Christopher McCandless was a restless spirit. He was an idealistic young man who yearned for a world where simple truths ruled, a world where crass commercialization and false idols had no place.
He read Henry David Thoreau and Jack London with an almost religious zeal. He was a solitary wanderer in a world rapidly losing touch with its elemental truths.
Yet McCandless died alone in the Alaskan outback at the age of 24 in 1992. Less than two years earlier he'd graduated with honors from Emory University in Atlanta.
Disgusted with what he saw as a hypocritical, largely soulless society -- most fully exemplified by his conventionally successful yet superficial father -- McCandless gave his $25,000 savings to charity, burned the cash in his wallet, abandoned his car and set forth on an adventure throughout the American West and beyond. He was finally free.
Exactly what happened thereafter is something of a mystery, both in terms of his death (McCandless' journal makes mention of a poisonous plant he might have unintentionally eaten, and he weighed 67 pounds when his body was found) and his motivations (it's pretty clear that he was marked by an unhappy childhood).
Jon Krakauer's engrossing 1996 book, Into the Wild, attempts to tell McCandless' tragic story, retracing his steps via interviews with people McCandless met on his trek as well as the perplexed, grief-stricken family he left behind. Actor/filmmaker Sean Penn read the book shortly after its publication and was deeply and immediately smitten with McCandless' mix of earnestness, naivete and fierce idealism.
Penn was determined to bring his story to the screen. But it would take time for the McCandless family to come to grips with their son's fate.
Flash-forward a decade: Emile Hirsch enters a hotel at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss a film that's already changed the 22-year-old actor's life forever. Hirsch is mesmerizing as McCandless in Penn's affecting film version of Into the Wild -- a once-in-a-lifetime role that will likely bring the young actor a flood of deserved attention.
"I had seen the 20/20 episode when I was about 9 years old," Hirsch says of his first exposure to McCandless' story. "It had a pretty big impression on me."
Little did he know that he'd one day play the same man whose mysterious, fascinating story was emanating from his family's TV set.
Penn approached Hirsch about the possibility of playing McCandless after being impressed with his performance as skateboard legend Jay Adams in Lords of Dogtown. An intense, solitary period of preparation followed.
"I read the book and was really blown away by it," Hirsch says. "And then I got the part, so I started to lose weight right away because I was pretty out of shape. Sean took a bit of a leap of faith in casting me."
Hirsch, a wisp of a guy at 5-foot-7-inches tall and 140 pounds, had to endure a grueling shoot that included a variety of things the actor never attempted before: kayaking amid fierce rapids, floating naked in an ice-cold stream, carousing with a grizzly bear, traversing rocky mountains and growing wild facial hair. Most dauntingly, he had to lose 40 pounds to mimic McCandless' skeletal last days.
"I was about 26 pounds heavier than what he (Penn) wanted Chris to be throughout the whole movie before he underwent any type of weight loss," Hirsch says, simultaneously laughing and cringing at the thought. "It was a lot of running and learning about eating the right foods right away. So that was a big physical thing. Challenging myself physically so that when we shot this I would have a level of endurance that I never had before."
Hirsch says the stunts in the film were "something that Sean demanded. He just wanted it to be authentic. It was important to him even if it looked better if a stunt person did it. He wanted the effect of what me doing it would have on me and for that to resonant through the rest of the movie."
Hirsch also immersed himself in the books that meant so much to McCandless.
"I read Walden by Thoreau," he says. "I dipped into a little bit of Emerson. I loved Jack London, The Call of the Wild. (It was) stuff that got me really excited about nature and the ideas of shedding everything and just living like an animal in the wild. It helped get into the mindset of Chris."
Hirsch's eyes and body language reveal multitudes as he discusses the process of inhabiting McCandless. He knows he'll likely never have another acting experience like Into the Wild.
"Working with Sean on this was a tremendous opportunity that I'll never forget," he says. "He really demanded the most out of me that I could give. And I can legitimately say that I gave everything I had to him.
"There was a weird month or two after the film where it was just like withdrawal. You're back to what you were doing and where you were living before, and you feel like a stranger in a strange land. I'd go back after the shoot and go to a bar or a Hollywood club and it just felt strange. It goes against a lot of the things you've grown to love. A lot of (McCandless') values start to set in on your psyche." ©