Lucas Hedges on ‘French Exit’ and Tapping Into His Inner Drifter

Ever since his breakthrough role in “Manchester by the Sea” earned him an Oscar nomination, Lucas Hedges has been steadily delivering impressive performances, playing a wide range of roles in films like “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “Boy Erased.” In his latest feature, Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit,” which was adapted by Patrick deWitt from his novel of the same name, he shows a different side of himself as the desultory son of an eccentric socialite played by Michelle Pfeiffer

While Hedges’ character, upper-crust New Yorker Malcolm Price, mostly takes in stride mom Frances’ oddball behavior, he cannot avoid some of his more complex feelings bubbling beneath the surface, as well as those of his fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots), who doesn’t react well when he tells her that he’s following Frances across the Atlantic to Paris. Before he knows it, he finds himself in an increasingly cramped Parisian apartment with both women, plus lonely widow Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), Susan’s resurfaced old beau Tom (Daniel Di Tomasso), private detective Julius (Isaach de Bankolé), and Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a psychic with whom Malcolm had sex on the voyage over.

Hedges spoke with Entertainment Voice, opening up to us about his experience making “French Exit,” working with Pfeiffer and Jacobs, and how he relates to Malcolm’s aimlessness.

What attracted you to this project? Was it the character, the opportunity to work with Michelle, or something else?

The first thing that attracted me to the project was the script. It was interesting, because there wasn’t that much for the character, in some sense. The character is the opposite of a fireworks display. He doesn’t even speak that much. That’s part of what drew me to him. But, in general, what drew me was that the writing was so incredible. It brought me to Patrick deWitt, who’s since become possibly my favorite writer. I’ve read all his books, and he’s now a friend. 

So, I would say the dynamic nature of the script is the first thing that flagged me, and then I had a meeting with Azazel, the director, and it was one of the best meetings I ever had. He invited me to a movie that night with his friends, and it just turned into us riffing off that film to my character, and then we were just basically hanging out for a few months before the film was made. Yeah, that was the vibe. It was very natural.

Malcolm and Frances have this unusual relationship, as she ignored him until he was 12, and now they’re inseparable. What was it like working with Michelle and creating that bond?

I’ve worked with many, many different actors. Most of the women who’ve played my moms aren’t very method. It’s not that common for one of these well-established older actresses that I’ve worked with to try and create that off screen. But, I will say that with Michelle, she treats it like it’s her job. She’s not there to create any illusions or send mixed signals. She’s not trying to create a dynamic with me. She’s trying to play the role opposite of me. So, everything we did, we found on set. It was almost like it was the opposite for us. What we found on set transitioned to what he had in life, as opposed to what we had in life carrying forth and informing what we did on screen. It was the opposite, which isn’t typically how I work. It was unique working that way with her, but she’s so good at what she does that it didn’t even matter.

As you just said, a number of impressive actresses have played your mother, including not only Michelle, but also Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand and Julia Roberts. Plus, you played Meryl Streep’s nephew. Is it just a coincidence that the best scripts that come your way feature strong female roles, or do you intentionally seek out opportunities to work with distinguished actresses?

I do not. It is not a make-or-break for me, that great older female actresses are attached. For some reason, these are the [stories] that I feel most equipped to tell, the characters I feel most equipped to play. Look into that however you want, but I will say, it has been entirely inadvertent, this pattern.

As for Malcolm himself, he’s interesting, because although some may not appreciate him because he can be passive and he’s codependent with his mother, there is a lot of goodness in him. How did you go about preparing to play the character? What about him, if anything, did you relate to?

I relate to his aimlessness, to his laziness, to his lack of motivation. …He’s pretty intense, not very intense, and I don’t think he has very big dreams. I will say that, I often feel stifled as to how to realize my dreams and end up sort of drifting, and that is true of the character. The character is the definition of a drifter. He doesn’t really have anything he’s living for other than his mother. I really related to his indecisiveness. That’s something I experienced a lot of in my life, his inability to land on one thing and just hoping that the currents will take him where he needs to go. Which I think can be a good quality, but it can also become destructive if you don’t have discipline of some kind.

Malcolm finds himself in this love triangle with his sort of fiancée Susan and Tom, this rival suitor who is his opposite in every way. Also in the mix is Madeleine, who slept with Malcolm but is actually indifferent to him. What was it like working with Imogen, Daniel and Danielle and creating that crazy dynamic?

I felt really, really grateful for all of them, because it was such a family affair. I really do feel that movies are only ever as interesting as the people in them, and I love movies that have a family-type vibe and don’t land on one person’s shoulders, but land on the company’s. It was a huge relief to have Imogen and Danielle and Valerie and Isaach. 

I don’t know, I just loved them. I loved all of them, and their scenes were so well-written. I loved being able to not move in them. My character doesn’t even move in a third of [the film]. It just felt so like I could go to work, but I also just got to watch. Most of the times I’ve done movies, I’ve been very traumatized or abused. Something horrible was happening, and I was just stressing about how to tell that, but I didn’t have that with this.

The film takes a turn when we see this seance in which Frances and Malcolm talk to Frank, their late husband and father who has been reincarnated into a cat. It’s the first time we see how resentful Malcolm is towards his dad. Tell us about the filming of that scene.

That scene was fun, the only scene where I say anything, or have a lot to say. That would have been everyday on another movie set. But, I liked playing a character who didn’t speak and then spoke. I loved the monologue, and I loved getting to throw my glass. I don’t have much to say about it other than I liked that the character hadn’t had a chance to say anything to his father in his life because he had been so intimidated by him. Now his dad’s just a voice, a flame, and a cat, really. He’s speaking through a cat. There’s nothing for him to be afraid of, and his family’s lives are falling apart. He has nothing to lose, and that’s what sets him free to do that. Or it’s just a boiling point. I really don’t know.

I love that you did two films in a row in which your character ends up on a transatlantic crossing. “Let Them All Talk” takes place almost entirely on a luxury liner, and Malcolm and Frances take the same mode of transportation to get from New York to Paris. Would you ever travel that way in the future, or would you say you’re sick of the boat life?

I would say I have no interest in doing that. The boat life’s not for me. I will say that I’m interested in smaller [watercrafts]. My friend is a sailor, and I would love to sail with them anywhere, really. But it’s not a way for me to relax. That’s nonsense to me, personally.

Let’s talk about Malcolm’s wardrobe, because he wears the same black suit and white shirt combo everyday. Was that something that was in the script or novel, or was it something you and Azazel decided upon together?

That was inspired by that movie me and Azazel went to see the first night we hung out. It’s a movie called “La Vie de Bohème” by Aki Kaurismäki. The main character wears one suit the whole movie. He even sleeps in it. It is scripted at one point that Malcolm sleeps in his robe or sleeps in his clothing, but it felt right that he wouldn’t have a change of clothes. We got the perfect suit. We tried on so many, but we got this perfect suit that felt timeless and Tramp-like, like Chaplin-esque. 

Costume was so important. He had two pairs of shoes. He had a pair of running shoes that he wore with his suit, and a pair of dress shoes. The running shoes, I thought were going to be the only ones that he wore, because he just valued comfort that much, but we decided to let him have dress shoes too. He wasn’t so lost as to only wear running shoes.

You have a starring role in an episode of B.J. Novak’s upcoming anthology series “Platform.” Tell us about your character and what viewers can expect.

I’m not totally sure what I can reveal, to be honest, but I can tell you that the beauty of the show is that it’s an anthology series, and like “Black Mirror,” you will get a completely different world in each episode. My experience with the episode that I did work on was that it was hilarious and weird. What B.J.’s fascinated by really pulled me in. I got to play a character that I won’t speak about specifically, because I do want it to be a surprise, but that is a completely different color that I got to explore. 

To me, it’s effortless TV. It’s the kind of thing you turn on and you just can’t stop watching.… And I got to work with Kaitlyn Dever, who’s a genius, and this magnificent comedian, George Wallace, who plays the principal of this high school and delivers this comedic tour de force in this episode.

There’s so much uncertainty right now with the global health crisis. How have you been spending your time and dealing with the added stress in the Covid era? 

I’ve pretty much just been inside. I’ve only been seeing very few people when I feel I have to, and only the people I feel most comfortable with. I don’t really waste anytime on anybody else. I’m in New York now. I’m in Brooklyn, and I don’t really leave my home, except to get food. I stay inside. I read. I write. I watch movies. I like being at home, and I guess I would say that if Covid weren’t happening, I don’t know if my life would be that different. It would, but I’m enjoying the way I just get to stay in my lane. Nobody has any expectations to see me anywhere, so I get to just stay at home. It’s kind of nice for me.

French Exit” releases Feb. 12 in Los Angeles and New York, April 2 nationwide.