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TORONTO -- Less than 48 hours ago, I spent an extensive amount of time with two of Hollywood's brightest young stars, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart. The duo star as the free spirits Dean and LuAnn in Walter Salles' big screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic Beat Generation novel On the Road, and had come to town to attend its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night. On Friday and Saturday, they granted a small handful of joint-interviews at the downtown InterContinental Hotel.
Despite the fact that the personal life of one of these actors has recently been the subject of considerable media coverage, I was never asked and would not have agreed to consent to any preconditions for this interview. Instead, I simply pursued the topics that I felt were the most important and interesting -- and came away feeling that this approach had been rewarded with answers of unusual detail and candor. The complete and unedited video of our conversation can be viewed at the top of this post. It is my hope that the people who regularly read my blog, as well as the legions of fans of Hedlund and Stewart who will discover it for the first time through this post, will feel that I made the most of my time.
Hedlund, 28, was born in a small town in Minnesota. Growing up on a farm there, his TV only picked up a few television channels. He would dutifully watch shows until, at the very end of their credits, they flashed in small print the address of the studio that produced them, after which he would write letters to the studios asking them to put him in their movies. After his parents split up, he divided his time between Minnesota (where his father remained) and Arizona (where his mother now lived), and managed to snag a talent agent at a convention. His first gig: a commercial in which he played a bully who wore a bandana and kicked the chair of a classmate. It was not the most auspicious of starts. But, upon graduating from high school, he packed his bags and headed for LA, where, before long, his good looks and strong work ethic landed him jobs in movies such as Wolfgang Petersen's Troy (2004), Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights (2004), and John Singleton's Four Brothers (2005). In 2010, he became a full-fledged star thanks to two films: Joseph Kosinski's TRON: Legacy and Shana Feste's Country Strong.
22-year-old Stewart, meanwhile, has been around show business for her entire life. She was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her mother is a script supervisor; her father is a stage manager and television producer. And, as she explains, "I grew up on a movie set. I was always kicking around Craft Service, and my parents' family friends were always the directors of movies." She shared one particularly visceral memory of her childhood: "I really always looked up to my parents. They would come home from work, and I would smell their jeans -- at that point you're at that level, five years old, and you grab onto a thigh -- and [I was] like, 'Wow, you smell like you've been so many places.'... That's what started me. I really wanted to do stuff. I really wanted to be a part of it. I wanted the adults to talk to me." As a child actor, she started in commercials, and then eased into some TV movies and indie films, before scoring her big break at the age of 12: a part opposite two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster in David Fincher's Panic Room (2002), which opened the door to everything that followed.
First Realization of the Impact They Could Have
Both actors have clear memories of the moment when they first realized the power that their profession could wield.
Shortly after turning 13, Stewart scored the starring role in a movie called Speak (2004), about a girl who suffers a date-rape that leaves her trauamatized, which ended up airing on Lifetime. She taped a public service announcement to air before the TV movie, and subsequently learned that it had prompted an influx of callers. She recalls, "I was like, 'Wow, this thing that got so completely in my own head has affected so many other people too,' and I realized like, after an experience that was so transformative, that it could help other people too. That's not why I do it -- it's definitely a personal thing -- but movies can be important; they don't have to be, but they really can be."
For Hedlund, the moment came after he shot Friday Night Lights. Berg knew many of the players from the team that had inspired the film, many of whom had ended up severely injured and even paralyzed, so he brought Hedlund and co-stars Billy Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, and Derek Luke along with him to visit some of them in a hospital. One, in particular, was a big fan of Luke, and Hedlund recalls, "Man, he was so moved. He couldn't believe that he was right in front of him. It brought tears to his eyes. You got to see how emotionally effective it can be. That's also when I realized that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life."
The Roles of Their Dreams
Both Hedlund and Stewart were passionate fans of Kerouac's novel long before they were approached about helping to turn it into a film. (Stewart even kept a copy on her car's dashboard.) They were therefore ecstatic, as you can imagine, when Salles first offered them parts of Dean and Marylou, respectively. At the time, their lives and careers were in very different places.
The Making of 'On the Road'
Hedlund was sent the script in the fall of 2006 and first met with Salles in the spring of 2007. Not long after, though, he bought a one-way ticket back to Minnesota "because times were a little slow." He was planning to help my dad out on the farm, but as soon as he landed in Fargo he got a call from his agent saying that Salles wanted to meet with him again just four days thereafter, for a proper audition. "So now," he recounts, "I had to drive three hours to my town, have one day there, and drive back." He won the part after showing up at the audition not only having learned his own lines, but also after reading a piece that he had written about his own recent road journey.
Stewart, 16 at the time that she was approached, had been recommended to Salles by two of his most trusted friends, the noted director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, after they saw the 2007 film Into the Wild. (Stewart remarks about that film, "I was a baby.") She met with Salles "right before" she shot the first installment in the Twilight franchise. She says, "I can't even tell you what we talked about; something -- an energy -- passes between people when you know you love something for the same reasons. And he told me that I could do it -- that day. It just tripped me up, man." She explains that, prior to that time, she had only played characters who were somewhat like herself. "I had really not begun to scratch the surface of discovery."
(She, too, took a long road trip before commencing work on the film, going from L.A. to Ohio with a few friends.)
Celebrities, For Better or Worse
Over the course of the unusually long development period for On the Road, during which finding and retaining financing was a constant nightmare, Stewart and Hedlund's lives both changed immensely. Her first Twilight film came out, thrusting her into the celebrity stratosphere. And he, after turning down all other roles for two years to avoid a potential conflict with On the Road, finally began to work on other films, which also rapidly turned him into a well known public figure. In short, both were losing their anonymity and ability to live a normal life just as they were about to portray characters who relished their own ability to lead their lives entirely on their own terms.
Cannes Review: On the Road
This was not lost on them. Stewart, who laments that her ability to remain anonymous amongst strangers began to evaporate before she was even a teenager -- "I did a commercial, and kids knew about it at school, so I already felt like I had lost it at 10, which is absurd -- and totally self-inflicted" -- says, "I think it probably has a lot to do with why I was attracted to something like this -- not fundamentally, but a thing that made it desirable." She adds that on the set, "I really did get to live, sort of, carefree for a bit. Not every second, obviously -- there were a few times when I was like, 'I really hope we're not being photographed right now'... But, at the same time, with these people, I was so able to let my face hang there -- that's the only way that I can describe it."
Hedlund chimes in, "It was definitely liberating," though he hastens to add that his fame doesn't entirely keep him from going out in public like anyone else. "I'm not afraid to travel alone, to sit at a bar alone, or a place alone, and to talk to people and see what their stories are," he says. Stewart no longer enjoys that same luxury, but says that the film "has actually taken a lot of fear away." She says that it has reminded her to, "Acknowledge your position in life, and don't try to have someone else's, and get however much you can out of that." She goes on, "You're just looking through a slightly different scope. And it's a pretty interesting one, I've got to tell you--" before stopping herself, apparently too overcome with emotion to go on. Eventually, she continues, "As long as you just don't let it lock you up. That's the thing, and that can be a bit -- I don't want to say a 'struggle,' because that sounds awful, but... [It's important to remember that] you've never seen it before, whatever you're looking at."
The two enjoy a much needed laugh when Hedlund shares, "I have a friend [who] the other day said, 'Let's spontaneously go to Las Vegas tomorrow at four." They may have fame and fortune, but that makes spontaneous trips to Vegas -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- not easier, but harder.
Love for Learning
One thing that quickly became very clear to me, from reading about Stewart and Hedlund's extensive preparation for On the Road and from then speaking with them about it, is how badly they wanted to get it right. Case-in-point: they both participated in a four-week preparatory period before shooting commenced that came to be known as "Beat Boot Camp" -- a term that Hedlund says "makes it sound like we we're doing Saving Private Ryan or something with books," prompting laughter from both -- which sounds much more like what happens before a theatrical production than a film.
They, their co-stars, Salles, and other special guests would spend all day in a rented apartment "living and breathing" the history that they would be bringing to life. They read writings and watched movies from the era; listened to audiotaped interviews with LuAnne Henderson (the inspiration for Stewart's character); visited with John Cassady, the son of Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Hedlund's character); picked the brains of authors and biographers; and generally grew comfortable with each other, which proved instrumental in eliminating -- or at least reducing -- their fear and inhibitions about scenes that would be, as Hedlund put it, "embarassing to, well, relatively anyone" (a likely reference to their extensive nude scenes in the film).
After listening to them speak about how much they loved doing all of these things, and learning about new things generally, I couldn't help but wonder if college held any allure for them. After all, Hedlund's peers headed off to college just as he began working, and Stewart's would have graduated this year. Stewart says, "I was always good in school -- like, kind of reluctantly... [and] I never, ever imagined that I wouldn't go to college; I just got caught up in things." She goes on, "What I knew when I was younger was that I wanted to know that I was going to be really challenged, and I am. I didn't want to step out of what was already really challenging me." Besides, she adds, "My biggest thing about acting is that you're not pretending to be someone else; you're just finding yourself." Hedlund concurs. "I wanted to go to college for journalism, but after I finished doing my first film [2004's Troy, which he shot in London, Malta, and Mexico] I felt like I'd spent four years in college just from getting to see the world."
From the sound of those answers, perhaps Stewart and Hedlund share more in common with the characters that they portray in On the Road than even they realize.
Mine was their last interview of the day, so it was allowed to run a little long, as we got swept up in our conversation. When it eventually wound down, I thanked them, we parted ways, and they -- they were back on the road.
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