Every now and then you see someone speaking poorly about somebody else in the press. It's such a rude, classless thing to do.
By our estimation, Emile Hirsch is a wildcard in Hollywood. Now 28, his “I play by my own rules” attitude is still there for everyone to see. And it’s not like he doesn’t have the acting chops or a colorful filmography to back it up. His unique approach to the business is telling of his desire to try different things. Hirsch is perhaps most widely recognized for his life-affirming role in Sean Penn’s critically lauded Into the Wild or for his titular role in Speed Racer, which ultimately proved to be a box office failure. Everything considered, we enjoy his humor, forthrightness and grounded approach to a ravenous industry, considering his past growing up as a childhood actor.
Loosely adapted from a little-known 2011 Icelandic film called Either Way, David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche is an offbeat comedy set in the backwoods of Texas, circa 1988, a year after a raging fire scorched 43,000 acres of woodland. Two mismatched laborers, Lance (Emile Hirsch) and Alvin (Paul Rudd), are assigned the Sisyphean task of repainting the yellow lines on the highway and installing reflector poles along the shoulder. They work, they bicker, they camp. Ultimately, it’s an elegiac and reflective slice of life drama about two lost, aimless souls that proves gently moving. Also, the film is set to the ethereal, galloping crescendos of Explosions in the Sky.
Prince Avalanche is now playing in select theaters.
So how did you get roped into this one, Emile?
I was actually working on a script of my own at the time, a small one-room comedy. It was a very tiny project that I wanted to shoot with my friends. I called David [Gordon Green], who I hadn’t talked to in a very long time, to get advice some advice on making micro low-budget stuff. Quite strangely, that happened to be the day that he was thinking about whom to cast for Prince Avalanche. He called back the following day and told me that I had gotten into his head about this one project and if I would read the script. Of course, I did! He sent me the script, which was awesome. It was 60 pages long, really short, but all the dialogue was there. I was really excited about the prospect of working with David and Paul [Rudd]. It seemed like a great character piece even on the page. We were shooting within like a month and a half, so it was a quick turnaround.
What kind of preparation did you feel like you needed to do?
I think it was more about just exploring the parts of myself that are more juvenile and manbaby-ish. [Laughs] I was all about magnifying those qualities and bringing them to the surface. Lance is like Emile 2.0, me at my id and a couple of guys that I know at their id. It’s us at our most immature state. Us being at our at our most goofy and ridiculous served as the DNA sample or the template for the character I think.
David is 38 now and admits to finding it difficult not acting like an 11-year-old. Did his childlike playfulness translate onto the set?
David is super playful and has a lot of energy. He’s constantly cracking jokes and laughing. Mentally, he’s intense and rarely gets fatigued. But he’s also very straightforward, motivated and focused. David is just a great guy to work with. He’s constantly coming up with new ideas and changing things around. He gives the actors a lot of space, which I appreciate. He won’t mess with you too much unless he feels like he really needs to, and even then, it’s in an admirable way.
You paint traffic lines in the film, which I can only imagine is mind-numbing work. Did you ever hold down a job that you absolutely hated?
This might sound really bad, but I’ve been acting for 18 years. It’s not like I once worked at a light bulb factory or something like that. I started out as a child actor, so that’s all I know. But anyone who has ever been on a film set knows, within a day, how boring it is. It’s a mind-numbingly boring process 90% of the time. 10% of the day you’re actually acting and the other 90%, they’re setting up the location and you’re in wardrobe or whatnot. What’s great about Prince Avalanche is that we were able to cut that peripheral stuff out. It’s like, let’s go into the woods and take everything we don’t like about making movies—the waiting around, the boredom, the tedium, executives telling us what to do—and make a movie on our own terms at a really fast-paced speed. That’s why the shoot lasted just 16 days and everybody was happy the entire time.
Since acting is all you really know in terms of work, have you often thought about what you might have pursued if that wasn’t in the cards?
Maybe a librarian? I would just shush people in the halls all day. I wouldn’t even read any books. I would only shush people. [Laughs] I would be that notorious librarian carrying a stick.
I’m a sucker for cool bands scoring movies because, with the right pairing, they add so much to the viewing experience. Were you already familiar with Explosions in the Sky?
I love those guys! They actually scored my next film as well, which is called Lone Survivor. I would go as far as to say that the score is a third character in Prince Avalanche. I think the film has this magical, haunted quality to it that separates it from a lot of other movies. There’s almost an addictive quality to the score in some respects. It’s like you want to see the movie a second time just to hear the music set to some of the scenes again. The montages where Lance and Alvin are getting loaded or when Alvin is alone over the weekend set to the music is so good. The songs on their own is amazing to listen to.
Are you at all repellent about doing remakes, generally speaking?
Not at all. It’s ultimately good for both movies because it’s fascinating to see two movies made about the same material. I think this remake will give a bigger audience for the original Icelandic movie. I’ll add that the original is very different and very good. I do enjoy the discrepancies between the two and it’s all part of the fun. As a film buff myself it’s like, watch this one and then watch that other one too. There’s an enjoyment to be had in watching an original and a remake to see what’s different about them. I’m a big fan of seeing Hamlet in its myriad of forms. It’s just so different each time someone takes a stab at it. So not only am I okay with remaking movies, I actually endorse it. I think it’s a lot of fun. I would like to see them remake more stuff to be honest.
I guess a semi-recent example is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because a lot of people were up in arms about the remake, yet David Fincher made something masterful.
Totally! I actually like it when they remake really good movies like that as opposed to superhero movies or something. Can you imagine if they remade The Shawshank Redemption? [Laughs] I mean… I don’t know.
Maybe you should take a stab at that.
It would just be funny to remake something completely inappropriate, but what would that be?
[Laughs] A low-budget version of Titanic?
I’ll make you a cardboard ship. Wait, so what’s happening with that one-room comedy you were working on?
I sort of ditched it for now, but I’m working on some other things too. Sometimes, I get really impatient when I write and just decide to chuck it.
Do you want to set yourself on a path toward directing?
Maybe… I might be on a path toward directing a film. I guess if I enjoy it and it turns out to be a rewarding experience. With acting, truthfully, you only work on camera 100 days out of the year at the most. You have some 260 days to do other stuff, so any hobby that you can think of is probably a good thing. You can knit or something. [Laughs] It’s all good though because you have plenty of time! There’s no downside to that.
What do you do on your downtime?
Lately, I’ve been going to the gym a lot. I like to go hiking a lot. I’m trying to stay in good shape and be strong. [Laughs]
Do you ever think about doing Broadway?
I thought about doing Broadway, but it has to be the right thing for me at the right time. I’m definitely interested in it though. It might become a nightmare if you pick the wrong thing and do it at the wrong time.
You know Hamlet well. Would you ever consider doing something like that?
Oh, I don’t know about that. To me, it’s not knowing the play that seems like the difficult part. The tricky thing about Broadway is that you have to do it like 8 times a week. That, to me, is the hard part. It’s where you have to do the same thing over and over again. It could be amazing for the first couple of shows.
Since the turnaround from the time you agreed to do Prince Avalanche to when you started shooting was very quick, did you have much time to rehearse and get to know Paul?
Well, we didn’t really rehearse before and I met Paul 5 days before we started shooting. I could tell right away that Paul was a great conversationalist and we got along really well. We could both tell that we liked each other. He’s a good joker and I was like, this guy is cool. In terms of rehearsals, we would just do that the day before shooting scenes to get the dialogue right. At the same time, we didn’t want to over-rehearse to make the scenes feel fresh with some improvisation and spontaneity. We wanted to memorize the dialogue to the bare minimum where we felt comfortable without becoming this mechanical robot. It’s a tricky thing to balance. If you under-rehearse, you look like a deer in headlights.
Can you imagine if you didn’t like Paul going into this? It’s just the two of you.
[Laughs] Even if it was true, it would be so unprofessional to admit something like that. I’m not saying I didn’t like Paul! Every now and then you see someone speaking poorly about somebody else in the press. It’s such a rude, classless thing to do.
Even for the person on the receiving end of that story. It puts a bad taste in their mouth.
Yeah! You can’t help but judge the person that said this horrible thing about someone else. It’s like, what kind of asshole is this?
I’m assuming you were already familiar with some of Paul’s work prior to this. He has become this comedy staple in movies, which I never would’ve anticipated in the ’90s.
Of course. It’s cool that he has done a lot of stage work too. I think a lot of his stage work is more serious. I enjoy the serious side of Paul. He’s a goofball at times, but… Aren’t we all? [Laughs]
You briefly brought up Lone Survivor. What can you reveal about your next one?
Lone Survivor is a film based on a book by Martin Luttrell about the 2005 Navy SEALs mission “Operation Red Wings” in Afghanistan. It’s a tragic story that cost a lot of lives. I play Danny Dietz in the film, one in a four-man SEAL team. The other guys are played by Ben Foster, Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch. We shot it in New Mexico, which doubled for Afghanistan. It was a really long, intense process, but I think it’s going to be a very powerful film.