THE INTERVIEW: Garrett Hedlund
Garrett Hedlund quit smoking five days ago. It’s a habit he’s had on and off for years, and while we wouldn’t condone such behaviour, he’s the kind of guy that just looks cool with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Think James Dean or Steve McQueen. That level of coolness. “I mean, I haven’t had a beer in five days either, so that might be something to do with it,” he says with a wry smile.
The reason he’s telling us this, shortly after arriving at our photoshoot in Downtown LA’s industrial area, is not to brag but because he’s explaining why he’s been to the gym and had an intense hike up the Hollywood Hills prior to meeting us. All before 1pm. “It’s just something to do, y’know? Keeps the mind off it.” While this behaviour is standard practice in body-conscious California, the last person you’d expect to see Instagramming his latest workout session is Garrett Hedlund. Not that he’s got the physique to suggest otherwise. It’s just rare you see him in the press at all, which is surprising considering his CV. In an age where social media and extensive celebrity coverage plays an integral role in shaping and sustaining careers, Hedlund, who has never had a Facebook or MySpace account and is not on Twitter or Instagram, is more comfortable keeping himself to himself. He’s the anti-Hollywood.
Except for when he is starring in some of the biggest films in recent times, of course. Best known as the face of Disney’s Tron sequel, Hedlund, who turns 31 this month, is the embodiment of everything you want from a Hollywood star. His face – perhaps best described as intriguingly inconspicuous – seems to mould itself to any role. And then there are his striking blue eyes, soft drawling Midwest accent and broad but sinewy frame. Those physical attributes, along with his acting ability, have allowed him to play an impressively diverse range of characters during his 12-year-long career.
He’s comfortable playing a prisoner of war, as he did in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken; a homicidal drifter (Mojave) or a fictional pirate the next, as he will do in his latest role as Hook, in Joe Wright’s new Peter Pan movie, Pan, released next month. And in between shoots, he’s more likely to
be journaling or writing poems, rather than hanging out at the right parties. Hedlund, it transpires over the course of our day together, seems genuinely focused on making movies rather than tabloid headlines.
“THE BEST TEACHER IS EXPERIENCE AND NOT THROUGH SOMEONE’S DISTORTED POINT OF VIEW” JACK KEROUAC, ON THE ROAD
You could trace this behaviour back to his roots. He grew up on his father’s cattle farm in Wannaska, Minnesota, a town that had a little over 2,500 people. (His parents having divorced when Hedlund was a toddler, with his mother leaving for Phoenix, Arizona.) He had an older brother and a sister, there were just three TV channels on the family television and farming chores to be done. A well-received part in a school play at the age of eight planted the seed of aspiring to something outside the rural life, as well as gaining the dubious nod of approval from his father, who was also a wrestling coach.
But acting as a serious career option was nothing but a far-fetched dream until, at the age of 14, he moved west to live in the big city with his mother. Suddenly there were theatres and video shops. Having only been to the cinema three times in his life, a new world awaited. Hedlund rented pretty much every film from his new local movie store, soaking up as much as he could, and the decision was made: he was to be an actor. “Once I got into my teen years I started really believing in the stories, investing in the characters I was watching, falling in love with them and feeling their pain,” he remembers. “I think I was finally able to become emotional within the viewing experience, and I wanted to give somebody else that experience.”
Garrett Hudlund wears top, Dhs5,200, by Louis Vuitton
It was around this time that he also developed a passion for reading and writing. He devoured American literature in a bid to educate himself to a level where he would understand more about his characters than any of the other young actors he was up against at auditions. If the next guy in line could act the part, could Hedlund learn to become it? The next few years became a juggle between school, acting lessons paid for by waiting tables, and cold-calling agents asking them for meetings. He’d frequently take the 90-minute flight back and forth to Los Angeles for any audition he could get. By 2003 he was 18 and impatient, and so a few months before his high school prom he moved permanently to LA. Within two weeks he’d got a part in Troy, as Patroclus, the beloved cousin of Achilles, played, of course, by Brad Pitt. Filmed in Mexico, London and Malta, the movie wasn’t a critical success but nevertheless took almost $500 million at the box office. Not bad for a first gig.
“Brad taught me to always stick to the good ones, you know?” Hedlund reminisces at his first taste of movie making. “He told me, ‘Go with the ones that are fulfilling’.” If you look at his IMDb profile, Hedlund seems to have taken the advice seriously, with a steady flow of reputable movies and interesting characters to his name. After Troy came a role in cult classic Friday Night Lights, where Hedlund played a small-town high-school football player who struggles with an abusive father, played by Tim McGraw. Parts in Four Brothers, Eragon, Georgia Rule, Death Sentence, Country Strong and Tron followed and in 2012 he got the coveted lead, Dean Moriarty, in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
The Coen brothers came knocking shortly after with a role in Inside Llewyn Davis. He played a taciturn driver for John Goodman’s heroin-addicted jazz musician, which was probably not an accidental follow-up to his stint as Moriarty. All of Hedlund’s performances to date have been not only varied, but convincing, precise and captivating. While talent is a given, it’s also because of his unrelenting commitment to each project. Hedlund takes each movie like an assignment and prepares, revises and studies for the part. “For me, taking on a character is exploring a new way of life as much as possible and what that person has to offer,” he says, slowly and thoughtfully. “I want to be convincing but I also feel an obligation to the community of people I’m portraying. I want to make them proud. I’ve always loved a good struggle, and usually it’s starting from scratch and working to get to a point where you’ve progressed in whatever direction you’re aiming towards.”
On The Road is probably the best example of this work-bornfrom- struggle attitude. Director Walter Salles took two years to get the movie going after Hedlund signed on to the project to play Moriarty, after impressing with the Beat-style diaries he had long kept. The young actor promised to not take on any other work in the meantime and so spent the next 24 months reading every Kerouac book he could get his hands on, including the entire works of Neal Cassady, upon whom the character is based.
He even sat down with Cassady’s son and a notepad of questions to find out more about the man. Hedlund, who was still not quite an established or wealthy star, says he was eating instant noodles and on the cusp of running out of money and having to move back in with his mother by the time filming began. While the movie fell a little flat (which was somewhat inevitable when you’re interpreting a milestone in American literature), Hedlund emerged with his head held high. Unlike many newcomers eager to gain maximum exposure as quickly as possible, this approach also meant choosing his roles carefully. “I’ve never really rushed into things. I mean, even in the first three years I was working I’d do a film and then wait for something that I felt strongly about,” he explains. “I was worried about selling my soul. Something would always come up at the right time, just as I was back down to Spaghetti Hoops, and I’d have another family for a few more months.”
Garrett Hudlund wears sweater, price on request, by Brioni and trousers, Dhs1,120, by Acne at MrPorter.com
This sense of contentment in the choices that he’s making also means Hedund is not desperate for the limelight and, by Hollywood standards, leads an unflashy life. The jeans he arrives in are five years old and he still has the small rented Los Felix apartment he signed the lease on when he arrived in 2003. Not that he doesn’t enjoy some trappings of success. He admits to now having a “bigger place” up in the hills where he now lives with his girlfriend Kirsten Dunst (an exception to his generally non-flashy rule), letting his buddies stay in the rented pad when they’re in town. Well, probably. He doesn’t offer that information up, but it’s no secret that the two have been together for three and a half years.
In an age where even Queen Elizabeth II and the President of the United States are on Twitter, it still seems strange that we don’t know more about Garrett Hedlund. This lack of exposure is partly because of his virtually non-existent social media activity — either from himself or from PR representatives on his behalf. There are both Twitter and Instagram accounts pretending to be Hedlund’s, but both are set up by fans and are nothing to do with the actor. “Even though I’m not on it, I completely understand a lot of people find it helpful because they like to be in touch with their fans,” he politely offers of his digital absence. “I have some close friends that are like, ‘You don’t get it, there are times when you’re done and you go on there and see messages of support and they make your day’. But it’s a new generation. It’s not me.” Hedlund will argue with some conviction that his motivation for being in the industry is not fame but rather the work and the life lessons that come along with the job — a statement often made in the industry but one that rarely stands up to scrutiny. There was his total immersion into the world of 1950s Americana for On the Road, where he took trips through the Midwest backwaters in order to live, rather than act, the part.
Filming in Slovakia, for 2006’s Eragon, Hedlund learned how to play the violin, with lessons courtesy of co-star Jeremy Irons, This was also the start of a love affair with the music of Texan country singer Blaze Foley, who was shot to death in 1989 and has since assumed cult status. Hedlund requests Foley as the soundtrack to our shoot and quietly sings along throughout the day. “The actor Gary Lewis gave me a book, called You Have to be Careful Living in the Land of the Free,” he says of the darkly comic portrait of a post-9/11 America by Scottish author James Kelman.
“In it there’s this beautiful line, ‘Blue eyes, she said/Pretty blue eyes/She said I had pretty blue eyes’, which I found out was a line from ‘Oooh Love’, a song by this guy who I’d never heard of before called Blaze Foley. That trip was long and sometimes lonely. That book really saved me during that trip.” In case you hadn’t already gathered, Hedlund loves music. For 2010’s Country Strong, starring as rising country singer Beau Hutton, alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, he plays the guitar (he’d already had unofficial lessons from pal and Four Brothers co-star Terrence Howard). Anyone that’s seen the movie will see that he’s pretty good. It also put him on the path to writing songs. “Once you learn the guitar, it’s pretty hard to prevent the writing process; songs start piling up, I love it,” he says while air-strumming along to the background music. “A lot of my friends are great musicians and we all get together and have a great time and I think it’s going to be a part of my life, undeniably, from now until forever.”
“BRAD PITT TOLD ME TO ALWAYS STICK TO THE GOOD ONES. GO WITH THE ONES THAT ARE FULFILLING” GARRETT HEDLUND
Next month sees the release of Pan, an invented origin story for Peter Pan and Captain Hook, in what will be the tenth movie to be made about Neverland. Hedlund plays the young pirate James Hook, in a story where Peter (played by newcomer Levi Miller) and Hook are allies, with Hugh Jackman starring as baddie Blackbeard. Preparation for the role came in the form of four weeks of rehearsals where the cast were told to take clothes from a dressing-up box and “explore and evolve” their characters. “Joe [Wright], the director, said that he’d imagined Hook as a character from an old John Ford film, like in the 1900s, and that if he wasn’t on this island he’d be happy riding a horse on the prairie,” he explains. “I thought it sounded really interesting to portray a character’s back story before he turns into a f*****g nut job.”
His performance also brings to mind a young Indiana Jones, a similarity that hasn’t gone unnoticed and one that might just bear fruits if Disney goes ahead with a reboot of the series.“Garrett’s portrayal of Hook is wicked, and very witty,” Wright tells me later in an email. “He’s not the Hook that audiences will expect; he’s the Hook before the Hook.” Wright also enthuses about Garrett’s onset persona, referring to him as “a true gentleman. [He was] considerate, charming and always very funny. He also plays the guitar rather beautifully and would often serenade the set. He was a joy to work with.” He’ll also star in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an Ang Lee movie about soldiers returning home from Iraq that he’s just finished filming with Kristen Stewart in Morocco. Hedlund took the part after reading the Ben Fountain book on which the film is based. “It’s incredibly inventive, fresh and creative,” he says. “It’s one of those books that you can’t put down, and I hadn’t read one of those in a while.” It doesn’t hit movie screens until November 2016, so in the meantime…?
“I always find it hard to read another script while I’m on a project,” he explains. “It’s really hard for me to even respond to most of my friends when I’m working, although I’m getting a little better about it now.” When pressed, Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) and Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre and True Detective) are on his wish list of directors to work with, so who knows, maybe he’ll be cold-calling them soon? If the end of our shoot is anything to go by, he isn’t panicking about his next move. It’s 7pm and he tells us he has nothing to rush off to when we ask what his plans are for the evening. Maybe he’ll go to the gym again, he ponders, or not.
His girlfriend is away filming, so he might just chill on his own. His actions (or rather inaction) give a genuine sense that work is a way of life rather than a career that needs to be fast-tracked for money or fame. Hence he doesn’t feel the imperative need to churn out movie after movie in case momentum is lost or to maximise every second of the day in pursuit of his next role. If he is involved in a project then you’ll get the 110 percent Hedlund. But as for the rest of the Hollywood circus? He seems secure enough to leave that for someone who wants it more badly. The only thing he wants out of this game is the chance to work on something he believes in. Most people in Hollywood say the same thing. Only a few of them are brave enough to mean it.
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Styling and words by Kate Hazell
Photography by Lindsey Byrnes
Grooming: Amber Dreadon using Sisley Cosmetics.
Fashion assistant: Erica Howard.
Photographers assistant: Colleen Haley.