'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Lucas Hedges ('Ben Is Back,' 'Boy Erased,' 'Mid90s' and 'The Waverly Gallery')

The 22-year-old 'Manchester by the Sea' Oscar nominee talks about growing up in an artistic family, battling self-doubt, coming to terms with his sexuality and starring in three films — and making his Broadway debut — in 2018.
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"I just wanted to be a part of that world," Lucas Hedges tells me as we sit down at The Westin New York at Times Square to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast — just before he headed over to the Golden Theatre to perform in a Saturday matinee of the Broadway production The Waverly Gallery — and we begin discussing what initially drew him to acting as a kid. "It wasn't even the artistry of it. I just wanted to be seen with the cool kids, you know?"

Now, at just 22, Hedges is one of the most in-demand stage and screen actors out there. He has already starred in four films that were nominated for the best picture Oscar — 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2016’s Manchester by the Sea and 2017’s Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — and also played key roles in three of the most acclaimed films of 2018: a key supporting part in Jonah Hill’s skateboard-world dramedy Mid90s, the male lead in Joel Edgerton’s gay-conversion-therapy drama Boy Erased (for which he has been nominated for a best actor in a drama Golden Globe Award) and the title role in Ben Is Back, a drama about a young man grappling with addiction, which was written and directed by his Oscar-nominated father, Peter Hedges. Plus, he's made his Broadway debut.

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Born and raised in Brooklyn, Hedges is the son of a theater actress and an actor-turned-playwright/novelist/filmmaker. "I grew up going to my dad's sets," he says, "and I always felt like the most magical thing in the world for me was film, was the idea of it." While his big-screen debut was in his father's film Dan in Real Life (2007), it was only a small part and not what launched his career. He, like most theater kids, appeared in school plays for years, "always overcome by fear and stage fright," but nevertheless drawn to acting. At one performance, the mother of a student in the grade below him, who was a former casting director, was impressed by his work and helped to get him an audition for the part of a grieving kid in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011). He finished as the runner-up, but still came away from the experience with "the longest, most important professional relationship I've had in my career," having super-producer Scott Rudin, who, he says, "took me under his wing." He elaborates, "To have his support at that age, I really felt like I was something."

Rudin helped bring Hedges to the attention of Wes Anderson, who cast him in his first substantial part, in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) — "and then I was like, 'I want to be all over IMDB,'" Hedges confesses. He subsequently appeared in Jason Reitman's Labor Day (2013), reunited with Anderson on Grand Budapest Hotel (being asked back by a director "was definitely a confidence booster") and then, while a senior in high school, was sent a breakdown for Manchester by the Sea, which was written by and would be directed by Kenneth Lonergan. He landed the part, shot the film and then headed off to the UNC School of the Arts for the 2015-16 school year, hoping to gain self-assurance about his craft. "It didn't go as I had hoped," he professes. "The teachers were very hard on me, and rightfully so, and I found myself really despairing." However, he continues, "It was confusing because Manchester came out halfway through the year [it had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival], which was in the very middle of my biggest feeling of, 'Wow, OK, all these teachers are right, I really don't know what I'm doing' — and then the world all told me otherwise. It was really confusing and I felt like I couldn't trust the world."

Hedges received raves for his work in Manchester as an outwardly cocky but inwardly insecure kid who had just lost his father and was now living with his hapless uncle, played by Casey Affleck. He then shot a small part in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards during his school break, and planned to go back to classes, but then Greta Gerwig, who had seen Manchester at Sundance, offered him either of the two parts for young men in her directorial debut, Lady Bird. He chose the one of a closeted gay teen; the other went to Timothee Chalamet, who had previously replaced him after he withdraw from a table reading for Jonathan Demme; beat him out for a part in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar; and then unsuccessfully competed against him for the part in Manchester.

During the months between Manchester's premiere at Sundance in January and its theatrical rollout in November, Hedges increasingly fell under the media spotlight. "That awards season was crazy, man," he says. "It was a very overwhelming time. It was also incredibly exciting." To escape from the pressure cooker, he went off to New York to appear in the Off Broadway play Yen (for which he was ultimately nominated for the best actor in a play Lucille Lortel Award for his work in the 2017 Off Broadway production). But he was back in L.A. quite a bit, having been nominated for the best supporting actor SAG, Critics’ Choice, Spirit and Gotham awards and for the best breakthrough performer BAFTA Award; winning the best breakthrough performer National Board of Review Award and the Critics’ Choice Award for best young performer; and, in the best supporting actor category, becoming the first actor aged 25 or under to receive an acting Oscar nom since Brokeback Mountain’s Jake Gyllenhaal 11 years earlier, and joining Dev Patel as the first male acting nominees who were born in the 1990s.

That was quite a season for him — but so, too, has been this one. In Mid90s, he plays an angry adolescent who is habitually physically abusive toward his younger brother. "What I saw as the opportunity here," he says, "was to express a part of myself that really doesn't get the time of day, or I don't allow to be voiced, out of fear of being a 'mean' person." As for Ben Is Back? "The idea of working with my dad seemed really uncomfortable," he says, but Julia Roberts, who was cast as the film's lead, fought for him to play her son, and he ultimately agreed to sign on (while insisting on calling his father "Pete" during the production). Before cameras ever rolled, he worked closely with Roberts at her home, sat in on a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and drew on his own experiences — not as a drug addict, but as someone who has "needed" other things in his life.

Boy Erased, meanwhile, was inspired by a memoir he loved, and he was thrilled to have another "opportunity to be a part of a story that is in service of something bigger than me," in terms of helping to raise awareness of the fact that gay-conversion therapy is still widely practiced in the U.S. Asked about his own sexuality by Vulture, he revealed that it falls on a "spectrum" — "not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual." He tells THR that director Edgerton did not know this information when he cast him, but he decided to make it public after the film was completed: "I felt like the subject matter was so overtly about what it means to have a certain sexuality, or to identify as something that's not immediately acceptable in the world. And I felt like, after having played the part, it didn't seem right for me not to be transparent." He adds, "It really doesn't feel like the biggest thing, either, in many ways. I feel like also a lot of what I'm expressing probably is what most people identify with but just haven't been given the opportunity to express in an honest way. I think what's exciting about the direction the world's heading in is things are less black and white, and I just don't find these sort of very confining terms as being helpful or, I guess, progressive, in many ways."

And now, in The Waverly Gallery, a Lonergan play being revived for the first time in years, he is starring opposite the legendary Elaine May, who, at 86, is back on Broadway for the first time in a half-century. Set to run through Jan. 28, it recounts the true story of Lonergan's grandmother's descent into Alzheimer's disease. He is playing a character based on Lonergan — and while for Hedges that should feel like the ultimate vote of confidence from a playwright and filmmaker he so admires, based on the young actor's hard-to-shake self-doubt, it probably does not.