The Old-School Charm Of Mr Garrett Hedlund
How a Midwestern farmhand who prefers a typewriter to Facebook ended up the talk of Hollywood
Mr Garrett Hedlund grins. “OK, let me guess how long this interview will take,” he says. “I bet I’ll get within 10 seconds!”
We’ve just found a little office at Milk Studios in Hollywood, and the star of Tron: Legacy and Friday Night Lights is clearly in a game mood. If he wasn’t here, he says, he’d only be putting up curtains in his house in Silverlake. So there’s no time limit on this interview. A chat with MR PORTER sounds like fun to him. So he plonks his feet on the table and rubs his hands together. “Go ahead, start the clock. I’ll David Blaine it, you watch!”
Mr Hedlund has reasons to be cheerful. Things are going rather well for him right now. At just 33, he’s managed to catch the eye of the Coen brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), Mr Walter Salles (On The Road), Ms Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), Mr Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Mr Joe Wright (Pan). His next three projects might be the best of his career – there is some early Oscar buzz for co-star Ms Mary J Blige – and they are all coming out in a glut. First up there is Mudbound, which premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance and was subsequently picked up by Netflix for $12.5m, in which Mr Hedlund plays an American WWII soldier who returns home to the ugliness of racism and poverty in the Mississippi Delta. The film features a brutal scene involving the Ku Klux Klan which was supposed to depict a shameful chapter in the nation’s past rather than echo its present.
Sticking with the timely subject matter, Mr Hedlund next plays the lead in Burden, about a real-life Klansman who broke away from the KKK and sought refuge in a black church community.
Then, with a tentative release date in January, there’s HBO’s six-part groundbreaking Mosaic, by Mr Steven Soderbergh – a complicated-sounding, interactive “branching narrative” in which audiences can choose to follow the story from the perspective of either Mr Hedlund’s character or that of his co-star, Ms Sharon Stone. (Mr Hedlund can say little more about this one as the plot details are being kept intriguingly under wraps.)
As we talk, it becomes apparent quite quickly just why Mr Hedlund is so popular. In a Kardashian world of manufactured celebrity, he is a reprieve, a welcome throwback to a bygone era. He has country manners and old-fashioned charm. He’s neither on social media nor in US Weekly. He reads novels by the fireside and smokes Marlboro reds. So we should start his story at the beginning.
“All right then, you’re the boss,” he says, in a rich country burr. “I was born a small black child…” He cracks up laughing. “Have you seen The Jerk?”
He grew up on a farm in Minnesota, in the Scandinavian diaspora there, with the blond locks and Fargo accents. His late father, an ex-military man, owned a beef farm over 1,000 acres, near the flyspeck town of Roseau, about 10 miles south of Canada, and Mr Garrett Hedlund was the youngest of three kids, raised on tractors and ploughs.
“I learned a lot on that farm,” he says. “Just little things like ‘cut away from you’ and ‘don’t eat yellow snow.’” He laughs. “My dad would march me into the woods, spin me around and go and hide, to teach me how to get out of the forest by myself. Things like that.” He became a good shot and a handy carpenter. Which is why he’s doing most of the renovations on his Silverlake house himself, from pouring concrete to building closets.
But farm life can get dull. “I’d break into convenience stores with two flathead screwdrivers and steal cartons of cigarettes to sell on the school bus for $2 a pop,” he says. “Stupid things. Life in a small town! If I didn’t get out of there, I’d be on some sort of gurney or in cuffs by now.”
He seems too nice to get into any serious trouble, but nevertheless, he left town at 14. His parents had divorced when he was a baby, and his mother was in Phoenix, Arizona, so young Mr Hedlund went to live with her, trading the coldest place in the US for the hottest. And he liked it. His high school had 4,000 people, twice the population of Roseau. And he could do things there he’d never done before, like go rollerblading with girls or go to the movies, which in Minnesota would mean a 50-mile round trip.
The acting bug set in early. He found himself asking questions in literature class and writing to the agents of the actors he admired, after looking them up on this new site, imdb.com. Before long, he was flying to Los Angeles for auditions, invariably returning to Phoenix empty-handed, some 25 times in all. But never disheartened. The plan was to save money doing odd jobs and then move out to LA when he was 18. And he did – though he could only muster $500 in the end, so the budget was strict. He ended up on a sofa in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, which he shared with two used-car salesmen. He was offered a gig flipping burgers, but turned it down. “I didn’t want the manager to say I couldn’t go to some audition that could change my life.”
It was the right choice. Within a few months, Mr Hedlund was sitting at a table in Malta with Messrs Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox and Peter O’Toole – his first ever acting job was playing Mr Brad Pitt’s cousin in Troy. He was 18.
Mr Hedlund could talk all day about Troy, about Mr O’Toole in particular, who rather took a shine to him, and of whom he does a brilliant impression. “He gave me a bag of weed for my 19th birthday,” he says. “‘This is the good shit, my boy!’” Then there was the time, at the premiere in New York, when Mr Hedlund offered him a steadying arm, and Mr O’Toole tried to push him down the stairs. Or the time in Malta, as he struggled up the stairs smoking a cigarette, when he was asked if he’d ever thought about quitting smoking. “Peter said: ‘Maybe I should quit stairs!’”
Mr Hedlund’s not short of starry stories, and his resumé glitters with big names. After Troy he was offered a two-picture deal that would have paid him handsomely, but also put him opposite Ms Paris Hilton in House Of Wax – so he knocked it back and chose the less moneyed, more interesting path. And he met many of his heroes on the way.
Take Friday Night Lights, for example, in which he was cast as Mr Tim McGraw’s son. “I grew up singing his songs on the tractor,” he says of the singer-songwriter. Now they’re close. Mr McGraw asked him for acting advice, “which really helped my confidence”, and years later, in Country Strong, with Ms Gwyneth Paltrow, Mr McGraw returned the favour. Playing a country singer, Hedlund needed Mr McGraw’s help. “I stayed at his cabin for three months, just sitting on the rocking chair, learning to play and sing. It was incredible.”
These skills come in handy. On Tron, he’d jam with Mr Jeff Bridges, another of Mr Hedlund’s uncanny impressions. “We’d harmonise in empty alleyways in Vancouver after dinners. Jeff makes everyone smile. He has such wonderment. I’ve never heard him say a negative thing and that’s how I aspire to hold myself.”
Tron also taught him how to ride motorbikes, and only last year he went riding through the Dolomites in Italy on holiday. “I was scared shitless, being that high up, with snow on the ground,” he says. “I still say, it was the dumbest greatest thing I did.”
His latest films, Mudbound and Burden, didn’t add to his skill set in the same way, but they did force him to reckon with the full horror of American racism. They were shooting Burden in the run-up to the election last year, when the subject felt more relevant than ever. “In the South, you see the confederate flag everywhere. And we heard that the Klan was putting flyers on doorsteps in Philadelphia. So we’d have meetings on set to recognise what was happening in the country. That’s never happened for me before.”
Some actors are vocal about politics, particularly these days. But not Mr Hedlund, that rare millennial without a social media account. What’s the aversion, exactly? He prefers face-to-face interaction.
“I grew up in a region of visitors. It was a thing. My dad would turn the tractor off, get the Milwaukee Lights [beers] out and bullshit for hours. Now, with cellphones, everyone knows where you’ve been and what you’ve done. So by the time you meet somebody you don’t have anything to talk about.”
I tell him he’s a man out of time, a period piece, and he beams. “Thank you! I still go to the post office. I have AOL. I did get an iPad, but all I have on it is some farming app. So when I’m on a plane, I can thrash a field.”
A typewriter? “Yes! And vintage motorbikes.” He laughs and does a voice. “You know I never go anywhere without my shoehorn, my bowie knife and a canoe!”
It’s a nice image: Mr Hedlund, the country boy with his guitar, chopping logs for winter and writing his journal longhand. And it may not be far off. He lives alone for now, not even a furry friend. And certainly no prospective Ms Hedlund. “I don’t get struck by cupid often,” he says. “I don’t have a naive heart. My parents divorced, so that has an effect.”
Besides, work is his priority now. The mellow ranch-hand front belies a driven actor who feels he’s at the peak of his powers. “I have a fearlessness and a bravery where I’ll give everything and care with all my heart but still not give a shit, which is a fine balance. So I couldn’t be more excited for the future.”
It feels like a fitting note on which to end. So I stop the clock, and ask Mr Hedlund to guess.
“I’m going to say an hour thirty and… 64 seconds!”
The clock reads 1.30.51. He’s 13 seconds off.
“I told you I’d David Blaine it!” He laughs and slaps the table, and heads out for a smoke. The sun is shining on Hollywood Boulevard today. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.
Mudbound premieres on Netflix and selected cinemas on 17 November