It's not a stretch to say that many of the contemporary notions in America about what art does and how artists live were formed in the 1950s and the 1960s. Postwar bohemia, the rise of rock-'n'-roll, the emergence of the counterculture—at first resistant, then demonstrative, then angry, then sneering—all helped fan the flames of the idea that popular culture means something (precisely what remains a subject of constant debate), as well as the belief that committing oneself to a life of making art might possibly be akin to doing one's incremental part in changing the world (also a subject continually debated).
Of course, Garrett Hedlund—actor in films such as Friday Night Lights (2004), Four Brothers (2005), Georgia Rule (2007), Country Strong (2010), and Tron: Legacy (2010); amateur photographer; budding musician; and native Minnesotan—wasn't a part of any of those cultural revolutions, nor was he even alive yet to experience them. But in a pair of new films that offer fictionalized looks at two monumental—and monumentally romanticized—moments in the evolution of American bohemia, Hedlund gets to step inside characters at the white-hot center of things. The first of those films, which hits theaters in December, is Walter Salles's long-gestating adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, in which Hedlund stars alongside Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst as the inimitable Dean Moriarty, the novel's itinerant, sex-drugs-and-philosophy-fueled surrogate for lionized Beat figure Neal Cassady, who crisscrosses the United States with Kerouac's alter-ego, a writer named Sal Paradise (Riley), in search of jazz, soul, and nirvana. The second film, due out next year, is the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, which co-stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman, and takes loose inspiration from the late singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk's posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, set in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.
For Hedlund, who says he was inspired as a teenager by reading books like On the Road, and is himself a fledgling singer-songwriter, both films presented fantasy-camp-like opportunities to smack-talk like a hipster and inhabit other eras. But the films also point to the kind of power that these sorts of alternative American Dream stories still hold. There is a notion baked into the country's mythology—as well as Hollywood's—that while both America and art are about expression and exercising a certain kind of freedom, they are also about self-invention and leaving behind who you were so you can go off and become who you want to be. In addition to On the Road and Inside Llewyn Davis, Hedlund also recently wrapped work on the indie drama Lullaby, from first-time director Andrew Levitas, in which he plays the estranged son of a dying man who returns to make peace with his ailing father. Jeff Bridges, who played Hedlund's father in Tron: Legacy (and, of course, starred in the original Tron), recently caught up with the 28-year-old actor at home in Los Angeles.
JEFF BRIDGES: How's it going, son? Where are you right now?
GARRETT HEDLUND: I'm good, dad. I just got back yesterday after finishing up a project in New York. How about you?
BRIDGES: We're home, but we're about to head up to Montana. Gonna go up there for a couple of weeks with Sue [Geston, Bridges's wife]. I might have the guys in the band come up and do a little jamming. Have you been doing any recording or writing?
HEDLUND: I've been getting there. I had to play a little bit in this last film, and I've been tinkering around and writing things here and there. But that's about it. I was busy working on this little project in New York called Lullaby, where Richard Jenkins and I play father and son. Terrence Howard and Amy Adams are also both in it.
BRIDGES: I'm a big Amy Adams fan. She's awful good, isn't she?
HEDLUND: Oh, yeah, she's great. And Terrence—it's the third film that he and I have done together. Terrence was like, "[in Howard's voice] Man, now, Jeff Bridges . . . That man is a true artist."
BRIDGES: [laughs] You do him so well. Can he impersonate you?
HEDLUND: No, he can't. But whenever I do him, he's always like, "[in Howard's voice] Now, I don't sound like that, man."
BRIDGES: Did you and Terrence jam at all? He's a wonderful musician.
HEDLUND: He is. When Terrence and I worked together more than seven years ago [on John Singleton's Four Brothers], he showed me what was basically the first thing I ever learned on a guitar. It was a little Spanish number. But by the time we started working on On the Road together, five years later, I'd obviously learned how to play more, so Terrence came to my room with a guitar and played a song, and then I played a song, and then he played a song, and then I played a song—this must have gone back and forth about 12 times. It was nice to have been able to do that.
BRIDGES: I was looking up some of your credits, and you've worked with a lot of actors who are musicians. I mean, I see Billy Bob [Thornton] in there.
HEDLUND: Yep. And Tim McGraw, and you.
BRIDGES: Did you jam with Billy Bob at all?
HEDLUND: No, I didn't. I worked with him on Friday Night Lights, but I didn't really know how to play back then. I remember, though, that I went to a concert when we were doing that film—it was a concert that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and a bunch of other people did for a charity. Anyhow, Billy Bob started it off, and I always got a kick out of a song that he sang that was like, "Smoking in bed / It's bad for my body / Good for my head . . ." [laughs] But at the concert, I got to get up on stage and sing "I Like It, I Love It" with Tim McGraw, which was great because I grew up as a fan of Tim's—I would sing a song that he did called "Don't Take the Girl." I remember when we were talking beforehand, I told Tim that "Don't Take the Girl" was the only song that I wanted to sing. But Tim said, "No, you're singing ‘I Like It, I Love It.' " I was like, "But I don't know the words to ‘I Like It, I Love It.' " And he was like, "You're fucking singing ‘I Like It, I Love It'—you'll catch on." [Bridges laughs] When we did Country Strong  with Tim, I got to jam with him in his studio, which was like a surreal alignment of the stars because when I was, like, 10 years old, I'd be singing his songs. Faith Hill once played out at my county fair. But now, all of a sudden, I'm in Nashville, hanging with Tim and Faith, having dinner at their place, and Tim is coaching me while Faith is making an amazing dinner. So things have been wonderfully surreal like that.
BRIDGES: What kind of music are you listening to these days? Are you into country still? I was looking at the Google thing and it says you're a punk fan.
HEDLUND: No, I was into punk rock back when I was in high school. I used to go around to dive venues and take photographs. But now it's been just much more about the country stuff and soulful folk. I don't know if you ever heard of the old guy Blaze Foley?
BRIDGES: I've heard of him but I'm not really familiar with his music.
HEDLUND: He sang these songs like "If I Could Only Fly" and "Ooh Love" with these troubadour-style lyrics. I've been listening to him a bit. But I've also been working on a few things. I was up at [Ryan] Bingham's place jamming one day and we were putting some stuff down in his little recording studio. And I got up at the Nokia Theatre with Dierks Bentley and did a Hayes Carll number with him. Music has just been more of a fun thing. A lot of these guys, like Dierks or Tim, if they come through town, I'll try to go see them, and if they care for it, we'll get up and do something together. And now I've got to get my ticket to Montana to come jam with you.
BRIDGES: So you play a musician in Lullaby, too?
HEDLUND: An aspiring one. My character left his family years ago while his father was dying from cancer, and his father, at that point, had basically been told he had six months to live, but he's still living 12 years later. So my character has gone the rebellion route by taking off to California to make his father proud and become the artist that his father always knew he could be. But he can't really seem to grasp that until they've gotten to settle a lot of things. So it's very father-son oriented. And then I also worked with the Coen brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis, but I was probably the only character in the movie who didn't get to play a instrument.
BRIDGES: That's their new one about the folk scene in New York before Dylan?
HEDLUND: Yeah, in the 1960s. It's sort of loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk. Me and John Goodman play a couple of road companions. But the Coens are such a trip.
BRIDGES: Were you a fan of them before?
HEDLUND: Yeah, of course—I mean, I'm from Minnesota and, obviously, the Coens are from there too. I remember being on the farm when Fargo  came out, and my aunt came over and said, "[in a Minnesota accent] Now, they just got us talkin' like a bunch of hillbillies, don'tcha know?" But those guys are such geniuses, so I was very proud when they wanted me to be in the movie. You know, to be Coen brothers-approved is wonderful thing. It's funny, though, speaking of fathers and sons, because me and John Goodman played father and son, like, five or six years ago in the film Death Sentence , and I got back with him again in Inside Llewyn Davis. My good buddy Oscar Isaac also plays Llewyn.
BRIDGES: Isn't that wild about movies? It's such a small biz that chances are you're gonna work with people you've worked with before. It's almost like these little reincarnations where you have somebody from a past life who pops up and you have a different relationship now, but you also kind of remember each other and pick up where you left off in a way.
HEDLUND: Yeah. And now, with all the technological advancements we've made, it's even more complicated. The next time we work together, I could be playing your father.
BRIDGES: [laughs] There you go.
HEDLUND: There you go.
BRIDGES: So tell me about On the Road. That was kicking around for a while and went through some directors, didn't it?
HEDLUND: Yeah. I remember, at first, looking it up and seeing that Francis Ford Coppola was attached to the film, and I was like, "Shit. I'll never get a chance at this." But then, like, eight years later, I was on set doing it. I remember all of us kind of pinching each other and saying, "Man, we're filming On the Road." But I think there were a number of different incarnations of what the movie was gonna be, from Jean-Luc Godard filming it, to Gus Van Sant doing it, to all these other directors who were rumored to be involved—I think Roman Coppola was even going to direct it at one point. There were also a bunch of different versions of the script: one that Barry Gifford had written and one that Roman was planning to write. But I think it was after Sundance, the year that Walter [Salles] was there with The Motorcycle Diaries , that he was approached about possibly doing the film. Obviously, Walter had just come from doing a road film, so I think he was like, "Well, if I'm gonna do this"—which he was unsure of at the time—"then I'm going to have to immerse myself in it." So he ended up going across the country for five or six years doing research before they'd even completed a script, which José Rivera, who worked with Walter on The Motorcycle Diaries, eventually wrote. So it was a long time in the making. I also think that since Walter is Brazilian, he maybe didn't feel like he was the right person to make this movie unless he'd really absorbed it all. I mean, he'd read the book at a young age himself and was very inspired by it.
BRIDGES: Were you familiar with the book before you did the movie?
HEDLUND: Yeah. I'd read it in high school. It's funny that I got to do On the Road because the thing that had the biggest impact on me growing up was reading books. I was very inspired by the book and this spirit of Dean Moriarty and how envious we all are of somebody who can be that carefree. I also always thought of myself as more like the Sal Paradise character—you know, being a listener and writing about a conversation more than being the one that others listened to. So it was interesting that I got to play Dean. I actually signed on to do On the Road before we started on Tron, but we were in flux for a while, just sort of playing the waiting game, trying to get the right budget and the right cast. I think I first met with Walter in March of 2007. But I told Walter that I wouldn't do another film until we did On the Road, so I had a lot of time to do my own research—to go up to San Francisco to City Lights bookstore, to watch video interviews of Neal Cassady with Allen Ginsberg, to sit in Vesuvio [Cafe] and visit Jack Kerouac Alley, to go to the Beat Museum and things. We had time, so Walter and I also did road trips and talked to people, be it family members of some of the people who were around the Beats or other writers. But it was really just about finding something that we could add to the story beyond what was on the page, even if only from life experience. I mean, I grew up around country roads, but this was a different route that these guys took. Eventually, though, it all came to fruition.
worKED at a rEstaUraNt aND paiD a coacH $60 a wEEK to Do moNoLogUEs with mE. i actUaLLy aLmost raN away from HomE about a yEar bEforE i camE to L.a."—-Garrett Hedlund
BRIDGES: You went on location for most of the film?
HEDLUND: Yeah, we shot the film all over the place. We filmed in Montréal for about a month and a half and then went down to Argentina, and then back up to New Orleans, where we were joined by Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, and Elisabeth Moss, and then over to Arizona. Me and Sam Riley, who plays the Kerouac character, also went down to Mexico for, like, three weeks and had to shoot there, and then up to Calgary for a few weeks and back to Montréal before we finished in San Francisco the day of the Tron premiere in Los Angeles.
BRIDGES: [laughs] God.
HEDLUND: I know. I finished On the Road in San Francisco at noon on the day of the Tron premiere, and the driver accidentally took me to the wrong airport—he was supposed to take me to Oakland but he took me to the Frisco airport. So, at that point, everybody was freaking out. I finally got in to L.A. around 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m., got home, shaved, jumped in a suit, and got over to Hollywood and Highland for the premiere. But it was one of those roles that come across your path . . . I've only been doing this for about 10 years, but I'd say it's a one-in-every-10-years kind of role, if not a one-in-every-50-years kind of role.
BRIDGES: Troy was your first film?
HEDLUND: Troy was my first thing ever.
BRIDGES: How did you get that?
HEDLUND: Well, back in Minnesota, one of the only ways you could leave the farm was through sport. That's why everybody in the Midwest—or at least where I grew up—is a triathlete. We all just wanted to get out. But for me, the way to get out was acting. I remember, when we moved to Arizona, I worked at a restaurant and paid a coach $60 a week to do monologues with me. I actually almost ran away from home about a year before I came to L.A. I was living in Arizona and I didn't want to spend that last year in high school. So I ended up doubling up on credits so I could graduate a semester early in December, and then went to L.A., and then by the time the rest of my class actually graduated, I was already on set filming. So I was lucky to have followed that instinct.
BRIDGES: Are you still taking pictures?
HEDLUND: Yeah. I must have taken more than 1,200 photos while we were making On the Road. The funny thing is that I bought your book of photography [Pictures: Photographs by Jeff Bridges, 2003] about four years before we even worked together.
BRIDGES: I find it harder and harder to take pictures on sets now because the digital cameras they use to make films allow you to shoot in low light, whereas my Widelux just can't open up enough. But I'm still making those little books and stuff and trying to take as many pictures as I can. I love it. But on the subject of things we have in common, I wanted to ask you: How was it working with Jane Fonda on Georgia Rule? I worked with her years ago.
HEDLUND: Oh, she was great. Incredibly supportive. I didn't get so much time with her, but I remember that she loved that I was from Minnesota. The first thing she asked me was, "Do you ride?" And I was like, "Ride what?" And she was like, "Horses. What did you think?" [both laugh] I remember that all my pals teased me, like, "Don't you go having an affair with Jane Fonda now."
BRIDGES: She's great. We did a Sidney Lumet movie together called The Morning After . I had a great time working with her.
HEDLUND: How many years ago was that?
BRIDGES: Oh, gosh, I don't know. She got nominated for an Academy Award for that, I think . . . It must have been '86.
HEDLUND: Two years after I was born. [both laugh] So you're off to Montana?
BRIDGES: Yep. Couple days. Maybe we can muster some time soon in Nashville.
HEDLUND: Well, let me know when you head. I'd love to go out there and say hey to some folks.
BRIDGES: We've got to figure out a time to make another movie or do a play or something together before we kick the bucket here, so let's keep an eye out.
HEDLUND: I'm always looking for a tour de force for us both to join.
BRIDGES: Maybe they'll come up with a good script for Tron 7.
HEDLUND: Yeah. [laughs] Cut straight to Tron 7.
Jeff Bridges is an Academy Award-winning actor and a musician. His upcoming projects include Robert Schwentke’s R.I.P.D. and Sergey Bodrov’s The Seventh Son.
HE first tHiNg sHE asKED mE was, ‘Do yoU riDE?’ And i was LiKE, ‘riDE wHat?’ aND sHE was like, ‘HorsEs. wHat DiD yoU tHiNK?’ "—-Garrett Hedlund