"Look, we’re twinning, you and me!" This is how Julia Roberts greets me when I walk into the brightly lit Crosby Street Hotel conference room to speak with her about playing Lucas Hedges' determined, distraught, and desperate mother in Ben Is Back.
Her excited remark is warm, inviting, and motherly. Standing next to her is 21-year-old Hedges, who is just as jovial, jumping up to say "Hi," before sitting back down to finish his avocado toast. Despite Roberts' and my matching wardrobes (the standard New York uniform: black turtleneck, oversized glasses, black jeans) it's she and Hedges, both 2019 Golden Globe nominees, who really seem related. Seated next to each other on the couch, the two look more alike in person than I remembered (Hedges says he looks similar to Robert's real-life son, Phinnaeus), and I notice that they literally finish each other's sentences. Their bond, both on-screen and during our conversation, is so genuine I almost feel invasive pausing the natural conversation to ask them about the movie they're promoting — one that touches on grief, addiction, and a mother's magnetic connection to her troubled son.
Ben Is Back is a family affair. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, Lucas' actual father, the film centers around the Burns family, thrown for a loop when 19-year-old Ben (Hedges) abruptly shows up to surprise his mom, Holly (Roberts), on Christmas Eve. With his vape in tow, Ben attempts to reconnect with his estranged sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), his younger (and sort of oblivious to his ways) half-siblings, and his wary step-father (Courtney B. Vance).
Told in the span of 24 hours, the movie could be split into two parts: the part when you think Ben is lying, and the part where you know Ben is lying. Both parts are equally stressful and emotional, with stand-out performances from both stars.
Ahead, the pair tells Refinery29 about the art of choosing roles, the art of lying, and the art of Instagram.
Refinery29: Julia, when you first read the script, and you were advocating for Lucas to take the role, what made him perfect for it? And then Lucas, how did you feel when you heard that?
Julia Roberts: "I was like this is a great part that I want to investigate for myself, and I thought, what a great part for Lucas. Then I realized it was a great part waiting for Lucas. So we all waited and let him be thoughtful about it. It shows in his body of work the amount of true thoughtfulness that goes into his decision-making process. It’s not, 'Oh, my dad wrote this script so of course I’m going to do it.' Or, 'Oh, Julia Roberts wants me to be in the movie so of course I’m going to do it.' It’s that he — this guy [gestures to Lucas], you right next to me — has to make up his own mind. It’s so incredibly important because in the end of days, he will stand by himself next to this."
Lucas Hedges: "I read the script at a time when I wasn’t even available to do it, but then the project I was supposed to do fell out. Around this time, Julia signed on and sent my dad a photo of her with her son who resembles me as a way of being like… I don’t know it was a very sweet gesture. An invitation. It made me want to do it even more."
Obviously you had met before, but how much of your “real” selves did you put into that relationship on-screen?
L.H: "I honestly don’t really know how to bring another self to the relationship other than my own. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t really work. I think you’d have to be a genius to do that, and even then it would end up being kind of caricature-y or like a facade of some kind."
J.R.: "But we found clarity about one another together."
L.H.: "I think that came very naturally to us when we met. It seemed like...I feel like sometimes the character’s dynamics in some way end up becoming a perfect reflection of those in real life, and I felt there were forces that were pulling us together that were mysterious and powerful and felt like perfect parallels to the characters."
Going off of what you said about pulling from your real life for roles, Ben is really good at lying and deceiving people. Are you guys good liars?
J.R.: "It’s what we do for a living. We’re professional liars."
L.H.: "I think I’d be a great liar, if I was a good liar. And what I mean by that is…"
J.R.: "You are such a little Rubik's Cube of a human, aren’t you?"
L.H.: [Laughs] "What I mean is...I think my conscious would destroy me. But I think I would be really great at it. But I could not live with myself. That is what happens whenever I lie. I just cannot live with myself."
J.R.: "Yes, I actually second that emotion. That emotional basketcasedness."
Julia, Can you tell when your kids are lying to you?
Is it very easy?
J.R.: "It’s very obvious."
J.R.: "But it’s so great because it really shows how bad they are at it. Because it usually comes with some incredible tick, you know?..They might as well just be doing this while they’re telling me the lie [Starts mouthing I’m lying]...But it’s so charming and endearing. Sometimes, within that moment, if I just hold their gaze long enough, they’ll go, 'Oh, wait...that wasn’t it.'”
The lie that crumbles just from one look.
J.R.: "But you know what’s interesting? One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever read was Don’t ask a question, you don’t want the answer to. If I were to ask, 'Lucas, where were you last night?' And I know where he was and he tells me something different, well now it’s on me to say, 'Well actually I was just lying about asking you that because I already knew the answer.'
L.H.: "Yeah because you’d be entering into it —"
J.R.: "— From a lie."
J.R.: "There’s my little psychology."
The whole movie is about a mother and son lying to each other, and to others. I feel like Holly could learn from this lesson. Sometimes she asks questions she didn’t want to know the answer to.
J.R.: "She also asks questions that she is going to decide what part of the answer she hears."
Definitely. Because she’s lying to her husband the whole day.
J.R.: "Yeah. Yeah, but for the right intentions... She thinks."
L.H.: "My job is to articulate this specific story and put it on screen. I’m not a politician. I know you’re not saying, 'Are you now excited to be a politician?' But it’s not something I really know how to do, and neither is it the reason I signed up. This is the only job I know how to do, and I will preach the story's importance all over the place and let them go watch it and take from that what they will. But that’s all I really know how to do. See the movie and see what you got from it."
J.R.: "That's very well-expressed."
I feel like everyone talks to you about your Instagram, Julia, but you have to know it’s so fun you’re on it.
J.R.: "Is it?"
J.R.: "Okay good. [to Lucas] You need to look at my Instagram. I need your two cents. [Editor’s note: Immediately, immediately, after this interview Julia Roberts posted this beautiful photo of her with Lucas, which means the pair did indeed look at, and discuss, her Instagram.]
So why aren’t are you on Instagram, Lucas? Do you have a secret one?
L.H.: "I was on Instagram for high school and Facebook and was all over it too much so I got rid of all of when I finished high school and created a private account. It still exists, but I’ve deleted the app so I won’t go on it. So, it’s still out there."
J.R.: "That’s what Hazel [Roberts' daughter] does."
L.H.: "It’s lurking out there somewhere. I kind of want to get rid of it all. I haven’t been on it in awhile."
Well, if you do, I’m ready to follow.
J.R.: "Do you follow me on Instagram?"