Emile Hirsch keeps himself busy these days, but he’s not always making movies. The 31-year-old actor recently finished the first draft of a novel, completed a screenplay, and spends a lot of time painting still lifes in his backyard.
Meanwhile, he’s acting in a wider range of projects than ever before. A versatile performer known for immersing himself in his roles, he currently stars opposite Brian Cox in the minimalist horror-drama “The Autopsy of Jane Doe,” opening December 21, and has a number of other efforts — from a buddy comedy with JK Simmons to a sweeping China-set period drama with an otherwise Asian cast—scheduled for 2017.
“The work itself is the goal,” he said, settling into Brooklyn eatery Sisters after a long day promoting “Jane Doe” in Manhattan. He was in the midst of a monthlong break from the novel, following the advice of Stephen King’s “On Writing,” his favorite guidebook. “I’m not looking for the next party or something,” he added. “I’m always actively engaging in something. Some sort of … fulfillment.”
Hirsch’s creativity also has a therapeutic function, as he emerges from the dark shadow cast over his career a little less than two years ago.
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In January 2015, Hirsch went to the Sundance Film Festival to promote “Ten Thousand Saints,” the latest effort from “American Splendor” directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. On January 25, Hirsch attended the premiere of the documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” and then went bar-hopping with friends.
In the early hours of the morning, he was arrested at the Main Street nightclub TAO for putting a young Paramount executive in a headlock and choking her. It was after 3 a.m. when police arrested Hirsch, who claimed to have blacked out after taking a stimulant and drinking for hours on end on an empty stomach.
The woman pressed charges and Hirsch pled guilty. He was sentenced to 15 days of jail time, 50 hours of community service, and a $4,750 fine. (The deal allowed him to avoid a more advanced felony assault charge.) In a Park City courtroom that summer, Hirsch expected to see her in the room and apologize to her face. She didn’t show, but he still gave a statement. “I know it was completely wrong and reckless and irresponsible,” he told the room. “I have no excuses for not remembering. I put those chemicals inside me.”
After that, he entered rehab and quietly went back to work, but avoided discussing the incident publicly in any capacity. “I don’t think it’s something I would want to talk about in rotational junkets for the rest of my life, but I feel like people will naturally have questions about it,” he said. Still, when we began to discuss the particulars of the incident, he stopped himself.
“I don’t think getting into weeds with details is necessarily productive for me or for anybody,” he said. “Ultimately, I was in the wrong. I really messed up. I’m really sorry. Once you enter that realm, it begins to feel like some sort of roundabout justification.”
The Wakeup Call
Hirsch never identified as an alcoholic, nor had he run into problems with the law, but he sped through his twenties with a reckless energy that finally turned on him. Where he saw uncompromising passion, others saw a cocky kid. “I went down some paths that at the time were harder for me to realize,” he said. “This was one of those wakeup calls.”
He accepted the role for “Jane Doe” shortly after rehab, spending time in morgues to research the part, and the eerie movie speaks to the claustrophobic experience of a collapsing world. Hirsch plays the son and assistant to Cox’s veteran coroner, who dissects the body of a mysterious woman as the rooms around them transforms into a shadowy haunted house. The two men grow increasingly uncertain of the supernatural events around them, and the ensuing tension allows for an acting showcase.
Cox spends much of the movie wearing a bemused scowl, but Hirsch barrels through a range of emotions, from plucky curiosity to deep-seated terror. With his small build and soft features, he’s well-suited to embody a gullible naif doomed to fail. The same qualities that made him an ideal troublemaking teen in “The Girl Next Door” and an ill-faced adventurer in “Into the Wild” come into play with the horrific atmosphere coursing through “Jane Doe.”
It’s a startling performance, one of his best in years, rich in despair and confusion. “We shot it all in this tiny, dark set,” he said. “It probably helped that I was totally sober. Going to a morgue sobers you up even more. It makes you face your own mortality. That really appealed to me about the film, more than the horror aspects.” Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal (“Trollhunter”), the movie expresses the subjectivity of battling demons that never truly die. Hirsch was still coming to terms with the Sundance incident when he embarked on the project, and the result speaks to the path that led him there, if not the brighter one he’s discovered since.
“It was a time when I really wanted to move forward,” he said. “I felt like doing what I found value in, which was doing good work. It helped get some of my confidence back to see that, OK, this what I do — I’m an actor. And I like that the choices actors make end up revealing things about the actor.”
Problems From the Past
Hirsch had grown accustomed to plunging himself into alien environments to give his roles authenticity, but jail was another story. There was no specific end game; he had to adjust to being stuck inside a complex for half a month. “I remember every second I was in there,” he said. “It felt a lot longer.” However, his incarceration also provided him with a new context to assess the impact of his career.
On his first day, several alpha male inmates in his unit forced him to sit in a spot of their choosing in the prison cafeteria; that’s where he remained every day. He bunked with a devout Christian doing time on kidnapping charges, who asked Hirsch to join him in prayer. He found some support among those who knew his work, particularly a number of men who expressed admiration for “Lone Survivor,” the Peter Berg-directed war movie — one of the highest-grossing projects in Hirsch’s career — in which he played fallen Navy SEAL Danny Dietz. “They had a lot of respect for the military,” Hirsch said. “That helped a bit.”
He spent a lot of time interrogating inmates about their charges, which ranged from armed robbery to gang violence. “I tried to talk to everybody,” he said. “That’s part of being an actor, being open to every type of person. I wanted to hear everybody’s story.”
In rehab, he turned that interrogation process on himself and realized much of his emotional instability stemmed from his parents’ divorce. “There was a lot of hurt, a lot of pain,” he said. “I’d never really confronted it. Because I was working when I was so young in a grown-up world, getting a public profile, I never trusted that type of therapeutic work.”
Not that he thinks this experience makes him special. “I’m not unique,” he said. “Anyone who has had divorced parents who reads this will know exactly what I mean. There’s a pain there and sometimes you aren’t aware of it. That influences who you are from day to day.”
Hirsch’s childhood was especially nomadic. He divided his younger years between his mother’s house in New Mexico and Los Angeles, where his father nursed entrepreneurial aspirations while drifting from job to job. “We would live in hotels for a week at a time,” Hirsch said, “from one Motel 6 to another across town.” In New Mexico, he lived near a video rental store and spent his adolescence picking through its library of titles. “I was burning through so many movies,” he said.
It was the child performance at the center of “Home Alone” that initially made him want to act, leading to auditions that landed him bit parts on television shows by the late ’90s. “It just seemed like so much fun to me,” he said. “I had the idea when I was like six and just kept on doing it.”
In 1998, while he was in Australia shooting a cheesy made-for-TV movie called “Gargantua,” he watched “Citizen Kane.” Then watched it again. And again. After that, the quality of his projects began to make quantum leaps.
A Steady Rise
Hirsch started gaining traction with central roles in “Wild Iris” (2001) and “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” (2002) but it was 2004’s “The Girl Next Door” that provided the first real window into his maturing talent — a shy demeanor meshed with a naughty smirk, which made him the ideal fit to play a horny kid obsessed with his ex-porn star neighbor.
The gigs rushed in from there. In “Lords of Dogtown” (2005), he played a high-rolling skateboarder careening across ’70s-era Venice Beach, while “Alpha Dog” (2006) found him at the center of a gritty thriller in which he starred as a real-life drug dealer Johnny Truelove. Pitched somewhere between slapstick troublemaker and creepy introvert, Hirsch found his groove. Then Sean Penn called.
“Into the Wild,” Penn’s adaptation of the 1996 John Krakauer bestseller, found Hirsch playing 24-year-old Christopher McCandless, who ventured into Alaskan wilderness on a soul-searching journey in 1992 and eventually died of starvation. “I figured it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said, and threw himself into research mode, getting to knew McCandless’ family and losing 40 pounds for the part. The production found him battling through the elements. “He’s phenomenal,” Penn told an interviewer at the time. “I’ve never seen anybody on this level. The weight loss. The cold. The heat. Everything.”
Hirsch took his commitment one step further. “I went to my accountant’s office and was like, ‘I’m giving all my money away,'” he said. “They were like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m giving it all away. McCandless gave all his money away. So will I.'” He donated the entirety of his bank account to Oxfam International.
Emaciated and broke after “Into the Wild,” he turned to an entirely different kind of project that made another set of unwieldy demands: the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer,” his first — and, so far, last — starring role in a major Hollywood blockbuster. It was a jarring shift. “It felt kind of restricting to be in this green-screen world after being in the mountains improvising for months,” he said. The Wachowskis shot the futuristic “Speed Racer” in Germany against an almost entirely simulated backdrop over 60 days.
While “Speed Racer” was in post-production, Hirsch went straight into promoting “Into the Wild,” including an awards season campaign that landed him a National Board of Review prize and several nominations. The scale of “Speed Racer” hung over him in months leading up to its release. “I think the psychological element of just knowing how much money is behind something, and just being aware that you’re making this mass product — it’s exciting, but it’s also stressful,” he said. “You can’t just will great work into existence. You have to just learn what you can as an artist, and move forward.”
The zany adaptation of the ’60s television series was a box office bomb, but has since found support as a cult favorite. “Now, people come up to me and say it’s their favorite movie,” Hirsch said. “I’m always like, ‘Where were you back then?'”
Hirsch emerged with one immediate benefit from the rocky “Speed Racer” experience: a close friendship with co-star John Goodman, who played his father. Goodman, who was in the throes of his own alcoholism at the time and entered rehab a month after the movie wrapped, bonded with the younger co-star as they spent hours together rehearsing the movie’s cartoonish dialogue.
“He was really serious about it, but at the same time, made me laugh my ass off,” Goodman said. “It was a hard shoot, away from home in this other country. We developed this kind of shorthand, investing a lot into what could’ve been just a kid’s movie.” Goodman saw no similarities between his addiction and Hirsch’s own behavior. “He just seemed like a normal kid at the bar,” Goodman said. “There wasn’t any other compulsion there, like what I was experiencing as my life spiraled out of control.”
When Hirsch returned to the States and finished his “Into the Wild” tour, he needed a bigger space to clear his head. Goodman let him live at his Pacific Palisades home for more than a year. “It felt like some real stability,” Hirsch said. He relished opportunities to watch baseball games with Goodman and ask him for advice on upcoming projects. “I’m always impressed with him because I’m so goddamn lazy,” Goodman said. “He keeps telling me about all these new ideas he has.”
With “Speed Racer” failing to catapult Hirsch into A-list territory, he embraced smaller, weirder projects instead. In William Friedkin’s 2011 dark comedy “Killer Joe,” Hirsch plays bumbling Texan drug dealer Chris Smith, who enlists a scheming hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to kill Chris’ mother so he can use the insurance money to pay off a loan. It’s a shocking, hilariously twisted role that provides a loony anti-hero contrast to McConaughey’s usual slick routine. Then Hirsch teamed with David Gordon Green for “Prince Avalanche,” a tonally peculiar buddy comedy in which he and Paul Rudd play squabbling highway workers cleaning up the remains of a wildfire while arguing about life.
Hirsch’s diverse roles brought him renewed momentum, and by early 2015 he had landed another high-profile project playing John Belushi in a planned biopic. He was gearing up to gain weight for the part when he went to Sundance. As soon as the news broke of his drunken assault, the deal collapsed — and it wasn’t the only one. “Almost every project I’d been looking at went away,” he said. “I knew I deserved it.”
For “Ten Thousand Saints,” the movie that brought him to Sundance that year, Hirsch plays a straight-edge Krishna living in the East Village. He prepared for the role by spending several months sober. “I didn’t even drink soda,” he said. “I found some real transcendence playing that part, embracing the motto of a clear heart and clean mind. But I went back to drinking patterns after that and I missed the clarity I’d found.” He insisted he wasn’t drinking alone, but often found himself in boisterous environments — like film festivals and after parties — filled with ample free booze.
Goodman supported that assertion. “This work brings a lot of unwanted attention from people, and if you’re not in a position to ward those things off, you can get into a lot of trouble,” he said. “They enable and antagonize you. I’m glad he got sober.”
Hirsch struggled to come to grips with his actions in the immediate aftermath of his arrest and to deal with the consequences. When he called his mother, “I could just hear the disappointment and fear in her voice.” Then he considered how his victim must have felt. “I still cringe when I think about her parents,” he said.
He continued to ponder his circumstances in jail. “It was one of those many wakeup calls,” he said. “They just kept going on. It was surreal to know you couldn’t leave somewhere. You’re locked up and there’s a reason for it. It always bothered to me to see headlines where someone doesn’t get into trouble. This was taking accountability.”
By questioning his circumstances, Hirsch steadily found a way toward recovery. “My life has gotten significantly better in a lot of ways that really count,” he said. “There’s meaning and depth now that I was sorely missing before.” He thinks a lot about his three-year-old son, Valor. (He shares custody with an ex who maintains a low profile.) “I’m able to be a more present father now,” Hirsch said. “That’s the most important thing in my life.”
In many ways, Hirsch comes across as an amalgam of his many performances — a smart, quirky character who oscillates between spirited outbursts and quieter asides. He often talks so fast he loses his train of thought, drifting off with a sheepish grin. “I don’t think there’s ever been a game plan for me, but it’s been an organic process,” he said. “I give every project the benefit of the doubt.”
And when the work pays off, it travels with him. Hirsch learned that much midway through his jail sentence, when a couple of the more hospitable inmates noticed that “Into the Wild” was being broadcast and surprised the actor by putting it on. He leaned against wall and watched as the other men huddled around the television. “It made me happy, but it also made me sad,” he said. “In a situation where I couldn’t feel more worthless, I was reminded that I had made this thing that I was proud of doing. It inspired me to continue the work. I thought, ‘Man. I went from that to this. But, at the same time, I did that.’“