Thirty-one years after he told Robert Redford to “follow the money” in “All the President’s Men,” Hal Holbrook is making his acquaintance with a completely new generation of filmgoers.
At 82, the actor returns with a raw and compelling turn in “Into the Wild,” director Sean Penn’s biopic of free-spirited adventurer Chris McCandless. Holbrook plays Ron Franz, the last significant human contact McCandless makes before he fatally surrenders to the untamed wilderness of Alaska.
Holbrook, who is seeking his first Oscar nomination, believes Penn gave him a gift when he asked him to be in the film.
“You don’t get a part like that very often,” he explains, and then goes into how “Wild” was shot differently than most of Holbrook’s films in a career that began in 1954. Here, Penn’s close-to-the-edge, in-your-face style mirrored that of its central character.
“He did a lot of scenes without much coverage,” Holbrook says. “He didn’t do two or three takes, and I would look at him and say, ‘What if something happened with the camera?’ He’d just stick his thumb up and say, ‘Keep going.’ He doesn’t tell you how to do things, and he doesn’t sit around intellectualizing. He just casts you and trusts you’re going to be able to do it.”
There was one subtle piece of direction, however, from Penn that resonated with the actor in light of his character’s journey. He encouraged Holbrook to laugh, rather than cry, as Franz recalls the death of his family.
Laughter, Penn deduced, instead of tears was the best way to get at something that might otherwise have been too much.
“I realized that he was saving the emotion, whatever it was going to be, until the last scene,” Holbrook says.
That final scene — the one that, if Holbrook is nominated, could be the clip broadcast on Oscar night from the Kodak Theater — captures McCandless’ goodbye to Franz, who knows he’ll be rejected when offering the young man a place to stay and, instead, watches him hustle off into the wilderness.
Risks in life, as in the film, can be inevitable and exhilarating — even for an actor with 50 years of great performances already in the can.
Favorite film: “Grapes of Wrath”
Young actor you admire: Emile Hirsch
What you want in a director: “Trust.”
Vice: “Rum raisin ice cream”