Since being selected by Sean Penn to play wanderlust Christopher McCandless in his 2007 film Into The Wild, Emile Hirsch has sustained a streak of provocative work that’s the envy of young Hollywood. Though overlooked for his understated but strong turns in movies like Milk and Savages, his performances are so subtle and authentic that there’s always room for his costar’s shiner characters (like Matthew McConaughey‘s Joe Cooper in Killer Joe). The same could be said of his latest work, The Motel Life (out in limited release on November 8th), where he plays Frank Lee, a working class guy who is put in a difficult position when his adoring amputee brother Jerry Lee (played tear-jerkingly by Stephen Dorff) accidentally kills a kid in Reno, Nevada. Coming off David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche with Paul Rudd earlier this year, the 28-year-old Venice native is rounding out 2013 with a slew of projects, including Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor and the title role in David Carpenter’s Bonnie & Clyde. Rolling Stone chatted with Hirsch about drug busts, bonding with his co-stars and his anticipated portrayal of tortured comedian John Belushi.
The Polsky Brothers are first-time directors. What about The Motel Life captured you?
It was a passion project, a tiny little film that’s an uncompromising look at life. I thought the idea of using animation in some of the scenes was interesting, too. It has a lot of heart and an amazing soft side but isn’t necessarily commercial. That all appealed to me.
Stephen Dorff gives a moving performance as your down-and-out brother. How’d you make that bond believable on screen?
Stephen and I have this natural rapport. We’d met before, a long time ago at a party, where he said, “We’re going to play brothers in a movie some day.” I was like, “Where are the police?” But here we are. There were a lot of great actors who came in and really sought after the Jerry Lee role – it’s a great part. But I always thought of him in this role and it’s great to see people responding to him. I feel like he’s been great in a lot of overlooked movies. He’s one of our unsung actors.
Do you have any favorite scenes together?
Reno is a very interesting underbelly of a scene with the casinos there. The motel scenes feel exactly how it does in real life. There are so many motels surrounding you, you can’t even believe it.
Seems like there could have been some dangerous people around.
We met an interesting cast of characters. We heard people being hauled out by the cops for selling meth while we’re trying to shoot. There was some screaming outside, but it didn’t get too bad.
How was it working with Peter Berg and the cast of Lone Survivor?
The cast I loved – Taylor (Kitsch) and Mark (Wahlberg). I had worked with (Ben) Foster on Alpha Dogs, so I knew what kind of amazing actor he was. Shooting was this intense and enthralling, this high-altitude shoot over mountains that were doubling for Afghanistan. We had a lot of Navy SEALs on location, including Marcus Luttrell, who was the “lone survivor.” He showed us what it was really like.
I’m sure Berg did plenty to get ready for that shoot physically.
He put me in a sports camp where they train pro athletes on Venice Beach – and that was four months before I had to be on set. It was about getting me strong, but I think he was also trying to get me there psychologically.
Did you see how real soldiers train?
Oh yeah. If you want an idea, just YouTube “BUD/S training” – it’s crazy to watch those videos. I went down to Coronado and actually saw those guys and explored what that facility is like. It’s really crazy. Those guys are pushed to the edge, then beyond.
Were you ever in any danger?
It’s a big action movie, so of course there were a lot of special effects and logistical dangers. But there were times when we were training with live fire. . . With that, there are always risks.
Soldiers have a good time when they’re off duty. Were there any shenanigans?
We had a bar session on Halloween – everyone had a few drinks. We had some good times, you know?
Bonnie and Clyde has been done before. How did you make yours different?
I didn’t watch any of the other versions until I was done shooting, so my interpretation was just based on what I’d read about them. Then I watched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie and Clyde, and I don’t think ours could’ve been more different. Beatty was great, but he played it a little more jokey than our version. I had more of a grim take on Clyde.
A lot of people are excited for this John Belushi biopic. How did you get attached to it?
It came up fairly recently. [Director Steve] Conrad had a strong vision and I feel like I just fit into that. Then I read the material and really responded to it. Everything about it is interesting.
So you were you a fan of Belushi?
I was familiar with him, but I’m getting more familiar. He was a little bit before my time, so there’s an educational process in there. It’s exciting to present this guy to a generation of comedy fans who may not be too knowledgeable about his work. We’re trying to do him justice.
Are you putting on some weight for this film?
[Laughs] I’m wading in very slow now. I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself.
Do you have a favorite skit of John’s?
The Samurai is timeless. I’m sure people will agree. It’s dynamite.