Lucas Hedges laughs at the very notion of it: Does he ever get the chance—or even have the time—to live a normal 21-year-old’s life?
“I don’t feel as though as I do, but I don’t feel as though I want to live a 21-year-old’s life,” he says. “For the most part, most of the 21-year-olds I know feel like they’re in their own existential crises. I like having a purpose right now. I like working a job. I love purpose.”
He’s had a lot of purpose lately.
Few actors ever have as much purpose, particularly ones as young as Hedges, without a blockbuster or teen franchise or spandex-clad superhero to his name. Arguably, he has better.
His last three films—Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Manchester by the Sea—have all earned Best Picture Oscar nominations, with Hedges receiving an acting nod himself for the latter. At the moment, he is promoting three movies all hitting theaters this fall with eyes set on awards attention: Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s; the gay conversion therapy drama Boy Erased; and Ben Is Back, in which he plays a recovering addict and is directed by his father, Peter Hedges.
On top of all that, when we meet a few weeks before the release of Boy Erased, it is his one afternoon off from his eight-performance-a-week schedule performing the Kenneth Lonergan play The Waverly Gallery opposite Elaine May and Joan Allen on Broadway. He tells me that he shot Boy Erased and Ben Is Back, his first leading roles in major dramas, one right after another, and then filmed two more movies set for release next year before starting rehearsals for the play.
The rush to coronate the next young actor or actress of their generation might prompt a subjective and fruitless debate. But there’s no questioning who has surfaced, based on this unrivaled track record, to be the most in-demand.
“With work, the more energy I give the more energy I have,” he says. When we mention that The Waverly Gallery, in which he plays a young New Yorker watching his grandmother slowly lose her memory and die of Alzheimer’s, seems exhausting to perform, he instead defers credit to the audience, saying that he finds the experience of watching a play to be more emotionally and physically taxing than performing one.
“Isn’t there this thing that Donald Trump thinks, that humans have a certain amount of energy allotted each day? Somebody told me this…” he trails off, trying to remember exactly what the story is. “So he tries to use his energy in a way so that he runs out of it. Or something. I’m like, that’s not true!” He shrugs and laughs softly. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
When Lucas Hedges laughs, it’s disarming. It’s a relief, even. Because of his work ethic, because of the subject matter of his films, or because he’s so sincere when discussing it all, there can be the ultimately false impression that he’s too serious. It’s genuinely nice to see him smile.
It’s a similar experience to watching the characters in his films, young men on a spectrum of masculinity grappling with the parts of their identities that are meant to define them, but are instead suffocating them: the closeted teen in Lady Bird, the son tormented by his mother’s revenge mission in Three Billboards, or the teenager reeling from his father’s death in Manchester By the Sea.
His characters are branded by the darkness in their lives. But Hedges always finds the light, the warmth in these characters. When he lets that shine through, it’s a release.
His directors unanimously praise his ability to embody the Everyman, to dramatize our regularness. Sitting in a hotel suite adjacent to Central Park, he’s dressed in kind, almost resembling an actual blank slate: copper hair, blonde eyelashes, pale complexion, gray sweater, and brown corduroy pants. He’s pensive and intuitive, self-describing as anxious and neurotic.
But there’s a levity that cracks through periodically, that same release he’s so skilled at playing, a reminder that he may embody shades of the normal 21-year-old after all.
Boy Erased, which comes out this Friday, has been a profound experience for him. He developed a close bond with Garrard Conley, whose book recounting his own experience surviving gay conversion camp is the basis for the film. In the process of promoting the movie, Hedges has come out as on a “spectrum” of sexuality.
The film has a remarkably clear-eyed approach to a charged topic, eschewing villains and victims to take into consideration the confused positions and beliefs of the Baptist pastor (Russell Crowe) who made the decision to send his son to a gay conversion camp, and the loving mother (Nicole Kidman) who went along with it, only to soon regret it. In the film, Hedges’ character initially seems earnestly willing to engage in the program and change.
That part of the journey is certainly relatable to so many men and women who have been knotted by the conflicting tangle of religion and sexuality in their adolescent identity. And so is the realization that the work is dangerous, inhumane, and carries possibly deadly ramifications. (The Human Rights Campaign reports that highly rejected LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.)
His character’s journey toward self-acceptance “intuitively makes sense to me,” Hedges says. “The only option he has is to hold onto the love of his parents. If he doesn’t have the love of his parents at this moment of time, before he goes to the program, I don’t think there’s a way in which he can imagine living his life.”
When Hedges first met Conley, he was starstruck. He arrived for their meeting, a walk around the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo, with a marked-up copy of Boy Erased in his hand—sentences underlined, notes in the margins, and all. “The last paragraph of that book is my favorite piece of writing,” Hedges says.
The connection felt instant. “It gave me another reason to want to do this story. Because somebody who I think is a deeply lovable human being went through this, somebody who I want to know for the rest of my life. Now I can become of service to something greater than me.”
They ended up walking around Hedges’ old neighborhood, so he pointed out the house he grew up in. Without realizing it, he began storytelling, sharing memories of what his childhood was like. He soon realized how long he had been talking about himself and abruptly apologized.
“I was like, ‘I’m sorry, this isn’t about me,’” Hedges says. “He said that he really appreciated that I was sharing because he felt like he offered so much of himself in the book that it made sense that I then would share myself with him, too. So our relationship went past just me playing him. I offered him stuff, too.”
He’s suddenly struck by a thought. A memory, actually. Smiling, he buoys up in his chair. He unfurls from his cross-legged, introspective young-thinking-man position, in order to more freely gesticulate during his next story. It’s almost as if he’s suddenly animating at a higher speed. “And when we went on this trip!” he exclaims. “This was a really great thing!”
Before shooting began, Hedges went with Boy Erased director Joel Edgerton to Conley’s hometown in Arkansas. At the time, Hedges was doing a lot of creative writing, but hadn’t shared it with anybody. He began reading some of it to Conley, who really responded to it. Conley referred him to three other writers whose work he reminded him of.
“I had always felt really lost with my voice,” Hedges says. “I was like I don’t know where my voice fits in and I felt like I was finding it through him. It was a very powerful thing to experience as we worked on the movie that was based on his life. It felt like it was a two-way street.”
Everything about our conversation is warm and sincere. Hedges has a genuine curiosity, asking nearly as many questions about my own life as I ask about his. Yet he never entirely disarms the shield someone in the public eye (quite rationally) puts up when they’re doing press.
He gets excited about certain talking points and waxes philosophical about his work and his art, or goes on tangents about his childhood or a meaningful, if slightly unrelated, conversation he once had with Conley, and becomes insecurely apologetic about it: “I don’t know, it’s a just a thought…” “I guess that’s not really a straightforward answer, sorry…” “Anyway, it doesn’t matter…”
It follows, then, that he was nervous to talk about his sexuality when it came to start promoting Boy Erased. But he always knew he was going to have to do it.
“I figured, if I am playing this part and I’ve been given this role, then it’s something I have to do,” he says. “It just wouldn’t be fair for me to not speak honestly about my own sexuality. Otherwise they should have found somebody else to do it.”
And, by the way, he says, “It’s also something I’m excited to do, too.”
In an interview with Vulture, he explained that while growing up, he had crushes on boys he went to school or camp with, and felt so distressed about it he felt compelled to confess it to his mother.
“In the early stages of my life, some of the people I was most infatuated with were my closest male friends,” he said. “That was the case through high school, and I think I was always aware that while for the most part I was attracted to women, I existed on a spectrum.” Continuing to explain, he said he is “not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.”
He beams and lets out a tension-releasing sigh when I ask how he felt about the piece, which quickly circulated online with his quotes about his sexuality. “I thought it was beautiful,” he says.
“You know, I can sometimes be clumsy in interviews and I think he really handled my words with care,” he says, crediting the writer, Kyle Buchanan. “I thought, yeah, if I took the time to write about myself in a pure and honest way, those snippets are what I would choose, too. When I do an interview I can become really confused, but I really am settled in a lot of myself. I was proud of how that came out.”
Given all that he’s shared, it might seem that Boy Erased is a more profoundly intimate project for Hedges than most. But, as we learned, most of his projects seem that way.
Since filming Lady Bird, he’s become great friends with co-star Beanie Feldstein. Along with other young actors like Dear Evan Hansen’s Ben Platt, the crew has become a de facto support group for navigating the business at a young age. Hedges says that’s been particularly helpful as most of the people he tends to work with are significantly older than him.
It was also Feldstein who introduced Hedges to her brother, Jonah Hill. Hill then wrote a part in Mid90s, about a group of young skateboarders in ’90s-era L.A., with Hedges in mind. He happily took the part even though he is, as we laugh, “absolutely terrified” of skaters.
For obvious reasons, Ben Is Back, too, is a family affair, but in more ways than one. It is Hedges’ father, Peter, who directs and wanted Lucas for the role of a son reconnecting with his mother (Julia Roberts) after returning home from rehab. (The drama comes 11 years after Peter directed Lucas in his first film role, a small part in the Steve Carell-starrer, Dan in Real Life.) But, as tends to be the case, Roberts took Lucas into her fold, too.
The Hedges men’s first meeting with Roberts about the film took place at the soccer field near Malibu where the actress’s son Finn had a match. By the afternoon, Lucas was surfing with her kids. He spent Thanksgiving with her family.
“I don’t know exactly what a typical 21-year-old’s life should look like,” Hedges echoes as we say our goodbyes. “But I have to say I really like mine.”