There is, perhaps, no worse place to discuss Jack Kerouac’s great American story of freewheeling life on the road in the ’50s than a sterile hotel suite in Toronto; still, that’s where I went to talk to Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart of “On the Road” about their North American Premiere — and while Stewart couldn’t show due to the needs of preparing for a red carpet, her co-star Hedlund didn’t have his co-star’s concerns. Hedlund plays Dean Moriarty, the book’s stand-in for Neal Cassady, the writer who, along with Kerouac and Ginsberg, epitomized the “Beat Generation.” A clear devotee of American literature, Hedlund also does a wickedly good Peter O’Toole impression; we spoke about “On the Road,” literature, sex and moviemaking.
MSN Movies: So your costar Kristen Stewart is not here because she has a wardrobe difficulty. You don’t get to pull that one, do you?
Garrett Hedlund: Nah, I can handle that in all angles. You know, Walter (Salles, director) told me before the premiere, he’s like, “I know this place we’re going to ’cause of ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ Just wear a shirt.”
And then the publicist gets in there and she’s like, “You are not wearing just a shirt. We got these suits for you and then everything.” So I get it from all angles within that. That’s why this morning they wanted me to wear something. I threw on my pants and my boots and throw on a button-up to appease everybody.
I mean, I realize that you’re putting on an expensive suit to walk down the red carpet for portraying a man who’s happiest in a flannel and jeans.
(Laughs) Well, you know, I’m not portraying him on the red carpet.
Unlike almost every other novel this book has three separate layers of existence. It’s got the book itself, there’s the lives it chronicles, and relates in fictional form, and, rarely for any book, there is an object, the original text or scroll the Kerouac had, his endless roll of paper. And I’m really curious about your relationship with each of those three things — when did you encounter the book first, how much life research did you do, and did you track down any copies of the original manuscript?
I first read the book when I was in high school, and that’s after just say having read your English class, creative writing class obligations onto those ones and then you start getting into F. Scott and then you start getting into J.D. Salinger because when I was growing up, English wasn’t my favorite subject, but I grew up on a farm. Once I had started creative writing and World Lit and everything it kind of opened me up. And I think a lot of it was from “Brave New World” because the idea of what Aldous Huxley was doing was something, it wasn’t just a story. It was something that you saw written a hundred years ago and it was all falling into place. It was almost like Nostradamus in a way, and this whole thing about socialism, totalitarianism…
A drug-controlled populace …
Yeah, yeah, with the Soma and everything, and getting into thought control and all this and what the future’s turning into and then you read something like “On the Road” where it’s like there’s these genius minds that almost seem like they’re predicting all this stuff as well in a way, with Keroucac saying: “I came to New York as you teach me how to write and how long ago that was. See? Everything’s fine. God exists, and we know time. Everything since the goddamn Greeks have been predicted wrong. It’s all just this. I know people. I know America. I can go anywhere and get what I want because I know America.” And within this there was such a confidence within how things were gonna be and how things can be that it inspired me so much within the focus that Kerouac had and the concentration he had in terms of being able to account for everything that’s said by the people around him, or at least to his recollection. And just that made me sort of admire … that if I just wrote 10 pages a day for one year that I could have some wonderful things that inspire you in the routine. Just keep accounting for your last nights or the obstacles you run into throughout your daily life, if you just write them down where your mind’s at within that, that it’s going to be interesting within years from now when you look back upon it and see where your mind was at within then. That’s funny because Peter Bogdanovich had wrote a quote before that said nothing to me right now is of any interest; only when it’s in the past. It’s not just when we’re writing about say a conversation right now and everything. It’s in the present we’re just kind of talking and in the past, when it’s in the past, our mind’s work like that then and I thought I was an idiot back then or I thought I was uneducated or not able to sort of have thoughts like that crossed through my mind. In terms of the book, I first read that edited version because the scroll version didn’t come out until ’57, or I mean 2007.
And it was wonderful to be able, I actually went to the New York museum where the scroll was being exhibited there and got to walk around, and this is right before Walt’s, it was right after Walter cast me on the film. It was like late fall of New York and I got to go there and see all Kerouac’s notepads and see the scroll and admire that. And then when I got the scroll version to read through it and see some of the rawer piece of material that were cut out due to censorship. So that was really interesting and also the fact that me and Walter were excited that things within that Jose was now able to add and infuse into the script, our present script. But even when I first read it, and that was because of Walter’s hard work that the prior times make the documentary. So the scroll version was great because a lot of the material that Dean has said was able to be infused into the script to where many people that aren’t familiar with the scroll version would be like, “I have to go back and read the book. I don’t remember that part.”
In terms of what I got to do for research was first and foremost go to San Francisco when I hadn’t been at the end of 2007 and early 2008 and go to the Beat museum and acquire all the — well City Lights bookstore was our first stop and because I’d love the footage of Neal and Ginsberg in the basement with people all around them and Neal being a little crazy having a cigarette and you know … It’s quite classic.
It amazes me that store is still there. I lived in San Francisco for seven years. Just the fact that you can go there.
Well, it’s one of those where you walk in and you sort of feel, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s haunted but you can feel the spirits of this. You feel when you go down to the basement of City Lights Bookstore you can feel all the…
It’s easier to feel connected to a literary tradition in City Lights than it is a Barnes and Noble.
Yeah, yeah. (Laughs) And also the materials you can get there are materials that you won’t find at a Barnes and Noble. That’s what they offer you there, and what everybody else respects in City Lights Bookstore in order to carry their materials there. But walking into the basement feels holy. Going across to the Beat museum and acquiring different things like Neal’s papers from juvenile hall, letters that he wrote. And that’s when he initially went out to New York was really to sort of meet these writer cats, sort of check out the town, sort of possibly get a chance to attend Columbia and become the great writer he wanted to. Within that and in those days I got to spend a lot of that time with a video camera on those nights just interviewing bums. You’re either asking them what they felt about the Beat generation or their travels just to get from the east to the west. I was talking to a guy from Maine that took a train the whole way and in every town that he stopped in he got nabbed with vagrancy. And there was another guy who’s life was torn — from running a cheese shop in Monterey and now he’s on the streets and on the front porch of a bank right next door to Jack in the Box and I go over to get him burgers and all he wants is water and I give him the burgers and he gives them to another bum. And then once further along when the film was seeming like it was possibly going to get to be made, me and Walter took a train trip up to ‘Frisco to sit with John Cassady, Neal’s son, and I had a notepad full of questions and got to talk to John for five, six hours in his backyard sort of just hearing rare stories nobody got to hear and hearing stories of this man he loved so much was his father. Then we drove over to Berkeley to meet with Beat writer Mike McClure and sit down with him and have cheese and wine and you go downstairs and you see pictures of him and Bob Dylan and Ginsberg all smoking cigarettes on the street and you feel full. And I went over to London to visit with Caroline Cassady and sat down in her home outside of Heathrow airport. I’d missed my flight and we sat there and I read her some of the writings that I was doing and she showed me old pictures of Neal and pictures of her. So that’s incredible, and then it was just all about reading everything. Neal Cassady’s “First Third” was essentially his childhood, which was very kind of personal. All of this letters that have been published that he wrote … those are very personal and then you start sort of seeing the form of which he was writing and you start over the years trying to express yourself in that way in letters that I would write to Walter when the film wasn’t being made. If I had went out and had a crazy night, I’d be able to wake up in the morning and write to Walter: “I can’t go on with getting down this recollection of past things. So to start it off: This what happened, blah, blah, blah. And I walked in this store and this was playing and this was going on, the pool table was alive,” and then Walter would write back a message that seemed like a very big smile. And then eventually when we were able to fly out to Montreal to start filming it was just we all had to snap ourselves, pinch ourselves, be like, “We’re f&*king filming ‘On the Road.'”
It was certainly a long genesis, but very briefly, how hilarious is it that you have escape to Quebec and Alberta to film 1950s America?
(Laughs) There’s a lot of history there. In terms of this it comes down to producers, production companies and stuff now to be able to, you know. This is why, because “On the Road” could never made really because budgetary issues, a green(light) on budget and getting the money to do something like this, to have all the period piece cars, to go through all the cities, to travel across country and to do the route that these guys did is, you either got to it with nothing and a handheld camera or you got to do it with, in the grand scheme of this five year adventure, 100 million dollars. And so in terms of us having (our financing and) Walter directing, you want it to be authentic but still we all have a common goal to be able to make it and to accomplish this project which inspired so many and inspired Walter so passionately that he was so devoted that he drove cross country twice and years before making the film and acquiring a documentary called “Searching For On the Road” which he got to interview all these people. And I think if he hadn’t done that it would’ve been easier to walk away from within all the years of trying to make it.
It was a combination of not just a for the project but also a more intimate understanding of it that probably empowered him to make it better?
Yeah. Once you become connected not just by your connection or feeling towards the book but now your connections to the people that loved and were involved in the work, loved these cats and were involved in the book themselves, so there’s a holy feeling within that that you had the pleasure to be in their company, you know? And that’s obviously what I felt tremendously as well.
The film, I mean there’s adultery, there’s sex, there’s nudity. Most of the time in American films when sex comes up people go, “Tee-hee” and hide behind their hand like they’re 14 years old, and in most American films sex is something you don’t have with a vampire or do have with a pie. Is it refreshing to get a script that is about the most important area of human psychology that film never seems to talk about?
Yeah, because when we see sex in films, like you said, it’s either comedic or it’s completely, you know it’s like something from … what’s the Jared Leto film with Jennifer Connelly?
“Requiem For a Dream.”
“Requiem For a Dream.” Or it’s stuff like that where you’re just like…
Where it’s humiliating. It’s either funny and humiliating or grisly and terrifying.
Yeah, and so within this one because within these guys sort of experiencing in this during this time of sort of warwhen everything was kind of frowned upon with them going against the current and trying to see what they could find and either come outside with their tornado unscathed or come outside the tornado slightly scathed but much more wise. This was something where they’re practicing with the drugs, Benzedrine, grass, sex, jazz. It was a moment of trying to be alive and feel every moment and to know that you were living it and you weren’t guilty of having inhibitions and fears. Instead, you’re so filled with, I still don’t think “prude-ity” is a word but it should be, “prude-ity” that you’re (not) embracing life and life is short and there’s no regrets at the end of the day.
It’s kind of this accidental American Zen, right? You give up things you’re told you’re supposed to want and instead live in the moment.
Yeah. I always kind of, ’cause Ethan Hawke, when I read this book it’s because that. But when I was in high school, I was such a fan of J.D. Salinger and tried to read everything I could of his and with “The Catcher In the Rye,” I didn’t read it in class because I wasn’t really as focused then and once the summer came and I was so passionate about reading and writing at that point I read it in eight hours, and I was like, “Why didn’t I read this in school?” Well if I did I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much as I did right now. If I was quizzed on this and tested on it, I might not have had the same appreciation of the book as I do from having sit down after cheating my way through it during the course.
And now reading it under a lamp light with a cup of instant coffee going to the microwave every two hours because every ten pages right before maybe I close my eyes and go to bed, he has to hit me with something wonderful. And from coming out of that, I’d read in Book magazine that Ethan Hawke had said he was a Salinger-philiac and had apparently had the first 25 pages memorized, and then I was a little jealous. I was like, “Why don’t I have the first 25 pages memorized?” But in his book “Ash Wednesday,” ’cause he had written this book, and he said a line in there which has stuck with me ever since that said, “The only thing in life worth learning is humility. Shatter the ego rather than dance through the perfect contradictions of life and death.” And to me, that was something that I empathize with these guys had and what that enhanced within how I approach my daily life was that if I sort of don’t give a s%&t about what anybody thinks about what I’m doing when I focus on what I want to do and also have the time to sort of let loose and have fun as well, then I can dance through the streets while I watch everyone else walking with their hands in their pockets with their heads down, and won’t they be jealous? Or won’t they be envious that they wish they could be that free? And these guys kind of were the epitome of that.
It’s been said that nothing kills the book faster than putting it in the canon, that nothing destroys a young person’s enthusiasm for a book more than its presence on a required reading list. Do you feel like this film is a chance to kind of reclaim the book a little bit and remove some of the veneration from it and sort of make it a lively, scrappy, sweaty thing again instead of a museum piece?
Well I think it’s kind of a thing that has been such a holy little book over the years. I mean Jesus, Kerouac died with just around 90 bucks in his bank account. I mean he wasn’t rich then. Now everybody knows Kerouac, or they don’t — they ask “What are you working on? Kerouac’s ‘On the Road?’ And that astounds me, but it doesn’t because my father wouldn’t know who Kerouac is; he’s a farmer, you know? He knows what “Ag Week” (magazine) is because he knows his agricultural information. So but within this, I think it’s a choice just like everybody else: If you cared to do it, you can do it. DVDs are around now, because you can’t watch every film, because we’re trying to keep up with all the films that are coming on right now and we want to see the old Peter O’Toole films and we want to see the old Catherine Hepburn films, and Peter O’Toole when I first worked with him I was like it’s so hard trying to see all the films, the great ones you did — because he gave “The Ruling Class.” And he said, “That’s the benefit of DVD my boy, if you can’t see it, you can.” And that’s kind of the same with “On the Road.” It’s not going to be in high schools because it’s not that material. You can do “Great Gatsby” because there’s a sense of romanticism within it that doesn’t get too…
Yeah, and those can be taught (in a way) you can understand by an English teacher: “When Gatsby catches the clock off the mantle when he’s sitting with Daisy Buchanan it’s because he wants to stop time.” I wouldn’t have thought about that when I read it. I’m glad that it was kind of brought up within the class and so I could think of things as kind of romantic, as romantically as that and start realizing those things on my own, recognize it in texts after that. But I think “On the Road” will always kind of live on within, well now that it’s a film — Jesus, this is the first time I’ve thought about this — ’cause now that it’s finally a film and will become a DVD it’s almost like the whole empire of “On the Road” is broadened in a way. It’s not just a book anymore. Now people don’t have to take a week to sort of read this book and they can take two hours and get a sense of it, but it’s still “On the Road” and it’s a story that’s really wonderfully and hopefully at the end of the day they’ll see the film and go back and read the book because I have plenty of friends that do that tenaciously.
So just really briefly, you feel like you’ve created the literary equivalent of the gateway drug?
It leads to the harder stuff, man. You start watching the movie and the next thing you know you’re sitting there with the book.
(Laughs) I don’t know about that …