Interview: Emile Hirsch Gets Twice Born with Penelope Cruz


One thing that can be said about actor Emile Hirsch, whose career began at the age of 12, is that as he’s grown older, he’s been a lot more selective about the roles he plays. Despite appearing in a number of teen comedies, playing a big screen version of Speed Racer and giving a memorable turn in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, Hirsch certainly has been trying to transition into more adult roles while getting away from the double-edged sword of still looking younger than his actual age.

Having premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Twice Born pairs Hirsch with the gorgeous Oscar-winning actress Penelope Cruz, who in turn reunites with her Don’t Move director, Sergio Castellitto, once again adapting a bestselling novel by his wife Margaret Mazzantini. Cruz plays Gemma, a woman who 20 years earlier spent time in pre-war Sarajevo where she meets Diego, an energetic and spontaneous American photographer and the two of them fall into a torrid but short romance. Decades later, Gemma returns to now-ravaged Sarajevo with her teenage son to find out what happened to Diego to learn a shocking secret.

In a year in which Hirsch has already appeared with Paul Rudd in David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche and later this month can be seen in Peter Berg’s military drama Lone Survivor opposite Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster, a smaller Italian-made film like Twice Born
might get lost in the shuffle of year-end releases, so got on the phone with Hirsch last week to talk about working with Castellitto and Cruz. This was a lovely film and a bit of a hidden gem. I know that it was at Toronto last year but I never really heard much about it while there and I was surprised since it’s pretty decent. What was your introduction to Sergio Castellito and the script? Did you know his previous movie, “Don’t Move”?
Emile Hirsch:
My agent sent me the script and sent me a copy of “Don’t Move” and I had the opportunity to go to Italy to actually meet Sergio–it was actually a trip to Rome–and he’s just a great guy. He’s a very famous actor in Italy, Sergio Castellitto, and he’s greatly respected. Immediately, when I met him, we connected as actors and that actor camaraderie so the idea of working for him as an actor under his direction was just for me a no-brainer. He’s just a very spirited energetic vivacious personality that I was lucky to get to work with. His dynamic is really interesting because his wife is Margaret Mazzantini, the novelist, who wrote “Twice Born” – she’s a huge novelist in Italy, massive, massive. Together, they adapt the scripts and then they make the movies based on her books. “Don’t Move” was also a movie that Margaret had written a novel to and Sergio directed it with Penélope Cruz.

CS: I remember seeing that movie and remember first, how beautiful Penélope looked under Sergio’s camera but also that he brought out such a great performance from her, and it’s the same here. I never knew they were married so I guess that makes sense he’d adapt two of her books. Was she generally on set while making the movie as well?
Oh, yeah. They were almost like a team on set ‘cause Margaret had incredible taste and a sense of style and story. She would kind of be huddled down by the monitors, almost like a creative producer in a way, and Sergio would be giving all of us direction, then he’d confer with Margaret and they’d talk things over. They’re very sophisticated, the way they worked. They were always two sets of eyes, and they’re very passionate and intelligent people. She’s a very brilliant woman, Margaret. As a writer, she’s just exceptionally talented, a real poet.

CS: Did you go back and read the book by any chance?
Yeah I read the book. It was very poetic with a lot of great character description and really good descriptions of war.

CS: I was surprised that the movie actually had a few fun moments between you and Penelope–it was lighter than “Don’t Move,” which was pretty dark–but then it also gets pretty dark and terrifying. So was Sergio able to shoot in a way that you weren’t jumping between extremes every day?
I think that was something that we just dealt with on the day, just finding the scenes wherever it was. I guess sometimes there is a stark contrast between one day’s work and the next day’s, but it’s almost like Sergio is a character in the movie, living it out with you. His whole body is consumed with that classic European screaming, red-faced, passionate punching the walls kind of director. It’s like screaming, “The passion, I want passion!”

CS: There’s something about Italian filmmakers, because they have this eye for capturing beauty and I’m always amazed by Italian cinema so I was curious whether working with an Italian director was very different than anything else you’ve done before.
I love Italians and Italy to begin with, so the chance to get to work with someone like Sergio, who has worked with so many great Italian directors – I mean, he knows so many of them and he’s worked with so many of these guys. I felt like he had a lot of interesting ideas and a sense of style and a sense of play and a sense of pace. One of the things that I really appreciated and noticed, especially when we were making “Twice Born,” is the relaxed and timely way that we shot the film. We shot for 73 days, and for the kind of movie we made, that’s a really relaxed pace, a really European sense of no-need-to-rush, shooting all day on a smaller scene and being okay with that. Sergio has that power in Italy.

CS: You’ve done a lot of smaller indie movies over the years and I wondered how that experienced compared to that. Was this more like a studio movie where you didn’t have to rush through things?
Yeah, yeah, it felt a lot more like a studio movie. It felt like we had all the time in the world, and Sergio could shoot whatever he wanted and it felt like he had a lot of power behind the money. Also, with Penelope, it sort of felt like we were going to get whatever we wanted on that set, which is a great feeling, and a very rare one. I don’t know who financed the movie and how that works but it felt like whoever did, there were deep pockets that were helping us out. That’s what it seemed like to me, because we shot for so long, so many days, and I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest budget Italian movie, maybe ever. They spent a lot of money on the movie.

CS: Working with Penelope and doing love scenes with her, what was that like? Had you been in a movie with her before?
No, never before. Working with Penelope was wonderful. She’s a really nice lady, great actress and a great mother. She cared about everyone on set and cared about the work and is a great team player and has a great sense of humor. A lot of my fondest memories of working with Penelope was us just having a good time and cracking each other up.

CS: You’re having a great year between this and “Prince Avalanche” and “Lone Survivor” which I’ve already seen, all of which I’ve loved. It’s interesting to me that you’re playing more grown-up roles lately. I’ve been watching you in movies since “Girl Next Door” and “Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” and you forget that was 10 years ago. Have you been looking more for adult roles to get away from that and is it hard because you still look young?
You know, I’m 28 years old, I have a son now. It’s just that I want to play different roles, I guess, I don’t know. (laughs)

CS: It must be a double-edged sword, because looking young can get you a wider range of roles but if you want to grow up, you need to make people believe you’re older now.
Ed, I feel like Diego is still a child. I feel like even though I’m with Penelope in the movie, he’s so far from a grown-up. This particular character is like a lost little boy type. He’s immature, he’s impulsive, he’s idealistic and naïve. I feel like he is a boy, he’s like a little puppy dog or something.

CS: I know you’re going to be playing John Belushi soon. Have you started studying and preparing for that? It’s a pretty major public figure from entertainment so will there be a lot of weight put on to get ready? Or make-up?
I’m sure it will be a combination of a lot of different things in terms of the physicality, but it will look right, whatever it is. People don’t need to worry about that. I’ve been going all through early SNLs episode by episode right now.

CS: Have you started learning his “Blues Brothers” moves or is that down the road?
Yeah I love “The Blues Brothers,” I love that film. (starts singing) “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”… I love that song!

Twice Born opens in select cities and On Demand on December 6, and you can also see Hirsch in Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor opening in select cities on Christmas Day and nationwide on January 10.