Garrett Hedlund: Road Scholar
The On the Road star is a walking contradiction, a free spirit with intense discipline and drive. Is he Hollywood’s next great leading man?
At 17, the actor began an epic, meandering journey reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s. Tired of moving from one failed audition to the next, the kid from Wannaska, Minnesota (pop. 488), holed up in bookshops, dog-earing copies of Bukowski, Huxley, and . . . Kerouac, and began writing his own free-flowing prose and poetry. Eleven years and thousands of handwritten pages later, he’s the breakout star of On the Road. And the beat goes on.
It’s barely 1 p.m. down on New York’s MacDougal Street, and Garrett Hedlund is checking out the ladies. We’re in the back room of Minetta Tavern—once a grimy, neon-spangled haunt for Greenwich Village bohemians, now a buffed Keith McNally restaurant with a $26 burger anchoring the lunch menu—where, at present, the waiter is blocking Hedlund’s view. Hedlund, dressed in a charcoal shawl-collar sweater and gray jeans, cranes his neck for a better angle. “Yep, they’re already drinking,” he says, sounding pleased, and the waiter and I follow Hedlund’s gaze to four older women wearing hats who sit sipping white wine. These blue-haired ladies are all the affirmation Hedlund requires. “Grey Goose and water,” he tells the waiter.
Drink orders don’t usually carry metaphorical freight, but something of Hedlund’s persona is suffused in this one: the id-driven wild man jonesing for a boundaryless blast of pleasure (or at least a midday vodka)—the same wild man Hedlund unleashed in his movie-stealing performance as Dean Moriarty in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—tempered by the polite midwestern farm boy at Hedlund’s core, by the Lutheran propriety that’s an essential part of his makeup. If a clutch of septuagenarians have already uncorked the day, then where’s the foul?
The 28-year-old Hedlund spent four years immersing himself in the character of Moriarty—who was based on the real-life Beat-and-hippie chieftain Neal Cassady—a spectacularly juicy role that Kerouac himself envisioned being played by Marlon Brando in his prime and that over the decades has been attached to a slew of marquee names (Dennis Hopper, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell). But with the movie finally hitting screens nationwide, Hedlund worries what his conservative Minnesota dad’s going to think when he sees him giving it to Steve Buscemi from behind. To be sure, Hedlund aims for lyrical good times, poetic bliss, transcendental grit—”To say that Garrett is a free spirit,” says Walter Salles, who directed On the Road, “would be an understatement”—but he also aims to please. As Sam Riley, Hedlund’s costar in the film, says about him, “He’s a well-brought-up lad, isn’t he?” Or maybe he’s just that rare creature: a hedonist with manners and a conscience.
And on this day, Garrett Hedlund is something rarer still: a young actor, as yet unrecognizable to the wine-sipping women at Table 34, poised to break into Hollywood’s top ranks. “It’s funny,” he says, trying to put his hinge moment into perspective. “The school I went to was a little farm school in Wannaska, student body 61 or something.” This was in northern Minnesota, about 25 miles from the Canadian border, where Hedlund lived with his father, a wrestling coach and farmer, after his parents divorced when he was a toddler. “There was a kid, the only black kid in our county, Dustin Byfuglien. He won the Stanley Cup a couple years back with the Blackhawks. Out of a class of 21 kids, he and I always had to be on opposite teams on everything because we were the most athletic. We could never be on the same fucking team. But it’s just . . . funny. Two kids from an elementary school in Wannaska, Minnesota. Now he’s won the Stanley Cup and I’m in New York getting interviewed for On the Road.”
Winning the Stanley Cup requires fierce determination, of course, but a measure of luck as well: a skate accidentally bouncing the puck into the goal here, a blind whack whizzing improbably past the goalie there. It’s the same in the acting game, and Hedlund has benefited from both. One stroke of good fortune was hereditary: With his blond hair and limpid, Robert Redford–blue eyes, Hedlund’s got leading-man looks to spare. Yet he’s not generically handsome. His face, like his personality, has undertones: a rubbery exuberance when he laughs, a hunched, almost awkwardly earnest and entirely unself-conscious intensity when he’s waxing serious. “There’s a vulnerability and sweetness that doesn’t cross the border into there not being a masculinity about him,” says Tim McGraw, whose roles alongside Hedlund in Friday Night Lights and Country Strong led to a friendship. “You can’t help but fall in love with the guy.”
Also in the luck department, one has to note the first acting role Hedlund snagged, at 18, after driving to Los Angeles in a beat-up Chevy S-10 pickup with purple lightning bolts on its doors and a giant case of ramen noodles in the back: opposite Brad Pitt and Peter O’Toole in the 2004 swords-and-sandals epic Troy. If it wasn’t quite like Lana Turner being discovered while drinking a Coke at a Hollywood soda fountain, it wasn’t all that far off, either.
Except for the fact that Hedlund, unlike Turner, had been begging to be discovered for most of his adolescence. After leaving Minnesota at 14 to live with his mother in Scottsdale, Arizona, Hedlund set his sights on an acting career. At the time, he wasn’t sure what that meant—”I would call talent agencies to ask what kinds of food actors ate,” he recalls. By 16, he finally persuaded a manager to sign him, and he was flying back and forth to L.A., solo, for auditions, funding his airfare by working as a busboy. “All my tips went to Southwest Airlines,” he says. Twenty-five flights, twenty-five auditions—and zero roles. “After my first audition,” he says, “the casting director told my manager I sucked pond water.”
And then, at some point—maybe the 12th futile audition, maybe the 23rd—Hedlund came to a realization. “I looked around the room, and everyone, including me, looked alike,” he says. He knew he had to differentiate himself from the herd of aspiring actors with teen-idol looks. But how?
• • •
“You know the Ear Inn?” Hedlund asks. “No? It’s a great bar. Let’s head over.” We’re through with lunch, with enough booze pulsing through our veins to make the teeming, sunlit city feel that much teemier and sunnier. En route, Hedlund makes a stop at Village Music World on Bleecker Street. It’s a narrow little cockpit-size old-time record store, ferociously curated by its owner, Jamal Alnasr. “I love this guy,” Hedlund says, finishing a cigarette before heading in. “He won’t sell you an album if he doesn’t think you’re worthy of it.” Emerging from the store for his own smoke, Alnasr greets Hedlund like an old pal, the actor filling him in on Lullaby, the film that he just finished shooting in New York. Hedlund plays the son of a cancer-stricken man about to take himself off life support. “Twenty-three days of shooting on Roosevelt Island, in the hospital there,” he explains. Once inside the store, Alnasr fetches Hedlund a vinyl album that he’s been seeking, Townes Van Zandt’s Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, which Hedlund holds reverently. We engage in some alt-country name-checking until Hedlund checks me with an unfamiliar name: Blaze Foley, a Texas singer-songwriter who, Hedlund tells me, wrote some killer songs before he was shot in the chest in 1989.
When he fishes out his iPhone to play me his favorite Foley song, “Clay Pigeons,” he discovers that its battery ran out, probably hours ago. This is as good a time as any to note how resolutely analog Garrett Hedlund is. The dead smartphone doesn’t bother him a bit. He prefers his music on vinyl. He wears a wind-up wristwatch. He doesn’t tweet. His e-mail address ends with “aol.com.” His voluminous journals are written in longhand. By these measures, he seems laughably miscast as the lead in 2010’s Tron: Legacy.
Then again, Dean Moriarty wasn’t a natural fit for Hedlund, either. He’s closer in spirit to Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in On the Road, played by Sam Riley—more contemplative, ambiguous, a fraction more disciplined, burning with a slightly cooler flame. Moriarty is all appetite, fervent and insatiable, a manic dervish of desire: for sexual stimulation (with women and with men; in the film he pinballs from Kristen Stewart to Steve Buscemi), for intellectual stimulation (jazz, poetry, the talismanic volume of Proust he totes around), and for chemical stimulation (Benzedrine, by the lots). Playing a role like that is a risk; it would be dangerously easy to push the character straight over the top, to overinflate all that hopped-up zeal. But the risk was exponentially compounded here: On the Road is more than a classic, it’s a sacred text, a generational touchstone, the Kabbalah of the open road, with Moriarty as its prophet. When, prior to shooting, Hedlund ran into Colin Farrell, who’d been considered for the role in a previous studio incarnation, Farrell said to him (and Hedlund conveys this in a wildly perfect vocal impersonation), “Man, it’s so fucking brave. Doing that part takes a lot of fucking bravery, man. Like Jesus Christ.” Relating this encounter, Hedlund re-creates his own intimidated gulp. “I’m like, ‘That’s great. He seems braver than shit, and he’s telling me I’m brave for doing this part.'”
Yet Hedlund didn’t come to the role cold. His history with On the Road dated back to that realization he’d had, as a 17-year-old in an audition waiting room with a bunch of identical 17-year-old actors, that he needed something more. “I decided to try to be smarter than everyone else,” he says. Reading was far from his strong suit back then. “Sports or girls,” he says, was more like it. Thus began the self-education of Garrett Hedlund. “After school,” he recalls, “I’d hang out at the Borders bookstore until it closed.” Hedlund used it like a library reading room, dog-earing the pages of whatever book he was absorbed in before sticking it back on the shelf until the following day. “That was safe,” he explains. “No one was going to buy three copies of Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness by the next afternoon.” His literary tastes leaned toward the raw and rebellious. Besides Bukowski, there was Brave New World, 1984, and The Catcher in the Rye, whose subversiveness he understood better than most teens: “I felt I gained something that nobody else who had to read it in school got, because I realized all this stuff on my own instead of a teacher saying, ‘What do you think so-and-so meant in this moment?'” Then one day at Borders he came upon another seminal text: On the Road, which Hedlund saw as an aesthetic manifesto—it churned up feelings he’d had about small-town Minnesota, when he felt everyone “just wanted to get out”—but also as a movie. Researching the novel’s tangled cinematic history, Hedlund discovered that Francis Ford Coppola was, at that time, set to direct it. He sighed. He didn’t stand a chance, he thought. In Hollywood’s estimation, he was still sucking pond water.
If he couldn’t act it, however, he could become it. And so he funneled all that residual On the Road energy into what became a lifelong writing habit, in freewheeling Kerouac fashion. “I spill it out as fast as I can,” he says. “I don’t really edit.” Just about everything that’s happened to him as an adult, from the “uninteresting” to the “wonderful,” has found its way onto paper—in stories, in poems, in journal entries. “In Brazil, recently, I wrote 70 pages,” he ticks off. “In London, 80 pages.”
It was that writing—as well as the long on-again, off-again journey On the Road took to the screen—that led Hedlund back to the role he’d yearned for at 17. By 2006 Coppola had passed On the Road to the Brazilian director Walter Salles, who’d earned critical acclaim for another period road movie, the 2004 Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, and Hedlund was just four films into his career. Troy had led to Friday Night Lights, and then to 2005’s Four Brothers, with Mark Wahlberg, and 2006’s Eragon. But the right roles were elusive. “I just really wanted to do things that could make me proud or be emotional,” he says. During a meeting with a casting director for On the Road, Hedlund read some of his writing aloud. “God, isn’t Kerouac great?” the casting director said afterward. “No,” Hedlund replied, “this is something I wrote when I was 18.” Word got to Salles, who brought Hedlund to New York for a test reading, where Hedlund further showed off his writing—and a bit more besides.
In the script, as in the novel and as Neal Cassady was in real life, Dean Moriarty is frequently nude (Kerouac wrote of Moriarty, “He came to the door stark naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw”). For a scene in which Sal Paradise tells Moriarty that he’s heading south to Mexico and Moriarty responds slyly, “Hey, Sal, you know, I habla español as well,” the idea occurred to Hedlund: “Maybe I should just whip it out of the pants and say, ‘You know, I habla español as well.'” He went with it, dropping trou on stage during the audition. Afterward, according to Salles, Hedlund read some pages he’d written about “his journey from Minnesota to California—gas stations, strip bars, the solitude of the road. The text was at the same time sharp and personal and had the same jazz-infused quality that you find in Neal Cassady’s letters. He got the character’s essence. The writing was impressive, more so than dropping the pants, although the girls in the room may have argued otherwise.”
• • •
Whether Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady ever drank at the Ear Inn, just off the Hudson River on Spring Street, is unknown, but it’s certainly possible, since Hedlund’s favorite bar has been serving drinks, under one name or another, since the 19th century. It is, as Hedlund advertises, a great bar, though his affection might owe something to proximity as well. Kirsten Dunst, his girlfriend of a year (whom he refers to as “my gal”), lives nearby. They met on the set of On the Road, in which Dunst plays one of Moriarty’s wives, and sometime later struck up a romance after Hedlund took her out on a 3 A.M. canoe ride. “It was not a stable canoe,” he says. “We fell out and had to swim back in mucky, shitty water, like golf-pond water.” This time around, sucking pond water didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
If Kerouac and Cassady ever did drink here, they might have talked as Hedlund does as the bartender refills our glasses and night settles onto the city: allusively, with nods to Emerson, Frost, Fitzgerald, and Thoreau, and tangentially, with stories veering into bouts of recited poetry and then back again (“Everything you ever knew seems to slowly be forgotten,” he quotes from a poem of his, an assault against the resignation of maturity that he wrote years ago in Mexico. “All the good nights are just nights, all the good mornings are just mornings, all the dots in the sky are the same dots you’ve been looking at all your life . . .”). “Garrett looks at everything with an artistic eye,” McGraw says. Kristen Stewart, who plays Marylou, Moriarty’s ex-wife and still-tumultuous lover, in On the Road, recalls that Hedlund was “always scribbling something in his notebook. We all heard tidbits. He was writing this on-the-fly poetry, which was beautifully reminiscent of what we were doing.”
The morning after their first night out together, his costar Riley says, Hedlund startled him by announcing that he’d written something about their evening and wanted to read it to everyone on the set. Because the night had been a long one, Riley joked to Hedlund, “Garrett, I hope this is an edited version.” But the poem, Riley says, was “amazing. He made me look bad. Walter’s looking at me like, ‘So, what’ve you got?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, the dog ate mine.'”
Separating the Beat character from the Beat-inspired actor wasn’t always easy. “Every time I’d see him,” Stewart says of the years-long interim between casting and filming, when financing stalled production, “I’d be like, ‘Are you already doing it?’ He just never let up.” That “free spirit” cited by Salles manifested itself after filming, when Hedlund would “just take off walking,” Stewart says. Once, after Stewart let him lead her on an aimless 4 a.m. exploration of Montreal, she finally protested, “Dude, you don’t know where you’re going!” “But he just kept on walking,” she recalls.
That’s how Hedlund wants to live: with eyes wide open, scanning for the unknown, tilted toward fresh experience, ever the farm boy wondering where the highway ends. He ventures onto the sidewalk outside the Ear Inn for a cigarette and resumes his exultant barrage of road stories (Hedlund’s just as fond of driving into nowhere as walking there). The particular story he’s telling places him in a small town in Idaho several years back, his car impounded after a speeding violation, deep into the night. “I was outside with a phone book trying to call a cab,” Hedlund recalls, “and there was this guy out there in a beat-up Oldsmobile, asking if I needed a ride. I was like, ‘No thanks.’ He’s like, ‘But this ride’s free.’ So I said, ‘I’ll take that ride.’ The guy tells me to get in back, that he’s waiting on a friend. Then this Indian guy comes out of the jail, with a shaved head, tattoos all over. Pops open a 40-ounce beer in the front seat. This guy had just been arrested for riding 48 hours on the rails. And I’m like, ‘This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me!'”