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Nature of the Beast

arch 4003   Emile Hirsch explores inner landscapes in ‘Wild’

“Besides his outstanding intellect and creativity, his willpower, strength and integrity stood out,” says “Into the Wild” star Emile Hirsch. “He really is a tremendous spirit.”

Curiously, Hirsch isn’t talking about the young man he portrays in “Wild,” Christopher McCandless. He’s referring to Sean Penn, the film’s director.

“Sean definitely gives actors a lot of freedom,” Hirsch adds.

Penn had to in his latest directorial effort. “Into the Wild” chronicles the dynamic, real-life epic tale of McCandless, who tossed aside a conventional if not privileged life in the 1990s. After walking away from a promising future, the top Emory University grad gave up his life savings and fearlessly thrust himself into the wild for transformative experience. The journey took him all places rugged (read: West) in America and, eventually, Alaska, where he met an untimely death.

The movie also stars William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and Catherine Keener, and is based on Jon Krakauer’s captivating bestseller. Both the literary and film account applaud McCandless’s heroic nature and question it at the same time.

Hirsch says he was 8 or 9 when he saw the news report on McCandless. By the time the film project came across his radar, he jumped at the chance to be in it mostly because the screenplay, written by Penn, wasn’t afraid to go deep.
But overall, the cinematic journey was physically demanding. Hirsch tapped into his inner outdoorsman by roughing it through raging rapids, climbing mountains and getting cozy with an ornery co-star — a grizzly bear. He also had to drop some major pounds for scenes that showed McCandless emaciated in Alaska.

It was there, coincidentally, that Hirsch had his own epiphanies.
“I had a special fondness for Alaska,” he says. “Most of the time I was up there, I was by myself, pretty much. It was like this crazy personal adventure, where it was only me and the challenge. It was the hardest terrain I’ve ever had to work in.”

Hirsch also notes that the movie touches a nerve with audiences. “I think there are a lot of other things going on in the film in terms of pain — family and life,” he says. “But the underlying thing everyone seems to like is that sense of adventure, especially when Chris is alone and testing himself. I think people are fascinated and attracted to it.”
They also continue to be fascinated with Hirsch, whose celebrity has been steadily rising, thanks to a string of memorable gigs (“Lords of Dogtown,” “Alpha Dog”). The 22-year-old actor’s adventurous streak doesn’t show signs of stopping any time soon.

Up next for Hirsch: the lead role in directors Andy and Larry Wachowski’s “Speed Racer.”

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