Garrett Hedlund had a promising start in Hollywood when he landed his first film role at age 19 as Brad Pitt’s cousin in Troy, and while supporting parts in notable movies like Friday Night Lights and Four Brothers followed, he had trouble making the leap to leading man. That’s all about to change, as he he’s toplining two high-profile films about to open — Joseph Kosinski’s effects-laden Tron: Legacy, where he plays the son of Jeff Bridges, and Country Strong, where he stars as a country singer opposite Gwyneth Paltrow — and shooting an impressive follow-up, the Walter Salles adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (Hedlund plays Dean Moriarty in a cast that includes Kristen Stewart and Amy Adams). On the eve of his big profile boost, Hedlund talked to Vulture about scary fans and singing karaoke to win roles.
When a lot of actors watch themselves onscreen, they mostly remember the actual reality of what shooting was like that day. Since so much of the Tron world is built in the computer, I would think that watching it would be a wholly different experience.
I don’t know how to describe it yet. There’s nothing that compares to it, for me, and I think that’s the best thing about it. When I was watching it for the first time, I had a couple pals with me and part of me wanted to rattle off fun facts: “Oh, that scene was at five in the morning!” But seeing this world added into that, it’s just incredible what they’ve done.
I read that when you went in for your first role in Troy, in order to give yourself the confidence you needed, you walked into that room like you were already on the same level as Wolfgang Petersen and Brad Pitt. My question to you is, have you sustained that? Do you always go in the room and feel that sense of sureness?
It depends on the part, I guess. Socially, I am who I am, but in terms of that film, a percentage of bravery had to radiate off the character. I knew it was a big part that a lot of people were going for at the time, and there were actors who’d done a lot more than I had — I hadn’t even filmed a movie yet! So there was that acknowledgment that if you want to get in a film with A-list actors, you have to pretend you are one.
The Tron role must have been pretty coveted, too: a 27-year-old white guy leading a $200 million movie? You probably had a lot of competition.
Yeah, I met with Joe early on and read for them, and a couple of months went on where they wanted me to come back and test read with Olivia Wilde in early November of ‘08. It was a long one, but man.
You’ve had sizable roles in big movies before, but this was your first flat-out, undisputed, I’m-on-the-poster lead. Did it feel different?
I wasn’t really thinking of the pressures. It comes when it does, I guess, but I’d never done a film where I was in there all day, every day on set. I’d always had the supporting role where I was trying to write my role a little bigger between scenes — I’d be in the trailer trying to add subtext to what I’d say before and after. So for me to be there all day on Tron, I mean, Jesus! What a lesson.
When you’re acting opposite Jeff Bridges as the de-aged Clu, what were you actually acting opposite?
He would have the laser-rig headset with all the dots on it. We’d rehearse the scene, and then when he was finished setting up all that stuff, we’d set up the cameras and start actually shooting.
Was that the most difficult part of the performance, making sure the technical aspects were perfect?
Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, the technical aspects and the precision to everything, it’s all so precise — Joe’s got a very specific vision. To get to that perfection takes some time, especially dealing with the 3-D cameras, because you’ve got to sync the right eye with the left eye before every single thing. It’s not just grabbing the camera, going over there, and saying, “Let’s shoot.”
The director of Country Strong has said that before you won the role, you two went out for karaoke and you sang Pearl Jam. Is Pearl Jam one of your go-to bands for karaoke?
[Laughs.] I don’t really have many go-to songs I’m able to sing. Yeah, I took her to a karaoke joint and I sang “Better Man” by Pearl Jam. It wasn’t even country! But I’m a huge fan of Eddie Vedder.
How’d you do?
It wasn’t that great by any means. I think she was being very kind in her response to my performance. I thought the place was gonna be packed, you know? And when everybody else is doing great at karaoke, that kind of amps you up, and if you’re doing good, then the crowd feeds off of that and you continue to do better. But this place … the lights were on, and there were, like, three other people in the place. It was rough, man.
Where did you guys go? Like, the Brass Monkey in Koreatown or something?
What time did you get there, 5 p.m.? That place fills up with old-timers real early.
That’s what I’m sayin’! It was probably around seven or eight, and it was dead empty.
Have you see Gwyneth’s episode of Glee?
I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve never even see Glee yet! I hope to see it, but she’s fantastic, man, so I’m sure it’s fantastic.
How long were you attached to On the Road before it began shooting?
I got cast in September of ‘07.
Was there any thought, when you won the Tron part, “Okay, this will help me get my other film made?”
No, I mean … When I was cast then, I wasn’t really going to do anything until we did On the Road, and then after two years of not working, it was just fortunate that I was lucky enough to get a part in Tron. I was basically taking all my coins to Coinstar to be able to eat! But it was hard for me to detach myself from On the Road for a little time because I’d put a lot of work into researching that part, and you’ve gotta tie that kite to a post and hope that when you come back to it, it’s still flying at the same height you left it at. So that was the worry in the back of my mind.
Was there any benefit to having gone off to do Tron, then coming back to the role?
Yeah, now I can’t imagine what it would have been like had I not had these experiences. It was a lot of hard work and determination to put into Tron, in terms of the training and research for it and the long hours and focus, but you realize that your body and mind are able to put that into things. And then on Country Strong, to put six months of work into guitar training and go into the studio to sing and fail in front of people, then to get back up and know that you’ve had a little bit of progress and someone says that you’re actually good for once … moving to Nashville and living that life and actually getting to experience that lifestyle was a huge help to my work ethic. So when it came to On the Road, I realized that my body has a lot of coals in there that I can burn if I find the fire for it.
Which property has the more intimidating fans, Tron or On the Road?
Ha-ha! Goood question. I would say On the Road, but probably because I’m doing that now. There’s a lot of people who say that the book changed their lives — then again, with Tron, there are a lot of people who say that they’re in film today because of Tron! I guess the scale kind of balances a bit in terms of intimidation.