The Curse of Experience: Garrett Hedlund on ‘On the Road’

Tackling the serious personal issues of a real-life character with a living family, and an update on TRON 3.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

If the movie On the Road is your first introduction to the works of Jack Kerouac, you might want a little background. Dean Moriarty, the character Garrett Hedlund plays, was actually based on Neal Cassady. Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a stand-in for Kerouac himself, follows Dean for inspiration for his next book. In the course of many spontaneous travels, Sal would witness Dean’s romances with Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), both based on real women, with the latter of whom Dean/Neal had children. They also did lots of drugs. We got to chat with Hedlund after the film’s AFI Fest screening about some of Dean Moriarty’s striking moments on film, and throw in a Tron 3 question at the end.

CraveOnline: To my personality, Dean is not seductive. I see the value in staying put and I think that’s something Sal realizes by the end. Do people take a different amount of time to get to where Sal does, where you’re not seduced by going all over the place all the time?

Garrett Hedlund: I guess that’s kind of the curse of experience, I’ve always found. The more we’ve journeyed around and experienced different adventures and stuff, we only allow ourselves to say no more often because we know what the end result’s going to be. Then some still have boundaries from coast to coast and really don’t mind replicating a moment, an adventure. You’ll come to find that the end result’s always going to be different so that’s what makes saying yes a little more colorful. Do you mean in terms of not having the wonders at the beginning of the book like this one does, the yearning to get out and experience and be in the company of all these crazy cats because you feel that you’ve been there and you can do without it right now?

Yes. I know where Dean’s going and I want to go somewhere else. But the follow up is can you have a free spirit without leaving people behind, or is that just a consequence of the lifestyle?

Well, no, I don’t think all paths have to be similar when it comes to free spirit. You can be a free spirit for your whole life with the same six people in a cargo van. It’s just going to be a different route and different road. Within this, I think it starts off with Sal sort of struggling with just having finished The Town and the City really and thinking about a new book. When he encounters Dean there’s such, I think, a lightbulb that goes off in his head to where he thinks he might have the source of something much more interesting and brave than anybody’s seen, so why not document it as fast as I can in sort of a spontaneous, communicative way, down to the last detail? I think if I were to meet somebody like Dean, just with how much I like to just recreationally write or document things that I’m experiencing in my everyday life, that I would definitely follow this cat around because anything you account for which is coming out of his mouth is some wonderful story of some spinning of factual knowledge about this and that or race cars, or this and that about the Hudsons, or this and that about jazz and who’s the alto tenor, the differences between eastern jazz to western jazz and this is all because he knew it all. I think Sal wanted to stick around this guy. First off, has he found his long lost brother just after his father passes and he’s also found somebody that’s in the search for a lost father. Sal knows how to write. Dean wants to know how to write and they could really help each other. At the end of the day, they began to love each other so much to where the other one didn’t know. Sal felt his love was responsible for their brotherhood. Dean felt his love for Sal was responsible for their brotherhood but neither of them knew exactly how much the other loved the other.

One of the most powerful scenes for me is when Dean invites Camille (Kirsten Dunst) out and obviously she can’t go out with their baby. Was that a difficult scene to perform?

Well, my buddy was asking about that scene before because before these scenes, Kirsten and I had just met. This was at the very end of our shoot. She shot with us for the last four days of principal photography. All the scenes with her were our last four days

Her entire role, good times and bad?

Bad times to bad and bad times to good. Each high or low point within the story had its benefits but those scenes were emotional just because I’d already, say, met John Cassady, Neal’s son and I knew how much his children had loved him. John always wanted to say Jack can make him out to look like a real jerk once in a while but that’s Jack and his imagination. They really wanted me to show how loving their father could be once in a while and that he did have a soul and conscience. They would wait at home for their dad to come home and he would put out his bicep and all three of the kids would throw their arms on it and see who could hold on the longest while he raised up his arm. They loved their father, so to have to leave Joannie in the crib and that stuff, it affects you because you knew who it affected by having met some of the real life people.

Do you think Dean knows it’s an empty invitation in that scene?

I mean, yeah, but he was after Camille for respectability. She was such an accomplished woman, so strong, I think it kind of kept him in line once in a while. So I think he definitely knew that any moment could have been an open invitation to sort of never come back, but their undeniable love for each other is what made them be together for many, many years after that. Even through when she began to be with Jack Kerouac. Neal was always still around.

There are so many lovely vignettes in the movie where we see how each one impacts the characters. Filming which segment made the most impact on you?

I think the very end sequence in the city where Dean’s come back to Sal, because it was really at the end of our production as well. You start to think about all the years you’ve been working on getting this film made and wondering if it ever will, to meeting Sam in New York for the first time and knowing that he would be my brother for life and still wondering if we’re ever going to get this film made, and then filming it and doing all the research and rehearsals and all the jazz hours we’ve listened to in the hotel rooms together and all the beers and ciggys we drank and smoked alone in the middle of nowhere at night. All those months of production and our times alone in Mexico and times in blizzards in Chile and ‘Frisco and New Orleans, driving through the bayous and Arizona desert, all that flashes before your eyes right before you do that scene which is really I think what helped make it emotional, at least for me. Let alone it begin the coldest night that Montreal had had within 2010 and I didn’t walk inside whatsoever that night, so I definitely had some frostbite.

You were still on the set of this movie when Tron: Legacy came out. What sort of things happened for you when that came out, and have you seen the script for Tron 3 yet?

That’s one thing that was probably the hardest for me over the production of this. We were going nonstop during the weeks and then all of my weekends were to do press junkets for Tron and for Country Strong. I remember on Saturdays and Sundays in Montreal having to do 57 five to 10 minute interviews each day and lasting eight to nine hours. Then you get a little bit of rest and you wake back up sort of just shot, going straight back to a job that’s already demanding. So yeah, those were long days but I don’t know. I haven’t read the new script but I know the story of it and I think they’re just waiting to figure out the right time. Kosinski’s off. Anything I think Joe does takes about three to four years of his time, so we’ll see. We’ll see where the stars align. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel