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Sean Penn Brings Alum’s Journey to the Screen

By Andrew Carlin Posted: 09/28/2007
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Chuck Zlotnick/Courtesy of thaweb.com
In Sean Penn’s latest directorial effort, “Into the Wild,” Emile Hirsch plays nomadic Emory alum Chris McCandless, who hitchiked across America in search of adventure.
The day I met Sean Penn, I was walking back from Emory Village. I crossed Oxford Road, a heavy CVS bag in each hand, and there he was. Shorter than I had imagined­ — but they always are. He moved slowly, deliberately, and with a 35 mm camera in his right hand, he snapped pictures of the now flattened earth that was once under Gilbert and Thomson Halls. A surreal sight, no doubt.

I use the term “met” loosely. We didn’t shake hands or exchange pleasantries of any kind; no “How are you’s” or “Good afternoon’s.” In a more accurate sense it was less an introduction and more a complete humiliation.

In hindsight, there were so many things that I could have said as I approached him. “You’re a great American actor.” “I love your movies.” Or even, “‘Mystic River.’ Nice.” Had I properly prepared myself, I could have really kissed his ass.

But none of that came out. Instead, standing there, stopped dead in my complete befuddlement, I managed, “Are you Sean Penn?”

“Yeah,” he said, clearly annoyed that I would have the gall to ask such a ridiculous question. Of course he was Sean Penn. Why wouldn’t Sean Penn be standing in front of Gil/Thom taking pictures?

He kept walking, and I slinked away.

That was the day I learned Penn was to direct an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the true story of Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory in 1990, and headed off to the Alaskan bush.

I tell this story — albeit slightly abridged — to Emile Hirsch, the 22-year-old actor who plays Chris McCandless in Penn’s film, and he gives me a knowing nod. I’m obviously not the first person to get frostbite from a passing Sean Penn.

For someone who’s smack in the middle of a month-long cross-country press blitz — yesterday he was in New York, tomorrow, Austin — Hirsch looks remarkably at ease. It’s the kind of jaded relaxation that comes with knowing exactly what questions you’re going to be asked before the reporter even looks at his notebook; he’s spent an hour in that big black room with PBS correspondent Charlie Rose, for God’s sake.

Despite having spent a year immersing himself in Chris McCandless’ life, this is Hirsch’s first time on Emory’s campus.

“It’s beautiful,” Hirsch says a bit distantly. “It’s weird for me just walking around thinking about McCandless.”

As a student, McCandless had been a visible part of Emory’s campus. He was the assistant editorials editor at the Wheel, writing dozens of politically-charged pieces, covering such topics as why Rev. Jesse Jackson should be the democratic presidential candidate in 1992.

“There’s one where he says that the year is shaping up to be ‘one of the most corrupt in the history of America’ and it was only, like, February,” Hirsch says.

McCandless was outspoken in his beliefs, and they were beliefs that he followed after he left Emory.

When McCandless graduated in 1990, he set out on a 22-month journey that took him from Atlanta to Nevada to South Dakota, to California then finally to Alaska. He wanted to escape society in the most romantic way he knew how: following in the footsteps of great American philosophers like Thoreau. It was what he called his “Great Alaskan Adventure.” He even abandoned his name, dubbing himself “Alexander Supertramp”.

When two hikers found him, starved to death in the back of a hollowed-out bus in the middle of Denali National Park, he weighed less than a hundred pounds. But that’s not what the film is about. Though he met a painful end alone in the wilderness, Penn’s film is really about the relationships McCandless formed.

In the months immediately after graduating, he worked on a grain elevator in South Dakota with a guy named Wayne Westerburg (played by Vince Vaughn). He lived out of a camper with a couple of old hippies in Nevada. He kayaked down the Colorado River and even did a stretch at a Burger King in Los Angeles. Everywhere he went, he developed deeply personal relationships with those around him.

“He tried to infect people with his enthusiasm for adventure,” Hirsch says. “He had the urge to go on this adventure and to get to Alaska, but what he maybe didn’t realize was that many of his truly joyous moments were the moments that he had with the people he met along the way.”

That’s the irony of Chris McCandless. Despite his longing to make it to Alaska, he never seemed as happy as when he was with members of the society he wished to abandon.
“Wayne Westerburg said how Chris would sit at the bar for hours and talk to people about his adventures and going to Alaska,” Hirsch says. “That’s just the kind of person he was.”

And what of Sean Penn? Hirsch and I have slightly conflicting impressions of the director.

“He’s got the keenest intellect and the most courageous heart of anyone I’ve ever known,” Hirsch says. “Sean really challenges you. It’s about you showing up with good intentions and doing the best that you can.”

In the last entry Chris wrote in his journal before he succumbed to starvation, he abandoned his alter ego and signed it “Christopher Johnson McCandless.” In those moments there was no need for pretenses; he was scared as anyone would have been.

But that’s who he always was: Christopher Johnson McCandless, editor for the Wheel, graduate of the class of 1990, son to Walt and Billy.

“He loved adventure,” Hirsch says. “He loved the challenge. He was always shaving down that margin of error. And then he just shaved it a little too much.”

— Contact Andrew Carlin at acarlin@learnlink.emory.edu

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