Seventeen years after the release of Into the Wildwhich earned him acclaim for his work and defined — perhaps through some sort of osmosis — his personality, Emile Hirsch, now 38, by his own admission, has not abandoned the role of the unforgettable protagonist Chris McCandless.
The young adventurer and maverick starred in the 2007 film directed by Sean Penn and won him critical honors and a National Board of Review award. He says he carries within him “idealism, having his heart and priorities in the right place” as well as a certain radical view of life, the acting profession, and Hollywood in general.
It’s been a love-hate relationship for Hirsch, hitting a low point, when in 2015, the actor was involved in an unfortunate incident of assault against a Paramount executive. It cost him a 15-day jail sentence, a $4,750 fine and 50 hours of community service. But most importantly, he admitted to his addiction to alcohol.
The Californian, wearing a green T-shirt decorated with tropical motifs, giving him a “boy-next-door” look, is in Rome for the screening of Into the Wild, as part of the “Il Cinema in Piazza” festival organized by the Piccolo Cinema America association. An independently owned entity, it was created several years ago with genuine intentions and commitment to showing American Cinema in Rome, drawing national and international guests, from Paolo Sorrentino to Oliver Stone.
We met with Emile at the offices of Sala Troisi, in Trastevere, headquarters of the Roman Boys Association.
Emile, you are not new to Rome, but you are new to the Piccolo Cinema America. What do you think about it?
Crazy. There’s a 24-hour bar, as well as the study room upstairs and a really beautiful, large cinema. It’s kind of a cinephile’s paradise. And it’s an independent association.
Then again, you are also an “independent.” What is your relationship with Hollywood today?
I feel like I’ve always gone in search of unusual projects. Being independent makes you autonomous, with fewer rules to follow and more creative freedom. I like to do things for which I take big risks. A quality that happens more often in the independent world.
What’s the trade-off? Is there a time when you’ve made certain films to somehow stay in the business?
I think, even in terms of choices, I like all genres of films. I like action, comedy or drama. For me, it’s not necessarily a matter of “I have to do this certain thing to get that.” I know many actors who don’t do action movies. I enjoy it because I watch them. And if it’s a genre I watch, I usually have fun making it, too. I think the best way to build your career is to just do the things you like. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Without thinking about it too much. When you start looking at your career and choices as in a graph, you end up doing too many calculations, it gives the impression of being hypocritical, phony. You may be a good actor with a fantastic career, but many of your choices will be uninspired.
You’ve had a very warm welcome, and you’re not new to Rome. What do you like about this city and Italy?
When I come to Italy, I’m always in awe. I’m touched by people’s affection for some of the films I’ve made, like Into the Wild. It’s really beautiful. Italians have good taste, so I’m not surprised they appreciate art and creativity (laughs). And it’s terrific that Into the Wild has become, well, … it has a great reputation in Italy and Europe.
You’ve also shot films in Rome, such as Sergio Castellitto’s “Venuto al Mondo” (Coming into the World).
I have shot three different films in Italy. Other than “Venuto al Monda”, there is also American Night (Alessio della Valle, ed.) and State of Consciousness, which was shot in Bari. It’s amazing the connection I have with Italy. I’ve been here at least 10 times, at the very least. I love the food, the people, the atmosphere, the history and the love of everything different. One of my favorite artists is Leonardo da Vinci. It is so nice to come and be in his land: the art, the science and everything else. It would be worth coming there just for the architecture.
Going back to Into the Wild, it has been almost 20 years, although it seems like yesterday. That movie had a very strong impact…
One of the things about Into the Wild That resonates most with me is that when Sean Penn and I made the film, we knew what its potential was. We wanted to honor the life of Chris McCandless and make something that we would be proud of. We believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing. This was not a situation where we had any doubts. So we gave 100 percent. I was very young, only 21, when I made that film. Now I am 38. It’s crazy that so much time has passed. I think the most satisfying thing is that I’ve never looked back with regret, “I wish I had worked a little harder on this, I wish I had pushed more on that.” I know we put everything into that film.
Do you think it was one of the films that started to change our awareness of the environment?
It’s difficult to credit it to one film. What I have noticed is, Into the Wild is not a film that audiences watched 15 or 16 years ago when it came out, and that’s it. It’s a film that people keep looking for, even the younger generations see it. In the United States, they show it in schools. In high schools, during classes. I like to think one of the reasons the younger generation is fascinated by this film is the invitation to live life by following one’s dreams. Even though they can sometimes be “wild.”
Tell us about your future plans. You’ve finished shooting Bau Artist of War?
And Inside Manwhich will be released on August 11 in the US Bau Artist of War is set in a concentration camp during World War II. I play Joseph Bau, an artist who, while he was in the camps, helped forge identity documents to smuggle people out. An intense film. I’m excited about it. I also recently made another film, Degenerate, which is about poker and cards. That was also a lot of fun. I was in danger of becoming addicted to poker myself. I thought, “The movie is over and I’m still playing cards. I have to stop!”
You’ve had a career punctuated by ups and downs. There have been some moments in your personal life that have marked you. Do you feel compelled to prove that you have become “a good guy”?
I think it’s simply a matter of doing your job well and being able to put your heart and priorities in the right place. No one is perfect. No one can do the right thing in every moment of their life. I try to be a good person and live as well as I can. For me, life is a very long journey. The things that have happened in the past – I can choose to move on and be positive. If you always win in life, that’s one thing. But for me the most important lessons are learned in another way: how do you react when you find yourself in trouble? And I think the ability to get back up is an important quality. You know, a lot of times I look at some of the work I’ve done and try to learn from my characters. I do that to put myself on the right path.
Definitely McCandless, because of his idealism. But also Danny Dietz, the Navy SEAL I played in Lone Survivor. A fearless warrior who doesn’t give up. If he lets go, he gets back up.
We conclude with a question of close relevance. There is a lot of talk about AI and the role of technology in today’s world. What do you think about it? Do you think it is a threat?
Personally, I think AI will find its place in the software world. It is like virtual reality. Remember virtual reality and Mark Zuckerberg and how everyone would live in the metaverse? The truth about virtual reality is that it will never catch on. Maybe one day I will be wrong, and this interview will be shown as an example of a fatal mistake. But I think reality is interesting enough without the need to live in a fake one, invented by a bunch of wimps. As for AI, I played a little bit with Chat GPT. I asked him a few questions. And after about five or ten questions, I got bored and never opened it again. I’m not interested. I don’t think artificial intelligence can become such a big problem for artists. When you look at art, you want to see art. Not some fake robotic crap.
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