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Fred Hechinger Is Having One Hell of a Summer

Photo: Andrew Eccles/Netflix

If you’re at all plugged in to pop culture this year, 21-year-old Fred Hechinger seems to be everywhere you look, and for good reason. There’s his stand-alone episode of Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad and his starring role alongside Tom Hanks in News of the World. In The Woman in the Window, he’s Amy Adams’s foil from start to gruesome finish, and he’s a lovable, nuanced doofus in Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy. Most recently, he has been quietly (and we do mean quietly, considering his character’s often silent but essential presence) stealing scenes in The White Lotus, an HBO series with no shortage of well-established scene-stealers. As Quinn, the sullen, tech-addicted youngest child of Connie Britton and Steve Zahn’s upper-class family visiting the titular Hawaiian resort, Hechinger feeds off the energy of his more established co-stars and spits back a performance rooted in discomfort, loneliness, and compelling warmth.

Over Zoom from New York City just days after wrapping his role as the budding pornographer Seth Warshavsky in Hulu’s upcoming Pam & Tommy, Hechinger talked to Vulture about what we’re calling a Hot Fred Summer, touching on how he got here, how he’s handling the sudden success, and what he hopes we’re all taking away from his onscreen work.

Do you have any particularly fond off-camera memories with the White Lotus cast?
We had dinner as a group every single night. We would go outside and we’d watch the sunset together practically every evening. It was incredible. Steve took us on a Vietnam War–movie marathon. We did a ton of those great war movies. We would order Thai food and sit around the TV and just watch some of the most amazing movies. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt so honored to be there. I also felt less alone. Everyone on this cast is so observant and funny that you could really just sit and shoot the shit forever.

Also it was very full circle for me because Natasha [Rothwell, who plays Belinda] was my first improv teacher.

What was that reunion like? Had you stayed in touch over the years?
I’d stayed in touch a little bit when we finished the class. She’s such an incredible teacher and such a kind person. She invited me back to certain shows. I hadn’t seen her in person since she moved to Los Angeles, so it had been a long time. When we both got out of quarantine [in Hawaii], it was my first hug in weeks, and it was this person I had missed and hadn’t seen in so long. That was really special.

Did you learn anything from her in improv that has stuck with you?
When you aren’t getting laughs and the show is going “wrong,” there’s that impulse to try and save the ship, to step up and be the funniest person. But whenever I tried to do that, it would always result in a much worse show because it would be essentially me taking all the other improvisers and trying to throw them off the boat and triage and steer the ship. The thing you learn from that is when something’s not feeling instantly gratifying, dig into it more and experience it together as a collective. When we had “bad shows,” we would just experience it together. If we started to enjoy it, that became contagious. Our enjoyment of a show going wrong saved the show much more than a fearful acknowledgment of it falling apart.

That’s a really cool lesson because, a lot of times, I aspire to walk into scenes without knowing. I have my research and my thoughts and ideas, but the real great thing is that thing you can’t control that happens between the two of us or the three of us, whatever the grouping is.

For White Lotus, I always want to feel part of the ensemble. There’s nothing better than the company. It’s a weird thing sometimes when you’re doing something and it feels like it’s all placed on one person and everyone else is just trying to prop up that person. If you’re able to create an ensemble that’s about that group mind, that acceptance of everyone’s unique voice coming together to create this weird amalgamation, that seems much more interesting to me than trying to force yourself to always be the main character of your life and every story.

On the flip side, you have a lot of scenes where it’s just you holding court by yourself on the beach. How did you fill those spaces on your own?
I’ve always had this urge and desire to take private moments and be able to share them. For a long time, especially when I was younger, I felt lonely — I was happy in many ways, but I was a lonely younger person. Even now, I’m constantly reminded and surprised by a continued loneliness that is connected to life. When you have those moments where you’re completely on your own, sometimes I have this instantaneous feeling of Oh, remember this. Show this somehow.

When we were doing those [solo] scenes and when I read the script initially, I remember getting a real jolt of excitement to be able to let out some of those very private things that I think are a part of every person’s life. I had a great acting coach who said, “When you’re preparing for any role, spend two weeks going to a coffee shop, taking in all the little things that you could add potentially to this character.” I’m not bored by someone reading a newspaper or waiting for the elevator. I’m really engaged by that. It’s an honor when you get a scene where you’re able to live in loneliness and in yourself.

Mike White is known for being super-open with his actors and allowing them to put their own touches on the characters he has written. Did he do the same with you?
We met as soon as I got there and talked about the character. You know what’s interesting about it? I had never really done nudity. They find me naked in the closet in the second episode. There was a conversation about that. It was fun because we started talking about “Why is this in the story? What does this serve?” I felt really shared and onboard with why I was doing that. We both wanted it to be this very feral thing. The joke was animalistic.

You’re having this big confluence of projects being released at the same time. How do you separate the attention you’re now getting from your own goals? How do you stay focused?
Actors that I like to watch, if they’re lucky and given the ability to play different roles through their career, there’s a really special feeling that I’ve had as an audience member. I get to see an actor in completely different roles and realize there are hundreds of people in each of us. Each person carries a ton of personalities, a ton of different ways to exist. We don’t know what those are. We’re changing those, moment by moment, to try and find whatever we’re looking for. I’ve always found it comforting to acknowledge and remember that no one is a fixed personality; no one is just one thing.

One of the real upsides of stuff serendipitously coming out at the same time is that I get to try to help make that point a little more — that every person is a ton of people. That’s part of what brought me toward acting. I feel happy that stuff has come out [the way it did] because it feels really cool when people see different sides of you.

At the same time, I’m starting to feel like I have a grasp on a Fred Hechinger character or at least can identify some shared DNA. Do you feel the same?
I definitely have no awareness of that. [Laughs.] But that maybe makes sense because I might be the only person who wouldn’t be able to identify that.

I have this quandary, though, about how much awareness helps or hurts acting. I don’t know if it’s right or not. I love writing and directing. I find the times that I’ve gone in to do that, the more awareness, the better. You can never not think about something too much. But with acting, what I’ve never known is whether there’s a point where you should be like, Okay, you don’t need to think about that. It’s better to just be in it.

You don’t want to be scared of thought because just being scared of thought can take you out of the moment. I’m still grappling with How aware can I manage to be about myself without sacrificing something? Is the very fear of sacrificing something actually worse than that thing itself? I will say, that’s a bit of a loop I’ve gone through recently.

One of the things I love about your performance in The Woman in the Window in particular is that [spoiler alert] you’re playing a character who’s totally inconspicuous and innocent-seeming until the third act. How do you ride that line, knowing exactly where you’re going to take the character in the final act, without overplaying your hand to audiences who don’t know the twist?
That question was one of the main filming thrills of the movie. The biggest way that I was able to handle that was Joe [Wright, the director]. Joe is a genius and a sweetheart and was attuned to that in every which way. He gave us a month of rehearsal. We got to know each other and play with those levels. But my objective was to do the performance in a way where even though you don’t see it the first time if you didn’t know, that you could watch it a second time and it would all make sense. What I didn’t want to do is, once you know the twist, then you watch and you don’t believe the first part, either.

Joe was really interested in finding the emotional underbelly of a plotted twist: What does that mean emotionally for you to assume that someone’s one thing and then discover that there’s something else? That partially had to do with codependency and perspective and all these more emotional ideas, which were really exciting to me because even though we were after that plotted trick, we weren’t going at it technically. The way we got there was through character and emotional truth. Ethan’s not just inconspicuous in the first part because he doesn’t want the audience to find him out; he’s also that way because he feels really shy in life sometimes and doesn’t in other times.

It sounds as if you approached Ethan on a much deeper level than just “sociopathic thriller villain.”
[For a long time,] outcasts and people on the margins, you couldn’t see that much in film. For instance, women in film noir: The femme fatale has all of this power. They get to do more and have more fun than the stifled female character you might see in a romantic drama set in the country, but at the end of the day in the movie, they have to be punished; someone has to kill them. That’s the negotiation that happens.

We got to build the background and the life of Ethan Russell so that he’s an abused person and an abuser. There’s a history that we were able to put into him, which made it so that he can’t be a villain to himself. Which isn’t to say he can’t serve that in the moment of the story.

I think that’s happened throughout time in terms of how we treat villains. It’s sometimes where the most interesting and seemingly troubled or stifled or marginalized person can go. The trade-off is they’re the villain. But what happens with an audience is they still get to experience the intricacies and joys of that person. I thought about that with Ethan. When you feel that you are not like other people, when you feel that you are too fucked up to be a part of this world or to at least find any sense of community or love, then your sense of identity gets thrown on the villain and you find a liberation and a love and a freedom in that.

Similarly, Fear Street dismantles the idea of what movie villains are supposed to look like. It lets the marginalized characters reclaim their story, and it says that maybe the villains are the people who have gotten the spotlight this whole time: the police chief, the straight white man. I have to guess it was a thrill as someone who’s so interested in film history to be a part of such a subversive take on the genre.

I agree. I was jumping for joy when I met Leigh [Janiak, the director]. I was just like, She did it. She figured it out. She’s an unstoppably brilliant filmmaker. It was that: The outcasts in other movies are centered, but they are the very essence and heart of Fear Street. That’s the reason the movie was made.

Great commercial filmmaking is like a Trojan horse. The horse is the horror movie or the technically satisfying structure we’re used to. You need to go in and be scared and go through those things, and you need those amazing set pieces that she sets up. But inside the horse is this gnarly, fearless cry for these characters and their place in the world. That’s what it felt like filming the first movie, and that’s how she directed it.

I remember I got down to Atlanta and I met with Leigh. We talked for three hours about Simon. There were a million things that we shared about our ideas of his past. It just felt like, Oh, she cares about everyone in these movies. Whether they are alive or not, she knows that they are people too. She has that force and determination and willpower. Leigh knows movies like no one’s business, and it’s so fun to just buff out with her because she really knows the genre. She’s able to look at the whole history of it and see what continues to be short shrifted.

Tell me about Pam & Tommy, the Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson Hulu series you just filmed. Why did that feel like your next move?
I really love [the director] Rob Siegel’s movie Big Fan. I’m really inspired by stories of people who are almost stubborn but still happy and do the thing that doesn’t hurt anyone. When the Pam & Tommy script came on the scene, I was really impressed and excited about the take they had on it, the way they subvert the story. All I’ll say is: You walk into a room and Lily [James] is there in full Pam drag. It’s trippy. I left work that day, and I didn’t meet “Lily” at all.

How has the hubbub of Hot Fred Summer translated to you, if it has? What have you noticed changing?
I’m having a hard time noticing any difference. But one of the nice “lottery ticket” things in this moment is that I came at acting through improv theater but also the writing and directing side of it. I knew I wanted to make stuff; I just didn’t know how. Because of how lucky I’ve been recently, there’s some stuff I’ve been working on behind the camera, and it’s a little bit easier to get meetings about that.

The main thing is just figuring out how to make stuff that you want to watch and be alongside people who you want to be near. Zach Woods [who I’ve worked with before] says this thing about wanting to make things that have the urgency of having to take a piss. All the things that I have gone and made that I’m really proud of have that feeling. You just, all of a sudden, are like, I need to get this out. White Lotus was one of those where I read the script and I was like, I need it. I need to be there. They asked after I sent my audition, “Do you know how to swim?” I’m an okay swimmer, but I was like, “Yes, I’m the best swimmer ever. I’m Michael Phelps.” You just have that primal, wild urge.

I’ve directed a couple of music videos with this really wonderful editor. We talk about urgency when we’re cutting something. He said he saw a monologue where a woman was on a stage and she was holding a bag that had a goldfish in it. Right before she started the monologue, she made a little indent in the plastic bag and the water started going, and she did the whole monologue. The audience is focused on the fact that this goldfish is going to die.

That is how I feel: I want to make things that feel like that, and I also want to feel like that in how I run toward things. I want to make things where I’m like, I have to do this, or the goldfish is going to die.

Fred Hechinger Is Having One Hell of a Summer