Emile Hirsch is Speed Racer
Lauded for his performance in Sean Penn's critically acclaimed Into The Wild, Emile Hirsch makes a dramatic change of pace with The Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer.
If nine months in the freezing cold wastelands of Alaska with Penn might arguably prepare an actor for anything, then Hirsch confesses that he was more afraid of the trippy Wachowskis than anyone else in his already impressive fifteen-year career. "I'd already met Larry and Andy Wachowski five years ago," he reveals. "I auditioned for The Matrix Reloaded, and I didn't get the part. So I didn't think that I had a good shot at Speed Racer. It's a bit like asking a girl out on a date and she says no, and then five years later you're kinda like, "˜Well, she's probably gonna say no again...'"
The fact that he wasn't right for The Matrix Reloaded has little bearing on his being the right guy for Speed Racer, but this is of little assurance to the 23-year-old actor. "That would mean that I was thinking rationally. And actors don't think rationally. Actors are insecure!" he laughs. Hirsch certainly doesn't come across as an insecure young man. That's a role that he deftly reserves for the screen. Talking today in a Las Vegas hotel room, just moments after a five-minute Speed Racer teaser reel has been screened to much applause for thousands of cinema operators and film executives at the industry's annual Showest Convention, he appears unruffled, rocking in his chair and absent-mindedly fiddling with the buttons on his striped shirt, which hangs loosely over baggy jeans. Such nonchalance is possibly due to the fact that Hirsch has been acting now for almost two-thirds of his life.
Now with Speed Racer, Hirsch steps into a project unlike any of his previous films. This is a big budget, special effects-driven blockbuster that could possibly signal the birth of a new franchise. But despite all the glittery accoutrements, the appeal of Speed Racer was simple: it was all about the Wachowskis' script. "It was just so different from anything I'd read before," Hirsch says. "I'd never really read any blockbuster scripts because they don't usually send them my way. But this was so different, and the fact that the Wachowskis were making it was the main reason for me wanting to do it. The Matrix is one of my all-time favourite movies."
Speed Racer called for Hirsch to spend months alone with only a green screen for company; the film was built on ten-hour days spent thrashing around in a gimbal, which doubled for the race car that he pilots in the film. Based on Mach GoGoGo, the classic 1960s Japanese series created by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida (which was retooled as Speed Racer for Western audiences), the film follows the adventures of teen racer Speed (Hirsch), who wants to become the greatest driver in the world, pursuing his quest for glory in his thundering gadget-laden car, Mach 5. Starring as Speed's parents are Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, while Christina Ricci plays his girlfriend Trixie, with Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X.
"The green screen was like a whole other animal," Hirsch recalls. "It was so very different from climbing mountains in Alaska for Into The Wild. It was like being in a sci-fi rig with nerds everywhere. It's like we were on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise! That was the set! People don't realise how similar working with the green screen is to doing live theatre; it's all make-believe, and it's almost like a stage. One of the crazy things about this is that I went from only working outdoors, with Into The Wild, to not doing one single scene outdoors in Speed Racer. In that sense, it was like being in a sauna and then leaping into an ice bath for three-and-a-half months. Both have their advantages. But the green screen stage is probably a lot safer!" he debates, scratching his head. "Actually, I'm not entirely convinced about that one. I mean, there was the grizzly bear and the treacherous locations in Into The Wild, but Speed Racer also had its moments."
Most of those moments would come courtesy of the gimbal, a hydraulic-pumped contraption where he spent most of his days, suspended seven feet off the ground. "It would get pretty wild in the gimbal," Hirsch says. "It's connected to a base at the floor with hydraulic pumps, and it basically thrashes around while a camera captures the movements that will later be put onto a green screen. So you sit in this thing which has extreme power and extreme g-force, and it looks like you're flying around in the car. When they put it onto the green screen, the car is created around you. Depending on who was operating the gimbal, that would change the level of the whiplash I would have at the end of every day," he grimaces. "Other than the muscle strain and getting bruised, I survived. But when you look over and there's this little monkey, wearing overalls, jumping up and down and going, "˜Eeeeh, eeeh', you're like "˜What planet am I on?' But it was a fun planet to be on."
All that said, at the end of the day, Hirsch was actually relieved, rather than disappointed, that he wasn't required to get behind the wheel of a real car. "It was a massive relief actually, because these cars are meant to be going at 500 mph, and I don't know if I'd want to go that fast in a car for real. I mean, geez, you're talking to a guy who drives a Prius in real life here!" confesses Hirsch, sheepishly admitting that he didn't once drive on the autobahn for the entire time that he was in Berlin, shooting Speed Racer at Brandenburg's famous Studio Babelsberg. "Prior to filming, I went to the Texas Motor Speedway and hung out with Jimmy Johnson, the famous NASCAR driver," Hirsch explains of his pre-film training. "I went to one of the races and saw the pit stop and it was really cool."
For Hirsch, the best part of Speed Racer was seeing the finished results. "Obviously it was a fun set," the young actor enthuses. "It's always great when the people who you get to spend time with making these movies become like your family, and that's what this environment created. But when you're working on a green screen, and then you actually get to see how it pays off, that's the real treat. I had to use my imagination a lot for the role, but the thing about working with The Wachowski Brothers is that their imagination is more fun."
Ask Hirsch which part of the original Speed Racer animated series that the live action movie version captures best, and his answer is an emphatic one. "The tone," he says. "There are moments that are really, really funny, but then it gets really dramatic and then there's action and then there's this tongue-in-cheek humour. When you see the cartoon, there's this unique blend that sets it apart from a lot of other ones that maybe had more of a singular tone. And that was something that the Wachowskis really went for. They really wanted to hit that tone."
Though another cartoon adaptation, Speed Racer is a far different beast than the multitude of other comic-book-animation films that we've seen lately, eschewing the intensity of Iron Man and Batman Begins in favour of a more family-friendly tone, in line with the source material. "Speed isn't a loner superhero," Hirsch explains. "His whole family is involved, and it's his family that makes the cars. Together they're a team, just like with NASCAR where the driver has a whole team around him that builds the car, and then manages it and supports him. So Speed's team is his family, and the film spends a lot of time with the family dynamic between Speed, his father, his mother, his older brother, and his little brother, along with Chim-Chim, the chimpanzee."
It was that chimp who actually created most of the dramas on the set. His widely reported on-set antics resulted in animal rights group PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals) firing off a letter to producer Joel Silver last year, begging him not to use live animals in his films. "The chimp did have a series of episodes," Hirsch explains. "There was one instance where the chimp got really mad and started running around and no-one could catch him. There were actually two chimps. They were like The Olsen Twins on Full House - they'd switch them so that when one got tired, they'd pop the other one in! And I think that a little kid got bitten. Not a serious bite; it was more of a love-bite, but it bruised him a little bit."
In photographs, Hirsch bears an uncanny resemblance to fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio, while in person, at just 5'7", he's quite small and slight, effortlessly eluding the paparazzi that once shadowed DiCaprio's own youthful success. For a young actor who has thus far happily dodged the spotlight, perhaps the most daunting aspect of Speed Racer is the fact that the film will officially propel him into "heartthrob" status, inspiring a raft of merchandising, including his own doll, toy gadgets, a Wii video game and multiple franchise tie-ins. Ask if he's prepared to become the male equivalent of Hannah Montana, and Hirsch's brow furrows. "What a wonderful comparison! Not. But I reckon I'll be alright because I have my head on my shoulders pretty good, so I'm prepared. At least, I hope so! Admittedly, I'm still not entirely used to the fame thing. That's a trickier one to get used to. There are always times when you just feel uncomfortable. But I grew up on Speed Racer, so it's exciting to play the character and re-visit that childhood sense of excitement that goes along with it."
Having finished Speed Racer last September, Hirsch was surprised to find himself working with Sean Penn once again in Gus Van Sant's Milk. The film is based on the true story of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (Penn), California's first openly gay elected official, who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) by fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Hirsch, who plays famous gay rights activist Cleve Jones, admits that he didn't expect to work with Sean Penn so soon again after Into The Wild. "Milk came up after Into The Wild, even after Speed Racer was done shooting," Hirsch explains. "And contrary to public perception, it wasn't Sean's idea. I guess that Gus Van Sant asked Sean about it, and Sean was like, "˜What!? I've just spent nine months in the wilderness with that kid! I don't want to see his ass!'"
The word in Hollywood is that exactly the opposite is true, although, rather oddly, Hirsch refuses to believe it. "Sean helped me in the wilderness, for sure, but I reckon you're just being nice [regarding Milk] and not telling me that, because I heard a much different version..."
Despite what Hirsch might think about Penn, the actor/director is well and truly in his corner. "There's something electric about Emile," Penn told FILMINK when promoting Into The Wild. "He has a lot of talent. You used to be able to get pretty intriguing brooders out of the young generation. But today you can get the clever, the witty, the sexy and the charming, but none of those things happened to be the proper tool for this kit. I needed somebody [for Into The Wild] who had a talent and a will, and also someone who could be photographed going from a boy to a man; we were catching somebody on that cusp of life. Emile had all those things, and I don't know of anyone else who does."
Regardless of Hirsch's strange take on how Van Sant came to cast him, the actor admits that it was inspiring to work with Penn on the same side of the camera. "It was wonderful," he says. "Sean is the master actor. He's just incredible, and it was a privilege to be around him and see him work and try to learn. It was fun too. Whoever you're working with, you always try to figure out how they do it. And you'd be wrong not to try to do that with someone like him. I certainly view Sean as a mentor, as far as I know what the definition of that word means: someone who's older who you can learn from in order to try to better your craft. If Sean has given me any advice, it's to take a stand for something. Sean has a very strong core. He's not that interested in fame, and he doesn't buckle for anybody. That's an admirable quality when so many people try to make everyone happy and then they just end up compromising who they are."
Reflecting on his days on the set of Speed Racer, Hirsch admits that the fantasy flick came as a welcome break from the responsibility of playing real people as he did with both Into The Wild and Milk: "It's nice to occasionally work on a film where, if you play the part badly, you're not ruining someone's life, or their family's lives!"
When FILMINK suggests that Hirsch has today inched his way so high up the totem-pole that he no longer needs to audition, the canny young actor grins. "Well, it depends. If Steven Spielberg calls me up, I'd better start learning my lines!"