Charismatic, easy on the eyes and exuding charm, actor Garrett Hedlund magnifies many of the hypnotic traits of the the person he plays in Walter Salles' On the Road. Magnetic, intelligent and a wild side that became the inspiration and fascination of Beat author Jack Kerouac, the adventures and misadventures Neal Cassady inspired became a pivotal nucleus for the novel On the Road, considered one of the most important works of literature in post-war era America.
Neal Cassady also had a dark side in the form of booze, drugs, many women and even dabbling in other sexual dalliances unspoken about in the conservative mores of the period. Talking about On the Road and the real-life characters behind it involves the necessity of a roadmap itself since Kerouac changed their names. In the film, directed by Walter Salles, Hedlund plays the book's Dean Moriarty, aka Neal Cassady, while Kerouac assigned himself the name Sal Paradise. Kristen Stewart stars as Marylou (LuAnne Henderson), the former wife and frequent lover of Dean, while Kirsten Dunst plays Camille (Carolyn Cassady), the second wife and mother of Dean's children.
Shot over 100,000 kilometers and with years of research heading into the project, the film based on the Beat Generation bible finally made good on numerous failed adaptation attempts in the past. The pic features Sam Riley (Control) as Sal, who falls under the spell of the intoxicating Dean Moriarty, who himself chases around America for freedom and the elusive "It." Sal, Dean and sometimes Marylou and others travel around the country indulging in drink, drugs, sex, fast driving and the whims of a youthfulness hellbent on not conforming to post-WWII America.
While their behavior may still shock some now, it would have been next to impossible to produce decades ago. Indeed Francis Ford Coppola picked up the rights to the book way back in 1979 and it took another few decades for him to hand it to Walter Salles to direct. Many reasons ultimately delayed the movie version of On the Road, but sex and booze on the big screen were most certainly no-gos in the '50s and Hedlund's character Dean embraced vice as a simple by-product of life.
Garrett Hedlund spoke with ML about Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty and On the Road taking pains to care for a character he clearly admires. He talks about his own experience getting to know On the Road, Dean's complicated, unconventional relationship with Marylou and what he hopes newcomers to the novel will discover after seeing the movie.
On the Road novel is often characterized as a cultural watershed moment though the real people and lives depicted in the book, of course, didn't realize that at the time. How do you look at it as someone who grew up a few generations later?
I think it's built up bigger and bigger over the years. The Beat Generation - that term is even more familiar now, even more than say the '70s. Hype is built and established and people link it back to a certain generation, in this case the '40s and '50s. Now everyone knows that that group was the Beat Generation.
At the time though, that was something Kerouac described [in passing] and it was then that a fellow put the [label] on it and said, 'this is what we're going through now'. But Kerouac was just drunk in a bar when he first said [Beat Generation]. It's everything from the jazz and the music to the beat and he'd even write to a beat. His method of typing on a typewriter almost simulated someone playing the keys on a saxophone.
These guys were all great minds and thinking alike and writing in the style of their communication. So with these guys, Ginsberg and Kerouac and others, their thoughts were conveyed onto paper and it was just about getting it out at the pace of their thoughts and forget about format.
In the present time you don't really establish what you're going through, but after time it's declared something. Right now there could be some writers doing something expressing their thoughts in a whole different style that we're not aware of. This could be the "in-between the notes generation…" But the Beats were just a new era coming out of swing that was identified in a post war, conservative era. They went the opposite way on what was a one-way street.
How familiar were you with On the Road and how did you come to play Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady)?
I read the book at a young age and then looked up more about it and saw that Francis Ford Coppola was to direct it and I thought, 'awe man, the director of The God Father, Apocalypse Now,' but I was 17 and living in Arizona at the time, then I moved to L.A. and got some success in films and then a few years later I met Walter [Salles]. When you read the book as an aspiring writer and going through the desire to engage in creative writing, world literature and journalism, I was grabbing every book I could to study different styles between F. Scott Fitzgerald and how he was brought up and wrote and J.D. Salinger and how he was brought up and wrote and becoming a recluse.
Then I was introduced to Kerouac and became familiar with this whole spontaneous prose. [Kerouac's] The Town in the City which, was really inspired by Neal Cassady, was so inspired by this style of writing in which you just capture your thought and that inspired his style for On the Road.
The way he captured Neal/Dean shows how magnetic he is. He's infectious and the ladies just love him and guys just want to be around him. His intellect and memory was astounding. People [who knew them] would recall that Kerouac was the one with the great memory but then some would say he was the one with the note pad. Neal could rap off all kinds of statistics and observations and ideas about the world he was in. Neal also aspired to be a writer but was also the guy with all the mischievousness, stealing all kinds of cars before he was even 15.
Neal/Dean was such a charismatic personality as you say. Sal/Jack wanted to be around him. Marylou, his ex-wife and sometimes lover, stayed with him throughout his life and he had a knack for charming a crowd. How did he manage to carry that and how did you capture that for the film?
The guy had a wonderful wild side. That wild side had less boundaries than most people have within themselves and an openness that is more accepting than most people would allow themselves. In the book, he monologues on about knowing America and its people and it comes from all the experiences of all those rambunctious years.
How would you describe the relationship between Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, a.k.a. Dean and Sal?
Dean and Sal were brothers who didn't know which of them was responsible for the love in their relationship. Neal's wife, Carolyn [Cassady], was quoted saying that neither of them knew how much the other one loved the other. Each thought they were the one giving that love and they never knew how the other felt. In a way they were so complimentary as well. They both lost their fathers and needed somebody. Having someone like Sal who takes the time to record everything being said and Dean who is someone who speaks and is so quotable and wild and educated - they were the dream pair.
Someone who is as intelligent as Dean could have someone follow him and take them on adventures and even if none of that gets published, it would make for a great diary.
And then, how would you describe the relationship between Dean and Marylou? That is a relationship that people watching this movie so many decades later may still find unsettling.
I like to think in a way that Marylou is almost like the female Dean in a way. She knew what she was in for and that's why she stuck around with these guys - and also why she left them.
She left Dean in New York to go back to her sailor. Dean leaves her in Denver to go back to Camille in San Francisco and there was a similar acceptance of freedom and lack of [rules]. But there was so much love in that relationship. They continued to communicate all the way up until he passed away. And unfortunately, she passed away just months before we started filming.
But we got to meet a bunch of her family members including her daughter who loved her mom so much and her niece. When I met her niece in San Francisco toward the end of shooting it was awkward, but almost in a good way. Her hair was a similar color to how you imagined Marylou's to be and I was playing Dean who is a person she's been surrounded by all her life. On the Road is a big part of these people's lives and to see her looking how we imagine her aunt to almost look like was surreal.
Carolyn Cassady (the character Camille in the film) came out and we had dinner the second to last day of filming. We had to get up at 5am, but she could always go for another drink, so Sam [Riley] and I went with her arm and arm up to [frequent Beat Generation haunt] Vesuvio's in San Francisco right by City Lights Bookstore and she hadn't been there since going there with them many years ago. Just sitting there with her - I wish I had the camera [working] on my iPhone. The sole of her shoe had come off while we were walking, and this might sound disgusting, but I took off my boot and had my wardrobe socks still on and I took the sock off and put it on her shoes so she could continue walking. She's in her late 80s now. It was a wonderful moment…
Dean is a set of contradictions. He's a forward thinking enlightened soul but also there's these misogynistic elements to him, would you agree?
Yeah, I mean. Hmmm. Marylou did know what was going on. Just as much as she wanted to be with Dean, she also wanted to be with Sal. Going to New York, she knew he would be fooling around with women at the bars and she said that it's only fair that she gets to be with other men too. Neal said 'it's fine with me as long as you don't mess with Al Hinkle.' [Hinkle is the only male character from On the Road alive today]. He actually told me that story and said he didn't know why he happened to be the one he mentioned, but he had heard it while pretending to be asleep in the back of the car.
So with the Camille (Carolyn Cassady) side of it, he wanted to be with her because of respectability. Camille was also incredibly intellectual and when he had his first daughter with her, he had the family he was longing for. And now he had the ability and the desire to provide for them and got a job on the rail and at a tire shop and he worked long hours to provide.
John Cassady expressed to me big time how wonderful of a father he was and when he came home from work, all three of them would grab on to his bicep and he would lift them all up. There were lots of stories from them. Stories of sadness or of adventure that were not as careless as On the Road sometimes makes him seem. They were very touching.
How do you think audiences should approach seeing On the Road today?
I hope they'll want to pick up On the Road afterward. A lot of these family members don't get credit for the lives they've lived. Carolyn Cassady took the famous photograph of Neal and Kerouac and she doesn't see a dime from any of this stuff. She has a wonderful book Off the Road that is the female perspective of what she went through and it's beautiful. If women think they're in a tough relationship - then, well, read Off the Road [laughs]. Carolyn said when asked, 'What would you tell girls these days?' She said, 'Well for one, jealousy is stupid.'
I just hope they will read On the Road and other Beat material and discover people beyond Kerouac like Ginsberg, Burroughs and others and explore.
[IFC Films opens On The Road beginning Friday, December 21st]