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Emile Hirsch: Killer Joe

The star of the black comedy on working with William Friedkin, director of 'The Exorcist'

Emile Hirsch, 27, didn't know what to expect when he teamed up with William Friedkin for an adaptation of Tracy Letts' blackly comic play, 'Killer Joe'. What he did know was that Friedkin's 'The Exorcist' had scared him senseless, and that he really wanted to work with the maverick director.

My character is almost a human punching bag. Seeing the scene where Joe tackles me and is pummeling me is a very strange feeling. The first time I saw it, I started laughing so hard I couldn't stop. People were looking at me as if there was something wrong with me

He plays Chris, who decides that the way to get himself out of debt with local gangsters is to kill his mother – the cause of his problems – for her $50,000 life insurance policy. He hires a hitman/cop, Joe (Matthew McConaughey), to do the dirty work, and agrees to give him his seemingly naive sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as a retainer. Naturally the plan goes awry, and Chris finds himself dangerously out of his depth.

Below, Hirsch, whose films include 'Speed Racer', 'Into the Wild', 'Taking Woodstock' and 'Milk', talks about the horror of 'The Exorcist', the craziness of Friedkin, putting his celebrity to good use, and aliens.

Dazed Digital: Killer Joe is menacing but not as scary as 'The Exorcist'. What was your first experience with that film?
Emile Hirsch: 
There's a myth with The Exorcist that when people saw it, they were so scared they had nervous breakdowns and ran out of the theatre screaming. That was what happened to me.

DD: Really?
Emile Hirsch: Yeah. I was watching it and I had the feeling that the film was possessed by the Devil. I thought that it was literally a piece of evil. You always see something that is representing evil, but when you see something that you think is the real thing, that is very scary.

DD: Was Friedkin what you expected?
Emile Hirsch: He's older now and you think he might have slowed down, but he's genuinely crazier and more energetic than any young guy I know. Most of the friends I have are pretty mellow. As a person, I wouldn't say that I'm a particularly live wire. But Billy is a tornado of a human being.

DD: Is he chaotic on set?
Emile Hirsch: It's not chaos, it's speed. Fifty per cent of my performance is the first take! I arrived on set cocked-and-loaded and then it was like walking a highwire. Billy wanted me to feel like 'This is your one take. Do it now!' It was almost like doing a live performance.

DD: Had you worked like that before?
Emile Hirsch: Never. I worked with the Wachowski brothers, Ang Lee, Sean Penn, and those directors would do takes and takes and takes.

DD: There were stories from the set of 'The Exorcist' about him using shock tactics on the actors. Was there any of that here?
Emile Hirsch: There might have been a gun that went off at some point.

DD: He reputedly did that on 'The Exorcist'. You're saying he did it on 'Killer Joe' as well?
Emile Hirsch: I wasn't there, but I heard that something like that might have happened. And there was a very shocked look on the actor's face.

DD: The film's dark tone is set at the very beginning, when Chris arrives at the family trailer in a storm, calling for Dottie. How would you describe the siblings' relationship?
Emile Hirsch: Even though he's screaming and he's violent [in that scene], there's something about Dottie that he needs. He's obsessed with her, and that's his downfall. In the Cinderella story that the movie is, Chris is the evil stepsister. Chris is fucking Judas. He betrays her.

DD: Do you really see it as a Cinderella story?
Emile Hirsch: Billy was the one who said that first and it's kind of true. There's a lot of fantasy stories or storybooks - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty – and this is the dark, crazy, rustic version of that, for adults. You can go to these extreme places and see under the rocks of society, or into dark human nature, and then at the end you're out of it. But for those two hours, you get a strong dose of it.

DD: You get badly beaten in the movie. How is watching that?
Emile Hirsch: Yeah, my character is almost a human punching bag. Seeing the scene where Joe tackles me and is pummeling me is a very strange feeling. The first time I saw it, I started laughing so hard I couldn't stop. People were looking at me as if there was something wrong with me.

DD: It was funny to you?
Emile Hirsch: Maybe that was a psychological coping mechanism in order to deal with seeing myself like that. I never had a reaction before to seeing me in anything. I never laugh. When my dad watches anything, he starts laughing, even if he's by himself. Sometimes, I see him watching TV laughing his ass off and I go, 'I wish I could be like that.'

DD: What do your parents think of 'Killer Joe'?
Emile Hirsch: My mother read the script and she was not a big fan of Chris. The whole hiring Joe to kill the mother, she didn't like that part.

DD: You recently worked with Oliver Stone on 'Savages'. How did he compare to Friedkin?
Emile Hirsch: I loved working with Oliver, he was fantastic. It's different, though. They don't move at the same speed, necessarily. Oliver will go back over things, whereas this was just like a bullet train where you're jumping on before the train leaves.

DD: You took a break from acting during which you climbed Kilimanjaro to help raise awareness about the need for clean water in the world. Did you need a rest from movies?
Emile Hirsch: I didn't do anything for two years after 'Taking Woodstock', and in the two years I was trying to develop an adaptation of Hamlet with Catherine Hardwicke. But I had been acting since I was eight years old, professionally since I was 10, and I kind of never stopped. I think after Speedracer I was so tired, because that movie was such a long process, and after Into the Wild I was just emotionally very exhausted. I didn't consciously not do anything, it just happened that way.

DD: Did you like having time for yourself?
Emile Hirsch: Yeah, I went to Africa three times and I was able to make a lot of visual art. I really like to paint and draw and write, and I get just as much fulfillment out of painting or writing, on some level, as I do acting. Taking the time off was good for me in the long run. When I came back to work, I felt like I had taken time to grow up a little bit.

DD: In 2008 you wrote a diary about your experiences in the Congo, in which you referred to your naivete about going out there. Were you changed by that experience?
Emile Hirsch: Absolutely. Living in Los Angeles I don't have the hardest life in the world. At times I think I do, but everyone thinks they do because nobody's really objective. But then you go to a place like Congo and you see what people go through, and you see that there are many people that are so much more worse off.

DD: And you wanted to highlight that?
Emile Hirsch: I wanted to use whatever celebrity I had to try to get people interested. I wrote the diary and I just showed it around, and Men's Journal was like, 'Let's put it on the cover.' It turned out to be a good plug for Oxfam. Hopefully if some crazy billionaire saw it and was moved by it, and he sent them a huge cheque, or some guy just sent them a cheque for two dollars, it would have been worth it.

DD: Are you engaged in any kind of political activism?
Emile Hirsch: I haven't become politically active. I'm more like, 'This guy's hungry, let's get him some food right now.' It's not because I'm not interested in politics, but I want to do things where I think I can use whatever celebrity I have to help in a real way, and not a lame way.

DD: Sean Penn goes to Haiti all the time.
Emile Hirsch: I went to Haiti with Sean's organisation, JPHRO [J/P Haitian Relief Organisation], in 2010, and was at the camp there for 12 days. Sean put me to work right away. He pretty much gave me a pair of gloves and said get out there. We were taking out trash, and I was like a water unloader on trucks, and sleeping in tents. You'd hear shots going off at night.

DD: You got quite ill, didn't you?
Emile Hirsch: The first night I was there some Marines, who kind of moonlight as NGO workers – not with Sean's organisation – took me out to a chicken stand, and I got salmonella.

DD: I believe you also had problems filming the recent sci-fi film 'The Darkest Hour' in Moscow, because of wildfires?
Emile Hirsch: Yeah, there was a plume of smoke the size of California over Russia and it pretty much enveloped Moscow, and we shut the movie down. I was having headaches, and everyone was getting sick. It was scary. They flew us out of there and we came back three weeks later. It was crazy, the heatwave had caused the peat bogs to spontaneously combust.

DD: Are you a sci-fi fan?
Emile Hirsch: I am. I actually used to think aliens were outside my bedroom window as a little kid and that we had a relationship. It was so weird. The funny thing is that I have read interviews with other people and when they were kids they thought that too. Maybe that's like a childhood syndrome.

'Killer Joe' is out now