Emile Hirsch Interview – MILK

     December 21, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Note: This interview was done at the press junket for “Milk”. I finally got around to transcribing it this weekend. Sorry for the delay.

Already playing is Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”. Since I’ve already written about the film when I posted the movie clips a few weeks back, this intro will be brief.

All you really need to know is…the performances are all top notch. Sean Penn is Harvey Milk. And this is a film you really need to see.

Anyway, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast and the one below is with Emile Hirsch. In the movie, Emile plays one of Harvey Milk’s close friends and biggest supporters Cleve Jones.

During our interview, Emile talked about the making of “Milk”, what he has coming up, and a lot more.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Again, “Milk” is currently playing in theaters and I definitely recommend it.

Question: How weird was it to work with Sean not as a director?

Emile: It was fun because he wasn’t in charge (laughing). No, it was a little bit awkward at first just because, you know, it’s like being asked to play a basketball game with your coach. It’s your colleague. “How is this going to pan out?” It’s like Tom Cruise and Tom Skerritt ended up lying together at the end of Top Gun, what would that have been like, you know?

Did you feel that Sean felt awkward too?

Emile: Um, I think we were both like, ‘What’s this going to be like?’ You know, I’m surprised they gave me the part in the film. I’m surprised Sean allowed it. He must have been so sick of me after Into the Wild. Plus, he had to edit the thing too. I was able to just shoot the movie. He had to stay in that editing room and cut my…splice my face over and over.

You’re such a different person in this. It’s another total transformation. What do you do to alter your body so much in all the roles?

Emile: It was more of just hanging around Cleve and just letting some sort of, you know, osmosis go on. Just getting to know him, being around him, and just kind of trying to understand his perspective on the world. He’s had such an interesting life that it was very…the research itself was compelling. So I had a good time getting to know him and understand how he came to San Francisco, how he got involved with Harvey Milk. How he got involved with kind of being a more of like a militant activist. What it was like for him in Europe when he saw the riots, the gay uprising.

How daunting was it to play someone who was hanging around?

Emile: It definitely added like a little bit of anxiety, you could say. But at the same time, he was so helpful. It’s kind of like seeing the perfect blueprints to an amazing house and being able to look at them and having all the answers to a quiz right in front of you. And you’re anxiety goes, ‘Well I hope that I’m not going to fuck this house up that I have the perfect blueprint.’ I don’t know. I mean, I felt spoiled as an actor on that film. I think that, you know, Cleve was also incredibly cool. He wasn’t some raving lunatic. You know, this was a very cool, very savvy, smart guy who everybody liked, who was just one of the staples of the film production who everybody loves. He’s just got a wonderful charisma and he’s just a people person. He’s a good communicator.

Did you still feel the same amount of freedom?

Emile: You know he would say things that would kind of encourage me. And Gus was very encouraging to just do what I was feeling. So I think Cleve, even though he was always there, he was cool enough to where he didn’t put any weird pressure on me. Although sometimes I’d do little things to annoy me. I do just like a little thing and I knew that he would notice it.

Did he ever take you aside and say don’t do that?

Emile: Yeah. (Laughing) But I wouldn’t change. I’d just be like, ‘Haaaa…’

In this movie there’s so many ways to present gay characters. Everyone is different. Based on real people. But was that a challenge to play a gay character, so-called gay characteristics and not go over the line?

Emile: I mean, I played Cleve as a straight person. No. (Laughing) No, no. I mean I think that is interesting. You see the different types of people, gay people, in the film. I think that’s cool.

Your character was really funny.

Emile: I mean, that’s Cleve. And he let it be known to me early on because it was one of those things where I was like if I start to act really flamboyant is Cleve going to be like, ‘What are you doing?’ Is everyone going to be like, ‘Why are you acting like that?’ I was kind of self-conscious about that. And then Cleve was like, ‘You know, I’m a queen. You can play…that’s who I am. I’m a queen.’

Was there a gay boot camp?

Emile: No. Are you a graduate?

Cleve felt he was pretty much in control of his life in the beginning and he did almost walk away when Milk made the offer to him.

Emile: Yeah. By all accounts Cleve was perfectly content to just kind of party and live with this kind of gang of street kind of lost boys in San Francisco. They kind of had this wild existence and that sounded really kind of wild. He had like a gang of friends and they all lived together and had jobs together. They were kind of almost like a tribe. And then he finally got involved with Milk and started to educate himself more. And Harvey channeled him into having a purpose. I think one of the things that really was a big influence was he went to Germany…He went to Germany, but he went to Spain and he saw some riots in Spain. I think that he wrote a piece about it.

It’s powerful in the movie when he’s talking about those riots.

Emile: Yeah, it’s very focused and it’s kind of someone who has been trying to find a purpose.

What did you know about this before the film?

Emile: Literally nothing. I thought the Castro, I thought that was the whale in Pinocchio. I did. I did! Well, isn’t that? I was like reading the script and I was like, ‘Castro? Isn’t that the whale?’ I didn’t know that much about it so it was a bit of an education process for me. And I read the book, The Mayor of Castro Street, and that’s a really helpful book if you want to know about that time period and Harvey‘s life.

What made you want to do the project?

Emile: I mean, as soon as I knew that it was going to be with Gus and Sean, I was in. And then what really made me passionate about it though was watching the documentary, because I read the script and I really liked the script and I kind of understood it but when you see that documentary and you see who Milk is and that environment of San Francisco and what was really going on, it just seemed more tangible to me and I was really moved.

What are you doing next?

Emile: I did a little part in this Ang Lee movie called Taking Woodstock which comes out in I guess summer. It’s a small part. I play a Vietnam vet who interacts with the lead in the movie who’s played by Dmitri Martin, really good guy, smart guy, really funny. I recommend Youtubing his standup if you’re bored. It’s so much fun.

Ang Lee’s an interesting director?

Emile: So interesting. I’m so into him.

Working with him?

Emile: Well, each great director that I’ve been able to work with is very uniquely different. Sean has this kind of poetic fury and passion and Gus has this kind of relaxed kind of grace and Ang has this kind of very elegant kind of attention to detail and kind of very keen sense of nuance and creativity. They’re all so much fun working with all these different personalities.

And Catherine Hardwicke?

Emile: Dogtown. Yeah, Dogtown was a lot of fun. I loved working with Catherine. We had this really great kind of contentious relationship where we would kind of play with each other and kind of toy with each other, make fun of each other and yell at each other but it was all a lot of fun, in a fun way. We just had a great time.

Did you see her downstairs with Twilight?

Emile: I know, I saw her yesterday.

Are you looking for something in Feb/March?

Emile: Yeah, I’m reading, I read, for the past couple weeks I read like five or so scripts, trying to read a bunch right now. It’s interesting, there’s a period piece, there’s a western, there’s a thriller, there’s a small indie kinda drama. Just trying to figure out what would be the right fit, not just with you in the part but with you and the director, you and whoever.

Does indie vs Hollywood factor in?

Emile: It’s all about the character but it’s also about the director. In a big way it’s about the director. I get excited, first time directors, a lot of them are amazing but I get excited working with people that I know have made films that I already like.

When you’re reading a script, do you know a few pages in?

Emile: Sometimes you have a feeling. Yeah, you kind of have that oh, this is good feeling or kind of a dread but I always like to finish a script. Because if anything, sometimes you realize maybe this isn’t the one for me but you can always just finish it as a story and as a movie, as a fan of film. You want to see what happens in the story.

Would you do anything as big as Speed Racer again?

Emile: Yeah, sure.

Are you reading any now?

Emile: No, no, not right now but I would consider it. I would be hesitant to do maybe an iconic superhero like Speed Racer for a little while just because Speed’s pretty cool.

How was the premiere of Milk at the Castro?

Emile: It was intense and there were some protesters for No on 8 and I imagine there’ll probably be a lot more protestors this week at the LA premiere.

If you had one day to go back to Berlin, what would you do?

Emile: It’s funny because I told this story a million times on all these friggin’ talk shows I went on about how when I was in the hotel, we’d go in the spa and there were all these naked German men in the spa, so I thought you were going to bring that up. “You were in Berlin this summer. Tell me about the spa with those…” That’s one of those, I get asked that so much. “So, the spa?” Do you guys ever get into the bad habit of like when you guys are going to do a piece on someone, you just download their stats from their IMDB and then that’s like half the sh*t you bring up? So literally, there’s a couple really obscure quotes about me that literally are bullshit and every time I sit down with someone, they ask me. There’s this thing, I went karaokeing one time at this place in Hollywood and Lindsay Lohan was there that night. So was this girl Beau Garrett. So literally almost 90% of the interviews I do, this is how I know there’s a lot of people who get kind of lazy, they go, “So, you go karaokeing with Lindsay Lohan?” And I’m like, “What’s up, IMDBitch?” It’s so funny, you know what I mean? This person just like…

I was serious about Berlin. It’s an amazing city.

Emile: It is. It is a Mecca of arts for all over Europe. There’s a lot of different galleries and things that I have a good time going to.

Where’s a better place to find out about you than IMDB?

Emile: I don’t know. I don’t know.

You should update it with stuff you want to talk about.

Emile: I’m like writing my own articles then.

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