Lucas Hedges is not even 20 years old and he’s already worked with three great, very different filmmakers. He played the bully who got injured with scissors in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” (Hedges later filed a bit part in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) He then appeared in “The Zero Theorem,” Terry Gilliam’s most recent film.
Now Hedges is in a very different mode. In Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” he plays a teenager whose father (Kyle Chandler) has just died. In the aftermath, his character, named Patrick, spends a lot of time with his grouchy, depressed uncle (Casey Affleck), who has another tragedy in his past. The pair’s prickly relationship brings a lot of comedy to a deeply sad and honest film about grief and guilt. In fact, Hedges — the son of filmmaker Peter (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) and the actress/poet Susan Bruce — agrees with us that this film, which is definitely not a comedy, can be quite funny.
I have to admit I laughed a lot during this very, very sad movie. My screening was filled with laughter as well as tears, but I’ve heard about others where you could hear a pin drop. Do you find it, at times, funny?
Yeah, totally. I think Casey’s hilarious. Maybe it’s because I know him. I definitely don’t find all the tragic stuff about it funny, but there is something kind of funny when [a certain character, in the middle of one of cinema’s most wrenching ever sequences] is on a stretcher and they keep trying to load her into the ambulance, but it keeps falling down. Terry Gilliam, who’s a director I worked with, once told me about Graham Chapman’s funeral. John Cleese delivered this brilliant speech where he just made fun of him. And it was hilarious.
I love this idea that there’s never a wrong time to laugh. I’m not saying that people should be making fun of all the tragic things in the world, but something this movie does really well is it finds the humor in this profoundly tragic situation. A lot of the humor has to do with these boyish, teenage qualities that Patrick has. He has this great compass for how he wants to live his life, and when you make the juxtaposition between him and Casey’s character, the result is really funny.
It really captures this certain quality that’s all over Massachusetts — that hostile, aggressive way everyone has of dealing with each other. Even in horrible situations, they’re commitment to that is kind of funny. As someone not from that area, how did you learn to understand it?
My relationship with [Massachusetts] before I did the movie was really feeling estranged from it. I’m the son of a very emotional filmmaker and my mom is an actress. I was raised in a very protective world that encouraged me to be as emotional as I wanted to be — not to be a baby, but to cry when I needed to cry. My initial response to that world is that’s not the case [there]. There’s a kind of masculine energy that’s intimidating to me, that isn’t very familiar to me. I don’t want to put it down, because I don’t know what it’s like to be these people. I’ve played a part, a character who’s from this world. But I don’t know what it’s like to be born in it. I’d be lying if I said I understood it.
The world that Patrick grew up in is a man’s world. He’s raised to be a man. He’s raised to deal with his emotions in a certain way. He’s not given the support system that would be ideal for him, especially because his mom abandoned him and his dad died at a young age. There’s an unspoken trauma that occurs with his other side of the family. To be a man in all of that is to deny yourself any release of any kind at a time when that release is all you need to move on.
That tension fuels the entire film, especially when it comes to Casey Affleck’s character, Lee. It’s very moving watching this guy who’s definitely masculine struggle to deal with emotions that none of us, even those who are in touch with their feelings, could easily deal with.
Lee is dealt a hand that even somebody who is raised perfectly well by society, and was taught to deal with their emotions, wouldn’t have been able to come back from. This situation is so horrifying and he has so little support from the community that he has to run away. He’s exiled. How can he recover from that, even if he has an understanding of how to heal? How can he confront it? It’s not that he’s some macho guy, but I do feel that’s true of certain parts of this world. That’s a theme of the movie. But it’s also not true that Lee’s some macho idiot who wants to drink beer and play football. He’s not a caricature.
You’ve worked with Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam, who are both very stylized directors. How does that contrast with Lonergan, who’s more realistic but also, in his way, stylized?
Wes has a very specific vision of everything he wants. One thing that makes him great is he knows exactly what he wants. And he can tell you exactly what he wants. With Kenny, he doesn’t know exactly what he wants, and he stresses that. He’s about making discoveries as you go, and about experiencing things for the first time as you go. He creates the world and the circumstances, and he gives you the words. But he doesn’t tell you how to do it. He guides you, but he doesn’t say there’s one way to do it. There are many ways to do it. A lot of these stylized filmmakers, I think, like to craft their films from start to finish. That’s what makes their films so beautiful. Kenny crafts his movies, too, but he’s open to being surprised. He encourages the surprises. The only way to honor this story is to not know — to not know how they’re going to react.
With Gilliam, he really creates this feeling of controlled chaos. What does that feel like for an actor, to be in the middle of that?
It’s like play. Every day on that movie was intended to be play.