Garrett Hedlund is still his own man.

He’s the Dean Moriarty of Walter Salles’ adapation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Which makes him a caricature of a caricature of Neal Cassady, America’s most fabled rebel muse. But Garrett Hedlund is still his own man.

Garrett Hedlund is not the same kid who grew up on a cattle farm in the remote outerlands of Wannaska, Minnesota. At twenty-eight, he’s found his footing in Hollywood with the easy confidence of a child superstar born and bred for life on the Hills. His bio glistens with big-screen hits, from Troy and Tron: Legacy to Friday Night Lights. He can share a spotlight with Brad Pitt without fading off into the shadows. And now, as rugged, rebel muse Dean Moriarty – the larger-than-life caricature of the already larger-than-life Neal Cassady– he’s taken Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and made damn sure that all eyes are on him.

But groomed for this life, he was not. At fourteen, Hedlund found himself in Arizona with his divorcee mom, busking tables after school, knocking on every talent agent’s door, and hitching rides to LA auditions, 800 miles away. He studied hard, graduated early, and, with a breakout part in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, landed in Hollywood on both farmer-boy feet. But there are hints of Wannaska in that Hollywood smile – least not when he’s quoting Tennessee Williams on the fly.

HUCK caught up with Hedlund during the red-carpeted globe-trot that was always bound to follow in Cassady’s wake, and found the gooey-eyed optimism that keeps a kid from Minnesota a kid from Minnesota for life.

Kerouac is said to have wanted Marlon Brando to play the role of Dean Moriarty. And Dean, meanwhile, is a caricature of Neal Cassady. That’s a lot of personality, right there. How do you channel the influence of icons like that when approaching a role like this?
Between Walter [Salles] and I, it was about finding the voice of the man who said it for the first time and not the repeated soul. Unfortunately, the only video footage we really have of Cassady, which is when he was older, are YouTube clips when he’s driving the bus for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test [with the Merry Pranksters]: he’s a motor mouth and super high on acid. At first glance, you’re like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to play this character.’ But really it’s about finding that soul which is experiencing it, verbalising it for the first time, what he really felt about this and that, and not the motor mouth that was the last figure at the museum. He was the one on display. He was the one voicing the inspiration and wonderment. He was the one saying, ‘Wow, Sal, look at that. Man, everything that I see is so whole and complete and we have to get some of this…’ It was about playing someone experiencing something for the first time with such electricity and such amusement and wonderment at life and the world that it was infectious to Kerouac and Marylou and Ginsberg.

How did you develop the chemistry with Sam, who plays Jack Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise, and Kristen Stewart, who plays your teen wife Marylou?
Sam I feel is, in a way, my brother, my life. And Kristen is, I don’t know if it’d be unfair to say, like, my sister in a way. She’s very much that close. We would punch each other in the shoulder and say, ‘I can’t believe we’re fucking working on On the Road! It’s insane!’ Then we’d snap back and get back to our priorities and our obligations creatively. But, I mean, the wonderful thing about Kristen is that she was so devoted to playing this character. It was as important to her as it was to all of us. And Sal was as important to Sam as it was to each of us. […] Everybody had the same level of devotion no matter if you were in four scenes or forty. It was such a wonderful family to be part of creatively because nobody was going to come to work late. It’s such a rarity.

Did you have any doubts? Was there a little voice in the back of your mind questioning whether an adaptation could really work?
No, not at all because when I read the script I thought it was so wonderfully done. What Jose [Rivera] had done in terms of capturing some of the most pertinent moments of the story, from the most influential to the most inspirational bits were all in there. And then you’d see other bits of the book that you thought were great and we’d get all those down. I mean, from what we shot in comparison to what’s in the film, there could easily be a six-hour film out there. And the Beat enthusiasts like myself or like a lot of the other people involved on the film, or like a lot of people ranging from San Francisco to all around the world, they would be happy to watch that six-hour film. I think a lot of people that haven’t read the book or have no idea about On the Road are just gonna, you know… I think hopefully they’ll watch it and get the inspiration to get out and drive, the way the book enthused a lot of Beat enthusiasts.

Why do you think now is the right time to do this adaptation? When Jean-Luc Godard was asked to do it, he left a message for Kerouac saying, ‘There are no new routes in America.’ This is a book about freedom and opportunity, but it feels like those things are curtailed now more than ever. So what can On the Road tell us today?
I guess for Walter Salles there’s an optimism that says, ‘There are plenty of new routes in America.’ Walter has driven across country twice, interviewing people – film legends like Wim Wenders and all these other cats, family members, Al Hinkle and other guys who were on these journeys, all the wonderful people involved. I think he was so inspired by the book, what it said about American culture, the freedom coming off – not necessarily the freedom, but the ambition of these characters coming off the back of a World War, the way that jazz influenced the story. I think Walter was so inspired by this project that he wanted to share that feeling, that ambition with everyone. It takes someone that’s actually affected by it rather than someone who’s just trying to push for a film to be made. Walter’s been involved with this for over five years, you know? He’s already made a documentary about trying to find this project, where he interviewed everybody I mentioned plus the likes of Sean Penn and Johnny Depp and guys that were potentially going to be involved in the project. He asked them at the end of the day, what they expected from the finished product. The stuff ranged from, ‘I don’t want it to be black-and-white’, ‘I don’t want it to feel like a period piece’, ‘I don’t want it to feel contemporary’, all the way to Sean Penn saying, ‘I would like it to be well acted.’

Do you think that the Beat spirit lives on or has an analogue today?
No. [But] I think the spirit of freedom and yearning to journey and wanting to get out and breathe and see lands that no other man has seen is such an ongoing compulsion within everybody ranging from the youth all the way to parents that are dealing with work in the morning and kids going to school. Everybody just wants to get up and leave sometimes. I think, within the expression of this, when you’re in your early twenties, everything in life is possible and also, later on, depending on how your mind formulates or depending on what obligations drag you down to slow that. But as long as you’re always motivated and you never lose touch with your wonderment, there’s always going to be something to drive you. And these were guys that, just coming off swing into the jazz era, just coming off wonderful writers like Wolfe and Twain, got into this wonderful Beat feeling. Almost like reading to be heard not to be read, in a way. That’s how much to the beat it was. There was a rhyme to it, there was a rhythm. It was kind of new and now they want to extend those boundaries but there’s no way to extend them but to go out and experience life and to live it to where you could shed that gained knowledge into your work. That’s what this was. It was all about pushing your own ability further. The experience of drugs and sex and music was only to lengthen your own self-encyclopedia of life; to know about not just the world but the solar system, not just the heart but the whole body itself. That’s what I thought was most wonderful. It wasn’t to destroy or to suppress or sedate yourself because of what you were internally going through; it was to expand what you were internally going through. That was the wonderful thing about it, I think.

Is this how you imagined movie stardom would be when you were nine years old?
Ha. Fuck. No because, you know, when I was on the farm, none of this ever seemed fathomable; none of it ever seemed reachable. I always think about it in terms of if my parents had stayed together. My parents divorced when I was under a year old, my mom took off. Now, if they were together I probably would have never left the town, everything would have been right there and all right and hunky-dory. But in terms of, the nine or fifteen-year-old me I guess I would have to have that same sense of wanting to achieve my ambitions. I think a lot of people can be driven by what you don’t have and then when you have it, your ambition is sort of redirected in terms of what’s next, instead of, ‘How can I start?’[…] Now, the ambition is redirected towards, ‘How can I enhance? Or how can I go bigger or deeper or more powerful?’ Rather than, ‘How can I start?’ So yeah, I’m sure… I wouldn’t really be able to fathom it if you’d told a nine-year-old me that one day, in about seven years time you’ll read a book called On the Road and the 27-year-old you will have just finished filming the movie adaptation to it, I’d say, maybe, ‘Bullshit, but try me.’

What do you love about movies?
Jesus. Um. What do I love about movies? Right off the top, it’d be the ability to escape. I think Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie captured it the best with Tom Wingfield being able to leave his job at the factory, his mother and his insecure sister to go to the movies and to get away from his own reality. That’s what I’ve found myself doing and I constantly find myself doing. When I want to escape present time troubles and tribulations and trials and joys and vicissitudes, you go to the movies and you get to be away from your present problems.