Sporting a leather jacket, a beanie and black jeans on a hot summer day in Cannes, Garrett Hedlund resembles Dean Moriarty, the Neal Cassady-inspired character he portrays in Walter Salles’ movie of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
When he removes his sunglasses his eyes are two red balls.
He and his co-star Sam Riley (Sal Paradise aka Kerouac himself) had tied one on the evening before in honour perhaps of the men they portray – though hopefully they live a little longer.
Cassady died at 41, Kerouac at 47. Interestingly, junkie guru William S. Burroughs (played by Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee in the film) lived to the ripe old age of 83.
“I am for the most part, responsible and I prefer a healthy lifestyle,” notes 27-year-old Los Angeles-based Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Country Strong), a fit specimen who once considered a career as a professional baseball player.
“But I know that given Neal’s craziness and that he’d worked in the railways, it’s sort of symbolic the way that he passed. A bunch of young bucks came up to him saying ‘Come on man, let’s drink. You are Neal Cassady, you are Dean Moriarty, I know how you can play, let’s do this.’ So they got him really f…ed up and he ended up walking the railroad tracks and he collapsed and died.”
Riley may not be athletic though today he’s in better shape and can clearly drink Hedlund under the table.
“I’m from Yorkshire,” the 32-year-old boasts cheekily. Even if Riley had so deftly embodied another hard liver (Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control) he felt a huge pressure to understand the motivations of the iconic and complex Kerouac who, as he points out, drank himself to death around the same time. (Cassady died in February 1968, Kerouac in October 1969.)
Initially Kerouac had wanted to play Sal in the cinematic adaptation of his novel and hoped Marlon Brando would star as Moriarty and help get the film off the ground.
Though a movie version of the seemingly unfilmable road story of their real life crisscrossing America in the late 40s failed to eventuate, that put all the more pressure on Salles’ actors.
“When Johnny Depp was saying how he was glad that he was too old to play Kerouac because there would be too much pressure, I thought ‘Well, if he is saying that how will I fare’,” Riley says.
“Although I had a lot of anxiety and wasn’t sure which way it would go, I couldn’t say no, could I? Any young actor would kill for the opportunity.”
A former aspiring musician who has an uncomfortable relationship with fame, Riley now lives in Berlin with his wife, German actress Anna Maria Lara, who is far more famous there than he is – and he likes it that way.
He is, however, hugely talented and On The Road has given him the opportunity to shine.
“Sam has the intelligent sense of a writer,” Salles says. “The movie’s about young people trying to define what’s going on, but it’s also about someone trying to write a book about this process. When you are transmitting the details of the story you have to have an actor who is completely focused and who has a humanist quality and the ability to convey what’s going on.”
Hedlund too was a natural choice. A fan of the novel since he read it at 17, he is a big talker like Cassady and writes prose poetry himself. Salles met him in 2006 when he was casting the film.
“Garrett had travelled from Minnesota to Los Angeles and he wasn’t so known at the time but he’d written such a beautiful piece about the journey itself that I realised he had the sensibility for this material,” he explains.
“His tests for the role were brilliant.” An aficionado of road movies, Salles had filmed The Motorcycle Diaries based on a screenplay by Jose Rivera, who writes the screenplay here.
Aiming for meticulous detail, he took off on a road trip across America with Hedlund driving a ’49 Hudson, as Kerouac and Cassady had in the novel, while Salles filmed the second unit landscapes.
“We broke down in Texas, we broke down in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico,” Hedlund recalls with a chuckle. “We had nine different mechanics along the road.”
Most important for the movie though was the boot camp where the actors immersed themselves in Beat culture, Riley says.
“I am a Yorkshireman and Garrett is from Minnesota,” he explains.
“We couldn’t have had more different upbringings and experiences, but for whatever reason we were chosen to play these two guys at the moment when the movie finally got made.”
Via Mr Hedlund