Traditionally, there’s only one golden-boy megastar a decade—in the Seventies, Sixties icon Steve McQueen handed the blond baton to Robert Redford, who, in the Eighties, passed it to Brad Pitt. While Pitt is still the reigning blond, Garrett Hedlund is his successor. He was first cast as Pitt’s look-alike cousin in Troy. And watching Hedlund’s performance in Country Strong, as an up-and-coming country music star who seduces two women, one is instantly reminded of Pitt’s breakthrough moment in Thelma & Louise. Hedlund is commanding, vulnerable, sexy. And he can sing. Apart from talent and the fact that he’s great-looking, the 26-year-old has that ineffable quality—star power. Which is why he will be the next one, the blond that defines the upcoming decade.
In Tron: Legacy, you play Jeff Bridges’s son, who’s searching for his father in video-game outer space; and in Country Strong, you’re a country singer entangled in a love triangle. What’s more difficult—performing onstage in front of a live audience or kissing someone you’ve just met?
They’re both a little tricky. When I read the Country Strong script, I thought, Can’t they just hand-double it? Can’t I just do the rest of the movie and not have to do the performing? It took me six months to learn to sing and play guitar at the same time. So I guess the kissing thing was easier.
Growing up in Minnesota, did you listen to country music?
I remember driving the tractor on our farm, and Tim McGraw would be on the radio. I’d find myself walking out of class, singing his songs. And then Tim ended up playing my father in Friday Night Lights. It was surreal.
How did you get from the farm in Minnesota to Hollywood?
Growing up, I would watch a movie on video and would go to the back of the VHS and locate the address for Universal Pictures or MGM or whatever. I’d write to the studios asking them if I could be in a movie. They never wrote me back. When I was 14, I moved to Arizona to live with my mother. Being in Arizona, I was only one state away from California. For two or three years, I flew to L.A. for auditions. I’d get out of school, fly into Burbank airport, get in a taxi, go to the audition, taxi back, fly back to Arizona, and go to school the next day. I remember the reaction to my first audition: I think the phrase was “You sucked pond water.”
But it got better fast: At 18, you were cast as Brad Pitt’s cousin in Troy.
Yeah—when my senior prom was happening, I was in Malta filming Troy.
You had to die in that movie. It’s hard to imagine your death when you’re only a teenager.
I didn’t know how I was going to die. I didn’t get much sleep the night before that scene, and finally, at 5 a.m., I decided to rehearse a little bit. I got down on the floor and started gagging and dry heaving. [Laughs.] I said, “That’s it—that’s how I’ll die.”
After Troy, you went to Texas to play the star wide receiver in Friday Night Lights. Had you played football in high school?
Yes, but I was always on defense—not in the glory positions. I wasn’t the quarterback or the one making the touchdowns. I loved playing, but I hated to practice. Which is strange, because I like doing research for a character. For Troy, I studied The Iliad. I’m not sure I would have read it as carefully if it had been assigned for school.
Did you read On the Road in class? You’re currently playing Dean Moriarty, perhaps the coolest guy ever, in the film version.
I remember reading the book in high school, and then, three years ago, I went online, and it said, “Francis Ford Coppola is producing this.” Now we’re halfway through filming, and I still can’t believe I’m a part of it. In ’07 I auditioned for the part twice. On my birthday that September, I was flying back from New York and I had to land in Chicago for a layover. When I got to the gate, my father called and sang me “Happy Birthday,” and at the same time I received an e-mail saying I got the part in On the Road. I boarded the plane so happy. When I landed in L.A., I got another call from Minnesota: After he hung up the phone with me, my father had a heart attack. He’s doing fine now, but that’s life—a great amount of good is always evened out by a great amount of bad. I find it’s best to acknowledge that weird balance.
[Hedlund’s phone rings. He picks it up and skips it against the floor like a rock across a lake. The phone bashes into the wall.] If I was in a car, that phone would be out the window. [Laughs.] I’m not good with phones and gadgets and stuff. I don’t appreciate them the way others do. You know how when somebody gets a new car, they are so worried about that first scratch, but after that everything’s fine? Well, I just say, “Everything to me in life is like the second scratch.”