Toronto–William Hurt had a choice. He could meet with the man he was playing in the film Into the Wild or he could stick with the script. The film, which opens on Friday (October 19), tells the true story of a young man whose stormy relationship with his parents was a factor in his decision to leave his upper-middle-class home for a nomadic life in the wilds of Alaska.
Hurt plays Walt McCandless, who goes months without knowing if his son Christopher (Emile Hirsch) is alive or dead. After graduating from university, Chris decided to rid himself of his identity and his credit cards and head for the northernmost state. The film is based on the book of the same name, which told its story through interviews with people Christopher met along the way. In a hotel room, where he has come to promote the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hurt says he turned down director Sean Penn's invitation to meet Walt.
"I decided to say no to Sean because I am an actor playing a role, not someone playing another person," Hurt explains. "I don't see him [Walt] as being responsible for Chris's problem, and I think that eventually Chris realized that. He starts out his journey in the same mindset as a lot of young people, in that he blames his parents for everything. Then he grows up a bit and understands that everyone has problems and that some of the problems come with the package and that the package has nothing to do with the nurture.
"I think he sees that there is a combination of nurture and nature in all of us, and as you get older and wiser you start to realize that your tendency to blame your father for everything that goes wrong in your life is nonsense," Hurt adds. "There are some people who have miserable living situations when they are young and they grow up great. There are others who have lots of affection at home and they are miserable, so I don't see that Walt should be to blame for Chris's decisions."
Hurt is the father of three boys and a girl through three different relationships, and he says that his experience with his own children probably influenced his portrayal of Walt.
"When my first child was born, I slept next to the crib waiting for him to stop breathing," he says. "You are responsible, so it changes your life for a long time. But the thing that my mom told me is that the hardest part of parenting is letting go, letting your children have the right to explore their lives. That is a nerve-racking experience for every parent, because every parent loves every child. Some parents really mess up, but that doesn't mean they don't love their children. So I don't judge Walt. I played him through the script that was given me. I believe as an artist and a human being that the love must be there, because no intelligent person doesn't care about his kid. He cares the best he can and we are all in that boat."
Hurt says that his approach to the material also has a lot to do with his sense that no matter how true a story might be, the best a film can do is interpret it in a way that makes it real for the audience.
"When you are developing as an artist, you are hoping that your imagination is good enough to imagine reality and convey that to an audience," he says. "One time I was in Brazil and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and my friend and I ended up being held hostage for 45 minutes at gunpoint by two crazy drugged-out people. They told us to face the wall and they were going to shoot us in the back of the head. We survived, but not by much, and I kept asking myself as I was staring down this real gun with real bullets, 'Is this how I thought I would feel if this ever happened to me?' And it was. So the question becomes, 'Is your imagination clued to reality or fantasy? Does it help you make things real, or are you just trying to evade reality?' That is the choice we have in our culture every day with every book we read and every movie we see or act in. If a film is based on a true story, does that make it more real? No, because every story is based on something that is real, because life is real all the time."