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.