Fred Hechinger on Toronto Drama ‘Butcher’s Crossing,’ Nicolas Cage and Luck

The last time Fred Hechinger was in Toronto, he came to see a film that left his acting on the cutting room floor. Six years later, in one of several full-circle moments, the breakout star of HBO’s “The White Lotus” and Sony/Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Man Universe entry “Kraven the Hunter” returns with the Sept. 9 Gala premiere of “Butcher’s Crossing,” his first lead role in a feature.

“It was my first time going to a festival to see something that I was a part of,” the actor recalls. “I was working behind the scenes on [the romantic drama] ‘Tramps,’ they put me in one scene and I got cut, but it was technically the first thing I’ve ever acted in.” Yet that trip ignited a bizarre series of events that helped launch his career. “To connect a lot of crazy dots, the next morning I saw the first [TIFF] screening of ‘Moonlight’ and a Q&A with Barry Jenkins.” When the director hired him years later for the 2021 Amazon Prime miniseries “The Underground Railroad,” Hechinger read some revivalist western novels on set for research … including John Williams’ 1960 book, “Butcher’s Crossing.”

He emailed around  to see who had the rights and discovered that director/co-writer Gabe Polsky was almost ready to film the adaptation. “I just stayed on it and pestered them as much as possible. Then there was an audition call for it — that was actually just luck.”

Fate may have played a role in him landing the part of an 1870s Harvard student who embarks on a treacherous journey with a buffalo-hunting guide (Nicolas Cage), in a film that exposes an obscure, dark incident in US history. But anyone familiar with Hechinger’s work since his 2018 screen debut, “Eighth Grade” — from “Lotus” to “Railroad” to the Western “News of the World” to entertaining fluff like “Fear Street” — knows that luck has little to do with it. His subtle, naturalistic talent lends itself to playing everything from the naiveté of his “Crossing” character to comic relief to villainous rage.

Speaking from a family vacation house in New England, 22-year-old Hechinger seems most like the polite, sincere kid he brought to life in “Lotus.” During his own teen years, the Upper West Side-raised son of a journalist dad and photo director mom attended Saint Ann’s School, where he met fellow actors (and future co-stars) Lucas Hedges and Maya Hawke. “They’re two of my best friends,” he says. “One of the best feelings that I’ve experienced is being surrounded by artists and thinkers who inspire you.”That list now includes “Crossing” star Nicolas Cage. “He’s always been one of my favorite actors — he just invigorates me, and shows you things that you didn’t know were possible,” Hechinger says. “He’s also an incredibly genuine, wonderful person and made me laugh a lot, too. To get to know him was a deep joy.”

So was exploring how the ideals of transcendentalism (the philosophical movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson) influenced his character. “Before filming, I was able to visit Concord, Mass., and actually tour the house that Emerson lived in. I got to speak with his relatives! They very generously shared the history of Emerson’s life and massively influential writing with me.”

It helped him get even further into the headspace of his idealistic character when he shot the film on location in Montana. “John Williams’ books already shaped how I viewed the world, so being able to enter that world and share it with a big team of artists was an incredible dream,” he says. “I’ve never made a film of a book that meant so much to me, or acted in something that was so close to me before reading it.”

Hechinger is also enthusiastic about starring in the upcoming horror comedy “Hell of a Summer” from first-time writer-directors Billy Bryk and Finn Wolfhard, acting in the Christian Bale-led gothic murder mystery “The Pale Blue Eye” (due in December) and playing Marvel villain Dmitri Smerdyakov (a.k.a. Chameleon) in “Kraven the Hunter” (out Jan. 13). “Dimitri is one of those characters that just felt like, the more I put in, the more I got out” of it, he says. “The other awesome thing was that I had never done something in the comic book world. In terms of research, there are incredible interpretations of the character by all these artists.”

Behind the scenes, Hechinger co-produced the improvisational 2021 indie “Italian Studies,” which also featured Maya Hawke, and recently directed her music video, “Blue Hippo.” After studying at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and writing a few shorts and Off-Off-Broadway plays, “I still see acting, writing and directing as the same impulse: How can you help each story to the best of your ability?” he says. “When I think I can do the best job by acting in someone’s piece, I want to do that. And when I think I can by writing something or producing, I want to do that.” And as far as his performing goes, “after doing one thing, I feel inspired to do something which feels like the opposite of it. I’m like your [publication]: the variety excites me.”    

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