“Julia Roberts in her Subaru could solve all of my problems!” I jotted down in my notebook halfway through Ben is Back. In the Peter Hedges drama, Roberts plays Holly, a woman who’s son (Ben, played by Lucas Hedges) returns home from his drug-rehab program for just one night — Christmas Eve — to celebrate with his family. What seems like a normal evening — dinner, church, in bed early for Santa — quickly falls apart. Their house and sleepy town are full of triggers for mother and son, and they’re both anxiously worried that Ben will relapse. Halfway through, the movie shifts gears completely: When their family dog is nabbed by Ben’s friends from his dealing days, mother and son hop into the Subaru to chase down the culprits, and it feels like one long night that might not ever end.
In person, sitting on an incredibly pink couch at the Crosby Hotel in New York, they’re both glowing. Roberts is gregarious but calm; Hedges leans forward, thinking deeply about every question and experience. “I love the emotionally difficult stuff, ‘cause everything is emotionally difficult for me,” he says. “To be able to actually express that gives me clarity. I always feel like it’s the scenes that aren’t emotionally difficult that are the ones that are confusing and hard for me to do. That’s just how it works for me at this point.” The onscreen mother and son talked about Ben Is Back, and being directed by Lucas’s dad.
Lucas Hedges: We talked on the Boy Erased red carpet. I remember, you said you liked my earrings. That they were like Daniel Day-Lewis’s.
Ha, yes! Lucas knows I love his earrings.
Julia Roberts: I just think if you’re gonna get your ears pierced, you get them both pierced.
LH: I like the one ear pierced. I like the oner.
JR: I like two.
LH: I like the one.
JR: I like the two. [And then, very quickly.] We’re gonna have to agree to disagree … All right!
Okay, then! So to start off, can you tell me how you two first met?
JR: Tell ‘em about … the driveway.
LH: Me and my dad took a trip to California, and we both went up to her house. We drove into her driveway and as we pulled up —
LH: A bunch of dogs came running out and greeted us. Then Julia — I think you came out and you said my name, maybe in some weird way. I just remember feeling like, Whoa. There she is.
Julia, what was your recollection of that? I’ve heard you really pushed for Lucas to take this role.
JR: I honestly was so excited when Lucas came on. For me, when I read it, I just assumed he’d do it. Here’s this beautiful story written by Peter Hedges, with an incredible part for a 20-year-old young man, I just assumed, Well, that part would be played by Lucas Hedges.
When I met with Peter, he made it very clear to me that that was not to be assumed, that there were other great 20-year-old actors, that he, too, believes Lucas is the best actor for this part, but that he doesn’t want to pressure him. I don’t know if you’ve ever met Peter …
I haven’t yet.
JR: You really have to meet Peter to appreciate the depths of the love, his imploring of things, wouldn’t you say?
JR: [Impersonating Peter.] “Please stay with us and believe that we can make this work.” He wanted to feel like if Lucas was gonna be in this movie it was going to be 100 percent Lucas’s decision to be in the movie. We didn’t share that [sentiment]. I was like, “Let’s get him on the phone right now and start pressuring him!”
LH: When it was my birthday on set, I told my mom — who came down to set — to not sing happy birthday because it would make me really uncomfortable. [Julia] found out that they weren’t gonna sing happy birthday and made everyone sing happy birthday for me anyway.
JR: I was like, “Who cares what he wants?! It’s his birthday! We want to sing to him; we want to celebrate him.”
LH: Which is in a similar vein, I think, of how you went about pursuing my involvement.
JR: Usurping your parents?
LH: Yeah, exactly.
Lucas, how did it feel to know how badly Julia wanted you in the role?
LH: It was very flattering and exciting. She sent a photo of her and her son, who resembles me in some ways, to us. It was something along the lines of, “I’m very comfortable around young redheads.”
JR: Yes, sons.
LH: Before I had imagined that I would be alone in this. But then it felt like I had my acting partner, so I felt like we could do it together.
Was it very uncomfortable being directed by your dad?
LH: For the first week it was uncomfortable but —
JR: The first week was the hardest week as well.
LH: Oh, easily.
What were you shooting that week?
JR: It was all of the house stuff. It was just a hard week because we were in the house, and it was that family week. It was chaotic, and we had the little ones with us.
LH: Well, it didn’t get any easier
JR: No, but it got more in our grip, I think.
LH: Yeah, I think it was more control — there were less moving parts around us as we went on. Once I got comfortable and became more amenable as an actor, then I felt like he gave me great direction. I could feed off of that, and I could throw ideas back at him. I developed a working relationship with him, which was really one of the challenges to the project. It was one thing I feel like we ended up maneuvering well.
You have a very easy, believable chemistry together, as mother and son. The fighting, the humor, the love — it all felt very real. How did you arrive at that?
JR: You can only build so much. Something just has to exist that just intrinsically connects you. When the two of us came together in the beginning, there was something that just kind of connected. I always felt very easy with Lucas. I don’t know if it’s because he does look like the missing fourth Moder child, I don’t know what it is exactly. I just very easily, in my heart space, fell into that mother-love place with Lucas.
As peers I think his acting point of view is so interesting. His struggles internally, I empathize with, and I’m fascinated by, and I love. I know enough as an actor and a parent and a friend to not say, “Oh, don’t worry about all of that.” Instead, I can be like, “Yeah, worry away … that’s kind of our whole experience.”
Tell me more about that. Lucas, what are you worrying about?
JR: Just anything. I mean, the way we all, like, worry about the day’s work.
LH: I really spend a lot of time worrying about things, and expressing how I’m worrying. I think [Julia] doesn’t entirely relate to that —
JR: Well …
LH: But that doesn’t mean you don’t. It felt like she understood, and held this space for me to share what I was going through and am going through.
Julia, I wanted to get your perspective on something Peter said about the Holly character: “Her intentions are heroic, but her methods are suspect.” What did you think of her?
JR: Wow, that’s a statement. I don’t fully agree, but since I’m playing that person, I shouldn’t agree with that. I wouldn’t. I’m not suspicious of anything that she does.
She’s just in an unenviable place as a person, and as a parent. I think that really she doesn’t know what to do. It’s like when you keep throwing something at the wall and waiting for what sticks. In this situation, she thinks it’s going to be this very simple morning to the next morning: “You can be here for 24 hours and then you’re going back.” It’s a pretty simple plan. But that so quickly unravels and goes off the rails, and continues to do so.
Has your perspective of Holly changed as you’re doing press about the character and this movie?
JR: The more I think about it, the more I start thinking about all the pieces of the film, and how we put them together. Each time she thinks she has a grip on something — “Okay, yup, I’m gonna get him dressed for church. I’m gonna go to church. We’re gonna come home. We’re gonna go to bed” — it’s all just water in her hands. She’s continually, frenetically gathering all these pieces, but it just spins so far out of her reach with every scene in the movie. That suspiciousness? You know, a person can’t sit down and calmly [deal with this]. Courtney [B. Vance, playing Roberts’s husband and Hedges’s stepdad] is so calm in the movie, asking, “What are you really trying to accomplish here?” She probably, for the last act of the movie, couldn’t even answer that question.
I had this feeling watching the movie that the two of you in that Subaru could solve anything, honestly.
LH: Aww, I love that Subaru. The Subaru was the place to be.
What was the hardest day of work on this? Maybe the most emotionally difficult.
LH: I love the emotionally difficult stuff ‘cause everything is emotionally difficult for me. To be able to actually express that gives me clarity. I always feel like it’s the scenes that aren’t emotionally difficult that are the ones that are confusing and hard for me to do. That’s just how it works for me at this point.
JR: I remember when we were doing — you weren’t there — the police-station scene, when I go in to say that my son has stolen my car. It was a Friday and this was the last scene, and we had the location moved to a different police station. It’s, you know, the middle of the night, everybody’s freezing and exhausted, our crew just worked so hard. I was getting ready for this very highly emotional scene. We went through the numbers and rehearsed it, and then I just sat and got ready. We went to shoot it — I go in and I have my performance — and Peter comes out, maybe a little bit in tears.
JR: As could happen, with Peter. He said, “Okay, well … I think we got it. Do you wanna do it again?” I said no. It was so happy because we thought it was gonna be another two hours of shooting, but we were in and out of that police station in a very short amount of time.
LH: Wow, so it was two takes, one take?
JR: I think it was one or two takes.
Julia, as an actor do you feel like you’re learning new things about yourself as a performer? Even now?
JR: Yeah, I think so. Everything is different. Every cloak you put on, there’s a different access row, there’s a different in, there’s a different out, there’s different music, different distractions every time.
LH: Do you have a playlist for the character?
JR: I currently have one …
What’s on it?
JR: No, I don’t have a playlist for the character, so I should do that. I usually kind of get into this thing where I find one or two songs, and I listen to them almost like a mantra.
LH: Was the song that was on my playlist for you that you had already chosen one of those songs? The Kate Bush one?
JR: That was one of them.
Which Kate Bush song?
LH: Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”
JR: Such a great song.
LH: It’s a perfect song for the movie.
JR: It’s a great song. But is it in the movie?
LH: No, I mean, for the character. Yeah, it could be like the credit sequence … ehhh, it wouldn’t really fit, but it’s so perfect.
Lucas, one last question: The headline of your New York profile was “Will Lucas Hedges Survive the Fall?” So … did you survive the fall?
JR: Well, that’s a very loaded little headline!
LH: No, no, it’s based on something I said. One of the first things I said was that I honestly don’t know if I’m gonna survive this fall.
JR: Okay, like, the autumn.
LH: I think I have. I think it’s been restless and challenging, but I really feel like I’m carrying the torch right now. I totally am. It’s been a very fruitful time in my life.