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.
How does that sort of thinking figure into your own career? Do you make a conscious effort to look for a mixture of commercial and non-commercial projects or is there no calculation behind it?
I think it’s a combination. I mean, to a certain degree, it is the way things shake down. “Speed Racer” was a huge financial disaster to a certain degree, so after that movie I wasn’t going to be offered leads in huge movie star parts for a little bit after that.
Was that frustrating?
Sure. But at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to do films that, if that movie had been a huge hit, I might not have done. I might not have been able to have done “Killer Joe” or “The Motel Life” or “Prince Avalanche.” You can’t look at it like a short-term high in a certain sense; you can’t think of it as a candy bar sugar-rush fix when it comes to a career. The way I look at it, this is something I want to do for my whole life. So, you know, it’s about a progression. The thing about it is, I can’t complain because I get to act in roles where I feel like I’m being challenged and I’m constantly growing, and that to me is the most rewarding thing. The experience I had on “Bonnie and Clyde” was an incredible experience, where I feel like I was able to do something I had never done before in a way I had never done it, with a director who was totally different to David, and almost the exact opposite because [“Bonnie” director] Bruce Beresford is much more a traditionalist. He’s similar to David in that he wanted everything to feel improvised, but he had such a quick, concise vision of a way he liked to tell scenes very logic-based and character and story, he could just kind of see it all in his head.
So in that case, Beresford was your guide, and not the original movie?
Yeah, and Beresford hadn’t seen the original movie since the ’60s.
And you hadn’t seen it until…?
The day after I wrapped, I watched it, and it was like a mind-meld fuck, because [Warren] Beatty had played the character almost completely differently than the way I went about it. Clyde is much more in the vein of Johnny Depp’s John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” not grim, but there’s just a deep water-ness to the character, where he’s kind of still but you can tell there’s a lot going on underneath. That was a quality that I really wanted to mine a little bit with Clyde, because I feel like that can increase the magnetism of the character. Whereas Beatty’s Clyde is priceless; he’s laughing and smiling and joke-y and ridiculous.
And the movie itself is sort of bizarre release of the American id, confronting the pleasures associated with onscreen violence and then recognizing its evils.
And I think it’s hard for a modern audience to watch “Bonnie and Clyde” because they’re so used to that violence that the violence is almost kind of less than normal. So you’re almost seeing a non-violent movie that’s very goofy.
But this one’s going to be pretty brutal?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what the networks are going to allow in terms of the violence factor, but I think what we shot is very graphic. I think because it’s cable, it can get pretty gruesome. And I’ve seen a few scenes, and it’s pretty violent.
It’s four hours long?
Yeah, four hours.
Is that the longest project you’ve ever been involved in?
Yeah, it was an epic shoot. And I loved working with Beresford and Holliday Grainger, who plays Bonnie. I’m really excited about it because I’ve been in a lot of movies now, and this was a chance to work in a medium I haven’t worked in a really long time, a miniseries. So you have more time to play with the character, I had a 180-page script and Holly and I are in it 80-90% of it. So it’s a lot more time and if you felt like playing a scene completely minimal and you didn’t wanna squeeze in anything, have at it, because you have time to build the character.
Would you like to do more TV projects?
I don’t know, I’m not sure. But I definitely love the miniseries format. I wouldn’t rule anything out, especially in this day and age when there’s so much good TV that’s being made. It just afford you a way of developing and exploring characters and studios aren’t wanting to take those kinds of risks. I feel like audiences are willing to accept more abstract ideas on TV form than in movie form. It’s just more accepted, just like some crazy show. Even like “House of Cards,” it’s such a strange show. I feel like if it were a studio movie, audiences would be like, “I’m not gonna go see that.” But everyone watches the show.
You’re not even 30 and you’ve already appeared in a wide range of movies, from serious awards season bait like “Into the Wild” to wackier stuff like “Killer Joe” and “Prince Avalanche.” At some point, are there certain types of projects that you want to be associated with?
Experiencing it all makes me want to keep everything on my terms, and not really box myself in. That’s something that I do feel strongly about. I want to stay open to make movies like “Prince Avalanche.” I don’t want to be in a position where I want make a “Prince Avalanche” because I’m doing some big studio movie. And hats off to Paul Rudd for the taking the leap, because he’s been going from big studio movie to big studio movie, and then he takes the time to make a small movie for no money that’s tiny and 16 days. And when you’re in that position it does feel like a risk. I’d like to have a kind of free-form career. I kind of want to make my own rules. I know that there’s so many pre-determined molds where everyone says, “Oh, that’ll end up like this career or that career…” But if you don’t make too many rules you can try to find the maximum amount of freedom, because that’s ultimately what I want.
And you want to make your own movies.
Yeah, I wanna eventually try to make something, and I like the examples set by David with “Prince Avalanche,” of how he was able to blend comedy and drama. I have this script, about a guy that works in a video store. The ideal would be to blend it to where it feels like a bit of both.
How do you feel about the way people have received “Prince Avalanche”?
I was surprised. I certainly felt great about it making it, because I had such a wonderful time making it, creatively, with David and Paul — it was just a blast. I wanted it to be as good as it was to make it. I didn’t expect the reception in Berlin to be as positive as it was, because it’s an international film festival. I was really taken aback by how much the audience really loved it, that was really cool. I was like, “Well, of course they’ll like it at Sundance, it’s a quirky American movie.” When the international audience found the humor in it, I really was excited, because I realized the jokes weren’t just about American vernacular and knowing the lingo, it came from human goofiness, so that was something that was cool. I’ve seen a few comedies that are vernacular-based humor that are foreign, and I just don’t get them. But then you’ll see that occasional comedy where, even though it’s in another language, you get the comedy and it’s so funny. I think “Prince Avalanche” falls in that category a little bit.
Do you enjoy any comedies being made today?
It’s weird, I love making jokes and laughing with friends and making them laugh and vice versa. I love that, and I love acting in comedy, I had an amazing time doing that. But as far as watching it, for some reason I’ve never really gotten into it. I mean I watch them, but for some reason I’m humorless when I watch. Everyone’s laughing around me and I’m not laughing, it’s very strange.
What are some new movies you really enjoy?
I really like dramas. I liked “Life of Pi” and “Silver Linings Playbook” last year, and I liked “Zero Dark Thirty” a lot.
So you like movies that get nominated for Oscars.
[laughs] Yeah, a lot of the times.
I’m painting you into a corner.
Yeah, I like Oscar material!
Say it. You’d love to work with David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow…
I like other strange, weird movies, too. I don’t know.
Who are some filmmakers you admire? Something that gives people a clearer sense of what your sensibilities are?
I mean, like… I don’t know. The filmmakers that I most admire are the ones that I’ve worked with, because I have the most reason to admire them because I see the way they work up close. That is the truth. As far as directors, did you see that Chinese movie “Still Life”?
The Jia Zhangke film?
Yeah, I thought that movie was so genius. Like that really long shot on the boat where it’s just going across all of the dudes working, I thought that was amazing. Yeah, I loved “Still Life.” And I love Cary Fukunaga. I thought “Jane Eyre” was great.
He’s doing that TV series “True Detective” with your “Killer Joe” co-star Matthew McConaughey, right?
Yeah, when we were shooting “Bonnie and Clyde” in Baton Rouge, he was in New Orleans filming that.
So you really admire Fukunaga and Jia. Those are some good ones. A lot of American actors would probably choose somebody like Paul Thomas Anderson.
Yeah, I like a lot of the up-and-coming guys. Jeff Nichols is another one of them that I think is great, and I also really like Jody Hill. I thought “Observe and Report” was really good.