The Motel Life

With his first child, a couple of indie films ("Prince Avalanche," "The Motel Life," "Twice Born"), a miniseries (A&E's "Bonnie and Clyde") and a meaty high-profile role on the horizon (John Belushi in the as-of-yet untitled biopic), 2013 is chalking up to be a pretty good year for Emile Hirsch. Over the course of his film career (his debut being in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" in 2002), Hirsch has frequently varied his acting choices. Being led simply by the quality of the material rather than trying to configure a trajectory or formulate a brand, Hirsch has run the gamut of being a young actor in (and outside of) Hollywood: nominated for a MTV Music Award For Best Kiss (with Elisha Cuthbert in "The Girl Next Door"), portraying real-life characters to varying critical acclaim ("Lords of Dogtown," "Alpha Dog," "Into The Wild," "Milk"), taking on an iconic cartoon character in a big-budget Wachowski sibling movie ("Speed Racer"), starring alongside a mustachioed Paul Rudd in a David Gordon Green film while wearing Mario Bros.-eque suspenders ("Prince Avalanche") and more.

"The Motel Life," his latest film, is based off of Willy Vlautin's (lead singer and songwriter of Richmond Fontaine) debut novel of the same name, which centers around two very close brothers grappling in the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident in Reno, Nevada. Helmed by film-producers-turned-first-time-directing-team Alan and Gabe Polsky, Hirsch plays Frank, one of two brothers alongside Stephen Dorff, as the crippled sibling Jerry Lee, with a cast that includes Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning. Premiering at the 2012 Rome Film Festival, our critic Jessica Kiang wrote praise for both the film and Hirsch's performance in her review, noting that "Hirsch does a terrific job as Frank, the bright one, who has all the potential but has somehow forgotten how to access it."

At 28, Hirsch already has a string of films to his name of which people twice, even thrice, his age would be proud. On the cusp of another career transition (Christopher McCandless, Clyde Barrow, John Belushi—who's next?), Hirsch sat down with Rodrigo Perez to talk about "The Motel Life," what sort of material draws him in and jokes that he's actually losing weight to play Belushi.

"Vlautin's able to sketch these really indelible, endearing portraits of character and Stephen and I really embraced them. He still calls me Frank to this day."

What drew you to the material when you were first offered it?
First and foremost, the script by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. It was a well-drawn characters and some interesting dynamics—I hadn't really seen their particular relationship as brothers in a movie before. It's not a contentious relationship. They don't have cross words between them, so it's a nuanced relationship of how they expressed their love for each other. Whether it's sympathetically and supportive, even as they do the wrong thing trying to avoid the hit and run that Jerry Lee commits and Frank's sort of brought in on the guilt, and then Jerry Lee sort of sacrificing himself in the end for Frank to give Frank a life. To give him a chance to keep going. 

So it was that, and I also really liked Reno—the idea of this kind of Americana backdrop, this forgotten city that used to be all the rage, it used to be Vegas essentially. And now it's this dilapidated city and certainly the source material, the novel by Willy Vlautin. The detail and the writing made me feel I could also use the novel as a balancing board for myself developing and ultimately performing the character. The way that Frank is in the script and the movie, he's a very still guy, who doesn't really express his feelings. He doesn't talk a lot, which to me was a challenge. I'm more naturally expressive than Frank is. I wear my emotions on my sleeve more than someone like Frank. So that was a challenge: to try to find that minimalist performance, make it feel authentic and believable but also still interesting, because sometimes you can go minimalist and it's completely uninteresting.

What are some minimalist performances you admire?
Gary Oldman in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” or Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” and also one of the great underplayed performances was [Ulrich Mühe] in “The Lives of Others.” An incredible minimalist performance. I knew that this is not a big pyrotechnic performance on my part. There's not fireworks going off. It's a very contained thing. How do you go quiet and keep it interesting for the audience? So it had a technical challenge to it right off the bat.

The Motel Life

How did you relate to the sibling relationship in the film?
I don't have a brother, so I couldn’t identify in that way to it. But it goes beyond a sibling relationship—they're not only brothers to each other but they're also mothers and fathers for each other because they're all each other has as family. They're almost lovers and soul mates because they don't have anyone else.

It's a unique male dynamic you don't see often.
We're like two doting husbands on each other. I’m bringing him ice cream and he's drawing me pictures and we're crying together. You know it's a very kind of effeminate relationship and I'm not trying to reduce it, it just doesn't have that traditional machismo—“I'm going to give you a wedgie and a noogie, bro” dynamic, which I think is sweet. One of the reasons a lot of audience members who get emotionally involved with it are doing so because they're not fighting this adversarial machismo, which can kind of numb you to feelings sometimes. It's so effeminate that, as an audience member, you let your guard down because you're not forced to put it up really.

There's a lot of great vulnerability here and it strikes me that you and Stephen have a lot of affection for these characters.
Yeah, that's another testament to the novel's writing. Vlautin's able to sketch these really indelible, endearing portraits of character and Stephen and I really embraced them. He still calls me Frank to this day. If he texts me, he's “Hey Frank, how are you?” He has never stopped at all. I think it's a lot easier to do that as an actor when it's characters that you think are good people.

You beat me to my next question. Is it easier when you like the characters?
It's much easier. When it's characters you detest or you can't help but morally make judgments upon, you can't control your mind. Those are the characters that you let go of really quick. I would imagine it's hard for Daniel Day-Lewis to let go of Lincoln because there's so many admirable characteristics. It's almost like you don’t want to let that go because you don’t want to lose what the character’s sort of taught you.

Have you ever played characters you've had trouble empathizing or understanding?
Certainly some of the more criminal characters I've played. The Johnny Truelove character in "Alpha Dogs," the guy has a lot of problems. He's not someone you aspire to be like.

Does that ever put you in a weird head space when you inhabit characters like that?
Not really, because the production process is pretty short. For theater actors playing a Shakespearean villain eight days a week for months on end, I think that's way more intense. I think it's fun because you get to be in that head space with zero consequences and at the end of the day, you are who you are and you can go back to your life.