Emile Hirsch is one of those actors difficult to define. Never playing the same character twice, the actor goes from the likes of “Speed Racer” to playing real-life gay activist Cleve Jones in “Milk” – director Gus van Sant’s touching and powerful biopic of the late San Francisco gay icon Harvey Milk. Hirsch talked about the film and its ironic relevance to today’s issues, with Paul Fischer.
Question: The physicality of this character was what really struck me about you for this movie. How much did you immerse yourself in being this guy?
Hirsch: You know, I spent a lotta time with Cleve Jones before the film, in preparation. And I became very into him and his personality. And I was very involved with him, and I was just – I had fun with him.
Question: What surprised you about him when you met him?
Hirsch: Well, when you read the script, Cleve – he comes across as kind of a smartass, or kind of funny, or kind of interesting. But not – not really. It’s harder to see that. But as soon as I met Cleve, I went, “Oh. I get who Cleve is.” You know, he’s a very funny and kind of sarcastic but very tender person. And as soon as I met him, I was – that was it, and I was very excited to try to go to work on who this guy is. It was interesting, you know. Because he’s on set every day. And it’s a different process for me than I’ve ever had before. And it kind of upped the pressure, at certain parts. I mean, I wasn’t going to pick my nose in a close-up, or something like that.
Question: What’s it like actually having the person on-set who you were playing?
Hirsch: Sometimes you’re kind of like, “Ah, I don’t know.” But then there’s other times where it was so helpful, I’d just be like, “So, what were you thinking right in this time?” And he could just tell me. It’s like, looking at the answer sheet for actors or something. It’s like – it’s sort of cheating. Not only would he tell me, but he could tell me as he would tell it, you know what I mean? I’d be like – aaah!
Question: How would you compare Sean Penn the actor with Sean Penn the director? You’ve been privileged enough to work with him on both levels.
Hirsch: Well, Sean’s all over the place when he’s directing, because he has so many different problems, and so many different departments to deal with. So there’s more of an intense kind of general thing. You know, he’s just everywhere, all the time. And he’s always on, and he’s very, very social. And – you know, I think acting is more specific, compartmentalized, in terms of what his job is. But both, he brings just enormous kind of “maverick” talent to it.
Question: Maverick! I don’t know if he’d like that word, maverick.
Hirsch: Yeah. I should take the maverick line back! No, he’s just – he’s extraordinary to watch. As an actor, you know – actor-to-actor, I mean, he’s crazy to watch.
Question: What did you think of your look? Did that help you kind of get into the character?
Hirsch: I had a lot of fun with the look, and there was a lot of photos I would pour over and really try to get into. I just loved the glasses and the curly hair, and to have his kind of demeanor, and kind of how gay he was in certain ways in terms of his flamboyancy. I really liked that. And that was something, too, that I was initially – I was wondering. I was like, “Is Cleve going to want me to play him like that?”
I was interviewing him, and Cleve was said something that let me know it was okay. He’s like – you know, he’s like, “I’m a queen.” Because it’s a weird thing, to where there was part of me – I was concerned that if I started to try to be like it would almost be like, “What are you doing?” Do you know what I mean? And he just straight told me. Because if not, he’d be like, “Why are you acting like that?” You know what I mean? But he was like, “This is who I am.” Like, he’s so confident in who he is. And he just was like, “This is who I am. Feel comfortable playing me.”
Question: When we’re introduced to your character, the first thing we see you do is basically skipping down the street. Was that something that was kind of improv’d on the day of shooting? Because obviously that probably wasn’t in the script, where – you know, it probably just said, “He shows up and just walks off with his friends,” or whatever.
Hirsch: I don’t know where the skipping came from. [LAUGHTER]
Question: It seems like it was a tremendously fun role for you to play.
Hirsch: It was. I had a great time with it. The two roles that I had the most fun in were The Lords of Dogtown and this movie.
Question: Was that because you got to skateboard in Lords of Dogtown?
Hirsch: I don’t know. There’s something about these very specific physical characters that I just have a lot of fun with.
Question: I’ve heard Gus really helped to instill everyone with a sense of confidence on set. And I was just wondering if you could speak to that, especially given the fact that you were portraying historical characters.
Hirsch: I agree. I think acting is – you know, quicksilver. It’s like the crispy part of the top of the crème brulee. It’s really easy to crack it or break it. That’s like, an actor’s confidence, you know? And as soon as you break it, you know, everything turns to mush, kind of. And Gus is the king of keeping – of walking on the crème brulee without it breaking. He’s the king of that. He can walk onto the finished ice, and it won’t break. And then when you eat the crème brulee – I can’t let it go! [LAUGHTER]
Question: is it challenging for you to find characters that really get your juices flowing? Characters like this, that are rare, I guess, for young actors?
Hirsch: Yeah. You know, it is a challenge. And there’s parts you’ve got to sift through. But I think that it’s – I’ve been very lucky in terms of some of these parts I’ve gotten, because they’re not – they’re just these extraordinary people who’ve already lived. Cleve Jones and Chris McCandless and Jay Adams.
Question: and Speed Racer.
Hirsch: Speed Racer. Speed’s not real?
Question: I thought he was. Was that a distinct departure? I mean, how intentional was that, to go from Speed Racer to Milk? I mean, it’s a huge dichotomy.
Hirsch: It just happened to turn out that way, though, you know? There was no way I wasn’t gonna do –
Question: It wasn’t something you wanted?
Hirsch: To – well, I was excited to – I was excited that it was very different, you know? I was excited that it wasn’t another green screen movie right after Speed Racer, just because green screen is – you know, everyone knows it’s challenging for actors to try to work with a chimpanzee on set. [MAKES CHIMP NOISE] I mean, actors don’t like green screen. Imagine a chimp. Chimps really don’t like green screen.
Question: What’s next for you?
Hirsch: I worked on this movie this summer called “Taking Woodstock”, with Ang Lee directing. He was amazing. And it’s a really cool, small role, but a really good one, of a young Vietnam vet who just kind of wanders the town that Woodstock comes to. He’s a small-town kind of guy. And you kind of see Demetri Martin, who’s the lead in the film, how he kind of can help this friend of his.
Question: When’s it coming out?
Hirsch: Probably not ’til summer. I think it’s gonna be good, though.
Question: Could you just talk a little bit about the significance of this film coming out right after what happened with Prop 8 in California, and what’s been happening since then? Would you like to have seen this film come out sooner?
Hirsch: I think that it’s not about looking back. You know, it’s just about looking forward. And people should embrace this beautiful film, and let it inspire them. And the gay community and the straight community should embrace this film, and let it help change the way people look at certain situations. And I think that – you know, it’s too bad that the film wasn’t able to be completed before that. It would have been a couple months, kind of thing, trickier. But I think that it’s gonna be – it’s coming at a time it’s, I think, most needed. You know, I think the community’s hungry for it right now. The world, not just the community.
Question: Sean’s kind of a political guy to be with. And I don’t know if that’s just his public persona that we’re used to seeing. But, you know, does he talk politics at all on the set? Was there anything – conversations you had with him about either the administration, or whatever?
Hirsch: I think he was pretty focused on the role. And – you know, there’s things. I mean, I’m very hesitant to talk about Sean. I don’t like talking about people, you know? Just – you never know if someone’s gonna see something.
Question: Did you have a chance to watch the ’84 documentary? And was that something that you used to inform how you approached the role?
Hirsch: Yeah, yeah. The documentary is so good. I mean, that’s an amazing documentary. It’s amazing. And – it did. It was a huge – because, like, watching that documentary is like stepping in a time machine or something. Not that I would know.
Question: What do you think you want to do next? Do you have a New Years’ resolution, something you’re ready to conquer now?
Hirsch: I want to grow my hair back out. I cut it yesterday at lunch. It was down to here.
Question: You cut it yourself?
Hirsch: I don’t know, it was just like – I’ve got to cut – I don’t know. Because it had been kind of getting difficult.
Question: Was that for Woodstock?
Question: Do you have any desire to do theatre? Is there anything else beyond –
Hirsch: Yeah, I’d like to do theatre. I’d like to do a play. It seems kind of scary, though, but it seems like it’d be fun.
Question: Any particular role?
Hirsch: I was reading David Rabe’s play, “Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel”, that was the play Pacino kind of made his name one, I think in Chicago. And then I was also looking at “When You Coming Back, Red Rider”, and I read “Hamlet” for the first time.
Question: You’d never read that before?
Hirsch: I had never read it.
Question: You didn’t study that at school?
Hirsch: No. I mean, I’m sure they did. But I didn’t. I loved Hamlet, though. I’d never seen it, really. All I knew about Hamlet was the name Hamlet.
Question: You’d be probably a good Hamlet. You’re the right age for that.
Hirsch: Yeah. It’s funny, I went on-line, actually,because I was like, “Can I play Hamlet? Am I too young to play Hamlet?” And apparently there’s all kinds of –
Question: There have been Hamlets of all ages.
Hirsch: There have been. And there’s all kinds of controversies about – because some of those Shakespeare documents, there’s like – the first one, and then the second one and the third one. In the first one, Hamlet’s supposed to be 16. And in the second one, all of a sudden he’s, like, 23. And then all of a sudden he’s 30 in, like, the official one. So it’s like, how did that happen? And a lot of people theorized that he wrote it as a 16-year-old, but then the actor that plays all the big parts that he had was a little bit older, so he wrote it older. But you read it, and he kind of reads as a tormented adolescent.
Question: Why couldn’t you resist the Milk movie?
Hirsch: There’s something so moving about it, and so relevant, and such a great example of just an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things. And the chance to get to work with Gus and Sean. And, you know, everybody else, too. You know? Diego, James, Alison.
Question: How did it come to you, the film?
Hirsch: Gus saw Into the Wild over at the Toronto Film Festival, and I think he got it in his mind that he wanted me for the part. And then he approached Sean about it after, and then it maybe started to happen. I was surprised Sean was okay with it, though, after we spent so much time together. [LAUGHTER] I mean, I wouldn’t blame him if he never wanted to see me again after that movie.
Hirsch: Well, I mean, it’s just a lot of time spending one on one with someone.
Question: Yeah, but as you say, he had other things on his mind besides you.
Hirsch: Well, plus the editing room in Into the Wild. So we shot the movie for nine months, and then he had to edit the thing. And I didn’t have to be there for that. But he couldn’t go anywhere. You know what I mean?
Question: He had to look at you for nine months, and in post-production.
Hirsch: That’s what I’m saying.
FEHirsch: But it was a work of art.
Question: How do you feel about the political dynamic of so many straight actors playing such pivotal gay people? Harvey Milk, Capote, Tom Hanks’ character in Philadelphia. Do you have an opinion on that? That gay actors are not more sought out, to play these really important gay people?
Hirsch: Well, you know, it’s one of those things where – that’s a tough question. You know, I’m probably not even informed enough on that specific subject to answer it with any type of –
Question: But do you have an opinion?
Hirsch: I mean, there’s a lot of factors that go into casting. You know what I mean? Let’s say, for example, with this film. And I’m not speaking from knowledge, I’m hypothesizing right here. This film, they need someone who’s not only an amazing actor, but who has certain name recognition. It’s a $30 million or so investment. Or however many million dollars. So a lot of these decisions are, in some ways, financial. So it’s a tricky question.
Question: But it’s so ironic. With Milk, he was so political and outspoken.
Hirsch: I mean, I don’t know. Aren’t there a lot of – I mean, I don’t know if I totally agree with you, about only straight actors playing gay people.
Question: I think that they have been the most visible ones, in the biggest movies.
Hirsch: But there are a lot of gay – aren’t there a lot of gay actors that do play gay people in movies, though?