Young adults today often search for liberating, carefree journeys to embark on after experiencing difficult periods in their lives, and that was no different for Americans living during the Beat Generation in the late 1940s. Trying to move on from their experiences during World War II, the characters in the new adventure drama ‘On the Road,’ which is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac and directed by Walter Salles, emotionally embody those struggles. While the characters yearn for a stable lifestyle and the American dream of a job and family, they also are driven by their desire to explore America first and experience diverse adventures.
‘On the Road’ follows young New York City writer Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley), whose life is ultimately redefined by the arrival of Dean Moriarty (portrayed by Garett Hedlund), a free-spirited, fearless Westerner. Dean and his girlfriend, Marylou (played by Kristen Stewart), are living a carefree style, and urge Sam to join them on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism surrounding them. They travel across the country in search of themselves, through the use of drugs, jazz and poetry in the aftermath of World War II.
Along the way, the trio’s pursuit of the pure essence of experience is continuously shaped by their interactions with the people they meet along the way, including Camille (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst). Dean ultimately marries and has children with Camille, feeling that he should settle down, but still continues to live his care-free lifestyle with Marylou and Sal.
Hedlund generously took the time to sit down during a roundtable interview recently in New York City to discuss filming ‘On the Road.’ Among other things, the actor discussed how he prepared to take on the role of Dean Moriarty; how he related to, and what he took away from, the character; and how he developed chemistry with Stewart during their rehearsal period.
Question (Q): What was your favorite part about filming this movie?
Garrett Hedlund (GH): I think it was all the opportunities that I got to have, meeting the real-life people from the book, like the family members or the writers that I respect, who are still around today. We got to meet in preparation for this. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Also, working with Walter, who I think is the greatest. All the cast members were undeniable company. I think it was unfair to have this great of an experience.
Q: How did you mentally prepare to play a character who has zero responsibility to anything other than his momentary desires?
GH: From the beginning, obviously because Dean Moriarty is fashioned after Neal Cassady, I just tried to study up all I could on Neal. I read his book, Kerouac’s books and everything that speaks of Neal, like his letters, and see how his thought process was. They’re all very personal, so you get such an insight into who he was, and where he’d been.
At the beginning of filming, Walter had said to Sam, you’re not playing Jack Kerouac, you’re playing Sal Paradise. To me, he said, you’re not playing Neal Cassady, you’re playing Dean Moriarty, so let the unpealing process begin. When Kerouac wrote this, it was half experience, half imagination. So feel free to let your imagination take the reins, and infuse it with this spontaneous book. I don’t know how to particularly describe playing someone like that, but that’s what we tried to do.
Q: He almost feels like a mythological character at times. Did you find any qualities from people you knew, and draw on that?
GH: I’m sure I did. But I think it was more in terms of the scenarios that were much more mischievous. I know plenty of people who have gotten away with some of the wildest shenanigans. I don’t know anyone in particular.
Q: How did you find the energy? t was incredible to watch you on screen.
GH: A lot of coffee.
Q: What did you find most intriguing about your character?
GH: I think it was his never ending yearn for journey and knowledge and wisdom and intelligence. There’s a reason all these great minds surrounded this genius mind. He was the igniter.
This man knew so much on how to connect with every single person. But he could see the characteristics they had in an instant, and he could acknowledge which ones he had that were very similar, and a connection. I liked his ability to connect with absolutely everything, and win everybody’s hearts, because he would only speak to them in that matter. He would never try to seem like he was better than anybody.
I liked how he could relate and communicate. There’s a side to trying to understand everybody, and not being so yourself, but being relatable. I think it was his side that no matter who it was, he could relate to them.
There’s a story that I had read of him, that he was in a car, on the way to Tucson. He had given this mother and her daughter a ride, and I think the daughter had a mental handicap. The whole time he spent in the front seat, laughing with her, and she’s laughing. After he dropped them off in Tucson, she said, ‘Mom, I want to marry that man.’ (laughs)
So it’s about making everyone around you comfortable and good and special. He made everyone feel special.
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.
Q: There seem to be different perceptions people take away from Neal Cassady. During that research period, what did you take away from him?
GH: I was always inspired by him. I’ve never had a judgmental outlook whatsoever. I never judged him on what anyone thought was wrong with his choices. I think that’s how Kerouac was as well. In the book, he never really voices his opinion on what he thinks of Dean this or Dean doing that. He just writes what is, and leaves it to the reader to form their own opinion of if they think this is appropriate or not.
I think that’s more of what I did. I respect the crazy stories more than the mundane life stories. I appreciate the story of going in the ditch much more than getting somewhere safely.
Kerouac inspired me as well. When I read ‘On the Road,’ I was attracted to this character. He has this magnetism that brings everyone around him, because he brings the excitement.
Q: Are there any moments that you had any kind of self reflection?
GH: In the film, like with the suicide scene, he contemplates suicide, and Camille stopped him, and wouldn’t let him do it. He’s a guy looking to have everything going right for him in a way. When we were filming, everyone would ask how I was doing, like when I was so beat up, or when we were in Mexico. I would say, I look like sh*t, but my spirits are high.
No matter what, he always looked like his spirits were so high. Never once you would think this man would be sad for not having a family. That’s when he realized his suppression of all these feelings of wanting to have a family and loss of parents and search for a father.
That’s when I got it, when someone finally shows you their true colors. My self reflection was, am I always pretending that everything’s going right in life, when all the while, it’s not?
The one thing he wanted is family, even though it was great he got to go everywhere he wanted by himself. He would steal these cars, and listen to jazz and smoke grass the whole time in the front seat, with a great girl, but really he wanted someone to hold him down and someone to provide for. He wanted it to be a woman he loved and children he cherished.
Q: You were naked for a lot of the shoot. Was that awkward to shoot?
GH: No, we got really drunk before. (laughs) No, I’m kidding. It would have been a lot easier if that wasn’t near beer, which tastes like watered-down ginger ale. It’s always awkward.
Everyone asks if it was awkward to be naked in front of Sam or Kristen. It’s like, they’re the least of the worries. It’s more the man with the mustache holding the sound boom right there, trying not to look. But you see he’s catching a look once in a while. That’s the more awkward part right there, with all the camera guys and crew.
Q: Can you relate at all to the sense of disillusionment of these characters?
GH: I don’t know, it’s different times. That time for me is the period I romanticize the most, just in the ways of communications and transport back then. But they were coming out of World War II, and now we have Afghanistan and 9/11. I don’t feel out of place at all, or that there’s no room for change. I think these guys wanted to redefine their future. That’s all that I can empathize with, the sense that there’s still time to do that.
Times are always changing. Like back then, it was jazz, and no one thought it would be any different than that for the rest of their lives. Now, there’s all this other kind of music coming out.
Q: Did you feel that you could relate to your character at all, and did you reflect on any of your own experiences while playing him?
GH: There was a lot I could relate to. I was raised in the Midwest, as well-him in Colorado, and me in Minnesota. I don’t know, I obviously never stole 500 cars before I was 15. My father was around, so I wasn’t alone, although sometimes you’d prefer to be.
I think just reading his books of letters, sometimes the honesty he put out, in terms of his experience and his journeys, I question myself if they were similar to what I did. That’s maybe the only way. I didn’t spend my childhood in juvenile hall, so it was more imagination, and that helped with the spirit.
Written by: Karen Benardello