He may look like the stereotypical guy’s guy, but Garrett Hedlund’s life, on screen and off, is all in the subtleties
There are certain actors who are at ease behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Their quiet masculinity hints at a deeper, complicated inner life. They’re artists who also look good in a uniform. Sam Shepard is their spirit animal. They are very skilled at playing drunk. Garrett Hedlund is one of those actors.
“I can’t say that it was the first time,” Hedlund says of playing an alcoholic for five straight weeks on the set of the Netflix feature Mudbound. “I’m kind of used to it.” Co-starring Carey Mulligan, the drama follows a sensitive World War II pilot who returns home to rural Mississippi and grapples with complex family dynamics in the still-segregated South.
In a white T-shirt, beat-up jeans with a pack of Marlboros in the back pocket, Ray-Bans and work boots, the 33-year-old Roseau, Minn., native looks like the guy you might run into in the fantasy version of Hollywood. When we meet at an Eastside coffee shop, down the street from his first apartment in Los Angeles (where he still spends most of his time, despite the fact that he owns a much larger home nearby), he doesn’t exactly blend in: 6 feet 2 inches with a shock of dark-blond hair that adds another couple inches to his height, he speaks in a baritone voice that renders him, as his publicist mentions in an email, “hard to miss.”
“I was the last one of my pals to get anything technologically advanced,” he says, lighting a cigarette at an outside table. “Whether it’s the latest phone or a new computer, my friends say, ‘If Garrett gets an iPad, the world’s going to end. He’s much better in his pickup.’ On the surface, I’m a little bit old-fashioned.”
In reality, a guy like Hedlund is as rare as rain in L.A. And when casting directors find someone like him, they put him to work. In his 15-year acting career, he’s played a Greek hero opposite Brad Pitt in Troy (2004), a high school football star in the Peter Berg-directed film Friday Night Lights (2004), a muttering beatnik in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a singer-songwriter in Country Strong (2010) opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, and, perhaps most memorably, Dean Moriarty in the Walter Salles adaptation of On the Road (2012).
This year, Hedlund stars in two movies based in the South that are eerily timely given the extreme racial tensions that are bubbling to the surface in America. There’s Burden, also starring Usher and Forest Whitaker, based on the story of a Ku Klux Klan member in South Carolina who then leaves that world for love. And there’s the aforementioned Mudbound, director Dee Rees’ adaptation of a gorgeous, lyrical novel by Hillary Jordan, which is already generating early award buzz.
“We shot Mudbound in just a handful of weeks in Louisiana,” Hedlund says. “We did our damnedest not to make it sentimental. We wanted it to be real. The way Dee works, with these long shots on the actors’ faces, you empathize with them. You feel like you’re in there in the story with them.”
On the set of Burden, filmed in rural Georgia, director Andrew Heckler staged a fake Klan rally, and it attracted some participants who didn’t understand the nature of the proceedings.
“We had people come to the set thinking it was real. Someone would ask, ‘Are you with the crew?’ And they’d say, ‘No! We just needed to check it out.’ They were Klan members. [The cast and crew] all came on board because they aren’t naïve. They know what’s happening out there.”
Hedlund is not the kind of guy who makes strong political statements with words, but it’s clear that he is proud of the work he has done on both of these recent films and that he possesses a powerful drive to tell stories about real, often darkly complicated men who make hard choices for the right reasons.
“I have the empathetic curse—I would definitely call it a curse,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re stressing right now, I’m the one who might feel nauseous for you. The stories I love make me cry my brains out. But I’m a Virgo. Naturally, we’re the sensitive ones.”
Growing up in Minnesota, the only options Hedlund saw for his future were through sports like wrestling or hockey (a handful of pro players come from his hometown). If that didn’t work out, “you were taking over the farm,” he says. Opportunities for a teenage boy with his unique combination of interests and personality traits—his love of walleye fishing and skeet shooting, and his desire to communicate a certain emotional truth—were limited. At 14, he moved to Phoenix with his mother, and the world seemed to open up before his eyes.
“In Phoenix, there were creative-writing classes, photojournalism classes, theater. It got these wheels spinning. I started thinking about life in a different way,” he says, painting a picture of his teen self in “hand-me-down clothes and horrible haircuts by my sister with my dad’s clippers.”
He developed a penchant for bingeing on movies—buying a ticket for one and staying in the theater for three—which sparked an interest in acting, and he started flying to L.A. for auditions. His first major job was Troy, where he was so green that his co-stars, like Pitt and the late, great Peter O’Toole, had to give him impromptu on-set acting lessons, telling him where to stand in certain shots.
In the early days, people often mistook him for actor Charlie Hunnam, particularly during Hunnam’s stint on Judd Apatow’s campus sitcom Undeclared. “We went up against each other for the same parts for years,” he says. Now the closest of friends, they recently found themselves shooting Glocks together under the blistering July sun. “I was out in the middle of nowhere, doing weapons training with Charlie, and we had a blast,” he says, and then points to the sunburn on his arm. The plan is for the two of them to co-star in a military drama with Mark Wahlberg, but because this is Hollywood, and funding and schedule changes drop on projects like bombs, he is managing his expectations.
At the moment, he’s enjoying some rare downtime in L.A., which is technically his home, though typically for only a few weeks a year. He’ll write in his journal, listen to jazz, take a long drive out of town, avoid his big movie-star house and generally do his best to pretend that it isn’t 2017.
“When people describe me, I get ‘not from this era’ a lot,” he says, lighting up another cigarette. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Photography by KURT MARKUS.
Styling by ALISON EDMOND.
Written by CHRISTINE LENNON.