Q: You and Kristen had great chemistry, so how did you guys develop that?
GH: I think it was from being around each other for the four weeks before we began filming. We were all in the same room all day, everyday. We went over material, and were reading a lot of the writings. That was a time for us to share with each other, like anything one had encountered.
Also, Walter shared with us what he discovered on his research. All day, everyday, it was Sam, Kristen and I in this apartment with Walter, listening to jazz, reading. It was one big study hall, so that’s where it came from.
Also, she’s not a hard one to get along with. She’s really great, and really dedicated to this. Everyone who was in this was great, and accepted everyone else as a family.
Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund are in the middle of a game of Q&A chicken. They’re sitting in a courtyard at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons on a hot November morning, staring at each other over a small table, waiting for the other one to crack first and answer my question. The only movement comes from the smoke wafting off his cigarette and the slowly forming half-smile on each of their faces.
All I’ve done to provoke this battle of wills is to ask, “Which of you is most like your character in On the Road?” In the new film adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac–penned road trip novel (which opens today in limited release), Hedlund plays the charismatic bohemian Dean Moriarty, and Stewart is cast as Dean’s carnal free spirit of a girlfriend, Marylou. Neither actor wants to brag that he or she closely resembles an iconic literary character, so it becomes obvious to both that a round of mutual compliments is the only way out of this question. But who will be brave enough to suck it up and go first?
“He’s got a lot of Dean in him,” Stewart finally says.
“He’s got a lot of teeth in him?” Hedlund replies, in mock-confusion.
“Dean!” she insists, as they both start laughing. It isn’t hard to coax a smile from Stewart and Hedlund, even if their screen personas would suggest otherwise. Both are best known for their straightforward, sullen work in big-bucks franchise roles — she in Twilight, he in Tron Legacy — and you can see what drew them to On the Road, a film populated not by computer programs but flesh-and-blood people, where the characters aren’t undead but instead, really living.
In truth, Hedlund and Stewart are both closer to their roles than they’d readily admit. Like Neal Cassady, the Beat figure whom Dean is based on, Hedlund grew up in the heartland, spending his childhood on a farm so remote that you have to fly into Fargo and drive three hours away to find it. To win the part in On the Road, Hedlund channeled the vibe of the novel and wrote several soul-baring pages about his own life, offering them to director Walter Salles after his first audition by asking, sincerely, “Can I read you something I wrote?” It worked.
As for Stewart, “You wouldn’t be attracted to a project if you had to fake it,” she says. Though Marylou is more impetuous and sexually assertive than the other roles she’s played, Stewart claims, “I don’t feel like I’m stepping outside of myself when I’m playing parts. Even if it’s really different from the apparent version of who I am, I’m always somewhere deep in there.”
It isn’t jarring to go from green-screen blockbuster work like Snow White and the Huntsman to something this intimate and sweaty? Again, Stewart half-smiles; she’s spent most of her career alternating juggernaut Twilight films with barely budgeted indies like The Runaways and Welcome to the Rileys. “I don’t mind making big movies, ‘cause you get to sort of bitch and complain with the other actors about what’s keeping you from being able to really feel it,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But then at the end of the day, you could be in a white room; the whole thing about being an actor is you have to have an imagination.”
A lack of inhibition helps, too. In On the Road, Hedlund plays a cool character full of Beat bravado, but he’s still asked to do things that might make other young actors flinch, like shedding his clothes, dancing with wild abandon in long unbroken takes, or simulating rough sex with Steve Buscemi. Ask him about finding the freedom to go to those places, and Hedlund surprises by daring to quote not a venerated literary icon like Kerouac but Ethan Hawke, whose book Ash Wednesday, he says, made a big impression on him as a teenager.
“‘The only thing in life worth learning is humility,’” quotes Hedlund, who vaguely resembles Hawke with his brown goatee and earnest literary bent. “‘Shatter the ego, then dance through the perfect contradiction of life and death.’” His explanation: “It encourages you not to walk with your head down and your hands in your pockets and be closed off to life, but to be open and nonjudgmental and accessible to experience a lot of wonderful journeys within this short life of ours.”
Do those inhibitions come down permanently after simulating the envelope-pushing sex scenes of On the Road? Stewart says yes and acknowledges that in general, she’s perceived to be a closed-off person, but that she’s working on it. “It’s funny: By putting up walls, you think you’re protecting yourself, but you get to live less,” says Stewart. “If you’re hiding behind a wall, then you can’t see over it. You’re depriving yourself of so much if you’re trying to be too aware of what you’re putting out there, you know?”
She adds, “If you feel someone breaking those walls down, let them. Those are the people that you need to find in life, rather than people that you’re just comfortable with.”
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Hedlund and Stewart want to end our conversation by discussing Just Kids, Patti Smith’s book about her artistically enriching and culture-defining friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “It had a very similar effect on me as reading On the Road did when I was 15,” says Stewart, who’s currently reading the novel for a second time. “I had a serious urge to create shit after I read it, to go out and find people, and travel.”
When I bring up the recent report that Smith is a fan of Stewart’s — suggesting that maybe one day, she could find herself starring in another adaptation of a bohemian coming-of-age book — Stewart demurs and meets eyes with Hedlund again. “I will never be the type of person like Patti Smith who has that compulsion to be constantly creating,” she laughs, confessing, “You feel diminished somehow [after reading it]! You’re like, ‘God! I gotta build myself back up again! I need to actually use every second! Why am I sitting around, ever?’”
There’s traffic from Silver Lake. That’s why Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund, the stars of On the Road, are late to the Benedict Room of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. We’re as psychically far from Jack Kerouac’s Beat gospel as you can get: fidgeting under crystal chandeliers in a $400-per-night hotel, with guests in comfy white robes riding gilded elevators and maids pushing breakfast trays of eggs Hollandaise and medicine ball–sized avocados.
The journey from scroll to screen has been an equally strange odyssey.
Since Kerouac published his sex-, drugs- and satori-searching novel in 1957, false starts and “unfilmable” rumors have lengthened its odds of adaptation.
The author once sought Marlon Brando to play Dean Moriarty, the book’s infamous thief/wildman and Kerouac’s trim-hipped “Western Kinsman of the Sun” (Kerouac assured he could handle the narrator/protagonist Sal Paradise, based on himself).
Two decades later, Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights and famously struggled to bring the book to life, with actors Colin Farrell, Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt and Billy Crudup variously attached as male leads. We were one German investment group away from On the Road as proto-slacker parable.
A decade later, aided by several European and Latin American co-financiers and Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, the $25 million adaptation premiered to mixed reviews at May’s Cannes Film Festival.
The local unveiling occurred during November’s AFI Fest at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with an afterparty at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. There was an electro-funk mash-up DJ, a shadow light projection for Shellback Caribbean Rum and the dull iridescence of a thousand iPhones and bald agent scalps. No whiskey was served.
It’s two days after that Hollywood night on a weatherless Southern California Monday morning. Early November. 9:17 a.m.
With silver eyes and wine-dark hair, Kristen Stewart is sitting in front of me and we’re not talking because Hedlund still hasn’t shown up and what small talk can you make with the 22-year-old, tabloid-tormented star of Twilight. In person, she’s pretty but severe, as though her face is all elbows.
When her co-star finally arrives, Stewart offers a sisterly hug with a sense of relief that suggests she’s acutely aware of how awkward it is to be interviewed by people who know every uncomfortable (and possibly spurious) facet of your existence.
Hedlund is her opposite. If Stewart is shy and pallid, and balsamic salad-thin, Hedlund is broad-shouldered, farmer-tanned and blond.
The 28-year-old Midwesterner has the loquacious confidence and aw-shucks ambition of a young congressional chief of staff.
As a movie star, he is in the Armie Hammer–as-Winklevii mold. She is an L.A.-born goth locker pinup for kids who define old-school as before Instagram arrived on Droid phones.
The question before them is: What is On the Road even supposed to mean when you can Google Earth and Yelp your way across the heartland?
“I think [the Internet] gives people the urge to travel to further and more remote locations to get their kicks … to find lands that are untouched by human hand,” Hedlund says, with slang indicative of the time he spent researching the Beat muse Neil Cassady, Kerouac’s model for Moriarty.
There was the cast’s three-week Beat boot camp, which included Skype tutorials from an old Kerouac colleague about the proper way to break Benzedrine capsules with beer bottles.
In order to get into the spirit of the book, Hedlund estimates that he filled up about 100 notepads on multiple treks across the country’s surviving backroads.
Stewart was originally cast at 17 to play Mary Lou, née Luanne Henderson, the sexualized child bride worshipped and scorned by Moriarty and Paradise.
“I’m 100 percent nostalgic for times that I haven’t lived in … when there was less insignificant stimulation,”Stewart says, tapping her foot with nervous energy, jangling the copper bangles around her wrists, folding her T-shirt with her hands and mostly looking down.
“If you’re not watching a TV show or downloading something, you’re bored,” she adds. “Back in the day, there was less to do, people had to use their minds.”
Stewart speaks infrequently and with caution, cognizant that even her most banal sentences are parsed with vice presidential scrutiny, or at least NBA All-Star. After all, most basketball franchises can’t sell merchandise like Team Edward.
Hedlund, whose previous big credit was Tron: Legacy, handles most of the talking — staying true to the dynamic of the film.
“I’ve always romanticized the late ’40s and ’50s — the cars, jazz, the open roads and lack of pollution,” he says, business-casual in a navy blue dress shirt, the top button unbuttoned; his chest is nearly hairless. “Now there are more vehicles, less hitchhikers, more billboards and power lines and stuff.
“People wrote wonderful long letters that took months to receive, and now everything is email. ”
Both reiterate the idea that the book’s timelessness is immutable. Even though a contemporary Kerouac could have seen Cassady’s conquests on Facebook, the actors point out that young people will always be hypnotized by the amphetamine prose and intoxicating ideas of freedom and rebellion.
“Anybody that wants to walk out that door and leave home for a few months and rely on themselves instead of fate might have some interesting stories to tell,” Hedlund says.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a point when there aren’t a group of people who have varied expectations of what they want from fate. You gravitate toward those people and you do things you couldn’t do alone,” Stewart, also a big Henry Miller fan, adds. “That’s why the book has never been not popular amongst people pushing and running after something.”
We talk for a little while about the characters, their models, jazz, their Beat reading list. Inside the Actors Studio stuff — none of it is very interesting, and neither is entirely unaware of that. Then Stewart’s publicist whisks her out and she says “nice to meet you” with more sincerity than she needs to.
Hedlund talks a little more about his road trips and research. But what really stands out isn’t one of his own stories but one from Salles, the director, via Hedlund, about a pilgrimage to the Bay Area to meet Beat poet and Kerouac comrade Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“They were on the streets of ‘Frisco and they looked over and there’s cars and traffic jams, and all these billboards and signs and advertisements and bright lights,” Hedlund says, jabbing at why On the Road’s ideas are indelible yet inimitable. “Then Ferlinghetti pointed and said, ‘See … there is no more way.”
Here is a sneak peek of an interview that Kristen did with Garrett and Walter Salles at TIFF. We will post the full thing when it’s available! ❤