There’s always that thrill when seeing an actor make the leap from steady supporting player to full-fledged star. That time is now for Emile Hirsch.
Based on the Jon Krakauer best-seller, “Into the Wild” tells the story of 22-year-old Christopher McCandless, a wealthy well-bred college graduate who has no desire to enter corporate America. Instead, he decides to take his life by the throat, traveling around the country (eventually ending up in the wilds of Alaska) and living with nothing more than the bare necessities that fit in his backpack.
He meets all types of folks in his journeys — vagabonds who see themselves in him, teenage girls who yearn for romance and an elderly gentleman (played tenderly by veteran actor Hal Holbrook) — but McCandless often feels most comfortable being by himself, in conditions that have no need for either a clock or calendar.
Hirsch was cast by writer-director Sean Penn, who needed assurance from the actor that he would be both emotionally and physically committed to the part. It’s easy to visualize the enormous endurance Hirsch needed for the shoot, particularly scenes in which he is kayaking over nasty and dangerous rapids, climbing over steep rock-laden hills in the blazing sun or meandering through dense forests in desolate Alaska.
Thin to begin with, Hirsch lost 40 pounds due to the rigors of filming.
“I knew he could act the part, but the question was could he act it every day for eight months under tough circumstances, and was he willing to go from a boy to a man during production and on-screen,” asks Penn. “I was taking the measure of his character, and more and more I got as confident as I could. Finally, we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ and he came through in spades. There’s something electric about him, and so much that Emile tells you about Chris McCandless in his eyes.”
Penn certainly saw Hirsch in the underrated Jodie Foster indie “The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys,” which gave him his first big movie role. The next few years brought films that had little critical or box office resonance — “The Emperor’s Club,” “The Girl Next Door,” “Imaginary Heroes” — but it wasn’t until his last two films, “Lords of Dogtown” and “Alpha Boys,” where everyone started taking notice.
In “Wild,” Hirsch’s choice to move away from civilization is done with an immense sense of purpose. His journey into the oblivion isn’t done out of spite or with malice toward his well-meaning out-of-touch parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), but because he believes being with nature is the only true way to live.
Said author Krakauer about how Hirsch transformed himself into McCandless: “One of the coolest things about Emile is that he really doesn’t look anything like Chris when you meet him in real life, but he’s so believable on the screen, you feel like you’re watching Chris through the whole movie.”