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It’s been a heck of a year for Fred Hechinger as the 21-year-old actor has been a consistent presence on our screens since December 2020. From Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk and Paul Greengrass’ News of the World to Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Widow and Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy, Hechinger has amassed quite a resume of films since he first caught viewers’ attention at the 2018 Sundance premiere of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. But this summer’s small screen work is where Hechinger has really cemented his status as an up-and-coming talent to watch, beginning with Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad and concluding with Mike White’s The White Lotus.
For Hechinger, the role of Quinn Mossbacher on White’s hit HBO series has only reinforced his belief that Generation Z would greatly benefit from reduced screen time.
“I generally waver between not looking at my phone for long periods of time and then becoming obsessed with it. So I’ve had years where I’ve done the flip phone thing in an effort to use it less,” Hechinger tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So it becomes a personal thing of how you can restrict and keep yourself in check. There’s good and there’s bad from a screen, and there are ways that it makes me feel more connected. But in a very individual way, it’s just difficult to figure out how to manage your life without having an addiction to these devices.”
Hechinger is also looking back at the shared lesson he learned from Tom Hanks on the News of the World set and Amy Adams’ The Woman in the Window set.
“I learned from [Hanks] that playing grounded and dark scenes doesn’t mean you have to avoid joy and happiness,” Hechinger shares. “Similar to the lesson I just said, [Adams] told me this thing early on when we were in the rehearsal room. She looked at me very seriously in the eyes and said, ‘You do not need to court darkness. It is already there. A character who is seemingly and supposedly dark in the film is still searching for happiness and a sense of self, and those are a lot of the things that you, yourself, are searching for.'”
Hechinger is already anticipating his next series, Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, which premieres in 2022. The New York native, who plays pornographer Seth Warshavsky, is still marveling over Lily James’ transformation into Pamela Anderson.
“We did our scenes on our first day, which was my first time with her, and that night, I did another scene,” Hechinger recalls. “Then she went to the makeup trailer because it takes a couple of hours to get everything off, as well as to get it on. So as I’m walking to my car to go home, I see this woman in the parking lot who says, ‘Hi, I’m Lily. Nice to meet you.’ I was like, ‘I’m Fred. Nice to meet you.’ So I didn’t meet her on set; I met someone else.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Hechinger (pronounced Heck-in-jur) also discusses his fondness for Fear Street director Leigh Janiak, as well as the many benefits of learning to scuba dive with Steve Zahn.
Fred, I’ve spent more time with you during the pandemic than my own family
(Laughs.) I’m sorry to you and your family, but thank you as well. But yeah, it’s been wild. In a way, it’s serendipitous that about three years of work fell in the same summer, but it has been really exciting and cool.
Let’s start with The White Lotus. For a job like this to come up during the pandemic — one where you get to shoot in paradise and learn scuba diving and outrigger canoeing — you must’ve felt like you won the lottery, right?
I still do. I’m so happy the show exists for a lot of reasons. One of them is simply to prove to myself that I didn’t imagine it. (Laughs.) It all really happened, and it was beyond a dream. It was a dream that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with, myself. Usually, you come up with the dream first and then you try and make it happen. While working with Mike [White] was a dream that I’d always had, the configuration of this story, these people and this company of actors — especially in a time when I didn’t even know if I’d be able to work — was truly extraordinary.
I thought your castmates in Let Them All Talk had a cool gig by shooting on the Queen Mary 2, but White Lotus definitely takes the cake.
(Laughs.) I’d still like to go on the Queen Mary, though. I haven’t been on it yet, which I still want to do at some point.
Did the White Lotus cast all stay at the Four Seasons [Resort Maui at Wailea], which also served as The White Lotus hotel in the story?
Yeah, we lived there, filmed there and didn’t leave there. We were in a bubble on the property, so we got to know every crevice of that hotel. It was remarkable because you’d finish a scene and then you’re back in your room within a minute. Or when you’d wake up, you didn’t have to worry about being late to set or any of that. We were all there the entire time. The days where we would film underwater or go on the boat were the only exceptions, and we’d drive away and wouldn’t interact with anyone. We’d just be in the car and then we’d be on the boat. But Steve [Zahn] and I were in a bubble at the place, so we would be amazed by inverse things. Even though we were in this spot of enormous luxury, the car ride over to the water was exciting because Steve and I would be like, “Oh, look! It’s a gas station! I can’t believe there’s a gas station!” So it was funny in that way.
What was the longest amount of time you spent in Quinn’s beach bed?
It was wonderful happenstance because we filmed on my birthday, and that was one of the days where we did a big part of Quinn on the beach. It was a big section of those sequences. So I was able to walk out there at 4 a.m., right as the sun was rising, and I was there until the end of the day. So it was really great.
Because of this show, so many teenagers are going to pull a Quinn and drag their comforters out to that beach to sleep.
(Laughs.) I’m honored to disturb any families and their parenting dynamics. Yeah, I’m very happy to break that. No one’s patrolling the beach, so you can sleep there if you wish.
Did you spend most of your downtime actually learning scuba diving and canoeing like the character?
Well, in order to film those sequences, Steve and I had to have our PADI license. So during pre-production, the first day that I got out of quarantine, Steve and I did three days of scuba lessons. And it was actually a really incredible way to bond. What’s also funny is that the guy who taught us, a wonderful guy named Ty, is used to having students who are really excited to learn scuba diving. He wasn’t so used to having two actors who were scared of all the ways that they could die underwater and were more focused on the scene work that they were excited to do. (Laughs.) So for the first couple of days, he was a little bit like, “What? You don’t realize the true magic of what I’m teaching you.” Most of the early exercises are almost like survival role play, essentially. You’re like, “What happens if the air comes out here and you have to run to your partner and use their extra air pouch?” So it’s just all these different kinds of performances of what would happen if your life was threatened underwater, which are pretty scary, especially if you’re entering the ocean and thinking about them in your head. So then when we finally got through that and finally got into the ocean, it was a lot nicer to suddenly realize the majesty of it and actually see these incredible things. But it was also just a great way to get to know one another.
Did you learn outrigger canoeing, too? Or did the other guys carry you like they did Quinn at first?
I did get to learn that as well. It’s such a gift in any project when you get to actually learn a skill. Even if I’m not very good at them, you still get to understand a part of this craft, whatever it is. In this case, I’d go out in the mornings, because that’s when the water is the calmest, and I’d just paddle for a while. So it was really, really special. That’s something that you carry with you even after the shoot is done. You just are able to do this thing that you weren’t able to do before, and that’s really special.
How long do you think Quinn’s adventure is going to last until his parents swoop in and bring him back?
(Laughs.) That’s a Mike question, but I hope it lasts a long time.
Has Quinn helped you decrease your own screen time?
I generally waver between not looking at my phone for long periods of time and then becoming obsessed with it. So I’ve had years where I’ve done the flip phone thing in an effort to use it less.
That’s very Daniel Day-Lewis of you.
(Laughs.) Does Daniel Day-Lewis have a flip phone?
Yeah, a few years ago, he was spotted on the subway with a flip phone.
(Laughs.) Good on him. That’s amazing. I didn’t even know I was emulating the king. So I would do that for a little bit, but I ended up relying on other people and their phones in an enormous way. So I think you have to go on a flip phone and just quit cold turkey because what I did wasn’t really fair to friends and family. I’d spend so much time using Google Maps on their iPhones rather than just figuring out how to get where I needed to go with a paper map or whatever. It’s just hard now. It’d probably be unimaginable for you to be the journalist that you are without a computer and a phone. So it becomes a personal thing of how you can restrict and keep yourself in check. It’s not really realistic to get rid of them, at large, which is interesting for the journey of this character, but he’s at a place in his life where he’s able to make an extreme, absolute decision. He’s privileged enough and also young enough to be able to just jump in. So I definitely think about that in terms of technology. I also don’t think phones are necessarily bad. I don’t subscribe to the other sort of thinking, which is, like, “They are clearly the enemy.” There’s good and there’s bad from a screen, and there are ways that it makes me feel more connected. But in a very individual way, it’s just difficult to figure out how to manage your life without having an addiction to these devices.
News of the World. Since young actors typically don’t like to ask movie stars for advice, they tend to observe their behavior quite closely. So what did you pick up from Tom Hanks that’s stayed with you?
I learned to make sure that everyone on set feels comfortable and a part of the process. It is truly connected to your job as an actor, and it benefits the character and the entire film to build a collaborative environment. So I was really inspired by that. I also learned from [Hanks] that playing grounded and dark scenes doesn’t mean you have to avoid joy and happiness. So every time I watch him in other films and in the movie that we made together, he offers heavy and intense character work, but he doesn’t do that at the professional expense of others. He makes everyone feel really happy, and he truly hangs out. And then once the camera is on, he can be in that place. So I found that really uplifting because I think I could’ve gotten distracted by my own self-importance, you know? So I just feel really happy to have met Hanks. Peter Mullan is another dear friend and a truly incredible actor that I got to work with on The Underground Railroad, and I’d say Hanks and Mullan, back to back, provided this wonderful lesson to me, which was to not be so precious about it. Do the work, be a part of the process and be open to the people around you through that process. That will reveal the layers and the depths that any actor, especially a young actor, is searching for. A dead end is to put up all of these boundaries around yourself and sit around in your hotel room for five days and not talk to anyone because you don’t want to lose any grain of truth. Well, truth is outside. Truth is the people that you need. This isn’t a job about protecting this pristine, pure thing. It’s a job about that unknown thing with other people, which you can’t hold too hard. You have to be free together. So I just found that to be a really wonderful lesson, both for my well-being and also for the quality of the work that I hope to make.
In The Woman in the Window, you went toe to toe with Amy Adams. As an 18-year-old actor at the time, how did you block out the voice in your head that kept reminding you that you were acting opposite Amy Adams?
That’s a great question. In a way, I didn’t block it out. In a way, I still feel, “Oh my gosh, that’s Amy Adams.” But thanks to Amy and Joe Wright’s openness and the way that they create a set environment, they built in a month of rehearsals to work through and understand the scenes, and because of that, I couldn’t detach myself and put her on a pedestal for all of that. So that’s a credit to Amy and her commitment to acting, and also to Joe and his brilliance in how he devises a set. If you spend a certain amount of time with a person, you can’t help but see them as a person, and that makes me hopeful for a lot of things. But I will say that not everyone gives you that time and openness. I really was a basket of nerves entering that movie, and Amy was so there for me, beyond what any actor needs to do with someone they’re acting with. Similar to the lesson I just said, she told me this thing early on when we were in the rehearsal room. I was talking about how nervous I was, but I was also talking about certain experiences that I was chasing to try in order to understand the character better. And she looked at me very seriously in the eyes and said, “You do not need to court darkness. It is already there. A character who is seemingly and supposedly dark in the film is still searching for happiness and a sense of self, and those are a lot of the things that you, yourself, are searching for.” I mean, there are also characters who are, in a way, searching for darkness, but as an actor, it’s probably more interesting to put it into the work and not force yourself to create pain.
That’s a valuable lesson to learn this early on in your career. We’ve all heard the same stories about certain actors taking things way too far.
What’s really interesting to me in drama and tragedy is when pain occurs not because there’s a villain, necessarily, but rather because it happens out of our control. Everyone is trying their best. No one sees themselves as the villain, even if they appear so in the story. No one is fully playing that role, and because of that, it doesn’t make sense to put yourself through a really painful, unnecessary process like that. And so that was very meaningful to me. In general, the work is such a beautiful thing, and to do it honestly, you have to see the person across from you as a person. It’s not fair to them to put them on a pedestal for too long. I still am in awe of her and I also do consider myself a major fan. But I also felt that when we got to work together, we got to know one another through the work, which is something different than just saying, “You’re great and I’m not.” But I was really lucky because that role is a character who’s nervous and sees a lot of hope and promise, but he also has his own jealousy, anger and rage at Amy’s character. So those ideas of, like, “How do I actually exist with this person in a way where I’m not trapped in my head and I’m not just putting them in a storybook and pushing them away? How can I actually be present with that person?” Those are questions in the script, too. So I was very lucky that my first big job was tied with a lot of those questions that I was grappling with myself.
If Leigh Janiak wanted you to play a slasher character in the Fear Street trilogy, do you think you would have agreed to it, post-Woman in the Window? Or are you not that precious about that sort of thing?
First off, I would do anything Leigh asked me to because I trust Leigh a million. She sees everyone in her films as full breathing characters. And that’s how I feel about all of the directors I’ve gotten to work with, really, which is that they see their characters as people. And if that’s the case, I’m willing to play any character. If you feel that you’ll be flattened or you’ll repeat yourself or you’re not taking a risk or you’re not bringing a dilemma onto the screen, then I would say, “No, this isn’t for me right now.” But I don’t feel precious if it’s the same character on paper. If I played a pilot in a movie by….
(Laughs.) Yeah, if I’m playing a pilot in a Robert Zemeckis movie and then Lucrecia Martel said, “You want to play a pilot in this movie?” I would think, “These two directors have such singular, strong, different voices that I know that I’m going to become something different or find a different part of that person with this other director.” So I’d be ready to go even if it was exactly the same kind of person on paper. So in that respect, yeah, if Leigh asked me to do that, I’d say, “Let’s go,” because she’s a different filmmaker. And I would play the same character with a filmmaker that I love again. I always feel this urge that there’s always more to explore. In these interviews so far, I yabber so much because I want to get at some kind of truth, and yet, you never get there! You just keep talking and you never quite get there. Sometimes, I feel incredibly close and then far away. So I just think it’s interesting to keep trying. And I love the Before trilogy so much for that reason. Even seeing a similar rhythm years later suddenly has this added significance that you never thought it would have. There’s no lack of meaning in any true character or any true story. That’s why I watch movies that I love over and over and over again, and I see new things in them every single time.
This is oddly specific, but in Fear Street Part One, you have the line, “Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline!” Were you directed to mispronounce both words to show that Simon was dealing with things he didn’t quite understand?
I’m so happy that you picked up on it and dug that. That makes me happy. I think I said that in the audition room. But you know what I remember about the first audition with Leigh? There was this one little chair, and after I did it one time, she said, “Do it at the chair, as if you’re actually there.” And then she sat down really close to the chair. The two of us were doing the scene in this audition room and using the chair as if it was a pharmacy countertop. So it was just this bizarre, very detailed thing, but what other director would do that? It just kind of broke the whole thing, and when we went into the Piggly Wiggly where we shot that scene, I felt like I was suddenly back in the audition room, saying “epinephrine,” and all those lines. (Laughs.)
So I spoke to Craig Gillespie not too long ago, and it sounds like we’re all going to be obsessed with Pam & Tommy next year. While I’m sure you’ve imagined yourself in many roles, a pornographer probably wasn’t one of them. So what was that experience like for you?
What’s interesting about the character is that he sees himself more as an entrepreneur than a pornographer.
They always do.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that was an enjoyable key to understanding him [Seth Warshavsky], too, or at least trying to. But I was really a fan of that script, so I can’t wait. There are so many different characters in it — so many desperate, hungry people. I can’t wait to see it because there’s so many actors on it that I didn’t get to meet. It was different to White Lotus where we were all together and you felt the entire series when you were with one another as this kind of group mind. On this, I’d come in and out and other people would come in and out. So I’m really thrilled to see the work of everyone else. But I will say that it was really fun and just mind-blowing to be in a room with Lily [James] and Sebastian [Stan] as they are completely transformed into Pam and Tommy. It’s a really special feeling to have on set when you just forget that you’re working with an actor, and I’ve been so lucky because I’ve actually felt that on all of the jobs I’ve gotten to do. That’s what it was like acting with Steve Zahn. You just lose yourself in the work of this other person, who’s just so alive, singular, honest, funny and surprising. It’s just been the best privilege to be able to get wrapped up in other people. And actually, that connects again with your Amy question. I’m a movie buff, so I watch a lot of movies, and I am always nervous to work with people whose work I like. But when they’re really good, it fades and you’re just there. So I’m excited about Pam & Tommy for that reason.
Similar to the aforementioned Daniel Day-Lewis, was Lily James’ transformation into Pamela Anderson one of those cases where you didn’t meet Lily herself until later?
We did our scenes on our first day, which was my first time with her, and that night, I did another scene. Then she went to the makeup trailer because it takes a couple of hours to get everything off, as well as to get it on. So I did my scene, and as I’m walking to my car to go home, I see this woman in the parking lot who says, “Hi, I’m Lily. Nice to meet you.” So it’s true. Seriously. I was like, “I’m Fred. Nice to meet you.” So I didn’t meet her on set; I met someone else.
The White Lotus is currently streaming on HBO Max. The Fear Street Trilogy is also available on Netflix.
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