How Lucas Hedges Connected with the Story of Boy Erased

Boy Erased star and New York City native Lucas Hedges explains how he related to a Baptist kid from Arkansas.

Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased

Lucas Hedges is, as they say, having a moment. Following his breakout, Oscar-nominated performance two years ago in Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant Manchester by the Sea (which itself came on the heels of small roles in films like Kill the Messenger and The Grand Budapest Hotel), the 21-year-old New York-based actor has been on something of a tear. After appearing last year in Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, he’s showing up this fall in three already acclaimed films, two of them as the lead: Boy Erased, Mid90s and the upcoming Ben is Back.

In Boy Erased, directed by Joel Edgerton (also an actor himself), Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a character inspired by Garrard Conley, who wrote the memoir the film is based on. Jared lives in a small town in Arkansas where his father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a Baptist pastor and pillar of the community. But when a series of incidents lead Jared to realize he is gay, his father and mother (Nicole Kidman), along with other members of their congregation, convince him to enter conversion therapy — a nightmarish journey through which he ultimately finds the strength to embrace who he is.

The film’s sensitive handling of the character and Hedges’ moving portrayal further establish him as one of the best new actors on the scene, capable of performances of great depth and empathy. In Mid90s (Jonah Hill’s directorial debut), he plays Ian, the older brother of main character Stevie and a bully who masks some deep emotional insecurities. Meanwhile, Ben is Back — directed by Hedges’ father, Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life) — finds the actor exploring the problem of drug addiction as a young man returning home from rehab.

Hedges has a lot more acting and probably an Oscar or two (if not a Tony — he just made his Broadway debut in a revival of Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery) in front of him, and Den Of Geek was pleased to speak with him via phone recently about Boy Erased, working with actor-directors, whether he’d ever want to play a superhero and more.

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Den of Geek: Had you been aware of Mr. Conley’s story?

Lucas Hedges: I was not aware of his story or the book. Joel reached out and said, “You should check out this book. I’m thinking about turning it into a movie.” So I read it as soon as possible. I really fell — fell in love with it is a weird way to say it — but I loved his mind and his thoughts and the way in which he wrote about his experience with shame, which was the thing that drew me in most.

You and he come from very different backgrounds. He’s from the Deep South, from a religious background and you’re from a pretty liberal upbringing in Brooklyn. What were the connection points you found with him?

I found shame to be a common theme in my life. I mean, to this day it’s one of the major motivating factors of how I’m still coming to understand myself and my humanity. And I think one of the things that’s interesting, one of the things that’s a characteristic of shame is experiencing isolation.

It seeks to separate you from everyone around you and make you feel isolated from the rest of the world and in many respects, it’s fueled off the imagination and what the imagination can do to your sense of self and how destructive it can grow if not properly treated. And while he grew up in a world that wasn’t as safe as mine, the roots of what I experienced to be true, of his story of experiencing himself as other, I felt I identified with.

What was meeting with him like and does playing a living person change the way you approach a role?

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Yeah, it made it very tangible and real to me. It also gave me incentives. This guy lived it and he’s going to see it and if he is disappointed, that’s going to make it pretty hard for me. That’s going to make it harder for me to live with myself. I’ll be able to, but if I knew he didn’t like it that would kind of break my heart. So I really, really, was motivated to tell his story and do it justice because of him.

Further Reading: Boy Erased Review

One scene that stood out to me was the one in the car with your would-be girlfriend, early in the film, where she wants to kind of take things further and you’re trying to let her down as gently as possible. Are scenes like that instinctive? Do you rehearse it or talk it out a lot with the director?

I think that one in particular, we talked about it as much as possible but in some respects, talking about scenes before doing them can be limiting to the experience of capturing something true, because you don’t know what it is until you do it. And I found, siting with her in that car that day was…I don’t know, it was actually one of my favorite scenes to film. The conflict felt very understandable to me. This girl very clearly wants something from my character and I know deep down why that I can’t give it to her and the more she presents herself to me and wants to be with me, the more it pulls on the many different things that I don’t currently know how to handle in my life.

Is there a difference between working with directors who are actors, like Joel Edgerton or Greta Gerwig, as opposed to someone like Martin McDonagh who is not?

Yeah, well there’s definitely a difference. I wouldn’t say that one’s better than the other, but I think it is interesting to note that most directors only have themselves as reference points. And I don’t experience that as having been limiting for somebody like Martin or Kenny (Lonergan).

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But these actors, sort of get to pick and choose what things they’ve seen over the years of them working with directors that they like and get to offer them up. So they have a wide variety of references and the thing that I like most about having worked with these actors is that they actually were the ones that wanted to direct me least in a way that. They were just sort of like, “I hired you because I trust you and I like what you do. Now just do what you want.” With the exception of when something’s really off, then they would say something, but for the most part I felt like it was a relationship rooted in, “You go do your thing and I’m going to watch and have an eye on you, but I trust you.”

What was it like working with your dad on Ben Is Back? That must have been a whole different kind of experience.

Yeah, definitely. It was bizarre and it required us having to formalize our relationship ’cause otherwise it wasn’t something I knew how to do with him as being my dad so I had to turn him into the director. My dad’s a really smart guy, and also comes from the theater, so I found that there was some ways in which he could offer me things and moments that I thought were very insightful and also were actor friendly notes. They weren’t results. They were things that I could do, that I could play so I thought that was effective.

Further Reading: Lucas Hedges to Play Shia LeBeouf

Do the characters in Boy Erased and Ben is Back share the problem of being misinterpreted by those around them, in the sense that people think that Jared in Boy Erased has a choice about his sexuality or Ben has a choice about being an addict?

Well, I wouldn’t actually compare those two in that respect. I think, there’s much more misunderstanding going on, I think, in the case of Boy Erased than there is in Ben Is Back. I mean, yes, I do think that for somebody who is not an addict and who is trying to love one, there is misunderstanding that goes on but, for the most part, there is a common understanding that Ben, the character, has fucked up a lot. He’s made a lot of mistakes and nobody is necessarily in denial about that. I say, in both of them, there are people who really deeply love each other and they’re trying to figure out how to be in relationship but they don’t know how. I think that that’s the common event that they’re at an odds with.

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You’ve been doing a lot of independent, adult-oriented dramas. Would you be interested in dipping into the blockbuster realm or putting on a cape and doing a superhero movie if the right thing came along?

I don’t think I’d be interested necessarily. I’m not interested in doing a long term commitment for one of those things. I think that they take a lot of time to film those movies and to do like three or four is just too much life, I think, to be spent making on them. If there was a really exciting one, maybe, but I don’t feel like I’m a match for them, to be honest.

That makes sense.

It’s not to say those worlds don’t excite me. There’s honestly nothing I like more than a really well-done movie that has supernatural elements. I love sci-fi, in particular, but I don’t see myself wanting to be a part of the Marvel world any time soon, to be honest.

Boy Erased is out in theaters now, while Ben is Back opens December 7.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye

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