On this early December afternoon, just days before he would earn a Golden Globe nod for his lead role in the gay conversion therapy drama “Boy Erased,” Hedges takes his time responding to questions about his career and approach to fame. He comes across as mature yet youthful, which makes sense for a young actor who grew up visiting his father, director and screenwriter Peter Hedges, on film sets, landed a small role in a Wes Anderson movie before he hit his mid-teens and earned his first Academy Award nomination barely a month after his 20th birthday.
“I didn’t think I would ever be here by now,” he says. “I really, really didn’t.”
Hedges, 22, got here by chasing foreign experiences. He started acting in his middle school’s plays because he “just felt like all those kids went on an adventure together,” and one of those productions caught the attention of the casting director for Anderson’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom.”
“My favorite movies of all time are the worlds I’d like to escape into,” Hedges explains. “That’s one thing. But at the end of the day, it’s really just about if it ignites something in me, if I connect on an intuitive level. I find that my gut and my body always know whether or not I should be telling this story.”
Aside from the star-studded, mildly mocked NBC miniseries “The Slap,” about a man who slaps someone else’s misbehaving child, and which Hedges refers to as “great practice” for being on-camera, the bulk of those stories have been indie features starring acting heavyweights. Since acting opposite Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea,” Hedges has played the sons of Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards”), Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman (“Boy Erased”) and Julia Roberts (“Ben Is Back"). He has become one of the most in-demand young actors in the movie business.
But Hedges’s brand of celebrity is different from that of, say, fellow 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who also skyrocketed to fame two years ago after starring in the buzzy indie film “Call Me by Your Name” — and also portrays a recovering addict in his own familial drama, “Beautiful Boy.” Despite rubbing shoulders with all these A-listers, Hedges is much less likely to show up in the pages of Us Weekly, a tabloid that regularly documents Chalamet’s love life. Hedges manages to keep a low profile — which these days often denotes a lack of public social media — and admits that he genuinely doesn’t consider himself to be a very famous person.
“Whenever people do stop me on the street, I can’t really experience them as being a part of the same world as the people who I know in my life,” he says. “It confuses my sense of reality. . . . Part of why I like doing all these independent films is that I get to remain in my life. I get to remain within the worlds that I want to be a part of.”
Those fictional worlds aren’t so easy to inhabit, either. Most of Hedges’s characters share a traumatic background, but portraying each of them required an incredibly different head space.
His first movie since last award season — during which he was most recognized for playing Danny, Lady Bird’s sweet (and closeted) boyfriend — was Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid90s,” in which he transformed into someone as far from Hedges’s public persona as one can get. He plays Ian, a troubled supporting character seen beating up his younger brother in the opening scene. This abusive behavior persists throughout the film.
“I don’t have any outwardly abusive relationships toward anyone in my own life, but I have a tendency and capacity to be really mean in my head,” Hedges says of his preparation for the role. “I just tried to work on externalizing those thoughts in my head.”
Such thoughts are bellowed at his character in “Boy Erased.” He plays Jared Eamons, the son of a Baptist pastor who is persuaded to take part in a gay conversion program. Ahead of filming, Hedges read as much as he could about queer history to “see where the story fell in the canon and what I could be in service of” — including the film’s source material, a memoir by Garrard Conley.
Hedges’s preparation for his next role required a different sort of inspiration. Roberts was actually the one who wanted him to play the title character in “Ben Is Back,” a recovering heroin addict who comes home from rehab for the holidays. The younger actor hesitated at first, as the film was written and would be directed by his father, with whom he hadn’t worked since a tiny part in 2007′s “Dan in Real Life.” Then, he read the script.
“You know, my dad’s my hero, and he showed me — he’s the reason why I do this, why I’m an actor. Him and my mom, both,” Hedges says. “He’s the one who introduced me to film and showed me what great movies were and took me on set and fanned the flames of my passion for this art form. I just fell in love with the script. The idea of making a movie with him, when I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, it felt like a dream come true. And it really was.”
Hedges spent a month going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a man he described as having “played a pretty significant role in my life.” (Both he and his father have said that the story is personal to their family, and Hedges recently told Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” that his grandmother was an alcoholic.) He also met with people who attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and a standout scene from the film takes place at one.
The most moving moment, though, is when Ben, presumably grateful to still be alive, silently sobs while watching his siblings sing Christmas hymns at church. Most of Hedges’s recent roles seem to involve quickly and believably bursting into tears, oddly enough: Patrick cries when he knocks frozen chicken out of the freezer and is reminded of his father’s cold, motionless body; Danny cries when he officially comes out to Lady Bird; Ian cries out of loneliness and built-up frustration; Jared cries after a particularly harrowing encounter.
Hedges wouldn’t mind crying a little less. When asked whom he’d like to work with in the future, he gushes, “I think, God, I think a Pixar movie — Brad Bird, I love him so much. Magical and cool.” Paul Thomas Anderson might be at the top of the list, closely followed by director Hiro Murai, who works on the TV show “Atlanta.” Oh, and Jordan Peele.
So he’s looking to do a comedy, then?
“The dream is to do that immediately,” he says. “It’s a short answer: Yes.”