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June 21, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

This fall, Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) will topline Into the Wild, which writer/director Sean Penn adapted from Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book about the mysterious Alaskan adventure of wanderer Christopher McCandless. The 22-year-old rising star phoned from Berlin — where he’s shooting the Wachowski Brothers’ live-action Speed Racer update — to talk about getting stuck in the snow, Penn’s unorthodox casting process, and Kurt Cobain’s favorite monkey.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild before you read the script for the movie?
EMILE HIRSCH: Yeah, I definitely read the book first. The material was first brought to my attention when I was nine years old and I saw this thing on 20/20 about Into the Wild. I remember being mesmerized by the iron will that Chris McCandless had. The tragedy of the story, but also the inspiration. It really had an impact on me even when I was nine. Cut to all these years later.

I loved the book, and sometimes when you love a book you get scared that they’re gonna screw up the movie…
I know, right? I think that the key for me and Sean to make it a good movie — as good as the book — was to make the movie in a really raw, balls-out way. There was a super self-challenging format to how we shot it and how we approached the work and the wilderness. We weren’t pampered on set. It was harsh conditions.

For example?
The first day of shooting, I was supposed to climb over this hill in the snow and walk down this big slope. I was up to my waist in snow and I was trying to climb back up the hill at the end of a take, and the prop guy throws down this rope so I can pull myself up. I can’t even see anybody. I’m literally on my own with a 30-pound backpack on. And I hear Sean go, ”No way, don’t help him!” I had to climb up this snow hill and we did, like, 12 takes of that scene. My muscles were so sore.

It can’t be easy to be doing all that physical stuff when Sean Penn is just sitting there chain smoking next to you…
[Laughs] I know, right? … Sean is one of my favorite people.

Did you know Sean before he cast you in this movie?
I didn’t. He’d always been my idol, as he is to most young actors. So when I actually got the first call — ”Hey, how’s it going?” — he didn’t let me know what was going on right away. It was like a secret audition process. I didn’t even know I was really being auditioned. I would just get together with him.

Did he tell you what of yours made him think of casting you?
Yeah, he did. He saw Lords of Dogtown.

That’s right, he narrated the documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Yeah, and when he saw the film, he responded to [my] performance. That was the thing that kicked everything off.

What performances of his do you admire?
Dead Man Walking tore me apart and Mystic River, Sweet and Lowdown, they’re all so good. He’s one of a kind. And he’s such a natural born leader. He has so much personal integrity and strength and he really demands the best out of you. I really liked having to give my best.

You’re in Germany right now preparing for Speed Racer, right?

Why did you want to make Speed Racer?
Because Larry and Andy Wachowski are some of my favorite directors. The Matrix trilogy for me is a huge achievement in cinema, and I love their other film, Bound. It’s a new type of film for me. I like that. It’s a really great script. And we’re shooting it in a way that’s totally a new experience for me and something I don’t know a whole lot about. On Into the Wild, every frame was real and outdoors. I was really next to a mountain. And this is all green screen, so it’s challenging for me.

Is there real driving?
I went to visit the simulator today and it was crazy. It’s a film I would really want to see.

And is there a monkey in the film?
Oh yeah. Chim-Chim…. One of the biggest reasons that I wanted to do Speed Racer was because it was Kurt Cobain’s favorite cartoon. And he used to slap stickers of Chim-Chim on his electric guitars. I was like ”Alright, done!”

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