Manchester by the Sea has been gaining raves for the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, as well as Kenneth Lonergan’s script and direction. But the breakout star of the film is Lucas Hedges, a young actor from New York City whose father, Peter Hedges, is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. In Manchester, the younger Hedges plays Patrick, a Massachusetts teen whose father dies of a heart condition early in the film; when his uncle Lee, played by Affleck, comes to take care of him, both men must work through their own unique grief. Vulture caught up with Hedges to talk about playing opposite an actor like Casey Affleck, how to make a realistic movie teen, and the kind of career he hopes to have going forward.
What as your first reaction to reading the script for Manchester?
My experience with great pieces of art is that I don’t always understand them when I first encounter them. There are plenty of albums that I’ve listened to for the first time and it doesn’t register fully, and then I sit with it for several more days and it’s like, Whoa, I need to go back to that. And then when I return to it —I don’t know what it is, but it makes sense inside of my body. That was my experience with Manchester. I’d never read a script like it. The one obvious thing that’s different in how Kenny writes from every other writer is that he writes in overlaps, with characters talking over each other. On top of the hyperrealism in the script, he also he included the elements, like water and fire, which created this very powerful imagery. It’s a film about trauma and tragedy and shame and whether or not we can recover as human beings. I found it to be a profoundly impactful script. And it’s a very hard thing to nail, but I think he did it.
How old are you actually?
Kenny writes teenagers in a way that very, very few other screenwriters do, and not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have that capacity for creating those types of characters. What was it like submerging yourself in the role of Patrick? My colleagues and I have been joking that he’s kind of a shithead, but in a good way — you love him, but he’s an asshole in the precise way that teenagers are.
Totally, yeah. I have allergic reactions, it triggers my gag reflex when I read unrealistic dialogue from a teenager. There is nothing — I will turn off a movie if a teenager says some slang term that just no one says, and just says it in some heinous way. It’s enough to put me off. But this kid — I know Patrick. I grew up having sleepovers at my friends’ houses, and Patrick was the kid I didn’t know beforehand and just scared the life out of me because I’m a very easily scared person and somewhat insecure. When I read the script, that was another thing I recognized — Patrick is the kid I’ve really disliked in my life, but also has a deep struggle of his own and is just longing for love and is just terrified at his core. That having been said, he’s incredibly charismatic and charming and has found a very beautiful way to survive. He has so much love to give.
As the shoot went on, how did you try to modulate the performance? Because he never really loses it for the first part of the movie, and that starts to shift with the freezer scene.
The beauty of Kenny as a director is that he has ideas of where the script could go, but every scene could be played a million different ways, and so he’s perfectly open for me to have a nervous breakdown in the second scene, as long as I’m engaged in the moment. He’s very aware of how mysterious grief is. We did the scenes so many different ways that it just so happens he cut it together where the breakdown comes in that scene. Patrick’s known his dad was going to die for five years, probably more. I think there’s a part of him that thinks he’s dealt with it. But the actual loss of his father is something he couldn’t comprehend; he has no support team and no way of knowing how to deal with his emotions. When it does hit him, it hits him, and it hits him in the middle of the night, when he’s least protected and he thinks he’s completely alone. Something that Kenny does beautifully is he’s open to being surprised, but he does have an idea that Patrick probably doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions, and at this moment, things are going to come crashing down.
The relationship between the characters of Patrick and Lee is really important, and very strange — you’re trained as a watcher of movies to expect the wall between them to fully melt, and it never really does. What was your relationship with Casey like as actors, and how did you try to situate the relationship between the two characters?
The beauty of Kenny’s script is that we almost didn’t have to have those conversations. All we had to do was engage in the moment of the scenes, because the history of the character is revealed through the playing of the scenes. We didn’t need to impose a story on to it — simply by playing the scenes, the story revealed itself. That’s not true for every writer — a lot of times, actors need to fill in the blanks. The beauty of Kenny’s movie is that everything is taken care of when you turn to the script. A lot of it was just getting out of our own ways, getting out of our heads and into the moment.
You’re still young and relatively new to this, whereas Casey Affleck is, at least I think, one of our best living actors. What was it like, performing with someone so talented, and who has so much experience with very heavy material like this?
I think something Casey did, and did very well, is that he almost comes across as completely estranged from the world, and from how people should interact. He’s just not there, really, for most of the movie. And so a lot of my interactions with him in the film, I have to sort of get his attention and get him to come back to this world. It almost didn’t feel like I was working with a powerhouse actor — it kind of felt like I was working with this really spacey guy. It’s not apparent how brilliant they really are until you see the movie, and you see the genius of what he’s done, because Casey’s totally aware of the arc of his character. But when I’m working with him, his choices seem arbitrary.
You’re a young actor whose first big role is in a beautiful, quiet, finely tuned Kenny Lonergan movie. What kind of stuff has been coming to you since Manchester? What’s your perception of what kind of career you want to have going forward? Because the opportunity is certainly there to do much bigger movies.
Thank you for this question, because now I get to actually have a moment for myself and think about what I want. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with — well, right after this movie, I did a year of college, but then I worked with another brilliant playwright, Martin McDonagh. And then after that, I got to work with Greta Gerwig on her directorial debut. So fortunately, I feel like I’ve gotten to work with two auteurs since this movie, which would be nice to keep doing. Ultimately, I think what I want from my career is to be able to create work for myself, and there’s only so much you can do as an actor in a movie. The better the movie, the more you get to explore, but to be able to write a one-act and play it out with my friends and pay for it and send out invites — that’s something that I haven’t done, and having complete artistic ownership over something is something that I want for my life. My dad, when he finished school, started a theater company in New York. I don’t know what’s in store for me, but I know that I want to create work, and I want to create an environment where I can bring in my favorite people and collaborate with them, and do something that is so much weirder and so different from what you’d see in commercial film.
This interview has been edited and condensed.