It’s Julia Roberts’ most powerful performance to date, her career-best. Lucas Hedges is devastating in his portrayal of her son recovering from addiction in Ben Is Back. The film is a truthful look at the effects on addiction, tearing through a family and stands out as director Peter Hedges’ finest film.
How did he get Julia Roberts to say yes? How did son, Lucas Hedges come on board? Hedges talks about
Where did the idea for Ben Is Back start with?
I knew I wanted to write about the heroin/opioid epidemic because it’s just taken too many lives. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on the news and not hear another story. I didn’t want it to just be a study of an epidemic. I knew I wanted to write a love story about a hard thing. I thought it was going to be a sister going into the underworld to bring her brother back. I have a remarkable sister and I believe if I were in trouble in this way, she would do everything and anything to come and get me. I felt, as I started to write, I felt a great love story, a mother for her child.
I moved it into that sphere and the minute I did that everything just clicked. I felt that click when I decided to make it about the mother. I found myself writing faster than I could even think. I’ve been writing for 36 years and I’ve had that a hand full of times, but here I did. It was a strangely joyous writing process for something so complex and troubling.
Once you nailed it to the mother and son, what was the insight into the addiction because you capture that so perfectly?
I’ve been very public about it. I grew up in a family ravaged by alcoholism. My mom was drunk through my whole childhood. Not every day, you never knew when she would be, but it was frequent. She walked out of the door when I was 7. I first knew her as a sober and healthy happy person when I was 15. I know all too well that anxiety of will the car be swerving when she drives through the street? Will the fried chicken be raw? Or will it be cooked when we have dinner? I’m not saying that’s the same dynamic in the family, but I definitely know that constant state of discomfort and palpable fear of not knowing what would come next at every moment. Ben is Back is filled with that peril. I feel like I kind of know it and it’s in my DNA now.
That’s not to say that I didn’t do a ton of research, particularly in understanding the mind of an addict. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine Holly’s passion and feelings and the blindness that she could experience when it came to this particular child coming home on this particular day. It didn’t take a lot of extra work. I just needed to imagine her and I was able to write her.
Ben was tricky because I believed everything he said. I have many people in my life in recovery who have been Ben or know Ben better than I know Ben. A handful of them were careful and thoughtful readers of my script and encouraged me not to trust Ben and to explore ways in which Ben’s truths were constantly shifting. One of the things in the film like this is that you want to get it as right as you can. What does that mean? It feels truthful so it passes the smell test for people who have lived it. You also don’t want it to presume things for people who haven’t lived it. Half of the audience will say “I don’t know this world.” The other half will say, “I know this too well.” I wanted to reach everybody.
There are so many moments and so many lines. One is when he says “I’m not worth it,” and you tap into that realness. I’m not a parent. I’m not an addict either, but you drive that home.
One of the things that happen when you make a film is that you develop a relationship, not necessarily with the entire film. You go, “I think that worked out pretty good.” There are moments or scenes that are favorite parts. Or there are parts that transcended massively than what I hoped for. That moment when he says that is devastating. There are a handful of other moments for me that I’m so proud of in the film. People who have lived it will hopefully say they know that. People who don’t, maybe their compassion will expand.
At what point did you decide to put Lucas in the film? Talk about Julia and Courtney and casting the parents.
The first question when I finished the script was who would play Holly. I never imagined Lucas would be in the film. He wasn’t even available because he was going to do Boy Erased and the play in New York. Once I had my draft, I knew I wanted to make it ASAP and to get it out ASAP. I didn’t want to think about anything else other than that.
We sent it to Julia. I always aim for an almost impossible idea of an actor. I go, “What the hell?” I never imagined she would say yes because of her history of not doing films away from her children during the school year. She’s only done one in 14 years. What I hoped was she would see in this part, an opportunity to remind people of what we should all not have forgotten – that she is one of our great actors. She is one of the great movie stars of any era. Fortunately, she did read the script and she said she was very interested. She was the one at that meeting before I could present my ideas for Ben – and I had a list of names – she was the one who said “I want Lucas to play the part.”
First of all, she could have said, “I don’t want Lucas to do the film” and he would never have done the film because he wasn’t available. Lucas made it clear he wants me to be his dad and not his director. He’s got plenty of wonderful directors in his life. I respected that. I did secretly want to write a part that he wished he could play if he weren’t my son. I wanted to write a script that both of my sons would be proud that I wrote.
Julia began this quiet campaign, she has one son who has red hair and she’d send me photos of them together and she would say, “See how well I get along with men with red hair.” I’d show the pictures to Lucas and he’d heard from his friends who were going to audition for Ben and that his dad had written a pretty good script. I just asked to have one conversation where we could talk about working together. We had a very wonderful talk about how we’d achieve that and he decided to do it.
Courtney was an idea that my producer Nina Jacobson and I came up with together. He had not been written as a person of color. The idea of Courtney opposite Julia was exciting and we loved the idea of normalizing a mixed-race marriage and that it could be a part of the story and not commented on. It seemed like one example where we’re progressing in our capacity to tell stories in the 21st Century.
Kathryn Newton had done two films with Lucas, but I hadn’t seen them. I didn’t know they had a history of acting together. She was the last audition tape I saw and I loved it. I did a callback with her on Skype and that’s when she told me she had done Lady Bird with Lucas. Her audition was staggering. She brought so much love for Ben in a part where you could easily devolve into being a bratty teenager. She made Ivy such a rich and complex character.
One of the things I loved was that you have Courtney and Julia as a married couple and it’s not an issue that they’re a mixed race couple which I felt help root it in reality. This is 2018 and it’s happening. You didn’t make it an issue. There’s just one line where you write, “If he were black he’d be in jail.”
And that’s an important line for me. I used to have a monologue in the script where the homeless woman says, “Where were you 30 years ago when it was crack? Now it’s in your neighborhood, now it’s a disease.” I loved the sentiment behind it because it’s a very important question, but at the same time it felt very preachy and slowed the action down. So, it had to go. I was so grateful once we cast Courtney. I added that line and that was a precursor to the later monologue and was a way to address one of the parts of the epidemic that I feel needs to be discussed along with big pharma influence over prescribing pain pills.
That’s the thing about America. There’s always a need or push to give you Xanax or a pill to fix things, rather than just go out with your friends, talk, be social, get it off your chest.
That’s so true. There’s no warning either about “you might really like this and you might never want to stop it.”
I have to say holy hell! Seeing Julia in this was something else, a revelation because you do get her best performance to date. She’s so unbelievably good in this.
I’m so proud of her and I’m so proud of them together. I love them together and how generous they were to each other.
How challenging was it to direct?
There were a number of scenes that were challenging to direct because of the lack of time. We had to shoot the cemetery scene on the same day we shot the woods scene. It was a day and night scene and they were complicated emotional scenes.
Emotionally, the last scene was difficult. They both had to go in the scene. That was challenging. I was very nervous the day we shot the church scene because we had to do that in a day and we had twenty minutes to do Lucas’ close-ups at the end. The city was going to come and shut us down and they were going to take our equipment away. I felt horrible that I hadn’t left him enough time, but he only needed a take on each setup. I’m so grateful for that. I didn’t want to convey to him the panic I was under but I was able to shield him from that.
There were so many scenes that cost something to shoot. Mostly, we were just people working hard to do our best to tell this story.