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Actor Lucas Hedges On 'Ben is Back', ADHD And Crying On Screen


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Lucas Hedges was still a teenager when he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in the 2016 movie, "Manchester By The Sea." He played a 16-year-old who loses his bearings after his father dies and names the boy's uncle as his guardian. Last year, in Greta Gerwig's film, "Lady Bird," Hedges played a teenager who realizes he's gay and is afraid to tell anyone.

Now at the age of 21, Hedges is in three new movies. In "Mid90s," he plays a teenager who brutally bullies his younger brother. In "Boy Erased," for which he just got nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe, he plays a teenager whose parents send him off to Christian gay conversion therapy.

His third new movie, "Ben Is Back," opens this Friday. It was written and directed by Hedges' father, Peter Hedges. Lucas Hedges stars as a 19-year-old who's in rehab for an addiction to painkillers and heroin. When he stuns his parents and siblings by showing up unannounced on Christmas Eve, they're worried this means trouble for him and for the whole family. He says he's gotten permission to leave the rehab facility for the holiday, but it's hard for the family and for us in the audience to know when he's telling the truth.

At one point, he tells his mother she needs to take him to a 12-step meeting right away. Here he is at the meeting.


LUCAS HEDGES: (As Ben) Hi, I'm Ben, and I'm an addict.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hi, Ben.

HEDGES: (As Ben) I got 77 days.


HEDGES: (As Ben) And that's my most ever. So I just want to get to 78 right now. So I called my sponsor. And the thing about my sponsor is that he's a - he's a loud talker. And so I say, hey. And he goes, what's up? And I was like, well, I've got big news. I just bought presents that I actually picked out for someone. And he was like, oh, well, you're feeling pretty good, huh? I was like, yeah, you know, I actually feel like I'm being honest. And, well, he said, if you were honest, Ben, you'd look in the mirror and say, I'm a great, big phony. And so I was like, OK. Because Ben, you're a [expletive] addict, and you're the last person who should believe his own bull-[expletive], so now get to a meeting. So here I am, 77 days clean. Some things are better now, like I can actually take a [expletive].


GROSS: Lucas Hedges, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your father Peter Hedges wrote and directed "Ben Is Back."


GROSS: And I'm going to quote something he said. He said that the screenplay was inspired by drug problems in the family. He said, quote, "I come from a family that has been deeply impacted by addiction, both alcohol and drugs. Some in my family recovered. Some didn't make it. And some family members are still struggling. So after I suffered the loss of someone close to me and watched another person I knew in recovery, I wanted to make a film that explores how one broken, hurting person can impact all the members of his family."

So I don't want to pry or go beyond what's comfortable to talk about, but were these, like, family addiction problems, problems you were aware of and observed yourself as a child? I don't know how distant in the family tree these problems are.

HEDGES: Yeah. My grandmother was an alcoholic and left my father and his family when he was very young. And it left a very big imprint on his life. And I think he would say it's part of the reason why he's so fascinated with the dynamic between a mother and a child and is something he really explores in everything he does. And so I was aware of that relationship from a young age.

I was also aware that my grandmother dedicated probably the last 25 or so years of her life to saving other people in recovery and that she lived a very, very hard life but that there was something remark - I never really got to know her because she died when I was very young. But there was something really remarkable about how she turned her life around.

GROSS: So she left the family when your father was young?


GROSS: Did they reconcile afterwards, after she got sober?

HEDGES: Yeah, it feels as though they reconciled their relationship. I honestly feel like you'd have to ask my dad. I imagine maybe there's something tricky about having a very complicated relationship with your mother and then meeting her 15 years after she sort of abandoned you and your family, and all of a sudden, she's this amazing woman. I imagine that's confusing. And I've never spoken to my dad about this, but that's sort of just what I wonder about, you know?

GROSS: In "Ben Is Back," you play a 19-year-old who has been in and out of rehab. And you've come home for Christmas, surprising your family, who think that you really belong in rehab, and you probably shouldn't be home and that it's going to be trouble. And of course, there's plenty of trouble.

You've said - and I'm going to paraphrase here - but you've said in another interview that you knew people, your peers, who had become addicted to drugs. And you thought it had to do with the fact that they took prescription drugs, like Adderall, when they were in school. That's one of the drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Do you feel like you've seen, like, drugs like those damage people, your peers, who were on them?

HEDGES: Well, I was prescribed Adderall. And I took Adderall, and honestly, like, Adderall did not help me do any more work. I took Adderall, and I would end up just sitting on my couch high. It was such an overwhelming experience for me that I couldn't work. And I didn't stop doing it because I enjoyed it. And I never developed an addiction of any kind to that or to any other substance. But I think if you're predisposed to that kind of tendency, I certainly don't see it as being very helpful.

I think it's rare, in the world that I grew up in, to explore a more creative alternative to something like Adderall or attention deficit disorder, which I think would be much healthier and really is more just, I think, a reflection of untapped potential, as opposed to some sort of, like, deficit. Like, I see all of my ADHD or whatever to be, really, just all creative energy that doesn't know where it wants to go.

GROSS: How do you wish it had been tapped at the time instead of through drugs?

HEDGES: Well, the tricky thing is that I don't think I would have been interested, at that point in my life, in exploring any alternatives. That's what I'm interested in now. So I had to go on my own journey to sort of be like, OK, none of this stuff works. And I want something better.

And I'd say what I'm interested in now, which I would like to offer perhaps myself then or somebody - somebody of that age who's taking Adderall, would be something related to body work, like movement, dance. I think if you find a way to exercise that inner whatever - inner creativity, then there will be a clearer channel for you. And the focus comes from there. It comes from being more embodied as opposed to - so there's something a little off. Let's give you this to center you.

GROSS: So you know, in "Mid90s," which is a movie about, like, a young skateboarder - and he - I think he's around 12 in it. And this was the movie written and directed by Jonah Hill. You play his big brother. And you're being raised by a single mother. And you, as the older brother, you beat up your younger brother, like - and I don't mean in a big-brotherly kind of loving way. I mean, like, you really beat him up like this is a gang fight. (Laughter) You know?


GROSS: So did it come naturally to you to be in a position where, like, you're beating somebody up?

HEDGES: No, I was always, like - I got into, like, some pushing fights. But I was one of those kids that, like - I remember one time my brother hit me in the face with a lollipop pillow (laughter). And it had a long, long handle. It was, like, a big, big lollipop. And my brother smacked me in the face with it. And I, like - my ears were ringing so much. And immediately, like - whenever anything physical happened to me, I was on the verge of, like, sobbing. That was - that was me. I was very, very sensitive, extremely hypersensitive.

Another time, me and my brother were playing basketball. And he, like, pushed me up against the wall because I was playing such hard defense on him. And immediately, I was, like, frozen, and, like, my eyes welled up with tears. So I don't know what would have happened if anybody punched me in the face. Like, I don't know what (laughter) - I don't know what - how I would have reacted, but I imagine it would have been pretty severe.

GROSS: You cry in movies. I mean, like...

HEDGES: Yeah, I do. (Laughter).

GROSS: Let's see. You cry in "Lady Bird." You cry in - you sob in "Manchester By The Sea."

HEDGES: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And in "Ben Is Back" you cry, too.

HEDGES: "Ben Is Back" and "Boy Erased," too, yeah.

GROSS: So does that come easily to you on film, like it does in real life?

HEDGES: It's very interesting because since I started crying in movies, I've stopped crying in my life.

GROSS: Whoa, that is interesting (laughter).

HEDGES: Yeah - or I don't cry as much. And maybe it's because I'm not - I don't find myself in situations anymore - you know, I'm not a kid. And when I was a kid, things were somehow more volatile. And I'm not in social situations where - you know, I kind of live in this - in a bit of a bubble. I go to work with - right now I'm doing a play. And I go to work with four other actors. And I go home. And I only really engage with them. And I don't read anything that comes out online. So I sort of have like a monastic lifestyle.

But when I was a kid, it was very easy for me to get very emotional. And I find that - now there's a part of me that, I think, has started to see it as currency, that emotion - that my emotion is my currency. And I think since it became that, maybe a part of me is like - doesn't fully understand how it exists in this world as much as it does in that one. I don't know exactly. But it's just interesting, I guess, and I suppose a little concerning, but...

GROSS: (Laughter) So when you cry for a scene, is that hard to do? Do you have to summon up, like, real emotions that would have made you cry earlier?

HEDGES: Yeah. I always find it's the thing I stress out about most, but it's always on the day becomes - just - it just takes care of itself. I work a lot with music. And the interesting thing about my crying is what really makes me cry is the idea of triumph more than anything else, that overcoming something is what make - is what really gets me.

And one of my favorite bands is a band called Future Islands. And they've got this song called "On The Water," which, when I was in high school, was my favorite song. And I loved it so much because it - I felt when I listened to it like I was - suddenly, it was like overcoming everything that had held me down for however many years I felt really lost. And I found that I could cry when I listened to that song in a way that always felt uplifting. And it was something that could help get me to a place in these movies. But the second I start crying, the second I get to that place, then I can enter into the story and use it however I want. And then it kind of remains to be my internal experience, and yet, it appears as though it's - it fits with the character.

GROSS: When you'd cry in real life, when you were younger, was it embarrassing?

HEDGES: Yeah, definitely. It really felt like a sign of weakness. And I remember one time I was taking trumpet class, and I couldn't figure out what this, like - if it was like an F for a G or the symbol. And we were writing notes on the chalkboard. And I just kept getting it wrong. And it felt like forever that the teacher was trying to help me get it right. And I couldn't get it right. And I finally got it right. And he was like, finally.

And then I just burst into tears. And then he was like, I'm so sorry. And I went on a walk. And when I came back and walked back into the room, I just felt like - it felt like, as a kid, that everyone else - that I now existed on a tier below. I also felt that way when other kids cried in class, that I existed on a tier above, that I was like - I suddenly was now in a - I was safe. So it wasn't something that I purely experienced to make me feel worse than other people. It was - it went both ways.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lucas Hedges. And his breakthrough role was in "Manchester By The Sea." He's now in three movies - "Mid90s," "Boy Erased" and the brand-new film "Ben Is Back." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Lucas Hedges, who's in three movies right now. He's in "Boy Erased," "Mid90s," and the newest of the three is "Ben Is Back."

So there's a scene in "Lady Bird" in which you've been Saoirse Ronan's character's boyfriend. And she thinks, like, you're really soulmates. And then she finds you kissing another boy. And she realizes that you're gay. And she's so angry and so, like, personally offended because she feels like you weren't honest with her, and also, her dreams of you being her forever boyfriend are ruined. And she won't speak to you until you visit her at the cafe where she's working. And you talk to her. And I want to play that scene.


SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) What do you want from me? Yes?

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) My grandma wanted me to tell you that she missed you at Christmas.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Yeah, well, I couldn't have gone anyway. My mom was pissed about Thanksgiving.

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) Your mom is crazy. I'm scared of her.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) She's not crazy. She's just, you know, she has a big heart. She's very warm.

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) I don't find your mother warm.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) You don't?

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) No. She's warm, yeah, but she's also kind of scary.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Well, you can't be scary and warm.

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) I think you can - your mom is.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) You're gay.

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill) Can you not tell anyone, please? I'm so sorry about everything. I'm so ashamed of all of it. It's just - it's going to be bad. And I just need a little bit of time to figure out how I'm going to tell my mom and dad and...

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Don't worry.

HEDGES: (As Danny O'Neill, crying).

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) I won't tell. It's OK.

GROSS: So, Lucas Hedges, at the end of that scene, you are sobbing in her arms. So you've talked about how it's relatively easy for you to cry in a role. Did Saoirse Ronan know that you were going to be sobbing or did you surprise her with that?

HEDGES: Yeah, I didn't know either that I would. And if you watch the movie, it's a wide shot that it happens in. I think it was the second take. And I felt compelled in that direction. And I did it. It didn't feel right to do it again. And it wasn't there for the rest of that scene, which is why it's in the wide. It felt like it had been building up in me before we had started filming, and then that was the only take it came out on.

GROSS: I thought that was so effective because she's so disarmed by it. I mean, you are in such emotional distress at that point that, how can she be angry at you? I mean, you're going through such inner turmoil about your own feelings. And then you're good friends. You're not sexual with each other after that. But you remain - you become very close again. It's just the terms of the closeness have changed.


GROSS: So I thought that was incredibly effective.

HEDGES: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: I want to go back to "Manchester By The Sea," which is the movie that was your breakout role, and your character is 16 in it. So I want to play a scene with overlapping dialogue in this 'cause it's just, like, so well done. Like, this movie was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, and he's very good at executing overlapping dialogue.

So just to set up the scene, 'cause I want people to know what to listen for, there's three people in this scene. You've just become an orphan because - well, more or less, an orphan. Your mother left the family years ago, and your father has just died. He's named your uncle, played by Casey Affleck, as your guardian. Casey Affleck's character is kind of irresponsible. He drinks too much. He gets into fights. And he lives about 30 miles away from where you do so he doesn't want to move to where you are. You don't want to move to where he is.

Also in this scene is your father's kind of business partner. Your character's father owned a commercial fishing vessel. That's how he made his living, and he willed the boat to you. But the boat needs a new motor, which is going to be really expensive. So your uncle, Casey Affleck, wants you to sell the boat 'cause there's no money for a new motor. It ends up being a conversation about who's really going to be your guardian. The actor who plays your father's friend and business partner speaks first, and that's - C.J. Wilson, is the actor's name.


C.J. WILSON: (As George) It's not like the motor's going to die tomorrow, but Joe said it keeps breaking down like a son-of-a-bitch.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Yeah. But we were going to take a look - we were going to take a look...

CASEY AFFLECK: (As Lee) There's an allotment of some kind, but...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) ...Take a look this weekend.

AFFLECK: (As Lee) ...Things are a little bit up in the air.

WILSON: (As George) Well, I can take care of it as far as the general maintenance is concerned, but that motor's going to go at some point.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I'm taking care of it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee) There's no allotment for a new motor. Unless, George, you know someone who wants to buy it.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Wait a second. I'm not selling it.

AFFLECK: (As Lee) We're going to be in Boston, anyway.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) What? Since when are we supposed to be in Boston?

AFFLECK: (As Lee) Just take it easy.

WILSON: (As George) Well, whatever you decide, it's going to bleed you dry just sitting here.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) We don't know exactly what we're doing.

WILSON: (As George) Well, you know, he can always stay with us, if he wants to come up weekends.

AFFLECK: (As Lee) Do you want to be his guardian?

WILSON: (As George) Well...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) He doesn't want to be my guardian...

WILSON: (As George) Well, we already...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) ...For Chrissakes. He's got four kids.

WILSON: (As George) ...Got a houseful. We're trying to lose some kids at this point.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Have you seen his house?

AFFLECK: (As Lee) No. I - we're trying to work out the logistics...

WILSON: (As George) We're jammed in there pretty good.

AFFLECK: (As Lee) ...So I didn't know.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) Jesus Christ.

WILSON: (As George) But we've always got a sofa for him...

HEDGES: (As Patrick) George.

WILSON: (As George) ...Anytime he wants.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) George. George?

WILSON: (As George) You know that, right?

HEDGES: (As Patrick) That's alright. I know. I know that.

WILSON: (As George) Welcome any time.

HEDGES: (As Patrick) I understand. I know. Thank you.

GROSS: OK. So I'm curious how that was written on the page and what advice Kenneth Lonergan gave you in directing it so that you'd all be talking over each other but, at the same time, those of us in the audience would hear the key words we needed to hear and would understand what was being said.

HEDGES: Well, it's very interesting hearing that 'cause I didn't remember what was in that scene, nor do I actually entirely remember filming it. I do remember on that day, though, the most important thing he was pushing me towards was always a kind of confidence. And with respect to George, just, like, really make sure he knows it's OK, and let him know through your confidence and charm that you understand that he can't be your guardian. I don't remember exactly him talking to me in terms of the overlap. I feel like that was always almost a thing that took care of itself.

GROSS: My guest is Lucas Hedges. He stars in the new movies, "Boy Erased," for which he was just nominated for a Golden Globe, and "Ben Is Back," which opens tomorrow in select theaters. We'll talk more after a break, and we'll hear part two of our interview with Samin Nosrat, who named her bestselling cookbook and her new Netflix series after the four basic elements of cooking, salt, fat, acid, heat. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lucas Hedges, who is having an incredible month, professionally. This morning he was nominated for a best actor Golden Globe for his performance in the new movie, "Boy Erased." He co-stars in the film "Mid90s," which is also currently in theaters. And he stars in another new movie, "Ben Is Back," that opens tomorrow in select cities. He plays a 19-year-old who's in rehab for an addiction to painkillers and heroin. He surprises his family by coming home for Christmas insisting that he got permission to do it, but his parents and older sister see trouble ahead. Hedges also co-starred in "Manchester By The Sea" and "Lady Bird."

Your father is a screenwriter and playwright and director. And as we've said, he wrote and directed the new movie that you star in, "Ben Is Back." So growing up with a father who was in the movie and theater world, did you meet a lot of actors and did their work seem interesting to you?

HEDGES: Yeah. I remember one time when my dad was doing "Dan In Real Life," I got to choose whether or not...

GROSS: That was a 2007 movie with Steve Carell. It was a couple of years after he left "The Daily Show," while he was still in "The Office."

HEDGES: Exactly. And I had the choice of as to whether or not I could go play paintball with my brother and his friends or go bowling with Juliette Binoche and some people from the movie. And at that time, I remember, it was, like - to go paintball, to go play paintball was, like - it was, like, a sacred thing for a boy my age. It was like, if you played paintball, you could talk about it for the whole week with kids. And I much - I would have - I much preferred the idea of going bowling and getting to talk to Juliette Binoche because there was something about - I was always really just obsessed with actors and of what their lives were like. And I just wanted to know them. I didn't watch movies.

And I didn't go, wow, I wish I could do that scene, or I wish I could play that character. I went, I want to be a part of this process in some way. There's a magic involved in filmmaking that I got to witness through my dad's movies. And I had this obsession with actors, in particular.

GROSS: So that meant that you also spent a lot of time with adults.

HEDGES: Yeah. Well, when I - whenever my dad was making a movie - like, when my dad did "The Odd Life Of Timothy Green," and I was in eighth grade, I'd get up. I went and visited him for a week. And I'd get up at 6 in the morning with him. And I would sit on set the entire day. And it was the most exciting thing in the world for me. I'd just eat Double Bubble and watch...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HEDGES: ...Watch the monitor. And it was like - I remember everyone was like, why are you here at 6 in the morning? And I just want - there's nothing I wanted more than to be on set.

GROSS: Because you've played gay characters in a couple of movies, in "Lady Bird" and in one of your current movies, "Boy Erased," I think a lot of people have been asking you, like, how do you identify? And in one interview, you said that you see yourself as a spectrum, you know - as being on the spectrum, someplace between gay and straight and that the first time the idea of there being a kind of sexual orientation spectrum or - you know, was when you were in sixth grade, like a health teacher brought that up.

And I was thinking, as somebody, you know, considerably older than you, I was thinking how amazing that must be, in sixth grade, to have somebody tell you that - not only tell you that there was such a thing as a spectrum, but to say that in a non-judgmental way, like it's OK to position yourself wherever you want to on that spectrum.


GROSS: Was it, like, a remarkable - like, what did you make of that in sixth grade? And was it remarkable to you that somebody was saying that? Or in your family was that just kind of, like, a given, that, well, of course there is.

HEDGES: Yeah. Well, I was aware at the time that I - that the world I was raised in was rare, that I was lucky. I'd won the lottery to be going to this school in Brooklyn Heights and that I was aware that I came from a family that was well-off. But it also came with - you know, my school did also struggle with the same things that I think most of - most everywhere struggles with. You know, there wasn't a single out gay kid in my class, even though we were supposedly enlightened, you know? And I didn't feel as though it would be safe for me to live openly as whatever it is I identified as.

In that moment, I wasn't like, ah, now I can express myself freely. I just - I registered it and went, huh, I think that's true. And I know I'm not 100 percent straight. And I think that that's also in keeping with the - what's happening in the world right now is that things really aren't black and white, particularly with my generation and the ones that are coming up after me. That's sort of where the needle is being pushed forward is it's not just like - we can't be easily boxed in, in one definition.

GROSS: Did you find it reassuring that there was the concept of a spectrum, and that it was OK to be wherever you were on that spectrum, to have a teacher tell you that?

HEDGES: Yeah. I think I always - I remember...

GROSS: Even though you didn't feel like you'd get to talk about it with other people yet, still, somebody told you, an authority figure told you, it's OK.

HEDGES: My parents told me from a young age that - I remember them sitting down and saying, listen, just so you know, if you're gay, that is more than OK. And my godfather, I remember, and lots of the most important people in my life are gay. And so I felt as though that reassurance was there. And what was offered to me in that moment was nuance and a sense of, oh, OK, it's not black and white. And there aren't just gay people and straight people. Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm not going to ask you how you identify because that's your business. And if you want to say something, you're welcome to. But I'm going to ask you about it unless you want to speak about it. But what I will ask you is, is it awkward for you, as a young man who is, you know, figuring out your identity as an adult in the world, to be asked questions like that?

HEDGES: Yeah, I think so. Sometimes I feel as though I have to kind of figure things out on the fly and in front of the world in a way that makes me feel a little anxious. And it's tricky, too, because the way that I do feel isn't easily defined. So it's not like I can just throw a word out. It typically comes with a few sentences. I also don't feel as though it is my job to share when not asked, and I also sometimes feel pressure to, when I'm asked, be specific. And that also doesn't feel appropriate. So it's a whole - it's sort of...

GROSS: Awkward (laughter).

HEDGES: It can get - yeah, it's awkward. Yeah.

GROSS: So are you looking forward to doing roles when you're not the son or the grandson, but you're an independent adult who isn't living with parents?

HEDGES: Yeah, I think so. At the same time - right now I feel like I'm missing out on something a bit. I feel like I've done maybe - I've worked enough in the last two years that I feel like I want to maybe get a few hobbies and live a little more so that when the day does come for me to play an independent person who's not a son, that I'll be ready. And not only that, I will actually be independent.

GROSS: Well, Lucas Hedges, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your performances.

HEDGES: Yeah, thank you very much. Thank you. I really, really appreciate you and this conversation.

GROSS: Lucas Hedges stars in two new movies, "Boy Erased," for which he was just nominated for a Golden Globe, and "Ben Is Back," which opens tomorrow in select cities. After a break, we'll hear part two of our interview with Samin Nosrat, who named her bestselling cookbook and her new Netflix series after the four basic elements of cooking, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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