Interview: Emile Hirsch on Milk, San Francisco, and More!
by Alex Billington
November 27, 2008
Gus Van Sant's Milk boasts one of the best ensemble casts this year. In addition to Sean Penn's phenomenal performance as Harvey Milk, James Franco, Josh Brolin, and Emile Hirsch all shine in their supporting roles as well. After seeing Milk a few weeks back, I sat down with Emile Hirsch to chat about playing curly haired gay activist Cleve Jones. Coincidentally, our writer Kevin sat down for an interview with the real Cleve Jones a few days later. So today I present the second part in our set of interviews this week - this time with the actor who brought Jones and his personality to life on the screen. Hirsch and I talk about working with Gus Van Sant, San Francisco, and even a little bit about Speed Racer, so read on.
I've been fond of Emile ever since The Emperor's Club in 2002, but have really seen him grow as actor with roles in Alpha Dog, Into the Wild, Speed Racer, and now Milk. As for the film itself, I don't think I need to add anything more that Kevin didn't say in his review. This is an outstanding film and it wouldn't have been as unforgettable as it was without exceptional performances from actors like Emile Hirsch.
What was it about this script and the character of Cleve Jones that really interested you?
Emile Hirsch: Well, the character of Cleve is just a compelling guy because he's gay and he's for his rights but not in a passive way. He's kind of militant in his pursuit of equal rights, he's the aggressor, he's the gay man as a fighter, which is something -- a lot of people think of gay rights, they don't think of people like that, but that's Cleve, and through the film -- Gus [Van Sant] was a huge attraction for me, and also Sean [Penn], the chance to get to work with him in front of the screen always seemed like kind of a strange thing for me, though, just because I never acted with him on Into the Wild.
I was going to mention -- your friendship with Sean then led into this pretty easily?
Hirsch: It did and he probably hadn't ever thought of me for that role, I think, I'm pretty sure it was all Gus' idea. I couldn't blame him for never wanting to see me again after Into the Wild, though, but I think that our rapport we have naturally, our kind of -- just our sensibilities in terms of acting. Whatever thing it was, whatever reason why we got along on Into the Wild I think helped up get along in Milk -- undoubtedly, our friendship.
With Gus Van Sant, he seems like a very, at least from watching his films, a very particular director in that he puts a lot of work into making sure that the scenes are very accurate and perfect. Was that the case?
Hirsch: Yeah, I think that Gus did a lot of research and really trusted people from the era, from the periods, that really let him know that things were being authentic. And Cleve was actually one of those kind of historical consultants for him who was always trying to make sure that things were as accurate as possible. I think it's pretty admirable, particularly when you could probably save a lot of money by just doing things one way.
Was actually shooting on location in San Francisco a very big help for you?
Hirsch: It was so much, I mean, aside from being a big help for the film, it was just so much fun shooting in San Francisco -- that time of the year is like super. It's like a very progressive city and it feels really liberal and there's just something about it that's kind of nice, you know?
Definitely. I feel like it had an importance in the film that would have otherwise not been there if you guys hadn't actually shot where it all took place.
Hirsch: I know, in the camera shop where we actually, where Harvey Milk used to actually work, in the same place, in the same shop, I mean, it's truly extraordinary.
Would you say this was a challenge for you? It would seem that it would not have been as big of a challenge as Into the Wild particularly, but I'm not sure?
Hirsch: It was a challenge in terms of just getting the right take on the character, trying to master that, but I think that it was more of an opportunity than a challenge in a certain sense -- opportunity to learn about that period in history; opportunity to get to hang out with all these talented people and trying to steal from them.
And you met Cleve in real life?
Hirsch: Oh, yeah, he was on set pretty much every day. We would get together and hang out and he'd tell me a bunch of wild stories, and, you know, he's a good guy.
Did you find you wanted to make your character not necessarily an imitation of him but rather bring something of yourself into it?
Hirsch: Yeah, definitely. You never want to just get caught up in doing one thing, being alive, you know, you need to kind of embody verses imitate.
Yeah, definitely. And I think you did a phenomenal job with that. Your character is one of the most memorable characters in the film in addition to Sean Penn and everyone else that makes it up.
Hirsch: Thank you.
I think it really rounds out the cast in terms of -- Harvey Milk has his boyfriends and then he has you helping lead all the protests and everything. Do you work differently on films like this where, as we talked about, it's actually being shot on location versus films like Speed Racer that are entirely green screen?
Hirsch: I think there's more fun off of a green screen, I mean shooting on a green screen is very difficult. Shooting in San Francisco is fun. All these beautiful locations and different areas, you just have a good time, you know what I mean?
I wish I could say yes, but I'm not an actor myself.
Hirsch: I'm not even saying acting, I'm just saying like hanging out there on the weekend, you know?
Hirsch: Like walking around San Francisco is fine, but going into bars and different restaurants in San Francisco is fun just because it's a different type of place, you feel like you're in another zone.
I definitely agree. I think we all know the answer to this question, but I'm curious to hear your opinion -- do you think the political message in this is becoming more important and relevant to what happened with Proposition 8?
Hirsch: I think so, I think that this film is coming along at a time where it seems like people are really hungry for it and it's gonna be big, I think, because everyone is really interested in the subject right now and it's also hotly contested and debated and this movie has a point of view.
Would you have played Cleve if Bryan Singer's Mayor of Castro Street came along instead of this? Or was it really Gus and Sean and everyone else that made this unique?
Hirsch: Bryan Singer's an amazing director, too, so probably.
What are you working on next?
Hirsch: I did a film last summer called Taking Woodstock, all about the summer of 1969 when Woodstock came, and I played a Vietnam veteran who is just in the town and kind of gets affected by the concert coming, it kind of changes his life a little bit.
And you're not going to be doing any more Speed Racer movies?
Hirsch: No, unfortunately, the movie didn't make enough money, but I still love it, I still thought that movie kicked ass and I was disappointed to see people trash it like they did because most people didn't give it a shot.
I think I'm one of the few people that actually did love it.
Hirsch: Yeah, it was good. The thing is, though, that movie was testing in the 90's, like everyone was loving that movie in the test screenings.
As our last question, can you name your top five favorite movies?
Hirsch: I can't.
Not even one, an all-time favorite of yours?
Hirsch: I can't. I'm so bad at that. But I'll just say Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors -- I really, really like Ang Lee.
So any of his work?
Hirsch: Yeah, his work is so good. And, also, Gus and -- I mean, I feel really lucky. The filmmakers I know the most about are the ones I've worked with, so those are all my favorites.
Thanks to Emile Hirsch and Focus Features for the great interview. Milk is currently playing in theaters now and I implore everyone to please go see it - it's an extraordinary film!