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Perched high in the mountains of Santa Fe, writer-director Peter Berg carved out a harsh Afghanistan, embedded with hostile Taliban members doggedly hunting a four man crew of Navy SEALs. This is conflict at the center of Lone Survivor, based on the best-selling memoir by former SEAL Team 10 Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell. Berg tasked his cast--that includes Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Mark Wahlberg--with portraying the real-life heroes who risked their lives on "Operation Red Wings." It was a mission on its own that demanded intense physical training, deep consideration for those who didn't make it, and a heavy responsibility to "get it right."
This responsibility is nothing new to Hirsch, who plays Gunner’s Mate Second Class SEAL Danny P. Dietz, Jr., in Lone Survivor. He's worked in a string of docudramas and biopics, ranging from the true-crime drama Alpha Dog to the Christopher McCandles story Into the Wild, the Academy Award-winning biography Milk, and the upcoming the upcoming John Belushi biopic. But when he and I spoke over the phone about Lone Survivor, Hirsch made it clear how dedicated he was to honoring the memory of Dietz, who was responsible for communications on "Operation Red Wings" and won the Navy Cross for his bravery there. This is a legacy that Hirsch worked hard to pay tribute to, out of respect for this fallen soldier as well as for all the others that share in this noble vocation.
Watching this movie, it's astonishing the physical abuse these soldier went through in the course of this mission. Did the stunts and such involved, did that intimidate you at all in taking on this role?
Emile Hirsch: Well first of all regarding the stunts, I have to give absolute credit to Kevin Scott and his team of stuntmen. He got some of the best guys in the business on this project, and I can't sing their praises enough. Most of those hits are them. These guys are some of the best in the world at what they do. I would never want to try take credit for their hard work.
But the film itself was one of the more grueling physical shoots I've done. And I've actually made quite a few outdoorsy movies with Into the Wild first among them. But it was the high altitude nature of (the Lone Survivor shoot) which made everything we did a little bit different. It wasn't just that there was all this running around these big boulders or the cold in the morning, and all this different gear on--and that itself is a kind of grueling thing--but it was also the altitude. That's the thing you don't see on screen, which was really a factor with all the guys. We're up in Santa Fe ski basin. We basically took the ski lifts to the top of the mountain every morning before we started. So we're up 14,000 feet. Doing that type of thing at 14,000 feet is a whole lot different too.
Was the physical side of this part of the allure of the project, or a cause for reluctance?
No it gave me excitement. It was a challenge. It was something I hadn't done before and wasn't sure I could do. And I had to find out if I could do it or not by just trying. I think that that's one of the most exciting parts of being an actor is just you're constantly doing things that frighten or scare you in the beginning. You do them because of that. You have to rid yourself of that by doing it.
I've heard you fought really hard to win the role of Danny. What drove you to want to play him onscreen?
It was something about these guys, these Navy SEALs. What they did, how they fought so hard. I had so much admiration. I felt that they were willing to fight for their country and die the way they did, fighting a battle for such a long time. Me fighting for a role, there's no comparison. Yeah, I fought for a role, and I kept pursuing Pete. I wouldn't take no for an answer. I went to training for months without the role. Showed up every morning at 6, committed myself physically in a way I'd never done before. But at the end of the day, it's a drop in the bucket to the training these Navy SEALs go through, like BUD/S (Basis Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training.
Then once you got the part, you guys actually did SEAL training right?
Well that's actually kind misleading because we didn't do SEAL training; we were trained by SEALs. SEAL training is going through BUD/S, which is the school the SEALs go through, which is very, very hard. Non-stop surf torture, it's like unimaginable. I don't know any actor in the world that could actually graduate BUD/S. You be hard pressed to find an actor to full-on graduate BUD/S.
But we were trained by SEALs. We had five or six Navy SEALs. We had SWAT range training, where we're on a SWAT range outside of Albuquerque with live fire and M4 weapon system. They all call it the weapon system, which is kind of crazy and badass. And we were blowing through 1500 rounds a day, just literally boxes and boxes and cases of bullets. And the whole day you could just hear the click click sound of bullets being loaded for all the actors. We were just shooting at targets, running around. We each had a SEAL on our backs at all times for safety. We really were challenged to constantly pay attention, constantly keep focus. Because we had these guys on our backs and there was real danger involved because it was live fire with actual bullets in that training. It was very intense on set because these guns are so incredibly dangerous.
Playing a character based on a real person, is that different for you than playing a character who is completely fictional?
Absolutely. There's just a sense of wanting to get it right, and get it close to what the person was like if you can. Or if you choose to. Something you can choose not to for a creative decision for whatever reason, which is also fine. In this particular project, Danny was loved by so many friends and family. And talking to them in preparation for the role was really an eye-opener, and reminded me this is more than just a movie. This was these peoples' lives. This is their son and their brother, someone who really was an honorable person, who deserves to be taken seriously and respected and honored with the best that I could do.
And of course Luttrell was on set, right?
Luttrell was on set, except for the actual gun fight itself. I think that would have been too much. I don't know about too much, but probably just best he wouldn't be there for that part.
Yeah, that seems--oof.
Yeah, it's surreal enough to see a movie made about your life but to see a movie being made about the absolutely worse day of your life? Worst week of your life? I think that would have been really tough.
How much did you know about the SEALs before the film?
Not a ton. I mean I feel like I sort of knew what the average person would know about SEALs.
And now do you feel you know a lot more having had to walk in their shoes to some degree?
Oh yeah. Well, you know Ben Foster and I went down to Coronado on a day in Los Angeles where we both had free. And we were actually able to meet SEAL team 5 down there, see where they put all their stuff. We basically got to trot around their backyard for a little while. And it was incredible. Seeing what these guys are, seeing what their personalities are like, the light side, the dark side, every which way--it's a very intense world that they roll in.
You've played a lot of characters based on real people. Is that something you're especially drawn to or is that more coincidence?
I think there's a part of me that gets more excited about characters that are based on real people. I don't know why--I mean, I do know why. There's more detail. The material feels more character rich. There's more at stake. There's more to me that fires up my imagination because there's more research to do and things that you can kind of lock on to and really learn. I find myself learning more about the world when I play parts that are based on other people because you have to go out into the world and research it. In that process you discover things. It becomes an education.
Do you consider yourself a history buff at all?
I love history. I do. I don't consider myself a history buff. But every time I learn about history I find myself really drawn into it and fascinated by it, excited by it.
Well you have another biopic coming up about John Belushi. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
The John Belushi biopic we're hopefully going to be making in June. It's going to be good. I'm sort of somewhat hesitant to talk about it in too much detail because I almost don't want to jinx it or something. I like the idea of keeping it a little bit of a mystery.
Okay, understandable. So, it was funny to me to watch this film a couple of months after Prince Avalanche because Danny and Lance are total opposites. You made those movies within a couple of months of each other.
I know! It's so funny that that was the character I played immediately before playing Danny.
Aside from both being in the woods, there's not a lot of common ground between the two.
Yeah. I know the two versions of these guys in the woods are very different. I had been a little bit out of shape when I shot Prince Avalanche, and I was just kind of enjoying myself, enjoying the food and gained a little weight for that part. And all of a sudden I have to get in the best shape of my life and I found myself training in this workout camp with this guy named T.R. Goodman. Gold's Gym, it's called Pro Camp, it's where pro athletes go. And they were just kicking my butt for six days a week for three and half months. And I was questioning every Snickers I had eaten on Prince Avalanche.
When Lone Survivor wrapped was there anything you did as a kind of release of "now my body can go to hell"?
No not at all! I wanted to maintain it. See, if you get into really good shape, you don't go like, "Oh, man screw this!"
You're like "this forever!"
You're like, "I want to keep this shit as long as possible!" But there was no way to maintain the standard of working out that I'd had. It's just--even T.R. told me, "You're never going to train this hard again. You won't do it. No one could."
It's like a job unto itself.
Yeah, (laughs) he just told me it wasn't going to happen. And I was like, "No, I'm going to do it." But he was right, to maintain that standard, of four hours of working out every morning? It's a lot. Two hours of cardio, two hours of weights.
Well on the idea of beefing up, it seems everyone in your age range is being rumored for some superhero movie or another. Is that something that interests you?
I mean I definitely would never rule anything out. Like I'd hate to say, "No, I'm not interested" then some director reads this interview and is like, "Oh, that's too bad I was just going to offer him like Vineman or whatever." So I'm not going to just say that. But I don't know.
Lone Survivor, opens in limited release on December 27th, and expands on January 10th.