There’s a famous old quote that Emile Hirsch says Hollywood has long embraced.
“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” the actor says, citing Mark Twain. “That’s pretty much the rule when it comes to making narrative films.”
Maybe so, but when filming Bonnie & Clyde, a two-night, four-hour miniseries about the infamous Depression-era bank robbers, there wasn’t much need to gin up the true story to concoct a better movie plot.
Mind you, Bonnie & Clyde — which premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, airing simultaneously on A&E, Lifetime and History — does take liberties.
But the facts didn’t get in the way very often, Hirsch says, because the details of Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal exploits and doomed romance were usually “better than fiction.”
Hirsch, the leading man in such films as Alpha Dog and Into the Wild, stars as Clyde opposite Holliday Grainger, an English actress perhaps best known from the TV series The Borgias.
Hirsch is the kind of performer who loves to research a role extensively.
As a result, he became something of an expert on Bonnie and Clyde, small-time Texas-born bank robbers who became the stuff of legend because their relationship added sex appeal to the story.
“There are a lot of elements to Bonnie & Clyde that are very truthful to what they were like,” Hirsch says. “That includes what I feel is the most important part: the origin story of who they were before they met, how they came together and things that happened to them that made them turn to a life of crime.
“When you see, for example, that Clyde Barrow unfairly got sent to prison for such a long time and was beaten and raped in prison, you understand the dark, dark place that it put him psychologically. Once he got out of jail, he vowed never to go back to that, which made him a lot more dangerous.
“If you put him into a corner, he was going to strike.”
Pair this kind of damaged psyche with the fame-at-any-cost Bonnie Parker, who kept newspaper clippings documenting their crimes in a scrapbook, and you’ve got a relationship that stands on shaky ground.
Rise and fall
Hirsch leaped not only at the chance to tell this doomed love story, but also to do it while dressed to the nines in classic 1930s outfits.
“It was so much fun playing cops and robbers, just like when I was a little kid,” he says. “The clothes! You just feel like such a gangster when you put on those clothes and drive around in those cars while hoisting Tommy guns in the air. It was just an iconic time.”
Hirsch also found it fascinating how, in the early days of Bonnie and Clyde’s crime spree across the central United States, they sometimes were regarded as folk heroes by the public and in the press.
“For a while, they were seen as voicing the anger of the people in the Depression, rising up against the bankers who were foreclosing on their farms and taking their houses,” Hirsch says.
The reality, meanwhile, was that members of the Barrow Gang reportedly killed nine police officers and several civilians between 1931 and 1934.
“When the public got wise to the fact that Bonnie and Clyde were killing innocent people,” Hirsch says, “everyone felt that this couple had betrayed their trust and their love.”
The actor committed to the project before even reading the script.
“I got a call from my agent and manager and they said, ‘Hey, there’s a miniseries that the History channel and Lifetime are doing and Bruce Beresford is directing.’ He directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. As soon as his name came up, I knew I wanted to do it,” he says.
“Plus, the names Bonnie and Clyde are so iconic, yet not everybody knows their story anymore. So it was exciting, the opportunity to reacquaint everyone with that story.”
That said, Hirsch is almost ashamed to admit that, as much as he loves film, he had never seen the classic 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
“Of course, once I got the part,” he adds, “I purposefully didn’t watch it because I didn’t want to be a parrot for Warren Beatty’s performance.”
One thing that Hirsch gets right without even trying is that he’s closer in age to the real Clyde, who was just 25 years old at the time of his violent death.
Hirsch is 28; Beatty was 30 when his Bonnie and Clyde came out — although the difference between the two stars seems much greater than just two years.
“Maybe I’m just more of a baby face,” Hirsch says.
True, although he shouldn’t say it that way. Baby Face Nelson, after all, was a different famous gangster.