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.