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Garrett Hedlund realizes his Hollywood dreams

If Hollywood had a leading-man factory, Garrett Hedlund would be forged from its golden-boy mold. It’s the template that produces the kind of easy-on-the-eyes, blond-haired, blue-eyed actors like Robert Redford and Brad Pitt who seem genetically predestined for roles throwing footballs, wearing cowboy hats and curling the leading lady’s toes.

Hedlund has done all of that in his eight years in Los Angeles, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, he is just arriving. In the last month, he’s starred in a Disney tent pole ( “Tron: Legacy”), crooned opposite Gwyneth Paltrow ( “Country Strong”) and is about to be onscreen as a lead in an iconic indie adaptation ( Walter Salles’ “On the Road”). For this Midwestern farm boy, it’s been a brisk and unlikely journey.

Hedlund, 26, grew up on a 400-acre cattle ranch 25 miles outside of Rouseau, Minn., population 2,500. “I had to jump on the tractor and do my chores,” he says of his childhood. “I would have just killed to be in town, to be able to Rollerblade hand-in-hand with somebody I had a crush on. I just wanted to get off the farm, to find my outlet.”

His outlet, he determined quite early, would be Hollywood. Getting here was the tricky part. Hedlund copied studio addresses off the back of VHS tapes and mailed letters asking to be in the movies. At 14, when he moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., he began hanging out at the local Borders bookstore, scouring Variety and reading books by talent manager and producer Bernie Brillstein.

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As a teenager, Hedlund called Brillstein’s office regularly. “I’d say, ‘I’m an aspiring actor seeking representation. Would you sit down with me?’ Of course, I never got a call back.” (A few years ago, Hedlund was picked up as a client by Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Shortly before Brillstein died in 2008, Hedlund attended one of his book signings and introduced himself. “Bernie said, ‘Now that you’re my client, I might start answering your calls,’ ” Hedlund recalls.)

Hedlund speaks in a soft baritone, and with an earnestness that seems wildly out of place at the Beverly Hills power lunch spot where he’s being interviewed. He tends to coin his own words, like “partialize” and “subtextualize,” and winces and suggests moving seats when a deal broker at the next table yells into his cellphone, “Alan, you’re a true mogul!”

During high school, Hedlund took acting classes, modeled for L.L. Bean catalogs and Teen magazine and doubled up on coursework so he could finish early and move to Los Angeles. He was also, thanks to an English teacher who took an interest in his writing, cultivating a love for reading that included Jack Kerouac and Tennessee Williams.

Eventually, he secured an agent and manager, and by the time his classmates were getting ready for senior prom, Hedlund was in Malta, filming his first movie part as Pitt’s cousin in “Troy.” (In a bit of a portentous parallel, some critics are comparing his performance in “Country Strong” to Pitt’s breakout seduction scene in “Thelma and Louise” at age 28.) Other acting work quickly followed — a Texas high school football player in “Friday Night Lights,” one of John Singleton’s “Four Brothers,” a supporting part in the fantasy “Eragon.”

In 2007, Brazilian director Salles cast Hedlund as beat character Dean Moriarty in a long-gestating adaptation of Kerouac’s “On the Road” that Francis Ford Coppola was producing. Hedlund, thrilled to earn a serious, artistic, leading role that relied on his vulnerability as much as his physicality, swore to Salles he would take no other part until “On the Road” got off the ground.

In a reflection either of his naivete about the fragility of independent film financing or his commitment to Salles — or some combination of the two — Hedlund didn’t work for the next two years. While waiting for financing for “On the Road” to come together, he spent his time reading everything he could find on the Beat Generation and visited a New York museum that was exhibiting the original scroll upon which Kerouac had written the book.

By the time he auditioned to play Jeff Bridges’ son in “Tron” in the fall of 2008 — a long shot leading role in a potential studio franchise — Hedlund was taking loose change to Coinstar machines to get money for gas.

“We were doing a pretty exhaustive search for Sam Flynn,” says Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of production and “Tron’s” producer. “Physically and demeanor-wise, we needed someone who could credibly stand against Jeff Bridges. We wanted a classic leading man, but the character we were casting had grown up with some complicated issues, had a certain stoicism and a quiet confidence, and also athleticism. It’s a hard combination to find.”

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Bailey and “Tron” director Joseph Kosinski felt they had found that combination in Hedlund, but there was a wrinkle. “He was so creatively committed to ‘On the Road,’” Bailey says. “He was really conflicted about going ahead.”

The scope of the opportunity helped Hedlund overcome his reluctance, and he put the beat world on the shelf for a digital one.

“Jumping onto ‘Tron’ was hard because you had to tie this kite you’d been flying up to a post,” he says. The actor began heavy physical preparation for “Tron” — he got a motorcycle license, trained in stunt fighting and worked out intensely to fit into the spandex lightsuit. It took two-and-a-half hours every morning to put on the costume, and days on the effects-heavy film ran long.

While he was shooting “Tron” in Vancouver, Hedlund met with “Country Strong” writer-director Shana Feste, who was casting a role for a soulful young singer-songwriter with whom Paltrow’s alcoholic country star would find some comfort. “He said he doesn’t really sing, but he has this beautiful speaking voice that’s so low,” says Feste. “It’s such a sexy voice. I thought there has to be something great to come out of that voice if he learns to sing.”

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Hedlund ultimately confirmed Feste’s suspicions by singing the Pearl Jam song “Better Man” at a karaoke bar. After “Tron” wrapped, he started learning guitar from Ryan Adams’ backing guitarist and meeting with Feste twice a week, running lines and watching videos of country artists like Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Six weeks before shooting started, he moved to a cabin outside Nashville that belonged to his “Country Strong” costar and onscreen father from “Friday Night Lights,” Tim McGraw, and practiced guitar all day. “Garrett was sweet and great and like an enthusiastic puppy dog,” recalls Paltrow.

By the time “Country Strong” was a week into production in Nashville, Hedlund had acquired some fans — local girls cast as extras for the concert scenes kept popping up and elbowing their way to the stage, a bit of a problem because the shows were supposed to be taking place in different cities.

“I never once had to tell those girls, ‘OK you really think this guy is cute. You really love his music,’” says Feste. “They got the motivation.”

After he finished filming “Country Strong,” Hedlund got the opportunity he’d long been waiting for — Salles went into production on “On the Road,” a road-trip shoot that took him to Montreal, Argentina, New Orleans, Mexico, Chile, Calgary and finally San Francisco. On the morning of Dec. 11, he was driving a 1949 Hudson Hornet across the Bay Bridge to shoot his final scene for that role. That night, he walked a red carpet on Hollywood Boulevard for the premiere of “Tron.”

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“‘On the Road’ is a film telling you to live as much as you can,” says Hedlund. “Don’t let fear hold you back from anything. That feels really right right now, doesn’t it?”

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com


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