Emile Hirsch turns horror and death into a positive sentiment
Emile Hirsch is happy. After a week of grey skies and downpour, the sun is out in Los Angeles. Calling from his abode in Venice, the California-born actor is excited about his latest part in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. In the unnerving horror thriller, Hirsch plays a coroner whose work leads him and his colleague/father, played by Brian Cox, down an unexpected path. But the unexpected path is precisely the route Hirsch has taken throughout his career. Hopping from big budget fare (The Girl Next Door, Lone Survivor) to shoestring indies (Prince Avalanche), Hirsch has consistently taken the road less traveled. Hirsch opens up about watching horror flicks with his mother, overcoming fear and finding joy every morning, rain or shine.
THE RED BULLETIN: So, why Autopsy of Jane Doe?
EMILE HIRSCH: I would always hit up the horror section of the video store. I remember seeing movies that weren’t necessarily horror, but like Big Trouble in Little China, The Exorcist, Halloween, and It. There are a lot of those movies that I had really enjoyed and I always found them to be a very visceral experience to watch. Mom and I used to always see scary movies together, and that was fun thing that we did. It’s funny because you don’t normally think of going to a scary movie with your mom.
Was your mom the person that showed you movies?
She liked movies, but she wasn’t the one leading me in the video store by any means. I sort of found most of that on my own or through dudes that worked at the video store who probably shouldn’t be showing some twelve-year-old a graphic horror movie.
Yeah, why were they doing that?
Because they’re cool, man! They don’t want me to watch Air Bud 4, you know? My interest in the genre and actually making a film in that genre did go up after I worked with William Friedkin, and I heard a lot about The Exorcist and the impact that film had on him and the world. Friedkin really loved The Babadook. He said it was one of the scariest films he’d ever seen. That really stuck with me. There was something about the clinical nature of [the script], the supernatural meets the very logical science process, that I found interesting. The other thing is that I felt the autopsy, the living and the dead right next to each other, made me think about my own mortality in a way that I think is unsettling and contributes to the scary atmosphere.
Do you often think about that?
Definitely a lot more after that movie, let me tell you. After I went to the Los Angeles Downtown Morgue and I saw 500 bodies that were all wrapped up in clear plastic, and then an autopsy room where there were five bodies that were all having active autopsies. Those memories are almost always in the back of your mind. The scene in Heat where Al Pacino is sitting at the table and he’s like, “My nightmares of all the dead bodies I’ve ever seen are on the table. They’re looking at me!” I mean, there is something to that after you see some of these unsettling images. It affects the way that you perceive your life, but I think that’s actually a good thing.
You just turned seeing a bunch of dead bodies into a positive sentiment.
I know that sounds weird, but I turned to the morgue worker next to me as we watched this autopsy, and I said, “Does working at this job make you more happy and more grateful to be alive?” and he was like, “Oh, yeah.” All the workers are stoked that they’re not in there, because they see how awful it is. They’re uplifted but I think that they can become a bit disturbed.
Did seeing all these deceased bodies prevent you from living?
Not really — there’s a few things I’ve done, like in Into the Wild, I was around a grizzly bear that was a couple feet away from me. I think that might freak out certain people that would have less of a hard time jumping out of a plane. Being ripped apart, limb from limb, by a grizzly bear sounds awful. It sounds like the worst Saturday ever.
What compels you to get out of bed in the morning?
I think of my son. He’s a massive part of my life and part of what gets me excited about everything. Also, the work. I like making things and films, and to me it’s just a continuous exploration. I think it’s important that people are patient enough with their time because it’s really easy to rush to a conclusion. It’s really easy to think about mortality and come to the conclusion that there’s no point. You can look at the sun and be like, “Oh, man, this is going to explode in 8 billion years!” and you might get down, not that you’d be around then anyway, or you can look at the sun and think about how magnificent it is and the cosmos behind it and the expanding universe and how cool it is that Einstein was able to imagine riding alongside light beams at 16 in class and just how extraordinary everything is, you know?