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Dean Moriarty stands in the cold New York night, waiting. He watches from the shadows, invisible to women in evening dresses and men in pea coats, his breath steam in the young winter air.
Soon, the credits roll, the audience applauds, and time zooms forward 60 years to another icy Manhattan, where the scene looks the same: Women in evening dresses and men in pea coats walk through Midtown, and there he is again, lurking and observing. And while this time, he’s Garrett Hedlund — a movie star, not vagabond — with his long hair tucked beneath a baseball hat and a cell phone pressed to his ear, he still slips into the scenery.
America finally has its new Dean Moriarty, the fictionalized, romantic version of con-artist poet Neal Cassady, the instigator of the action and dreams of Jack Kerouac’s seminal beat generation scroll, On the Road. Hedlund won the part — which Kerouac himself once offered to Marlon Brando — in 2007 after reading his own beat-style poetry to director Walter Salles. The picture took three years to get made and two more before getting a release, but here he is, sitting outside, smoking a cigarette as the industry audience that just took in the film now eats wave after wave of Italian dishes.
“I’d read the book when I was 17 and I remember looking up online, it was right when IMDb was starting, and it said that Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct,” reminisces Hedlund, a Minnesota native who, now 28, went to high school in Arizona. He seems almost amazed that these moments are real. He notes that he had done the same research after reading The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, among many other books, but this was the role he wanted most. “And I was like, f—, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now? I’ll never get a chance at this.”
But the curse of On the Road, which halted handfuls of different attempts to adapt the book into a movie over the years, worked in his favor. He is now a veritable encyclopedia of information about the Beat era, having had access to the private letters and video clips of many of the movement’s most crucial participants, including Cassady, who produced frenetic, raving poetry and correspondence.
Born in 1920s Denver to an alcoholic father who abandoned him at an early age — and for whom he would look his entire life — Cassady was a man of enormous appetites: for enlightenment, for adventure, for sex of all kinds. He was Kerouac’s muse, a kinetic con-man who spurred the author, bouncing between coasts, jobs, benzedrine kicks, jazz bars and wives with dizzying frequency, seemingly equal parts admirable and selfish, though Hedlund is less critical of his indulgences.
“It’s different when you read On the Road. A lot of his family members don’t make him out to be what Kerouac said he was,” Hedlund promises, parrying back suggestion of fault by noting long conversations he’d had with Cassady’s loving son, John. “And Kerouac’s adventure was half experience and half imagination, and when you read The First Third, the book that Neal wrote, and you read all of his letters, it never crosses my mind that he’s a dick.”
Instead, Cassady provides him with an ideal to which he has long aspired.
“When you read his letters, they’re all filled with adventure, and it just makes you envious of somebody that’s going on so many journeys and has nothing in his possession, and thus has nothing to lose, but everything to gain through journey and experience, and that’s what I think I got from him,” Hedlund says, calm and thoughtful, a remarkable contrast to the excitable catalyst he plays on screen. “I mean, within On the Road, it makes you feel that some of these things are thoughtless, but I think a lot of those are sort of the imagination to add color to somebody already so colorful.”
And so there is a crucial tension: Neal is a legend for being the basis of Dean, but was his own person, as well. Yet the film is based on the original scroll Kerouac wrote in those famous three weeks in New York in 1951, after traveling and taking notes and drafting for four years, and the scroll uses his friends’ real names, providing a more raw and accurate account of their trips than the whittled-down finished product published years later. There is also a plethora of other Beat-era references within the movie, making for what could be a tough negotiation of whether to play the part of a real person or a book character.
“Walter told us at the beginning of us filming, Sam [Riley, Hedlund’s co-star] studies Jack, I study Neal and at the end of the day we throw it all away and realize that Sam, you’re playing Sal, and Garrett, you’re playing Dean,” Hedlund clarifies, beginning to explain the obstacles he faced in crafting a careful blend of fact and semi-fiction.
Cassady, by the mid-60s, had become a mascot of the now-bygone era, which largely fizzled when thrust from the country’s seedy underbelly into the pop culture spotlight. Unlike Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom went to Columbia, he was a high school dropout who spoke by splashing out grandiose intellectual terms like paint against a wall — “a splurging outpour of information all the time about facts of this or that or religion, spirituality, psychology,” as Hedlund describes it — and it had become a looped track by the time he traveled with Ken Kesey’s acid-tripping Merry Pranksters in 1964.
Salles wanted the frantic excitement of the first time Cassady discussed those topics, “discovered for the first time and expressed upon discovery,” but most of the footage Hedlund had of him was from that famous debauched Kesey-led bus trip, where “he just seemed like kind of a figure at the wax museum, just performing for everyone.”
Still, Hedlund, who starred in Tron: Legacy and Country Strong, has clearly been enlightened by the research and acting in On the Road. Like Cassady, he is obsessed with trains, and on a two-week, cross-country road trip with Salles and a few friends, he wandered off into the desert between California and Arizona, walking along abandoned tracks. His pal, Travis, filmed it on an iPhone, as Hedlund traced a similar path to his hero.
“Then all of a sudden I saw Walter and all the crew running over with the camera, and we got that, and once Walter put that over the end credits, I felt so proud, because anyone that knows Neal Cassady knows that he died walking between town to town in Mexico on the rails,” he reflects, smiling. “And it was really because once again he was glorified by people that knew he was Dean Moriarty, they wanted to get him drunk, he got drunk, and he walked the rails to go revisit the ties he and Kerouc had in this town.”
IFC will release the film to qualify for awards season and push for both Hedlund and Riley in the supporting actor category. But like Cassady, Hedlund’s true gold came in a letter.
“I just e-mailed back and forth about a week ago with his son, John, after his son saw the Mill Valley Festival screening and wanted to say what he thought,” he says, unable to suppress a grin. “It made my day. He said, ‘It was so wonderful you were able to do this without ever meeting my father, and you made me proud and you made my father proud.’ That was the greatest e-mail, probably the greatest e-mail I’ve ever gotten.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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