Lucas Hedges promises he’s not going for a “Daniel Day-Lewis type thing” with his acting, but he tends to get pretty close to his parts. With three films arriving in awards season, including leading roles in both Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased” and Peter Hedges’ (yes, his dad) “Ben Is Back,” plus an out-of-the-box bully part in Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s,” Then there’s the Broadway show, running eight shows a week. And the two other films he just wrapped. Hedges is enjoying his most prolific year yet, even if it all sounds kind of stressful.
“I like to believe that the second I enter into [a role] and the second I start researching it, my subconscious starts working on it and working on me in ways that I can’t be aware of,” Hedges said. “I don’t see it as that much of a jump from myself. And when I do see it as a jump for myself, that’s actually when I divorce myself from myself, which is the opposite of what I want to do.”
Since breaking out with his Oscar-nominated role in “Manchester by the Sea,” the 21-year-old actor has maintained a breakneck pace. Last year, he had supporting roles in two Best Picture nominees (“Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), both of which hit screens after he made his stage debut in the off-Broadway play “Yen.” Every time, in every role, Hedges tries to find the personal edge that can help his performance feel closer to him. It’s not always easy.
“I tend to stress out, like go crazy off of something that’s kind of small,” he said. “I’m not sure to what extent my stress actually serves me, but it definitely motivates me, I just don’t know if it’s the healthiest motivation. I like to think that I can be as productive, if not more productive if I work from a place of excitement, I think that’s always the best place to work from, but it’s not always easily available to me.”
His newest “place of excitement” is his second movie of the awards season, “Boy Erased,” in which he plays a lightly fictionalized version of author Garrard Conley, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. As preacher’s kid Jared Eamons, Hedges is tasked with portraying an Arkansas teenager who is closeted and utterly terrified of coming out to his family, which includes his father (Russell Crowe) and doting mother (Nicole Kidman). When Jared’s secret is outed in horrific fashion, he’s sent to gay conversion therapy, where he’s subjected to emotionally damaging treatment, all in hopes of getting back to a place of acceptance with his family.
“The double-edged sword of having a story that has a real significance to a big group of people is that, on one hand, it gives me a higher power to focus on, I can take the focus off of myself and put it on to being of service to something, but it also makes me feel like I carry them on my shoulders,” Hedges said. “The idea of letting them down is terrifying. So to some extent, it both lifts me up and pushes me down at the same time, which I think mirrors the story itself.”
He conceded, “It’s just a lot of things going on in my head at the end of the day.”
One way Hedges attempts to stave off performance anxiety is to research his roles meticulously. For “Boy Erased,” he read “The Velvet Rage,” devoured documentaries about queer history, and learned more about landmarks like the Stonewall Uprising and the AIDS crisis. In self-effacing fashion, Hedges admits he doesn’t know how much that helped his performance, but it might have been enough to put him in a new frame of mind. “The more I understood the privilege of what it meant to tell an LGBTQ story, the more I wanted to go to work for it,” he said.
Even for a seemingly naturally gifted actor like Hedges, it’s work. Asked about the hardest scenes to film, he offers an answer that’s as specific as it is charming. “I’m strange, in that the ones that are probably the hardest to watch, are always the ones that I find are the ones that take care of themselves. It’s the small ones that are hard,” he said. “The really simple ones, where I walk into my room and sit on my bed, that I’m like, ‘I have no idea how to do this. I feel like a robot right now.'”
The great joy about watching a Hedges performance, however, from the swaggering and grief-stricken son in “Manchester” to the wounded addict in “Ben Is Back” to his graceful work in “Boy Erased,” is he’s never a robot. He’s alive, human, and watchable. And he’s honest.
“I think for a moment there, I thought I was the hotshot before anybody else had a big moment, and then [Timothee Chalamet] had his moment, and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s so much cooler than I am,'” he said. “I think he’s really special. I appreciate any comparison, and also acknowledge at the same time that we’re very, very different. And also, that there are so many people our age out there who are doing work that is mind-blowing, who have yet to be seen, and who possibly will never be seen.”
Hedges is not one of the unseen. Next year, he’ll star in Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy” alongside Shia LaBeouf, who also wrote the film’s screenplay based on his own experiences growing up in Hollywood (LaBeouf plays his own father in the film; Hedges is the young Shia stand-in). There’s also Trey Edward Shults’ musical drama “Waves,” which marks a departure for the “Krisha” filmmaker.
“I want to work with people who I think are dope, and I think Alma and Trey absolutely fall into that category,” Hedges said. “I really like belonging to and exploring different worlds, and I think a filmmaker creates a world and an environment. I love getting lost in their worlds, so being in their movies is an opportunity to belong in a new place that I think is magical. And if you’re not a filmmaker I think is special, then it just means I don’t really want to live in your world.”
Though he admitted that working with the elder Hedges on “Ben Is Back” led to some “teenage moodiness,” he was very fond of the entire experience. “I felt like a cliché teenager, I wanted to rebel,” he said with a laugh. “But fortunately, I have a really great dad. He’s a really great person, and also a great writer, it’s easy to overcome something difficult with a good person.”
Beyond all that, the actor swears he’s trying to keep things a little bit lighter. While he said Shults’ film “has very dark aspects to it,” it also follows his character falling in love for the first time and captures “the full range of the human experience.” The Broadway play, “The Waverly Gallery,” in which he stars in alongside Elaine May and Michael Cera, also helps. “I play a character who is going through something hard, but is actually very stable and grounded and has loving parents, and for the most part, makes jokes, so that feels really nice,” he said. “I really want to do a comedy. It would just be a great time.”
As for his own aspirations, those don’t stress him out too much. “I’d love to make a movie one day,” Hedges said. “Right now, the idea of making music videos sounds really exciting to me, but I don’t see a movie in the immediate future. I mean, I’m 21!”
Focus Features will release “Boy Erased” in select theaters November 2.