Emile Hirsch has spent the last 12 of his 28 years testing his dramatic limits alongside such acting greats as Gena Rowlands, Laura Linney, Jodie Foster, and Sean Penn—his collaborations with the latter, Into the Wilderness and Milk, earning him the most critical acclaim. For his next project, The Motel Life, out on V.O.D. today, Hirsch veers into a more intimate indie direction with co-star Stephen Dorff, as a pair of drifter brothers whose bleak “motel life” existence is lifted only by their fantastical fictional adventures, told by Hirsch’s character and illustrated by Dorff’s.
In anticipation of the film, adapted by brothers Alan and Gabriel Polsky from the novel by Willy Vlautin, Hirsch phoned us last week and told us about his adventures with Dorff in Reno, Nevada, his upcoming Bonnie & Clyde project, and the John Belushi biopic he just signed up for.
Julie Miller: The Motel Life is such a gritty, intimate project about these two brothers, played by you and Stephen. Where were you in life when you found this project and thought this relationship was something you wanted to explore?
Emile Hirsch: When I first read The Motel Life, I was in New Orleans filming Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey. I read the script and I immediately connected with this story about two brothers who didn’t really have material wealth, but they had tons of wealth in terms of having love for each other. I found that it was a really sad story—and a very powerful sense of drama. These are sometimes my favorite kinds of movies and it doesn’t happen that often that you get to explore something this authentic. It was a drama that did not sell itself short and try to be anything it wasn’t.
You and Stephen have to summon this complicated, co-dependent brotherly relationship. How did you get to the stage where you could comfortably do that?
I feel like it was a really intuitive process. I don’t think that Dorff or I really overanalyzed it. It was more about just being in the moment and intuitively gauging it off of each other. Stephen is a really, really strong actor, so I just followed his lead a lot of the time.
Did you get to spend a lot of time hanging out beforehand?
Oh yeah. We spent a lot of time together just hanging out. We would visit casinos in Reno and restaurants and bars. We went all over that town together and kind of just explored a lot of it.
Do you guys have a similar acting process?
I don’t know how similar our processes are. He might more than I do. It just felt like a very easy kind of thing. I don’t even know if I have a process. I think it’s changed and been altered so many times over the years.
In what ways?
I like to think that I’ve evolved in some ways as an actor. I like to think that there is an ease I have now that I didn’t at the beginning, and that I can be a lot more comfortable in scenes and am willing to try different things. How confident are you in your acting? Is there ever a point where you think to yourself, during a scene, that you have completely figured it out? Yeah! But I’ve also felt that way and maybe been totally wrong. I try to just be instinctive. I try to think through scenes to a degree and think through who a character is, but I really do enjoy spontaneity in acting. I think the improvisational side of a performance is really strong and healthy.
You also just played Clyde Barrow in a two-part series airing this December.
I hadn’t seen Warren Beatty’s version. I had never actually seen that movie and purposefully stayed away from it [because] I didn’t want to be influenced by his performance. And then when I actually saw the movie after I wrapped, I was so shocked. Because it was such a different interpretation of the role, and we had both probably seen and studied the same photos and history and accounts and came to utterly different conclusions.
Why do you think that was?
I’m not sure. My Clyde Barrow was kind of a serious, stoic badass tough guy. And Beatty’s was more of a smiley, goofy, clowner kind of guy. We were like polar opposites in terms of our interpretations. [Laughs.]
And you just signed on to play John Belushi in Steve Conrad’s biopic of the late comedian. Are you studying old Belushi tapes at this point? Where are you in the preparation process?
It’s really early right now. I know that the announcement just sort of came out. I am just sort of wading into it, a little bit at a time. But I am really excited. It’s pretty funny because everyone always told me I looked like Jack Black when I was younger and a lot of people always compared Jack Black to John Belushi. So I figure if I add a few pieces, I’ll be right there.