When Emile Hirsch was 4, he created a character called "Funny Cowboy."
He and his older sister, Jenny, would put on little shows after selling their homemade tickets to family members in Topanga Canyon, Calif.
"I would throw my lasso around the room and pretend I was falling over," he says with a laugh. "I would say 'I'm Funny Cowboy.' "
The high school senior has left behind his cowboy act in favor of more serious roles.
Emile stars as the rebellious son of a senator in the movie "The Emperor's Club," with Kevin Kline, opening today. The film focuses on the ethical and moral fallout from a teacher's decision not to punish a student he catches cheating. This decision later comes back to haunt the teacher.
To prepare for the role, Emile studied politicians for hours on C-Span. The film immediately appealed to him because he admired the power struggle between Mr. Hundert (Kline) and the teenage Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch).
"I liked how [the film] didn't try to make heroes and villains out of anyone," Hirsch says. "The lines are kind of blurred, both the protagonist and antagonist are pretty flawed."
Like many teens, Emile can seem restless. He pulls the hood of his gray hooded sweatshirt on and off his head, taps the table as if he were playing the drums, and swivels in a black leather chair.
He's sarcastic and nonchalant - until it's implied that he's had an easy ride to acclaim.
"I'm sorry," he says, turning more serious and running his fingers through his long brown hair. "I put in my dues. I spent years going on auditions and getting rejected all the time."
When he was 11, he turned down "Beethoven 3." He auditioned for "Air Bud" and "Jack Frost," but didn't make the cut. (The two rejections actually may have helped his career.)
"Air Bud reject," he jokes. "I feel like I've been really fortunate in the stuff I haven't gotten. I could be known as the kid who played basketball with a golden retriever."
Instead, he has starred in such thoughtful films as "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," with Jodie Foster, and the cable drama "Wild Iris," with Laura Linney, who won an Emmy for her performance.
He briefly flirted with TV, appearing on shows like "ER" and "NYPD Blue," but prefers the slower and methodical process of movies.
During the promotional tour for "The Emperor's Club," he travels with both his dad and manager. His parents are divorced.
"My dad is the one who has been the main person helping me out with the show-business stuff, but my mom [a pop-up book artist] is really great, too. She lives in Sante Fe, N.M.," he says.
Hirsch credits his sister, also an actress, for piquing his interest in show business.
"I tagged along with her to auditions and kind of just started to go out on guest spots and commercials and into films."
She lives in Manhattan and is currently working on the film "Wicker Park," a thriller with Josh Hartnett.
In January, Hirsch will test his acting chops on his first comedy, "The Girl Next Door." "It's kind of along the lines of 'Risky Business,' " he says.
In his free time, the 17-year-old actor enjoys writing screenplays, rap, and poetry. The plot of a just-finished screenplay? "It's a sophisticated comedy about an alien sent to earth to guard his kid. It's kind of wacky, but funny. I'm not going to try to sell it. I just do it for fun."