Lucas Hedges: ‘Saoirse Ronan was the most beautiful person I had ever seen on film’

Rising star on fast track to unavoidability could not turn down chance to work with Lady Bird actor

Lucas Hedges plays a recovering drug addict in Peter Hedges’s Ben is Back.

 

There are times when one actor seems to be in everything – remember the Year of Chastain? – but that ubiquity rarely involves someone so young as Lucas Hedges. In 2017, you could see him in Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He received an Oscar nomination for the first of those films. Over the now-waning Oscar season he’s turned up in Boy Erased and Ben is Back. Jonah Hill’s Mid90s is also imminent. Lucas is always good. He always wrings emotion from every scene.

“I just finished a play too,” he says. “All the movies were coming out as I was doing a play. I am now happily at a point when I am doing nothing. So I am making up for lost time.”

What does he do when he’s doing nothing?

“I am going surfing,” he says. “I had a surf trip in Hawaii with my family. I am in LA. I am following a lot of sports. That is making me really happy.”

This week Lucas, now 22, plays a recovering drug addict in Peter Hedges’s propulsive Ben is Back. The director is known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, directing Pieces of April and, increasingly, for being Lucas Hedges’s dad. I had read in earlier interviews that the actor was wary of working with his old man. 

Peter Hedges and his son, Lucas at their home in New York. File photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times
Peter Hedges and his son, Lucas at their home in New York. File photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

“Yes, I didn’t want to work with him because he was my dad and it might be uncomfortable,” he says. “But I changed my mind when I read the script. It was a great part for someone of my age and I didn’t want someone else to play it. It was as simple as that.”

The part gives Lucas a chance to flex all his acting muscles. We’ve already seen his capacity for unearthing vulnerability as a bereaved teenager in Manchester by the Sea and as a conflicted high school student in Lady Bird. The awkwardness never seems forced. He never slips into the hair-churning cliches of the James Dean impersonator. Julia Roberts offers sterling support as his mom. A few months earlier we saw Nicole Kidman as his mother in Boy Erased. Does he still get intimidated by such stars?

Lucas Hedges stars alongside Julia Roberts in Ben is Back
Lucas Hedges stars alongside Julia Roberts in Ben is Back

“Less and less. I honestly don’t feel very star-struck by people – unless I am awed by a specific connection to their work,” he says. “I have never met anyone from Harry Potter. I think if I did that would affect me.”

Hang on. He’s been in all these high-profile movies. He’s been to the Oscars. But he’s never met any of the 5,000 actors from the Harry Potter franchise?

“I once saw the girl who played Ginny [Bonnie Wright] walk down the street. That was very weird.”

Lucas Hedges really does seem that unaffected. He’s articulate. He thinks deeply about the performance. But he is happy to admit to shaking knees when spotting one of the less famous members of the Potter cast.

Do the sums. He was born the year before the first Potter book was published and raised in the opulent terraces of Brooklyn Heights. Mom is the poet and actor Susan Bruce. Dad, later Oscar-nominated for adapting About a Boy, was already a multi-hyphenated presence on Broadway and in Hollywood. There surely can have been no other career path for young Lucas.

“I was very performative as a young kid,” he says. “So they did think I’d become an actor. I loved being around my dad’s sets. My brother is in finance. They were fully supportive of his decision, but his choice to have a more standard life was the departure. We really didn’t have a conversation about my choice.”

It felt as if his brother was the one who ran away to join the circus?

“Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Ha ha!”

Lucas took a few juvenile roles before landing Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Pay very close attention and you’ll see him in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem. But Lonergan really put him on the fast track to unavoidability. I wonder if that actor and director ever explained what he saw in the young man.

“I wasn’t the character that he initially imagined,” Lucas says. “I wasn’t the obvious fit. He said he didn’t find that person and so he picked the person he most wanted to watch in a movie. I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s what he told me. So that’s what I am walking around believing in my head.”

Lucas Hedges was nominated for an Oscar for his performance alongside Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Photograph: Claire Folger, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Lucas Hedges was nominated for an Oscar for his performance alongside Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Photograph: Claire Folger, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Manchester by the Sea took the longest route to the Oscars. The film premiered to rapturous acclaim at Sundance in January of 2016 and then – as such films will – went away again before opening commercially to more hurrahs a full 10 months later. He had a lot of time to ponder the Oscar buzz. Lucas admits guiltily that he had the occasional peek at the awards websites and allowed himself to anticipate the nomination for best supporting actor. But none of that could have prepared him for the evening itself. What surprised him?

“I think the humanity of it,” he says. “Like everything else it’s just a show that they’re trying to make look good. A dancer would trip. A wire would catch on the cameraperson. Growing up, it felt like Mount Olympus. There was a dude two rows in front of me sleeping.”

And he’ll never tell us who that was. Right?

“It was the coming down to Earth of it all,” he says, ignoring my question. “Why are we not floating on clouds across the Earth? That’s what I thought the Oscars would be.”

By the time of the 2017 Oscars, Lucas was already well on the way to becoming the busiest young man in Hollywood. Lady Bird and Three Billboards would score multiple nominations a year later. We are legally obliged to demand that he say something nice about Saoirse Ronan. Hedges was delightful as the nervous young fellow who catches Ronan’s eye in Lady Bird.

“Honestly, I was choosing between that and going back to school,” he says. The opportunity to work with Ronan made up his mind.

“Saoirse wasn’t in Harry Potter,” he says. “But she represents a similar place in my childhood brain. She represents a far-off, magical place. The idea of getting to play her high-school boyfriend was a big pull away from school. She was somebody I was nervous to meet.”

Nervous? Really? He was more nervous meeting her than, say, Kidman?

“Because of what she meant to me growing up. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen on film or TV as a kid.”

Nothing does a better job of making you feel old than hearing an adult talk about admiring Saoirse Ronan when he was a little boy. That role in Lady Bird offered Lucas a relief from the misery that surrounds him in most other roles. He admits that the decision to take some time off was driven in part by a desire to work out “what effect these roles have on me”. Boy Erased, concerning gay conversion therapy, and Ben is Back, which digs at opioid addiction, paint an unhappy picture of the modern world.

“I am not a very political person, but I like to think that the darkest times inspire people,” he says. “I hope there will be a new generation that will be very present. There is something happening environmentally that may be irreversible.”

He sighs a resigned sigh.

“But I am grateful to be alive. I think it’s still a good time to be alive.”

Five busy male actors under 25

Lucas Hedges (22)
Already has a CV to die for after Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Will also be seen this year in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and opposite Shia LeBeouf in Honey Boy.

Timothée Chalamet (23)
The obvious pick. The New Yorker secured an Oscar nomination for Call Me By Your Name and remains madly busy. Plays Henry V in David Michod’s Shakespeare adaptation The King. Also in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.

Ansel Elgort (24)
Broke through in smash hit The Fault in Our Stars. Consolidated in Baby Driver. Currently finishing up as lead in John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Tom Holland (22)
Was there anything else to be done with Spider-Man? The English actor answered that emphatically with a delightful turn in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The sequel looms. Also plays opposite Daisy Ridley in Chaos Walking.

Ashton Sanders (23)
The kid from Moonlight returns in 2019. He is the lead in an already acclaimed adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Appears opposite John Goodman in the sci-fi epic Captive State.

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