As Lance, the horny hothead to Paul Rudd’s pent-up Alvin in Prince Avalanche, Emile Hirsch is free to run wild, parading around the film’s beautifully sparse Texas setting, ranting about his dwindling and likely exaggerated conquests, painting his shoes yellow while sipping on backwoods hooch, and baring a belly that suggests an excess of beer and pastries. Though a tad shorter than some of his sought-after peers (he’s five-foot-seven), Hirsch, like Rudd, has leading-man appeal (he came within inches of an Oscar nod for his starring role in Into the Wild). But this wonderfully elliptical, bromantic dramedy calls for much more than that. Written and directed by David Gordon Green in a marvelous return to form, Prince Avalanche puts Hirsch, 28, in full character-actor mode, drawing out a guileless, childlike, and wholly convincing performance, which is only boosted by his willingness to pack on a few.
Back in fighting shape, Hirsch met me in New York to chat about the film, which is right up there with the actor’s best, like Killer Joe and Milk. Like anyone who’s gotten a load of Prince Avalanche, a remake of Iceland’s Either Way that casts Hirsch and Rudd as road workers in a fire-ravaged park, Hirsch has his theories about its symbols, jokes, and interpretative themes. He also spills screwball production secrets about fireworks, “blazing” heat, and impromptu singing. And then there’s the birds…
I don’t think there’s a single interior shot in Prince Avalanche, a film that sends you back “into the wild,” so to speak. Would you prefer it if all of your movies were shot outdoors?
No way. You know, shooting in the wild is a privilege, and it’s fun, but it’s taxing. The location where we shot Prince Avalanche, in Bastrop, Texas, just outside of Austin, was very hot. It was kind of miserable at times. As cool as it looks, if you want to talk about straight creature comforts—you might not want to shoot in the heat in Austin. It’s blazing. It was like 105 degrees there the other day.
Well, for roughly the first third of the film, the climate is extremely gray and wet, to the point that it’s palpably uncomfortable. It’s beautifully captured, but it reminded me of one of those rainy Survivor episodes where the weather drives the contestants nuts.
To me, that was actually pleasant because the weather was so warm that the rain was a welcome respite. The [Bastrop] State Park was beautiful, but toward the end of the shoot, it got hotter, and we were in these overalls and stuff and we felt the heat more. In another part of the shoot, though, it was a little bit cooler, and then the rain came, and to me there was something kind of magical about it.
Have you ever been to Iceland, home of the film the movie’s based on?
No. I’m actually curious about Iceland. And I didn’t watch the original until after we wrapped.
It has that same type of climate, and a lot of crazy and unique natural hotspots.
You do seem to be the outdoors-y type. You’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and ventured into the Congo. Is there another outdoor destination you’re dying to see?
Oh, man, I don’t know. I’ve always been curious about the Himalayas, and what it would be like to go to Everest Base Camp. I don’t know if I would actually climb Everest; it’s pretty dangerous. But I really like those high-altitude type of places—crisp, cool air. And I enjoy hiking and running. I run and work out at the gym pretty regularly. With actors, if you’re not working, it’s a great way to stay in shape and just have a little bit of routine. I think it’s important. I don’t want to sound like the preaching guru guy trying to motivate everyone to work out regularly, but I certainly value it. [Pause] And now you’re thinking, “Okay, you fucking creep.”
Ha! No, not at all. However, you did let yourself go for this movie.
Yeah, I know. I did. I don’t know if I intentionally let myself go for it, but it sort of worked out, because I think that the character being a little bit out of shape, strangely, is funnier. If he’d been ripped, he might have come across as more of, like, a smarmy dick, you know? Because he’s a little doughy, there’s something more innocent or innocuous about him.
I thought it was funny that his name is phallic.
Lance! [laughs] I never thought of that! That’s funny.
Because he has this off-the-charts libido. Did you relate to that part of him?
Yeah, of course. Wouldn’t you?
Of course. One of the great things about the film is its vast room for interpretation. One colleague of mine thinks the title might be a merger of the lead characters’ names, and another thinks the two of them might be in hell.
And it’s interesting, because there is credence to that [latter] idea. In the first title card, it says that four people died in the park fire, and there are only four speaking characters in the movie. The film really struck me when I first saw it. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the blending of the genres of drama and comedy that David did, or maybe it was the inclusion of the Explosions in the Sky music, or the 1980s time period, or something. But there was something about the film that felt surreal, and almost magical, having tones of, like, Beckett, of the Waiting for Godot world, where everything’s kind of topsy-turvy and doesn’t necessarily make total sense. And that, to me, is something that’s very hard to get. And to live in a tone like that is tricky.
The movie is also one that explores an oft-unexplored occupation, which is made to look both interesting and dull. Did the project give you a newfound respect for road workers? Or make you think you’d never want to do this job? Or both?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I find that there’s something almost meditative and hypnotic about the consistency of the work, and the craftsmanship that it takes. And it’s complex. As soon as you look at anything that seems simple, you realize right away that there’s an entire added layer of complexity and masterwork that goes into it. Having said that, I don’t know if I would want to do it…um…ever again. [laughs]