“I always thought the Castro was a Cuban restaurant in San Francisco,” says Emile Hirsch, 23, who plays Cleve Jones in Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic, Milk. The elfin actor, who became a critical favorite after starring in last year’s Into the Wild—directed by Milk’s star, Sean Penn—is sitting in the Bowery Hotel lobby, popping cocktail nuts with unnerving frequency.
It wasn’t Penn’s idea for Hirsch to play his gay-activist character. “It was Gus’s,” says Hirsch. “I enjoy playing real-life people. I’ve always had a knack for taking on characteristics or mannerisms. And I was the most spoiled actor on the movie because I was able to spend every day with the real Cleve,” who was on set as a historical consultant. “Cleve would watch me and be like, ‘I don’t do that.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, you do, baby.’ People don’t always know how they act.” Hirsch, who’s straight (and rumored to be dating the prerequisite model), was initially worried about playing gay, though not because he thought it would hurt his career. “I didn’t want to overgay it. I didn’t want to come across as a caricature,” he says. He tells me about his research for the role—“I went to the gay-and-lesbian section of Borders and got a shitload of books”—and remarks on the fortuitous timing of the movie. “It’s just a crazy coincidence that the movie’s being released exactly when all this stuff is going on with gay marriage,” he says. “People are really looking at the issue intently right now.”
Hirsch didn’t go to college and envies the education of his Milk co-star James Franco, who’s currently in graduate school at Columbia. Maybe someday he’ll go back to school, but in the meantime he’s educating himself and nurturing a serious Shakespeare obsession. “It’s just staggering to think that he wrote Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth all in fourteen months. You go to a script meeting in Hollywood, and they’re like, ‘We’ve been developing this script for six years,’ and it’s a team of five writers, and you’re like, Fuck, you hacks.”