Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund are in the middle of a game of Q&A chicken. They’re sitting in a courtyard at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons on a hot November morning, staring at each other over a small table, waiting for the other one to crack first and answer my question. The only movement comes from the smoke wafting off his cigarette and the slowly forming half-smile on each of their faces.
All I’ve done to provoke this battle of wills is to ask, “Which of you is most like your character in On the Road?” In the new film adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac–penned road trip novel (which opens today in limited release), Hedlund plays the charismatic bohemian Dean Moriarty, and Stewart is cast as Dean’s carnal free spirit of a girlfriend, Marylou. Neither actor wants to brag that he or she closely resembles an iconic literary character, so it becomes obvious to both that a round of mutual compliments is the only way out of this question. But who will be brave enough to suck it up and go first?
“He’s got a lot of Dean in him,” Stewart finally says.
“He’s got a lot of teeth in him?” Hedlund replies, in mock-confusion.
“Dean!” she insists, as they both start laughing. It isn’t hard to coax a smile from Stewart and Hedlund, even if their screen personas would suggest otherwise. Both are best known for their straightforward, sullen work in big-bucks franchise roles — she in Twilight, he in Tron Legacy — and you can see what drew them to On the Road, a film populated not by computer programs but flesh-and-blood people, where the characters aren’t undead but instead, really living.
In truth, Hedlund and Stewart are both closer to their roles than they’d readily admit. Like Neal Cassady, the Beat figure whom Dean is based on, Hedlund grew up in the heartland, spending his childhood on a farm so remote that you have to fly into Fargo and drive three hours away to find it. To win the part in On the Road, Hedlund channeled the vibe of the novel and wrote several soul-baring pages about his own life, offering them to director Walter Salles after his first audition by asking, sincerely, “Can I read you something I wrote?” It worked.
As for Stewart, “You wouldn’t be attracted to a project if you had to fake it,” she says. Though Marylou is more impetuous and sexually assertive than the other roles she’s played, Stewart claims, “I don’t feel like I’m stepping outside of myself when I’m playing parts. Even if it’s really different from the apparent version of who I am, I’m always somewhere deep in there.”
It isn’t jarring to go from green-screen blockbuster work like Snow White and the Huntsman to something this intimate and sweaty? Again, Stewart half-smiles; she's spent most of her career alternating juggernaut Twilight films with barely budgeted indies like The Runaways and Welcome to the Rileys. “I don’t mind making big movies, ‘cause you get to sort of bitch and complain with the other actors about what’s keeping you from being able to really feel it,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But then at the end of the day, you could be in a white room; the whole thing about being an actor is you have to have an imagination.”
A lack of inhibition helps, too. In On the Road, Hedlund plays a cool character full of Beat bravado, but he’s still asked to do things that might make other young actors flinch, like shedding his clothes, dancing with wild abandon in long unbroken takes, or simulating rough sex with Steve Buscemi. Ask him about finding the freedom to go to those places, and Hedlund surprises by daring to quote not a venerated literary icon like Kerouac but Ethan Hawke, whose book Ash Wednesday, he says, made a big impression on him as a teenager.
“‘The only thing in life worth learning is humility,’” quotes Hedlund, who vaguely resembles Hawke with his brown goatee and earnest literary bent. “‘Shatter the ego, then dance through the perfect contradiction of life and death.’” His explanation: “It encourages you not to walk with your head down and your hands in your pockets and be closed off to life, but to be open and nonjudgmental and accessible to experience a lot of wonderful journeys within this short life of ours.”
Do those inhibitions come down permanently after simulating the envelope-pushing sex scenes of On the Road? Stewart says yes and acknowledges that in general, she's perceived to be a closed-off person, but that she's working on it. “It’s funny: By putting up walls, you think you’re protecting yourself, but you get to live less,” says Stewart. “If you’re hiding behind a wall, then you can’t see over it. You’re depriving yourself of so much if you’re trying to be too aware of what you’re putting out there, you know?”
She adds, “If you feel someone breaking those walls down, let them. Those are the people that you need to find in life, rather than people that you’re just comfortable with.”
With that in mind, it's no wonder that Hedlund and Stewart want to end our conversation by discussing Just Kids, Patti Smith's book about her artistically enriching and culture-defining friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “It had a very similar effect on me as reading On the Road did when I was 15,” says Stewart, who's currently reading the novel for a second time. “I had a serious urge to create shit after I read it, to go out and find people, and travel.”
When I bring up the recent report that Smith is a fan of Stewart's — suggesting that maybe one day, she could find herself starring in another adaptation of a bohemian coming-of-age book — Stewart demurs and meets eyes with Hedlund again. “I will never be the type of person like Patti Smith who has that compulsion to be constantly creating,” she laughs, confessing, “You feel diminished somehow [after reading it]! You’re like, ‘God! I gotta build myself back up again! I need to actually use every second! Why am I sitting around, ever?’”