Emile Hirsch has starred in a number of intense, physically demanding roles over the course of his career, but none as difficult as his latest stint as fallen Navy SEAL Danny Dietz in “Lone Survivor.”
The film, which is adapted from former SEAL Marcus Luttrell‘s 2007 best-selling novel of the same name, tells the true story of four soldiers who are ambushed during a mission in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan.
The Peter Berg-directed film stars Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Hirsch as the embroiled team.
I recently spoke with Emile about his new son, how he prepared for such an intense role and why playing Danny Dietz was the greatest honor of his life:
Laura Hibbs: Congrats on the new baby – the name Valor is awesome, and a fitting adjective for this film.
Emile Hirsch: Oh, thank you. I think I’m going to go a little more formal and name my next son “Call of Duty II.”
Hibbs: I think you’d find a lot of fans with that name. So, tell me how you got involved with “Lone Survivor”?
Hirsch: [Director Peter Berg] gave me the book years ago and I approached him about making the movie, but he said no to my face. He literally said, “You’re not the guy. Physically, you’re not the guy.” But I didn’t take no for an answer. I trained and kept emailing and calling him. After three months of training on my own, getting my ass handed to me, they finally gave me the part. He was really just testing me, I think, and wanted to make sure I had the commitment.
Hibbs: What type of training did you do?
Hirsch: Pete set me up with this trainer, TR Goodman, at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. We trained six days a week from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was like going to a work day, but the workday was just weight-lifting and doing cardio all day. Pete would sometimes come in and yell at me and criticize what I was doing – almost like a drill sergeant. That is what it felt like. I think Pete told the trainer to really try to break me and push me to that edge to see if I would quit. I didn’t know in advance that I never would quit, I just wanted to do it. I kept going and going, and I never threw in the towel. I wanted to be there so bad, I wanted to be a part of the film and portray Danny Dietz.
Hibbs: Did you meet with Danny’s family?
Hirsch: I talked to his mom Cindy, his dad Danny Sr., his sister Tiffany, his brother Eric, his widow Patsy and a whole lot of his friends. I’ve had plenty of beer with Danny Sr., talking with him about life and his son. It was a really intimate experience.
Hibbs: Had you ever felt that connection on a movie before?
Hirsch: That happened a little bit to me on “Into the Wild.” I got really close with my character’s family. It’s something you have to bring a lot of respect to – it’s their son, it is their real life. It’s really emotional and really hard for a lot of people.
Hibbs: Which role was more physically demanding – “Lone Survivor” or “Into the Wild”?
Hirsch: Oh man… I wouldn’t really want to just pick one, but physically “Lone Survivor” was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The type of training that I was talking about… you’re literally on the verge of throwing in the towel every single day. That’s how hard they were pushing me. Obviously, I’m an actor so I’m not doing actual Navy SEALs training, but the goal was to simulate the psychological environment of that.
Hibbs: Did you hesitate at all about being in a film about a true military story?
Hirsch: I wanted to honor these guys in the right way; I didn’t want to dishonor the families and the SEAL community. By far, the first and foremost priority for all the actors was to do what the families said and to do it right so they would appreciate and like the movie. The public will see the movie and think whatever they think, but it was really the military community that we wanted to do this for. They are the people who know these guys; they are the people who are going to know if we screwed up.
Hibbs: Did you meet with real Navy SEALs for the film?
Hirsch: We met with lots of Navy SEALs and trained on a SWAT range with live fire. We probably fired over 1,000 rounds a day during our week-long training on a SWAT range outside of Albuquerque. We all had two Navy SEALs with us at all times for safety and insurance reasons. The SEALs went over every single detail with us – it was all about attention to detail. It was all about, “Do this right, keep your finger off the trigger. Do this, don’t do this.” The intensity that these guys brought to us was… you just can’t prepare for something like that.
Hibbs: What surprised you the most about working with the SEALs?
Hirsch: The fear is not the fear of dying for these guys. The fear is letting the other guy down. It’s incredible. Danny Dietz was shot nine times, and they weren’t execution-style shots. He fought until the last bullet killed him. He got shot nine times. It’s incredible, the commitment that you have to have to do that… a lot of people don’t understand that.
Hibbs: The majority of the movie focuses on you, Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster. Did you guys form your own type of brotherhood?
Hirsch: Absolutely. When you’re operating an M4 rifle every day in training with live rounds, any one of us is capable of an accident, you have to trust the guy next to you that he’s going to be safe with his rifle and smart and not make any errors. We learned to trust each other very quickly because our lives were in each other’s hands. I feel like that bonded us all really close, we got real tight real fast. We all had fully loaded machine guns on our chests, and we’d go out on an entire SWAT range. The guy behind you had a fully loaded M4 and you had to know that he was going to be smart with that and be safe.
Hibbs: Marcus Luttrell said that his mission is complete with the making of this movie, because so many people will see the story. How does it make you feel to be a part of something like that?
Hirsch: Honestly, it’s probably the greatest honor of my whole life.
“Lone Survivor” opens in selected theaters on December 25 and nationally January 10. Click here to check times and buy tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.