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Emile Hirsch

Lead Actor: 'Into the Wild'

The worst-case scenario, Emile Hirsch figures, would have been settling for being Sean Penn’s drinking buddy.

After admiring Hirsch in “Lords of Dogtown,” Penn called in May 2005 to suss him out for playing the role of young ascetic Christopher McCandless in Penn’s passion project, “Into the Wild.” But he didn’t offer Hirsch the role then, not by a long shot.

“We proceeded to get together over a series of several months and talked about the film,” Hirsch recalls. “We just got to know each other, had a couple of drinks. I got to know his family a bit. … It wasn’t a poker face. It was friendly. We were talking about it, but it was clear that he hadn’t (offered me the part).”

Hirsch had to prove he had the mental and physical constitution to portray McCandless, who sought adventures from kayaking the Colorado River to camping in the Alaskan wilderness with below-minimum supplies.

By the time Hirsch earned Penn’s approval and began shooting, the actor had been preparing for the role for nearly a year — adding in long conversations with McCandless’ family and reading authors McCandless favored, such as Henry David Thoreau, Jack London and Boris Pasternak.

“These writers were very important to me,” Hirsch says, “because they helped me get back to (McCandless’) radical and I think very enlightened mindset about society and the values we place on certain things.”

As inspiring as he was, the heartrending passing of the star-crossed McCandless sticks with Hirsch to this day.

“It’s something that is very tragic and sad,” he says, “and it reminded me a lot of Romeo and Juliet — when you realized it was too late for them, and you can’t reverse the decisions they made and you feel like they were so foolish in certain instances. I felt there were similar strains of that story in McCandless.”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: “On the Waterfront.” “There was something really raw about that movie. It’s a classic, and it really was a beginning of a new age in film acting where naturalism kind of stepped up to the forefront.”

Young actor you admire: “I’m gonna sound like I’m just plugging (“Into the Wild”), but I really like Kristen Stewart. I was really impressed with her naturalness.”

What you want in a director: “I want someone who’s not going to be afraid to push me to do my best but is also going to respect me enough to be comfortable with collaborating.”

Vice: “Maybe laziness. Sitting on a couch watching too many movies. I love watching movies, but occasionally I should probably just get a book.”

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