Is Broadway Newcomer Lucas Hedges Vying for Busiest Guy in Showbiz?

Brigitte Lacombe
Lucas Hedges in 'The Waverly Gallery'

The Oscar-nominated actor is starring on stage in Kenneth Lonergan's 'The Waverly Gallery,' while simultaneously hitting screens in three movies: 'Mid90s,' 'Ben Is Back' and 'Boy Erased.'

Lucas Hedges is no stranger to juggling multiple buzzed-about movies during film awards season. Last year, he starred in Lady Bird, as a young man wrestling with his sexuality, and in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as Frances McDormand's troubled son. So this year, having three films hitting theaters more or less concurrently is hardly a stretch.

From playing a conflicted bully in Jonah Hill’s Mid90s to a gay teen forced into a conversion therapy program in Boy Erased to a heroin addict coming home for the holidays in Ben Is Back, Hedges is shape-shifting his way through the pre-awards circuit once again.

The switch this year is that he’s balancing it all while making his Broadway debut in The Waverly Gallery. Part of an ensemble cast that includes Elaine May, Joan Allen, Michael Cera and David Cromer, Hedges plays a young man struggling with the deteriorating mental health of his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. 

"It makes for a very restless life. I don't feel as though I'm relaxing very much," he said. "I'm really grateful I get to do this play during all this. It's honestly probably the thing that make it the most manageable is that I have to show up to this play."

The project reunites the in-demand 21-year-old actor with playwright Kenneth Lonergan, his writer-director on Manchester by the Sea, which earned Hedges his first Oscar nomination.

On top of his current crop of work, Hedges also has two films in the can due out next year: Trey Edward Shults' musical drama Waves, in which he appears with Sterling K. Brown; and Alma Ha'rel's Honey Boy, in which he plays a former child actor attempting to mend his relationship with his alcoholic father, played by Shia LaBeouf, who also penned the screenplay.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Hedges about reconnecting with Lonergan on The Waverly Gallery, what it was like working with his dad, writer-director Peter Hedges, on Ben Is Back, and why he can't wait to get back to dance class.

This is your second time working with Kenneth Lonergan after Manchester by the Sea. Does it feel different collaborating in theater versus film?

The help that he offers is very similar in that it's all rooted in his understanding of human behavior. He doesn't give me notes in terms of theater; he gives me notes in terms of behavior, which is what he did for Manchester. It always takes me out of the idea of performing for other people, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with him.

How has your work together evolved over time?

I really wanted to work with him again because I felt like I had learned a lot, and I wanted to work with somebody who I think is a master of what they do. Any amount of hours I can get in with him in the rehearsal room or in the theater, I wanted as like a notch on my belt.

The Waverly Gallery is an autobiographical work for Lonergan, about his experience with his grandmother, and you're playing a representation of him onstage. How did you work together to craft the character?

Kenny and I are very different people in many respects, and the biggest thing that we tried to find — and I'm still trying to find — is the character’s dryness. Just being a dry person, that is still very foreign to me.

Is Kenny very dry?

Insanely dry. One of the driest people I've ever met. It's one of the few things he uses to describe the character — that he has a sense of humor often described as dry. It was in and out in the rehearsal room, and whenever he felt it go out, he would flag it and remind me.

You mentioned that Kenny helped you forget that you're performing for an audience, but you do a lot of direct address in the play. What is that experience like for you?

Really hard because it makes it impossible for me to hide. But it hit me yesterday, I was like, "Wow I get to keep going out there, and I get to keep trying to figure out this thing." Maybe one day I'll get to work in this area again, and I'll be a little better off because I've had this experience. It's very easy for me to get so afraid and try to numb myself to it, but I find that that way is never a way out and never a way in. I keep getting inspired to try new things and try to find ways to connect to 800 people when I'm up there by myself.

What are some of those ways?

I haven't figured it out. Sometimes I blur them out and imagine I'm speaking to one person. Sometimes I try to speak to all of them. It's really in flux.

How do you get ready before a show?

Oftentimes when I give myself more time to prepare, the more I shoot myself in the foot. I'm liking the matinees a lot right now because I get to wake up, go to the theater. I get there an hour and half beforehand, and there isn't really time to overthink it.

What do you do in that hour and a half?

I stretch. I roll out. I do breathing exercises. I check in with the actors. I'm on the same floor as David [Cromer] and Michael [Cera], and we joke around sometimes and that's nice. But for the most time it's just about getting my voice ready and meditating and getting focused and quieting my mind so that I can try to go out there without shooting myself in the foot. The more I get myself into a place of not thinking, the better.

Do you keep anything special backstage with you?

I have all my favorite children's books in my dressing room, as well as colored pencils and sketch paper. I have a lot of photos of my mother and her mother up on the wall, as well as a photo of Kenny and his mother just to remind me what the play's about. If I could forget, which of course I don't. I really wanted to fill the room with a sense of wonder and playfulness and that inner child. I wanted to excite my inner child so that I could step into the room and feel like a kid. Because I think that kind of energy is important in a long run.

In The Waverly Gallery, Ben Is Back and Boy Erased, your characters deal with intense parent relationships, and you worked with your dad on Ben Is Back. Were you excited to work together?

I was excited after I read the script, but I never wanted to work with my dad because it seemed too uncomfortable and just too weird of a thing to manage. But it allowed for a kind of honesty. I'm always trying to not upset the director, and on this one, I allowed myself to be honest with him. I wasn't afraid of him or afraid of upsetting him or him suddenly not approving of me. I didn't experience this movie as threatening my relationship with him or his opinion of me.

You and your dad have said in past interviews that Ben Is Back is a very personal film for your family. Did you draw from any of your own experience in your family when you were preparing for the film?

For the most part I only draw on my own experience. I can draw on other people's experiences, but their experiences are only valuable to me if I can relate it back to myself. It is a personal story. My dad's experienced it more up close from his vantage point in the family tree. But I definitely feel like I've gotten to experience it myself, too.

Boy Erased is such an interior performance for you and so much of your character's story is told through facial expressions and close-ups. How did you create the inner life of the character?

No matter how much I tried to create it, it can only just be what it is. I can't enter into my innermost self and paint a portrait. I can try to sort of prime the canvas and hope that if I'm present, the inner life will reveal itself. A lot of the challenge for me was dealing with the fact that I desperately wanted to craft the inner life, but at the end of the day it never worked when I did that and I felt it not working. I had to give up on that and show up on set and try my best to become sensitive to the world of the movie and just really listen.

How do you hope the film shapes the conversation around anti-gay conversion therapy?

I think the most important thing it can do is start a conversation, particularly in the parts of America in which it is legal. The more people see that it's happening and it isn't effective, the better chance there Is for a parent to not send their kid to one of these programs. A very straightforward dream for the movie is that it can give people insight. [Director] Joel [Edgerton] wanted to make a movie that wasn't about preaching to the converted. It's sort of an art house movie for Middle America in many respects. It's not esoteric. It's there for you to understand.

In your current projects, you're dealing with Alzheimer's, opioid addiction and conversion therapy, which are all pretty heavy topics. What do you do for fun to unwind?

I have a lot of fun in my life. I like to dance a lot. I do a lot of dancing, whether with friends or by myself. I take dance classes whenever I have a moment. I can't for the most part right now because of the play's schedule. I like to draw. It's honestly something I'm figuring out, but I have a vague idea of things I like to cheer myself up. These projects are really dark, but I won't do it if I feel like I can't find a way to have a good time doing it. I'm doing them in the company of the ones I love, and it's impossible not to laugh and be playful with the ones you love.

Any plans to relax over the holiday?

Well, I'm going home to my family's house for Thanksgiving so that'll be nice. I don't know. I like to not know what I'm doing on my days off. Otherwise they feel like days on.

Lucas Hedges appears in The Waverly Gallery at the Golden Theatre in New York through Jan. 27.