A Minnesota farm boy blows up
When he was 6 years old, Garrett Hedlund marched out to the barn on his family’s 1,000-acre cattle farm in Minnesota, clamped a .223 cartridge into his father’s bench vise, raised a hammer, positioned a nail against the shell, and started tapping.
What happened next? “It went off,” the rakish 29-year-old actor says with a grin.“Then the belt came out.”
These days Hedlund has no need to detonate projectiles to make life more interesting — he’s been close pals with Brad Pitt since his first movie part, in Troy; Angelina Jolie just cast him in her grown-up Christmas blockbuster, Unbroken; and he’s been dating Kirsten Dunst for the past two years. His new film, Lullaby, in which he co-stars with Amy Adams, Anne Archer, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Richard Jenkins, is slated for release shortly.
Hedlund’s childhood was as tough as his present is starry, but for every early morning chore there was an endless summer day spent running in the fields, a night spent camping, or an early morning deer hunt.
“Everything that pushed me away is what pulls me back now. It’s the kind of life I’d like to give my own kids when I have them,” he says. “It could be boring and lonely as shit, and we would wish we had more material things, like cool toys, but then we’d disappear into the woods for days with a hammer and a bag of nails to build a tree fort.”
We’re sitting upstairs in the Mirror Room of the legendary Engineer Pub in Primrose Hill, North London, near where Hedlund is shooting a Peter Pan prequel (he plays Hook before he lost his hand). I’m introducing him to the Engineer’s famous Scotch eggs—hard-boiled and coated with sausage meat, bread crumbs, and haggis. Between bites, he whips out his iPhone to show me some pictures from his childhood.
“This is me with my pet steer,” he says, swiping to a photograph of a sandy-haired boy snuggling up to a massive Charolais bull. His name was Buddy. “Yeah, unfortunately someone bought half the meat on him for $11,000 when they saw him at the county fair, so I came home from school one day and there was Buddy, skinned and hanging from the rafters,” he says. Did he eat Buddy? “I didn’t want to, but ‘Then you’ll starve’ — that was the way it was put to me.”
Hedlund’s parents separated when he was young and he and his siblings (an elder brother and younger sister) lived with his father on their farm. His father, by his son’s account, seems to be a rather gruff, no-nonsense man of the soil. He expected his kids to help on the farm rather than sit inside watching television and playing video games — “You were in trouble if you were caught inside on a sunny day,” Hedlund says. And while the family wasn’t poor, his dad “busted his ass” for every penny he made and there was little left over for frivolities like movies, although, occasionally, Hedlund could sneak into the projection room of the local one-screen cinema. (His brother was friends with the owner’s kid.)
The actor’s impression of his father — “Two bucks for a bag of popcorn? Three bucks for a damn pop? You gotta be kidding me!” — is telling. They had — and still have — a complex and textured relationship. Like most young guys, Hedlund worshipped his old man as a kid. “Everyone back home wants to become their father as quickly as possible,” he says. “They want to be trusted to be behind that piece of machinery. There’s nothing worse for a boy on a farm than to not be trusted with a piece of machinery. You might as well not be there.”
His father was not unloving, but neither was he given to overt and extravagant displays of love. “I was always raised affectionately, but it was unspoken,” he says. “It was read by your body language, the look in your eyes, the smile when you see someone. You can honestly tell when someone loves you, because you show them, so you never have to ask. Sometimes I think asking someone to say ‘I love you’ diminishes it in a way. It’s really tricky.” In Lullaby, Hedlund strikes familiar ground by playing a son who confronts his remote father on his deathbed.
When I read the script it hit home for me,” he says. “It’s not that the character, Jonathan, is exactly like me — he’s very stubborn, entitled, a bit of a bastard — but that he makes a decision to embark on a career that’s very different than what his parents had planned for him.
“Our town had proven you could be a pro hockey player, or play in the NFL just about, but to be in the movies? That wasn’t on the agenda.”
“Our town had proven you could be a pro hockey player, or play in the NFL just about, but to be in the movies? That wasn’t on the agenda.” “The other thing that scared me was that Richard Jenkins is playing a character who is in a hospital bed, who is missing his son, and whose name is Robert, and that’s my father’s name. I’ve been in that situation, next to him, next to my father in a hospital bed, trying to make sense of my own childhood.”
Hedlund doesn’t want to specify the nature of his father’s ailment, but suffice it to say he made a full recovery. But country life was never going to be enough for Hedlund, and, after the rifle shell experiment, he sought to inject excitement into his life by becoming a proficient candy thief. “I was a little klepto. Mostly I’d steal candy because we weren’t allowed that as kids. We’d go on wrestling trips to different towns and we’d throw our bags down and go straight to the nearest convenience store, and come walking back with Kit Kats and Snickers and Pogs, which were a big thing then. Every other kid had money to buy things and I didn’t.”
At 14, increasingly frustrated by rural life, Hedlund moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with his mother. “There were 4,000 kids in my new school, which was double the entire population of my hometown,” he says. “Video games and skateboarding weren’t as fulfilling after a time and I started going to movies a lot more, and they really affected me. I only liked going to the movies on my own, so I could really immerse myself in the experience. I knew nothing about movies back then. You could have shown me 20 pictures and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which actor was Marlon Brando, which was Sean Penn or Peter O’Toole.”
Encouraged by his mom, Hedlund started going to acting classes, and an extraordinary new phase of life opened up to him. “I had actually never finished a book before then, but I started reading. Since I didn’t have the woods and fields to run around in, this was the forest for me now, the place to be imaginative and escape. I read The Glass Menagerie and that really affected me. I became friends with guys in improv groups, and I started reading The Hollywood Reporter and Variety in bookstores. I learned all the names of the studio heads.”
It was a crash course that would stand him in good stead. After he graduated high school, he moved to L.A., but having been ripped off working at a Christmas tree farm by a shady female duo he likens to “Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob,” he arrived in the city with no money and only “a toilet cleaning brush, some plastic dishes, and such a shitty truck that I almost pulled off the road in Redlands. I needed to change the tire but that would have been half my money.”
Within weeks he was cast in Troy and his rise began. Perhaps Hedlund’s most valuable asset is his ability to move between the popcorn world of movies like Troy and more powerful, serious roles like On the Road and Lullaby. If you don’t catch Hedlund in Lullaby, you’re unlikely to miss him in Unbroken, the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic of Olympic athlete, airman, and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. He plays Zamperini’s fellow prisoner John Fitzgerald.
Was he intimidated by Jolie? “No, but I had met her a few times before, through Brad,” he says, enviably untroubled by self-doubt. “She was great in terms of letting us develop whatever ideas we had about our characters. We’d pick out our own wardrobe, and she’d tell us, ‘You go into hair and makeup and come out the way you want.’ There was no, ‘Everyone else is clean-shaven, so we’re gonna put a moustache on you.’ “It was a beautiful permission to have, to develop the character of John. I can’t wait to see the movie because I can’t wait to meet him.” And you know what? If he’s anything like Hedlund, neither can I.