Chuck Zlotnick
Dave Karger
December 30, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

With Best Actor nominations from the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch is now positioned as a possible Oscar nominee. Should he make the list on Jan. 22, the 22-year-old would become the youngest Best Actor nominee since 1939 (when Mickey Rooney got a nod for Babes in Arms).

EW talked to Hirsch, one of our Breakout stars of 2007, about working with director Sean Penn, how playing Wild protagonist Chris McCandless changed him, and the perils of shooting outdoors.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Would you say your performance in Into the Wild is at a different level than anything you’ve done before?
Yeah, I think that I approached the role differently than I had ever approached a role. There was more preparation, there was more freedom, and there was more joy. And I think that that was the result of not only Sean Penn’s influence on me, but Chris McCandless as a person — as a symbol of freedom and spiritual inquiry. And also taking that lead and reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and really being inspired by life and rejuvenated in a way that went beyond playing a part in a film.

It was such a tough shoot for you. What was the closest you came to saying to yourself or to Sean, ”I can’t do this anymore”?
There was a point when we were at the rapids on the Colorado River. They had just shown me the rapids that they wanted me to do and I hadn’t trained for it. I looked at these enormous rapids, and the life jacket I was wearing was this tattered, loosely-fitting life jacket. I’m not particularly courageous when it comes to water sports, either. I was kind of at my lowest and I was really about to tell them that I would not be able to perform this stunt. And in that moment, I really give Sean credit for stepping up, because he looked at me and said, ”Okay, I’ll do it first.” And he did it. He really led by example, and I did the rapids after him. It was really a moment of conquering fear.

What kind of response have you had from the McCandless family now that they’ve seen the movie?
With the parents, they’re very nice to me and they’re very warm to me. I think it’s really hard for them and it’s really an emotional experience, of course, but they take comfort in knowing how many people the film can inspire and help. I really wanted to make sure that Carine McCandless was satisfied with it, because her brother means so much to her.

Did you have a trailer on this movie?
I guess technically there was a trailer, but we were really never there. The way those things work, there’s like these Winnebago things. And you can’t really take them anywhere, because most of the places we were going, you just couldn’t drive any of the stuff there. So it was about finding a good tree stump when you weren’t shooting. Or just going an exploring for the day.

So when you got to set of Speed Racer, your next movie, were you like, ”Thank God!”?
I was missing the raw experience of Into the Wild. But it was a relief that there were no bears coming after me.

Want more? Check out an exclusive video to see what else Emile Hirsch and director Sean Penn told Dave Karger about Into the Wild

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