Garrett Hedlund delivers one of the year’s best supporting performances as Sergeant Dime in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Ben Fountain, the film is adapted for the screen by the three time Oscar winner Ang Lee. A satirical drama juxtaposing the reality of war against public perception, Billy Lynn is the first film to be shot using 4K 3D cameras at 120 frames per second. The standard frame rate is 28 fps, so Billy Lynn has a hyper-realistic, ultra-detailed look. It is another technological leap from one of Hollywood’s all time great filmmakers.
British actor Joe Alwyn, in his screen debut, stars as decorated war hero and soft-spoken Texan, Private Billy Lynn. Set in the early days of the Iraq War, Billy Lynn and his platoon are flown back to the U.S. to be honored during the halftime show at a Dallas football game. As the platoon prepares for the spectacle, the film flashbacks to the battle that made Billy Lynn a household name.
The interview with Garrett Hedlund took place near Central Park on a perfect fall day in October. Hedlund’s first film was alongside Brad Pitt in Troy. I first met him twelve years ago on a set visit for his second film, Four Brothers. In both, he played the youngster that needed guidance and protection. Now in his early thirties, Hedlund has grown into a seasoned actor playing distinct characters. He shunned big studio projects to work on films that gave him an opportunity to grow.
Dime, Billy Lynn’s platoon commander, is a tough, square-jawed ball-buster in this Sony Pictures release. Hedlund isn’t remotely like his character. Cool, calm, and collected; Garrett Hedlund walks in wearing a sweater, shaggy hair, and beard. He cracks a window and immediately starts smoking, which is not allowed in New York hotel rooms. Hedlund was forthcoming in his responses, but quite measured. He thought about every question before artfully responding in his own way.
I first interviewed you on the set of Four Brothers. You were the young guy, now you’re the leader. You’ve flipped places with Joe Alwyn. Did that experience help you to find Dime’s character? How did you get this part?
Garrett Hedlund: (laughs) It’s a long story. When I got the role, I went to a WME Oscar party. Mark Wahlberg was there. He knew it was a great role and congratulated me for playing Dime. Ang Lee directing, it was a big thing. When I first showed up, it was right after my father died. Ang came up and gave me a big hug. There was this guy, standing beside him with a beard. He had a big dip of chew in. He was Sergeant Lochter. He was Dime. He was a fast talking guy from Philadelphia. He was cynical. Showed no emotion with anything he said, even though it was pretty funny. He did everything to bat away what he’d seen. So this was Dime. They made me be like him. Or maybe I did. I don’t know.
What’s it like taking direction from Ang Lee? He’s said to be soft spoken. Are you hanging on his every word?
Garrett Hedlund: In my experience, the best directors I’ve worked with hired people for a purpose. They hire them with trust. There’s not many notes. There’s confidence and support. That’s what he offered. He would come up and tweak things once in a while, but it was much more faith.
On a technical level, what was it like being filmed for the 120 FPS, using those ultra-sophisticated 4K 3D cameras?
Garrett Hedlund: They were always a pain in the ass.
Garrett Hedlund: (Sighs) They take a really long time. When I was doing Tron, there would be hours between takes. This one there would be hours between takes. It’s a big camera. You have to move it. Then you have to light for it. But do it so it doesn’t look like its being lit. You also have to have actors that don’t look like they’re acting. They’re a huge push and pull between what you want and don’t want. It’s almost opposite of what an actual camera would give you.
Does it take you out of process? What about the Iraq War scenes?
Garrett Hedlund: No, that sh*t was fun. I crave the intensity, the sh*t that gets f*cking crazy. When you’re doing a still scene with a camera like this…that’s when you get nervous. Was I too still? There’s a lot of was I’s. When I first met Ang, he said if you try to act, you’re going to look like you’re acting. So don’t act. That puts a certain paranoia on you. The camera was a b*tch.
This is Joe Alwyn’s first film. He’s never been on camera before. Did you show him the ropes?
Garrett Hedlund: Ask that motherf*cker. (laughs) No, it was a process. We all had to go through boot camp. Joe, unfortunately, had to go through a week more than I did. What I’ll say about Joe is this, never once in boot camp, hell, I didn’t even know who Joe was for a bit. I thought whoever was cast as Billy Lynn might complain or bitch. This guy was in the corner doing everything. It didn’t matter if he had to drop down and do a hundred push-ups. Or run eight miles wearing a pack. He was there. He was quiet. He sucked it up and did all the work. It was great to be there with someone, in their first film, who just did it. That was amazing. Usually you’ll get some divas, especially when they get a role like this.
What was the best and worst day on set of this movie?
Garrett Hedlund: Man, best day filming, the scene I had with Tim Blake Nelson. He was trying to make me laugh through the whole scene. He kept springing sh*t on me. When I tried springing sh*t on him, I’d start laughing and f*ck it up. I couldn’t stop laughing during his close-up. Worst day, probably scenes in Morocco. It’s one hundred and twenty degrees, we’re wearing all that sh*t. People were dropping like flies. I’ve never seen crew members…well, everyone always says, drink water, hydrate, then you get these guys saying they have the sh*ts. (laughs) Of course you have the sh*ts, you just drank twenty bottles of water. It’s not going to be solid. The crew all has diarrhea, a couple of our soldiers sh*t themselves.
Garrett Hedlund: Yeah, I got a kick out of it. I was just proud of my ability not to.
You have two great monologues in the film. One with Time Blake Nelson, which you brought up, and the other with Steve Martin. Describe working with them.
(Takes a long drag off his cigarette.)
Garrett Hedlund: There were only a few moments where Dime really got to show himself. Ang wanted to make the point, so make these scenes good.
Garrett Hedlund: (laughs) Yeah, I know a lot of soldiers. I know soldiers who don’t like to hear thank you for your service. And I know soldiers that do like to be told thank you for your service. The ones who don’t like to be told are the ones who’ve been through serious sh*t. They don’t care about feedback. They did their job. They did what they have to do. Sometimes the people that thank them are exactly the ones they don’t want to be thanked by. This is a guy who doesn’t want to be thanked. He’s smart, cynical, a leader. So in these scenes, especially when Tim Blake Nelson comes up, talking about oil, it irks him. With Steve Martin, it irks him. It’s this rich guy he’s fighting for. All these guys wonder if it’s worth jeopardizing your life for people like this.
Over your twelve year career, where do you place a character like Dime?
(Smokes for a while thinking.)
Or is too close to having played Dime to judge it?
Garrett Hedlund: It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to work with Ang. And it came at a particularly difficult situation in my life that made it really special for me. I dealt with a big loss in my family at this time. It was great for Ang to take hold of me, and then say, here you go. There’s more to come. I’ve always been patient in my career. I never jump into something I couldn’t handle. There’s big studio films I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to go through the hoops and ladders. I wouldn’t have been able to work with the directors I’ve worked with if I did those studio films. I wouldn’t have been able to work with Ang, the Coen Brothers, and Walter Salles. For me, it’s a god send. I’m not a religious man, but it’s been very special for me.