find ways that people can be funny when they're just a little bit off, or they're just a little mistaken by things. The idea of finding the humor in people who can sometimes play dumb: Why are they funny when they aren't necessarily making a joke? I have a lot of buddies who are funny for those reasons, some of my best friends even. And I would kind of just observe that in some of them and try to find that in myself, you know, if I would do something that wasn't a joke and people would laugh at, I would try to remember what that was. And it was just sort of slowly going and I guess the portrayal was just kind of piece by piece, and by the time I got there I felt like I had a pretty well-rounded idea of who the guy was and why he was funny or vulnerable. But I think the key was that there was a certain innocence to him, even when he was being rash and bold there was a hidden insecurity to him.
You could apply that description equally well to your character in "Killer Joe." You're apparently drawn to playing people who are funny in spite of themselves even though aren't really considered a comedic actor.
I don't know how conscious it is, because in this particular circumstance with David, when he called me I knew I was going to do the movie before I read the script, because it was Green and I had a desire to work with him for so long. But I do enjoy characters that are funny despite themselves, and with "Killer Joe," the character's ridiculous by the end. He's limping around like a cartoon character by the end, and he's just so fucked, he's like beaten to a bloody pulp. He was so dumb and made so many bone-headed moves, so I definitely can see those parallels.
Our Icelandic correspondent reports that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of "Either Way," but the dialogue sounds very natural for both you and Paul Rudd. How much room did you have to improvise?
I think we both strived to have that naturalistic feel, whether it was scripted or moments of improvisation. There are some moments of improvisation, but I think one of the good things that we did was we always had the threat of improvisation in ourselves, meaning we always had the freedom while we doing a scene to rephrase the clause of a sentence, or swap out a word, or to do something slightly different, and that was sort of encouraged. And I think sometimes, even you just change the last three words of a sentence, it will make all those lines sound improvised. I don't know, it's like throwing a pebble into a pond or something, it seems like the whole lake is moving. And I feel that's something both Paul and I utilized pretty intensely on this one.
This is so different from the kinds of things one assumes a known actor with an agent who has acted in commercial projects would be drawn to do, and not only because it's this bizarre minimalist comedy that's a remake of an Icelandic film nobody's heard of -- but also because nobody knew about it while you were shooting it and there wasn't much money behind it, so I'm sure that applied to salaries as well.
Nobody got paid anything. To me, it was just about wanting to work with David Gordon Green, and having an unshaking faith in his talent. I mean, some of those studio movies he made, everyone was starting to be doubters and naysayers and stuff, but I was like, the guy made four unique movies at a very young age, talent like that you can never write off at all. That was one of the reasons I was so proud to see him win the Best Director award [for "Prince Avalanche"] in Berlin. I was like, "Man, that's awesome." I mean, he really made a movie on his own terms in a very creative way. I mean, the process where he made the movie in -- he came up with the title first and then he found the location and he found the Icelandic movie and then he cast it -- that's really like making a movie backwards. And he's so honest and upfront about the process, which is so weird that I'm almost surprised he's as honest as he is about the process, because it's so unconventional you could almost be like, "God, is that too easy for him?" But the fact that he's truthful about it and not like, "Oh, I sat around toiling for a year..." He's like, "This is how it happened, this is how it is." I think that's refreshing.
Next: How "Speed Racer" led to a different career path.