In 1990, at 22, Christopher McCandless abandoned his prosperous D.C. family, adopted the name Alexander Supertramp, and vanished, almost penniless, into a two-year adventure that ended in his death, of apparent starvation, in the Alaskan wilderness. Sean Penn was riveted by the story, captured in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 best-selling biography of McCandless, and he began pursuing the rights almost immediately. But when he started adapting it for the screen, he understood what some viewers might think. ”It was very important that [McCandless] not seem to be just this snotty little kid with a chip on his shoulder,” he says. ”I had always felt that this was a celebration of a kind of wanderlust that everybody I know had some connection to, whether they yearn to seek a rite of passage or have done so [already].”
To play McCandless, Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) had to go through an ordeal of his own, dropping from 156 pounds to a ravaged 115 over the course of the eight-month shoot. ”[Penn] didn’t let me cut any corners in the part, ever,” says Hirsch, who appears in nearly every scene. ”One of the first days shooting, I had to do a lot of climbing, but he didn’t give me any rope, literally and figuratively. I had to adapt immediately. The hand’s not going to be there to catch you if you fall in the wild.” Or, for that matter, in Hollywood.