If Fargo is the benchmark for black comedy, Killer Joe, the unflinching Texas trailer-park noir that had its North American debut this week at the Toronto Film Festival, might require an even darker genre classification. Ink-black comedy? Soot-black comedy might be best, for these characters are literally and figuratively covered in grime. Emile Hirsch plays a desperate schemer who owes $6,000 to the wrong kind of people. His solution: Kill his estranged alkie of a mother, who happens to have a generous life insurance policy. When his father (Thomas Haden Church), stepmother (Gina Gershon), and delicate sister (Juno Temple) learn his fiendish plans… they eagerly agree and hire a seemingly straightlaced Dallas police officer named Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) who moonlights as a hit man. Killer Joe doesn’t come cheap but Chris will do absolutely anything to get Joe to take the job, including offering up his fair sis to the smitten cop.
Where’s the laughter, you ask? Hirsch sat down in Toronto to discuss the comedic styling of playwright and Killer Joe screenwriter Tracy Letts, working with director William Friedkin, and his reverence for actor Michael Shannon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character, Chris, isn’t the best of guys. He has a few flaws – he’s a drug dealer, he’s abusive towards women, he’s a compulsive gambler, he puts a contract out on his own mother, he pimps out his sister to pay for said contract on his mother, he –
EMILE HIRSCH: Get to the unlikable part… [Laughs]
Well, as an actor, do you have to find a certain amount of empathy for this type of character or do you just go with it, flaws and all?
I try to find the empathy, but then I just have fun, living out that twisted way in the world that he does. There’s something liberating abut it – and hilarious. I mean, he makes such bad decisions. His logic is so poorly thought through. It was fun playing a character with such an overinflated sense of their own intelligence. He’s this quick-idea man, thinks he’s got it all figured out. He’s got the hustle, but ultimately he’s the dumbest guy in the whole movie. Everything falls apart.
Did you approach this very gruesome, very ugly story as a comedy?
When I first read it, there was a part of me that almost didn’t understand that it was a comedy. I almost read it as a straight drama – but then there would be these moments in the script where I would kind of chuckle. Later, I was able to see [Letts’] August: Osage County on Broadway, and I was blown away by the quality of the writing and the way that the comedic beats work. I think Killer Joe is an example [of that too]. I saw it with a big audience the other night, and they were laughing at all the stuff that I would have never have thought when we were just reading it out loud.
Yeah. Almost despite themselves. People looked around after a chuckle, as if they needed approval. Like the scene in the alley after your character realizes who’s going to inherit the life insurance – these people are so ridiculous!
The look on Chris’ face – he couldn’t look any dumber in that moment. I wouldn’t have known when we were making that that anyone would laugh.
It’s the dialogue, I think, that does it. It is almost hyper-realistic.
It’s got its own cadence and rhythm. I just made sure that I knew my stuff down pat because I’d say 50 to 60 percent of my performance is the first take. Rarely would we do a second or third take. Friedkin loves the first take. He’s obsessed with it. So I would make sure to hit the first one right. I was besides myself thrilled. It’s like being on a roller coaster. You feel a sense of butterflies in your stomach every day. And you never get bored because you’re moving so fast. It’s like you’re living it.
Friedkin and Letts had worked previously on Bug. Were you a fan?
I loved Bug. I thought Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd’s performances were fantastic. Shannon originated my role [in Killer Joe] on the stage. I’m not fit to lick the bottom of his shoes. I love his work. It’s brilliant. Shannon’s just got a quality, although it’s interesting they asked me to play his part because people have been telling me for awhile that Shannon and I should play brothers. I met him the other night at the Soho House in Toronto and I told him just what I told you.
Chris has something unique in common with two of your most memorable characters: Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless and Alpha Dog’s Johnny are also overwhelmed characters who ultimately bite off more than they can chew. Had you thought much about that?
They all do have that similarity of having ideas that are bigger than reality can handle for them. There’s probably a part of myself that identifies with that. I’ve definitely had ideas and plans that sometimes exceed my means and capabilities. I’ll get an idea and I’ll be like, “I want to make this science-fiction trilogy,” and I’ll write out a whole treatment for it and send it around. But it’s like, there’s 20 other steps that I have to try to jump. So I identify with someone wanting something to work out, but not being able to get through the rocks to the river.