In the last few years, Emile Hirsch has become a go-to resource for directors of all sorts of films: After starring in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, Hirsch took on the reins of Speed Racer, a massive, effects-driven action film from The Matrix's Wachowski brothers, and then collaborated on screen with Penn again, in a supporting but essential role in Gus Van Sant's Milk. In his latest project, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, Hirsch tackles yet another period character, this time playing a young Vietnam veteran who regains a little bit of his humanity when the iconic music festival descends on his hometown.
Cinematical recently spoke to Hirsch in an exclusive telephone interview about his role in Taking Woodstock. In addition to discussing the challenges of bringing a character to life whose behavior, if not very identity, has become as familiar to audiences as the imagery of Woodstock itself, Hirsch revealed some of the sources of inspiration he took for his portrayal, and talked about the futility of coming up with a strategy for one's acting career.
Cinematical: The character you played in Into the Wild had his own tragic past, but the way that he dealt with it was with a greater degree of serenity. Did you see any parallels or similarities when you took on this role in Taking Woodstock?
Emile Hirsch: I think that in some way, I didn't actually see continuity. I think what struck me was a marked difference in ultimately how the two of them kind of respond. McCandless makes the realization that happiness is only real when shared at the end of the film, but by and large that the actions that he's taken that would lead to the end of his life have been more about self-discovery and being alone. But kind of the ultimate cathartic moment with Billy is so much more about the community of Woodstock and almost the family of memories that he has and kind of coming to terms with that. With Elliot when they hug, it's almost like he has this lifeline back to his life. So they did seem very different in that sense that Billy was able to embrace people much quicker.
Cinematical: Ang Lee supposedly gave you a list of films to watch to familiarize yourself with that period and develop that character. How challenging was it to process what he wanted you to take away from those materials to portray a character like this whom we've seen shades of in other films about Vietnam and veterans?
Hirsch: Ang is very specific, so I didn't have a hard time understanding what he wanted. Like, there was a moment where he had me watch a scene in The Deer Hunter with Christopher Walken where Christopher Walken recognizes Bob De Niro right before he shoots himself in that final game, and it's like this cathartic moment of recognition where the memories are pouring back all at once. That was a moment that Ang was like, I want to feel the memories coming back to you, like Christopher Walken, when you're on the hill. You're on the hill and suddenly every cell in your body remembers. I thought it was such a specific, wonderful guide and direction, and Walken is amazing in that scene; you see a guy remembering, and it's just the most beautiful moment with him. So that was the kind of direction he would steer me in with regards to films, but, you know, I think the thing that maybe distinguishes this character more than anything else about it in terms of its Vietnam-veteran status is that I was 23 when I did it, and I look like a young vet. This is not a 35-45-year-old guy; he's much younger, and that's something I think Ang was very insistent on, but it's also something that sets it apart from some of those other portrayals, just the sheer youth of it.
Cinematical: Was there any calculated decision-making in portraying his condition with even a small degree of self-awareness? For example, there's a scene in which Elliot asks if you're "there," or if you're having a flashback, which audiences have seen to some extent before. How do you lose yourself in that moment, and at what point do you acknowledge that your character is losing himself in that moment?
Hirsch: I think if you're self-aware about something like that, I think it's dangerous. I think that would be really alienating for an audience. If you felt that way, I hope not too many people feel that way, just because in those moments you kind of lose an emotional investment when there's a kind of wink-winkness, like a character is kind of aware he's out of it, or if he were to enjoy it. so I think that he's aware – he's not a dumb guy – he knows that he is f*cked up; like a lot of people that have problems, just because they're aware that they have the problems doesn't make the problems go away. So in that sense I do think that he's aware. Because guys that have flashbacks, ten minutes later they knew they had a flashback; they're like, man, that was freaking crazy! I've talked to some of them, and they're like, yeah, you flip out. One of my good friends was in the Vietnam prison camp for five years, and he told me some crazy stories where for years he would just be waking up and digging holes in the backyard and have to sleep on the hard ground and everything, but he would say it in a way that he knew it was crazy but he couldn't help it.
Cinematical: I certainly didn't mean that as a criticism of the performance or the movie. It's just interesting in the context of Woodstock that we have such a strong collective memory of the way we perceived the people and that time period. Do you find that period material gives you a foundation for the way the era was documented, or does that just help you approach each scene more intuitively?
Hirsch: I think it's so I can approach each scene more intuitively. I think this performance for me was really personal, and I wasn't just trying to play an artificial kind of character. I was more trying to do research and gather circumstances and learn the types of situations he would be in where he would react in, and then just make it intuitive and personalize the character as much as I could. That's what really what me and Ang were working towards, so there's a lot of moments in there where it's me, but just through this lens of this experience this guy has, and that's the best you can hope for a lot of the time - unless you're playing a character that's not like that.
Cinematical: I asked Demetri this as well, but why do you think now is the right time to make a movie about this particular era? Especially since our collective pop-culture consciousness seems to be obsessed with the 1980s, not the '60s.
Hirsch: Well, I think you want to make it now before people start dying that actually lived in that era, so certainly now as opposed to 30 years from now; I think it's better now when people can still see the movie who were there and enjoy it with their kids. And younger people can still see it and it's not a movie about the '20s where most of the people from that era are no longer with us; they can go "oh, that's like what my parents' friends were there," or there's just a little bit more people around from that period. [Also,] for me one of the reasons why Woodstock has kind of survived is not the music, though the music is so important and so amazing, I think it's really the image and the idea of utopia that our parents achieved when they were younger. They somehow succeeded where maybe we didn't in forming this like peaceful culture where people respected one another and they weren't violent and they all got along. I think that idea of like this perfect kind of peaceful world is so seductive and seems so possible with Woodstock, that the idea and the memory of it echoed on so loudly, and I think that's how Woodstock became Woodstock. I don't think it was just because it was a bunch of amazing bands, you know?
Cinematical: I'm a huge fan of both Into the Wild and Speed Racer. Having done this big sort of potential blockbuster and then something more intimate, do you feel a sense of freedom when picking roles? Or is there by necessity a sense of strategy to your career if only so that you can do more different kinds of characters in the future?
Hirsch: Sometimes I find myself scheming about my career and being a careerist and fancying myself a little game-player, right? But the reality is it never goes according to whatever scheme you could kind of hatch up because the way that business works and the way that the entertainment world works with movies is that they just come along randomly and spontaneously. It's not like after Into the Wild I went, oh, I'll make Speed Racer! Those movies just popped up all of a sudden and I was like, whoa! After Speed Racer, all of a sudden Milk popped up; I wasn't like, oh, I need to do a cool supporting role. I wasn't thinking anything like that. So thinking in terms of a careerist perspective is tempting and it's kind of inevitable, to be honest, but very rarely does it actually follow through. Most of the time, you're just going to follow a different path, because the very nature of what you do dictates that.