It’s easy to see why Garrett Hedlund was cast in the coveted role of Dean Moriarty, the slightly fictitious alter ego of legendary Beat icon Neal Cassady in director Walter Salles’s highly anticipated film version of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road — they’re both magnetic blond bundles of energy. The photogenic 26-year-old actor just completed filming Road the afternoon before our interview and immediately caught a flight to Los Angeles to attend the premiere of Tron: Legacy, yet is surprisingly effusive after waking up early the next morning to begin publicity duties for Country Strong (now in theaters nationwide).
It’s been a quick rise to fame for Hedlund, who first made waves crossing swords with Brad Pitt in the 2004 epic Troy, a job he landed just weeks after graduating from high school and moving to Los Angeles. Following his attention-grabbing turns in the football drama Friday Night Lights and the Lindsay Lohan comedy Georgia Rule, Hedlund now reveals solid musical chops in Strong. He stars as Beau, a rising Nashville performer torn between Gwyneth Paltrow's alcoholic, down-on-her-luck singer, and Leighton Meester's winsome newcomer. Hedlund speaks with The Advocate about honing his musical skills for Country Strong, the downward spiral of former costar Lohan, and bringing the homoerotic Kerouac classic to the screen.
The Advocate: Your performance in Country Strong is so accomplished that it’s surprising to learn you had no experience as a musician before making the film. Was it this challenge that attracted you to the project?
Garrett Hedlund: Well, Shana [Feste, the film’s writer-director] had written this wonderful script, and when I finished reading it I had tears in my eyes. I thought that a script that moving had potential to be even more so on screen. Shana and I met and she asked if I was willing to put the necessary work into doing the part, and I told her 100% completely and undeniably yes. It required six months of guitar training four days a week, plus just living and breathing country music. There was a lot of hard work put into it, and I’m really proud of the film.
The hard work certainly paid off, as your musical performances in the film have authenticity. Do you think you might pursue a musical career in addition to acting?
No, not as a career, but of course just getting the taste of being in Nashville and getting up and doing it was so much fun. What I’d pursue is playing guitar in my spare time and writing. Maybe if one of my pals performs onstage somewhere, I’d get up and play with him, but it would be very casual.
Gwyneth’s character, Kelly, is an alcoholic singer whose life and
career are spinning out of control. Three years ago you starred opposite
Lindsay Lohan in Georgia Rule, around the time her downward
spiral began. Did you see any parallels between Lindsay’s off-screen
struggles with substance abuse and Gwyneth’s character’s on-screen
[Pause] I guess not. [Laughs] I guess the parallel in this situation would be, like the theme of Country Strong,
whether love and fame can coexist. It’s such a hard thing when you
work steady and live your life and try to be happy and appease audiences
and be the greatest you can be, but then life takes a toll on you and
you turn to drugs. It’s unfortunate.
You have starring roles in three very high-profile films. Have you thought about how you’ll handle the inevitable loss of your anonymity?
I don’t really think about it. I take it a day at a time. I’m a harmless, peaceful guy. I like to be at home, and I don’t cause any trouble. If things get too crazy, I’ll find another place to hide.
You might need to find one after your next project, the long-awaited film version of On the Road. I don't want to put any pressure on you but it’s arguably one of the most highly anticipated films of all time.
Yes, I’ve spent the last six months working incredibly hard with Walter Salles on it. It was a phenomenal cast, who I will love for the rest of my life. We embarked on something so rare and so rich. I’m incredibly proud to be a part of it.
You play Dean Moriarty, which is a plum role that’s been discussed over the years as a vehicle for everyone from Marlon Brando to Brad Pitt. How did you get cast?
I read the book when I was 17 and still in high school. I immediately went online and read that Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct it then. I thought, Oh, man, I’ll never get a part in this! [Laughs] Never mind that I was just a 17-year-old high school kid in Arizona, so why the hell should I get the part? I met with Walter in 2007 and auditioned for him and then made a screen test. Walter called me on my birthday that September and told me I got the part.
What a nice birthday gift.
It was the greatest day of my life. Then came the journey of trying to get it made. For two years I worked on the character and read everything — all of Jack’s books. I read Neal’s book, The First Third, and all the letters between them and between Neal and Carolyn [Cassady, Neal’s ex-wife and biographer] and between Neal and Allen Ginsberg [the poet, who was one of Cassady’s lovers]. Just going into auditions and saying that I was working with Walter Salles on On the Road gave me confidence, even though I didn’t have any money. I was fortunate to come across Tron and Country Strong to help me survive in Los Angeles.
Dean seems like a character who’d be difficult to shake when the cameras stop rolling. How did playing him affect you?
Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake certain traits of his. I honestly feel that all the years I’ve spent preparing to play Neal Cassady made me a better person. It was such an honor to portray one of the richest characters ever written. The night before we wrapped, Carolyn came to the set. She sat with me and Sam Riley [who plays the Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise], and for her to look at both of us and smile ... wow. We went to Vesuvius [a bar in San Francisco], where those guys drank. The three of us walked arm in arm, and the sole of her shoe broke, so I pulled my boot off and slipped my sock off and tied it around the sole of her shoe, and we went to Vesuvius and sat down. She just closed her eyes and took it in. I don’t even have the words to express how it made me feel. It was so fucking fulfilling.
There have been screenplays of On the Road in development for decades. Is your film adapted from the first published version of Kerouac’s novel, which was censored, or ...
It’s based on the scroll version. The original scripts were always based on the censored version, but just last year the scroll version came out. To be infused with the raw honesty of the scroll and infuse events from the letters, I think the film is going to be so filled with the beautiful honesty of what this story was about.
The real Neal Cassady was bisexual, and there was understated homoerotic tension between the Dean and Sal characters in Kerouac’s book. How explicitly is this portrayed in the film?
Between Dean and Sal, not so much — it’s more between the Ginsberg character and Dean and the relationship they had. That is very visible in the screenplay.
I read a story about you, which may be apocryphal, but it’s fascinating just the same. When you were starting out as an actor, you read screenplays of old movies and prepared auditions for them.
One film I remember doing it for is Five Easy Pieces. When I was first starting out everyone said, “You have to see Jack [Nicholson] in Five Easy Pieces.” I read the script, but I hadn’t seen the film yet. I prepped a scene for a week and pretended I was auditioning for it, but I didn’t perform it in front of anyone. Then I watched the film to see what the actors did. Acting schools always say you have to do this and you don’t do that. They put barriers on everything. There are no rules, you know.
That’s a very Neal Cassady thing to say.
[Laughs] It’s only when you can cut the cuffs that are attached by rules that you can finally be free.