You’d expect someone mentored by Sean Penn to be a little touchy with reporters, but Emile Hirsch is almost courtly when he calls me up one recent evening. He’s friendly enough, but he also never quite lets down his guard, as if he’s still less than comfortable speaking in depth about the nuances of his art. I’m not surprised Hirsch takes our conversation very seriously… it matches his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most driven young actors.

Most of the town was aghast when Hirsch was snubbed on an Oscar nomination for his wrenching performance in 2007’s Into the Wild as stubborn iconoclast Christopher McCandless, the young man who tried to escape modernity in order to live a Thoreau-like, back-to-nature existence, and instead met with loneliness and starvation.

The physical demands of that role—a dangerous 40-pound weight drop and triathalon-like exertions—would be hard to duplicate, but Hirsch still continues to defy all expectations of what a popular 24-year-old actor should pursue.

The California native recently brought three-dimensional life to the cartoon hero of the Wachowski Brothers’ psychedelic sugar rush Speed Racer and disappeared behind a fro and thick glasses to play gay rights icon Cleve Jones in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. For Ang Lee’s forthcoming Taking Woodstock, he’s channeling the pain of an alienated Vietnam vet. It’s Hirsch’s next film, however, which may represent the biggest challenge he—or any actor—could undertake; the screenplay alone is 400 years in the making.

Ryan Stewart (MM): What are you working on today?

Emile Hirsch (EH): I’m doing a little bit of reading today actually, for this new project I’m working on with Catherine Hardwicke. Hamlet.

MM: How’s that coming along?

EH: It’s coming along really well. We’re at that point where Catherine is already in Massachusetts scouting locations, as well as in New York for a beat. We’re going to start working on different songs, because our Hamlet is a musician. It’s so exciting; I think it’s going to be a really interesting version of it. When I read the play, I really felt connected to the character.

MM: In what way?

EH: In a way that had a lot to do with my age, the way I saw myself as a 24-year-old male. I ended up going on the Internet and looking up Hamlet’s age, because I was thinking about older actors like Olivier, and there was this really cool thing where it said that Hamlet’s age is one of the most contested things in the world of Shakespearean academia. One of the quartos says that he’s 30, but lots of people surmise that this was added on later to fit older actors who wanted to play the role. When Shakespeare was writing, the average life span was much shorter; it was initially intended to be a younger part. Throughout the play it says “young Hamlet” and “impulsive young Hamlet” and I kept thinking, ‘That doesn’t sound like some 43-year-old guy to me.’ Also, in the play, Hamlet is in university, so we’re going to have him be in university.

MM: Hamlet is such a seminal role. It’s actually synonymous with acting itself. Does that scare you, just a bit?

EH: It totally scares the bejesus out of me, but I kind of like that. That’s what’s so fun about acting; something like this can scare me in a good way, because it’s such an exciting challenge.

MM: When I think of Hamlet, I think about exposing hypocrisy, pulling the curtain back on a corrupt system. Is that what interests you?

EH: Oh, absolutely. It’s about exposing whatever is behind the curtain in so many different ways. Hamlet wrestles with so many different issues that he actually kind of covers the whole gamut, in terms of spiritual and moral issues, life and death, morality, lots of stuff. We’re not so far along yet, we’re still in the beginning stages, but it’s fun. It’s going to be really exciting to see where we go with it.

MM: Between Hamlet, Taking Woodstock and Milk, you seem to be developing a yen for historical-biographical fiction.

EH: I am. I always loved history class in school. I really like doing those kinds of things and it’s always funny when you read a history book and you try to imagine what it was like, in person—I mean really like. What did Napoleon look like when he was just sitting there in his chair, making decisions? It’s fun to apply your imagination to historical reality.

MM: Do you look for roles that speak to today’s socio-political reality, in terms of what’s going on in America? Or are you more interested in roles that speak to your own psychological truth?

EH: It’s sort of a dose of both. In terms of what I’m naturally attracted to, I would say that it needs to be something that will be a challenge for me to play, and it needs to be a fun challenge, a fun mountain to climb. I like the trickier slopes. Whether those roles hold any moral symbolism for America, or my own person? That’s something that… I suppose it has an effect on me, but I don’t know how consciously I seek out those things.

MM: I once read an interview with Jack Nicholson from the ’70s where he said that he aspired to dramatize real personality types that the audience just hadn’t seen yet. Do you keep an eye out for those types in your daily life?

EH: All the time. Just this week I went to this casino off Interstate 405 to play some Texas hold ’em with my buddies, and saw these really interesting people, all different types of characters. There’s something depressing about just being in a casino; first of all, you get to see materialism at its absolute worst. You see them just carting food up to the Texas hold ’em table, so that these people literally don’t have to get out of their seats—not even to eat. They were like, “Bring the pasta to the table!” (laughs)

I went to the smoking lounge at about five in the morning and saw these guys just sleeping on stools—they had passed out with cigarettes still between their fingers. And I just thought, ‘Wow, what a depressing moment.’ But it also made me think, what goes into ending up like this at a casino? A lot of these guys are there, just like that, every night, because they’re obsessive gamblers. That’s who they are and that’s what they do.

MM: When you’re trying to get into a character’s skin, how big of a deal is the physical transformation for you? Do you need to disappear into these different people?

EH: I don’t think I necessarily need to, but I have so much fun doing it. Not all actors are into that, but that’s cool. I like a lot of actors who are more consistent with what they do, because they do it so well, but for me it’s usually more fun to play these different kinds of roles. Even as a little kid, I was always a ham, you know? I would play different characters and act out these very different roles for people, just to goof around.

MM: You obviously enjoy the theatrical side. I bet you’d like to take on a major villain role.

EH: Oh yeah, that seems like so much fun. The most fun role that I saw last year, the one that totally caught my attention and looked like it must have been the most fun thing ever, was Heath Ledger’s The Joker. He seemed like he had such a good time making that.

MM: I read that he was under lots of pressure from that role. Are you good at managing pressure, channeling it into positive energy?

EH: I think so, but situations vary of course. I think that’s one of the most famous challenges of acting: How do you use all of your excitement and your energy? There are chapters and chapters in acting books that are all about that, how actors can channel excitement, or even fear in some cases, and turn it into a positive aspect of the performance. Every actor is always going to face that challenge, and there will be different remedies for different situations. There are different ways that you can end up using that to your advantage and actually end up being even better, I think, because of that energy. You can make the scene live more if you can somehow make it more vulnerable, more energetic—things won’t be as flat.

MM: The pressures of just existing in Hollywood are also enormous, some artists just melt down. Look at Michael Jackson.

EH: Well, regarding Michael Jackson, I grew up with him. I was four years old watching those videos on a black-and-white TV and I really always loved him. But from what I’ve learned, he’d had certain injuries from when his scalp was burned on the Pepsi commercial. He had these injuries where the pain medication they gave him turned into various addictions. Letting injuries turn into addictions is so dangerous.

MM: Do you feel like the Hollywood game itself can be sort of a dangerous addiction? That some of your peers just can’t handle it?

EH: My perspective is that there aren’t necessarily any more people [here in Hollywood] that aren’t cut out for stuff like that. People are going to have those types of problems in all different walks of life. I don’t think that just being in the entertainment business is something that commits you to that, you know? If you go to a rehab clinic, you’ll see people who do all kinds of stuff, all kinds of different jobs, and that didn’t stop them. I feel like, because it’s the entertainment industry, it gets blown up more and you get to hear about it much more. The entertainment industry gets stigmatized as being the leader of all that, but in fact it’s just what gets the most attention.

MM: What do you do to keep yourself grounded?

EH: I think I just stay excited about my work and the material, and I’m always wanting to give 110 percent. It’s the excitement of being able to fulfill one’s potential, and wanting to meet these imaginary standards of excellence. That’s a big motivator.

MM: Have you ever taken on a character and then felt it was hard to let go or snap out of it?

EH: There have been characters that I’ve had a lot of fun with, and you end up studying things that they would have read or pieces of their philosophy or things that they might have believed in. It was certainly that way with Into the Wild, but not necessarily because of Christopher McCandless himself, because I never met him and there’s not a whole lot of information on him. But the stuff that he was reading, like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; that book was one that I really enjoyed. The whole idea of living simply and being frugal, that was a mentality that was hard to snap out of, and would you even want to snap out of a mentality like that? Or is it something that you like and want to keep? There are certain things you don’t necessarily have to snap out of if you enjoy them and you feel like they’ve made you grow as a person.

MM: As young as you still are, do you absorb a lot of information from mentors? Do you seek that out?

EH: I think with most of the mentors I’ve had, what I learned from them I just learned from observing them working. It’s very rare that I’ll call up someone and just ask them, ‘What do you think about this or that?’ I don’t want to impose on them, so I very rarely call people up just randomly. I do my own thing, and then if I am working with an older, more experienced actor, I’ll just want to observe them. I try not to be a nag! (laughs)

MM: Do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist from observing Sean Penn, in particular?

EH: I’d like to think so, but there are certainly no guarantees. Sean is amazing unto himself, and being around him I hope I’ve learned as much as I could. I definitely feel like he’s opened my eyes to a lot of different things, both about filmmaking and acting. With Into the Wild, he pushed me to a point where I really had to stand on my own two feet; there was nowhere to hide. I had to acknowledge to myself and prove to myself that I could stand on my own. And now I’ll always have that. I can take on other challenges now, because I know that I was able to do that one.

MM: What about Ang Lee? Did you observe anything interesting about him?

EH: I admired Ang’s style and his sense of specificity with character, and with his interpretation and vision of the movie. He has great taste when it comes to performances, in terms of what he likes. He strips actors of their common generalities so that they will commit—he takes those away from you, and he’ll say “Stop acting!” He’ll strip you bare, because he doesn’t want this popcorn artifice that a lot of actors will bring, unintentionally, because they haven’t had someone like Ang slapping them on the side of the head, so to speak.

MM: What was the attraction to taking on a small role like Billy in Taking Woodstock? Was it that you’re less encumbered by research and you can just freestyle?

EH: Not really. It was all Ang Lee. As soon as I heard that there was this movie he was doing, I got really excited. Then I read the script and I was like, ‘Okay, it’s a small role,’ but I didn’t care because I was just so excited to get a chance to work with Ang. It was interesting, because it was a character that was created for the movie, and I think [screenwriter] James Schamus and Ang really wanted to add that in because Billy was the reflection of Vietnam for the film. He was there to represent the war-torn soldier, and his character demonstrates the feeling, the capacity of what that peaceful, loving energy of Woodstock really represented. You see a guy who is frozen over in the beginning and he starts to thaw; his heart starts to warm again.

MM: So you didn’t see him as a dark rejoinder to the peace-and-love vibe of the hippies?

EH: I saw him as a guy who was withdrawn and angry and very alienated, but Demetri [Martin’s] character Elliot [who organizes the festival] befriends him and they begin to have a bit of a friendship. Through the community and the people of Woodstock, he starts to feel like he belongs a little bit, and we also see other veterans who are at Woodstock, so he’s able to begin the process of finding himself again. I thought that was what the last scene I was in was about, with Demetri on the hill. Billy talks about the hill [which he remembers from his youth] and how he was once engaged, and that to me felt very optimistic. He still has hope that he could be who he once was. I saw that as a very self-affirming moment. Woodstock brought him to that place.

MM: Have you ever been part of a big communal experience like Woodstock?

EH: I’d say that almost every movie set has aspects of that. You have a lot of people together and they’re all having a good time. And, for the most part, they’re really excited about what they’re doing—unless it’s a bad day or it’s raining or something. (laughs) You get to meet a lot of really cool characters. MM