SPEED ZONE: Emile Hirsch

In the first installment of SPEED ZONE, CBR News spoke with “Speed Racer” producer Joel Silver about the live-action adaptation of the classic auto racing anime television series. We then spoke with co-star Matthew Fox, who portrays Racer X, followed by a conversation with actors John Goodman, Susan Sarandon and Christina Ricci about the hotly anticipated Wachowski Brothers film. We speak now with Speed Racer himself, actor Emile Hirsch, who told CBR News he does not have the need for speed, claiming the fastest he’s ever driven is sixty miles per hour.

“I’m a very, very conservative driver,” Hirsch said. When he first accepted the role of Speed Racer, he looked up NASCAR crashes on YouTube. Hirsch saw a ten-minute compilation of wrecks set to heavy metal music. He described the experience as not unlike “when the dad sees his kid smoking and he makes him smoke a carton.” Scared straight, the actor remarked he was more inclined to say, “Let’s go drive thirty miles an hour.”

Luckily, filming “Speed Racer” did not require Hirsch to do any training in a real car. The actor never drove during the Berlin shoot last summer. He also said any training would have not been helpful because of the major difference between real auto racing and the version of the sport presented in the film. “I didn’t want to pretend that was in one of the real cars [from the film] because the real cars are so much better,” Hirsch remarrked. Instead, the actor spent twenty days on a hydraulic gimbal surrounded by a green screen, lights, cameras, and a mock-up of the car’s cockpit. Strapped in and thrashed about for days on end was challenging for the actor. Hirsch claimed it aided his performance. “All those scenes where I’m angry or really determined, I’m genuinely angry. I’m claustrophobic in [the gimbal] and I’m just ready to rip the thing apart. If it was really comfortable, it wouldn’t be as convincing.”

Asked about his time on the green screen sets, Hirsch joked, “Green is my favorite color.” The actor believes the key to green screen acting is to keep an idea of what the settings will eventually looking like in one’s mind. “You ground yourself by constantly looking at the images of what the background is supposed to be.” Hirsch admitted it was initially strange to be in that vacuum. “This is a little weird, but that’s what this is.”

The cast supported each other during the long green days. “Actors, when they’re put on a massive empty green screen, they just huddle together,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch saw the completed “Speed Racer” for the first time a week previous to the interview, and said it’s “so amazing” and that the final product was “so much more” than he expected. “When you’re on the green screen, you have to substitute it with your imagination and the Wachowski brothers just have that much crazier an imagination than I do.”

Of the Wachowski Brothers, Hirsch said, “You meet them and they’re just the most down-to-earth, grounded, awesome guys you’ll ever meet.” Their involvement was also a major reason for Hirsch to take the part of Speed. “You see a movie like 'The Matrix’ and think 'God, what are they going to do next?’ and they do something like this.” When he was actually offered the part, Hirsch said, “I thought about it for a second, but it’s all about the Wachowski Brothers.”

Shooting “Speed Racer” has changed Hirsch’s impressions about doing big summer movies. “What you think of when you make a 'big movie,’ if it’s actually a green screen movie, it’s like doing independent New York theatre. You don’t have any background or props. It’s kind of like making the lowest-budgeted film you could possibly imagine; plus 100 million dollars.”

Hirsch said working on a film like “Speed Racer” can actually be more taxing than the smaller dramatic films he’s appeared in. “It was almost emotionally more difficult to make 'Speed Racer’ because you’re on the green screen, and you’re doing a lot more takes and it’s so technical.” Despite the safety of the studio environment and the comforts that come with it, Hirsch said the work is “still harder on you mentally.” He compared it to his previous film, “Into the Wild,” saying, “[On that film], I’m climbing mountains and [I’m] in a kayak and everything is so raw. You’re rejuvenated at the end of everyday.”

Next for Hirsch is a return to drama in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” The film is about Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco city supervisor of who was shot in the City Hall in 1978. Hirsch plays gay rights activist Cleve Jones, who went on to found the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Sean Penn, director of “Into the Wild,” stars as Harvey Milk.

Known for smaller, dramatic films like “Milk,” Hirsch said he is not really concerned about becoming stuck in the hero role. “I guess there’s always the idea you could typecast yourself,” but he believes the landscape for actors has changed. “I think there’s so many movies and so much media that it’s not like it was in the old days where you could only play one [type of] role … you have Edward Norton playing the Hulk. The genres are widening, I don’t think there’s as many limitations on the kinds of projects that actors can do as there once was.”

Hirsch thinks that widening is “due to the huge amount of media that’s opened up with the internet and DVDs.” The diversity of formats means “there’s less to box people in.” Asked if he was worried about the higher profile and media attention the film might bring him, he responded, “You want to be ready; you still want to feel you have your privacy.”

Speaking about his character, Hirsch said, “Speed is a very serious, passionate guy.” He admires that the character is “not willing to sell out to the big corporate conglomerate.” Then Hirsch joked that in taking the role he was “so excited to sell out to a big corporate conglomerate.”

Hirsch was a fan of the “Speed Racer” series growing up. “I used to watch it in the morning with my cereal, and I would pour soda into the cereal.” He described the show as “one of those crazy shows you’d watch on a sugar rush. The colors and the action and the sense of adventure” brought that immediate appeal. Looking back on the show now, he said it has a “retro cool.”

In replicating Speed’s iconic costume for live action, Hirsch remarked, “If I was in that outfit walking down Manhattan, it might’ve looked a little weird.” However, he added, the hyper-real world Speed lives in makes the outfit work. As for Speed’s signature scarf: “We had a lot of big debates about the scarf -- I love the scarf.” Ultimately, Speed’s well known blue polo shirt, gloves, and red scarf appear only during the middle portion of the film. Hirsch declared, “more scarf” if they make a second film.

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