Interview: Emile Hirsch on Killer Joe
William Friedkin’s violent thriller set to open 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival
‘Oh man, the human punching bag is here!’ laughs Emile Hirsch, as he walks into the room. Don’t worry, though the 27-year-old star of Speed Racer and Into The Wild is not covered in bruises (unless you count a bruised ego). He’s recounting his time on the set of Killer Joe, the violent new thriller from veteran director William Friedkin that will provide an explosive opening to this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.
‘Classic Billy Friedkin,’ chuckles Hirsch, in that laidback Californian drawl of his. ‘I’m on the ground, and he’s like, “Limp!”. I’m limping around – I look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m lying there beaten up and Billy takes a bucket of blood and he goes, “Hey Mo!” – he calls everybody “Mo”. And splashes me across the face with a bucket of blood. He always wanted more blood.’ He shrugs. ‘The guy made The Exorcist – he likes blood!’
We should point out, Killer Joe is not a horror. Based on the play by Tracy Letts, who also penned the play behind Friedkin’s 2006 film Bug, the film casts Hirsch as Chris Smith, a debt-ridden trailer park sleaze who decides to bump off his own mother to collect the life insurance. ‘Well, my mom was not a huge fan of my character in this movie,’ laughs Hirsch. ‘I’ll just say that right off the bat!’
What follows, however, feels like a Deep South cousin to Fargo, as Smith’s plan – which involves hiring the services of Matthew McConaughey’s titular assassin – goes disastrously wrong. ‘There was something Hamlet-y about Chris,’ says Hirsch. ‘He’s like this tormented guy who’s not sure of anything he wants. He’s limping around, and he’s obsessive and dark. I liked him because I found him amusing. He’s an ideas guy. Not a good ideas guy, but he thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is, and I found that funny.’
With his own ‘pretty mellow’ manner, Hirsch doesn’t come across as particularly career-driven. Indeed, when we meet, he’s just come off a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, which he took after completing two gruelling films almost back-to-back – the Wachowski Brothers’ psychedelic action movie Speed Racer and Into The Wild, Sean Penn’s haunting study of real-life backpacker Christopher McCandless. ‘They were both very challenging films for me in different ways. Speed Racer really exhausted me mentally. I loved the movie but it was very difficult to make and [to] just go through that whole experience.’
So how did he spend his time off? To start with, he got back into drawing and oil painting. Growing up, his mother Margaret earned a crust as a visual artist and ‘she always put art supplies in front of me’. He also travelled to the Congo on behalf of Oxfam (a charity McCandless supported). ‘If you’re going to use your celebrity for something, I’d rather do that than some stupid bullshit, you know what I mean?’ he says.
Born and raised in LA, where his father David is a producer, it was his older sister Jennifer who first inspired Hirsch to act. ‘She loved singing and performing, and I took after her in a lot of ways. We had a great time. I just tagged along for the ride.’ His early screen years were restricted to one-off bit parts in shows such as 3rd Rock From The Sun and Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, which suited him perfectly. ‘The good thing about the way my career developed was that I was never a child star. I was a child actor. I didn’t get any celebrity or success until my late teens – at all! It was something I did but I was still anonymous.’
Even his later films – playing a vicious thug in Alpha Dog, a skateboarder in Lords of Dogtown and a straight-A student in studio comedy The Girl Next Door – let him fly under the radar. But ever since Speed Racer and Into The Wild, not to mention working with Gus Van Sant on Milk and Ang Lee on Taking Woodstock, Hirsch has become Hollywood hot property. What’s more, he’s got his energy back for acting. ‘You’ve gotta love Red Bull, huh?’ he says, slyly.
In that time, the missteps have been few – though Hirsch’s return from his self-imposed exile in Moscow-set alien-invasion flop The Darkest Hour could count as one. Not that he’s apologising for the film. ‘I had just gotten out of [watching] Avatar, and I loved the 3D science fiction, and I was a science fiction geek growing up,’ he says. ‘And I said I would love to make a 3D science fiction movie. Then my agent called with the offer for Darkest Hour.’
If Hirsch is one of those actors who can switch between blockbuster leads and more character-based efforts like Killer Joe, he’s enjoying the best of both worlds. He next has a small role in Oliver Stone’s Savages, another violent tale – set around the marijuana trade. ‘He made me a money launderer who is obsessed with biking. All my wardrobe is tight bike shorts, like Speedos, and gloves. Very strange!’ But, let’s say, perfect for an actor like Emile Hirsch.
Killer Joe opens the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wed 20 Jun and is on general release from Fri 29 Jun.