Emile Hirsh on His Walden Role and Acting Influences, from Heath Ledger to SpongeBob


Playing an unassuming but twisted killer is hard work. For Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Milk), who shines in the new psychological thriller Walden, it was a complex process at best. Walden Dean appears to be your average guy, a dutiful court stenographer who likes things to be orderly. But beneath the surface lies a fractured soul. After listening to countless court cases, the man snaps. A hellish aftermath ensues.

This is one of the actor’s finest performances — as deeply layered as it is disturbing. The film, directed and written by Mick Davis, also stars Shane West, David Keith, Kelli Garner, and Tanya Raymonde. In a revealing MovieWeb interview, Emile Hirsch opens up about his creative process and how he crafted what’s bound to become one of the most memorable characters to hit the screen this season. Dive in.

Creating Walden Was a Tough Job

Walden poster


Release Date
November 10, 2023

Mick Davis


By all accounts, creating the character of Walden Dean proved to be challenging. The seemingly unassuming stenographer is far more diabolical and murderous than he appears to be. “It was an unconventional process, as sometimes it is,” Hirsch admitted of the process. “When I read the script, and I was like, ‘Hmm, I have no idea how that’s going to work and how to play it.’”

He had played an unconventional character before in the 2019 horror comedy Peel, which revolved around a child-like man who has a healing effect on all the damaged characters he meets. But Walden was much darker. “I had taken a very minimalistic [approach in Peel], almost playing it straight, like a Zen simplicity. It was almost like a Chauncey Gardner-esque role. But I felt I had covered that base. I was about to hit the red button on a way to play Walden, and I wasn’t satisfied with it. I just didn’t feel that feeling where it clicked or anything.”

Some deep introspection followed. Then he had a few epiphanies. Of his process to nail down the Walden character, he said:

“The process… was something that I talked to Heath Ledger about a long time ago, and it’s a conversation that’s always stuck with me. We talked about creating characters and how sometimes you can almost look at acting like you’re assembling a collage or an art piece, and you’re fusing them together into something new. I felt that’s probably what this particular part called for. I don’t want to say it was like getting the divining rod until you find ‘X marks the spot’ or whatever, but it was a bit of that. I tried to take sources of inspiration that I knew I liked. I knew there was an exuberance to what Sean Penn did in Milk. This character is obviously nothing like [Harvey] Milk, but there was an exuberance that I really loved.”

Hirsch played legendary activist Cleve Jones in that Oscar-winning film — Jones conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the world’s largest piece of community folk art.

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“I was in Milk with Sean, and I had a front-row seat to the performance, just in terms of the craft,” Hirsch added. “I knew that I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. I knew that there was this interesting voice he did and a certain sense of humor [with all] the serious drama around him. That was a big inspiration. Then there was a certain uptightness quality [to Walden] and it was like the over-the-top version of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons, where he’s a really good guy, but he’s definitely wound kind of tight.”

How Cartoons Informed a Gritty Role

In a big “from left field” reveal, Hirsch shared that during the process of creating his fully formed character, one which audiences would believe, he watched various cartoons. “I watched a lot of SpongeBob SquarePants,” he mused. “Now, I did not base the character on any SpongeBob, but my son was like, ‘How did this actor come up with the voice for these characters?’ I remember we Googled the actors of SpongeBob, and we heard the actor who played SpongeBob tell this hilarious story about waiting to go into an audition room.”

The man was privy to a variety of voice options, in fact, and just kept trying them out. Hirsch went that route, too, hoping to capture Walden’s various ticks. “So, having that mold I liked — the material for the collage, you could say — I just started playing with combinations of things and tuning the frequencies, and putting my ear to it. It was really a moment where I forgot about all the inspirations, and I was just genuinely playing with the frequencies. All of a sudden, it was like the channel was in full focus. I just heard the character and I saw the sense of humor he had.”

“This perfect piece of character DNA had been handed to me,” he added. “I couldn’t forget that once I had that. Once I had been given that by the acting gods or maybe the acting demons, I don’t know — depending on if you like me in the movie — that was it.”

Getting Zen With Emile Hirsch

To be sure, Emile Hirsch loves to dive deep in conversation, and it fully illuminates this engaging performer’s deep commitment to his craft. Perhaps also some of the ways he might move through life, in general. When asked if he appreciates or notices serendipitous or synchronistic events, he said:

“I’m someone that has gotten so much out of recognizing patterns and making sense of that. Now, whether it’s outside me or it’s just an ability to kind of see things that don’t seem related, then you see how they’re related… I don’t know, that’s sort of above my pay grade. But so often I find with acting or even writing, or even influences you have in life, that they manifest in different ways. You know, watching SpongeBob with my son and working and taking advice from Heath Ledger on Lords of Dogtown, years and years ago, or working with Sean Penn and Milk… all these types of things. I’m someone that’s really a large result of my influences. And being able to fuse together those influences, I think that’s a powerful tool to have.”

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Especially when it comes to morphing into complex characters. “You can play a part and you can be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to play this part, so I’m just going to find the exact person that this part is, and I’m going to just imitate this person. Even if it’s a made-up role,’” Hirsch went on. “But when you do that, you never quite feel like you own the character. Because there’s always a better version out there of what you’re doing out there. So, as satisfying as it is to really embody a real person and to nail someone, there’s always a little bit of imposter syndrome. Whereas, when you really create a character, it’s like you got the patent on that. Like, that one ain’t out there. There’s something very satisfying about that. And there’s something fun about it, too. Because that character is yours.”

Without a doubt, Walden Dean is thoroughly Emile Hirsch’s. Experience Walden in select theaters now or On Demand and digital beginning December 12.

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