Director Peter Hedges admittedly put his heart and soul into his latest project — the harrowing drug addiction drama Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts — but he also injected his own flesh and blood into the mix by casting his son Lucas Hedges in the title role. And the Oscar-nominated filmmaker fought back tears while recalling the overwhelming experience of coaching his 21-year-old son through the film during its world premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“We miss him,” the emotional writer-director told the crowd at the top of the presentation, nearly crying as he revealed his son was unable to attend the event due to preparation for an upcoming play in New York City. “I wrote the script never believing he would be in it because he was pretty clear he never wanted to be directed by me again after the thrill of working on Dan In Real Life,” Hedges later told the crowd during a post-screening Q&A, referencing a behind-the-scenes moment from the 2007 dramedy that saw him instructing a stubborn Lucas to recite a line multiple times. “I think it almost ended everything.”
Enter Roberts, whom Hedges says boarded the project and personally requested Lucas act opposite her portrayal of Holly, a middle-aged mother who allows her opioid-addicted son to leave rehab for a single evening to spend Christmas Eve with the family, though the plan quickly spirals out of control.
“I think the thought of working with her [convinced him],” Hedges recalled. “I think he felt that we had to really talk about it… because it’s a very odd thing and potentially a horrible thing for a son to have to work with his father. It just is. But it was an amazing experience. I’m sure it was odd for everyone.”
Still, he explained, he “wanted to make something urgent and necessary” that, no matter how uncomfortable the subject was, started a dialogue about the addiction epidemic in America.
“Someone I loved died, my favorite actor in the world died, my niece [who’s] in the film almost died,” Hedges added, choking up once again. (“Peter cries a lot. It’s not just right now,” Roberts joked.) He continued, “We’re just living in such a divisive and frustrating moment in time, and I thought, ‘Well, what if I quit everything that I’m working on and I just put everything into something that… helps be a part of the bigger conversation [about healing]?’”
The passion he poured into his work — which included inspiration from watching his own mother struggle with addiction — also fostered a unique bond among the cast.
“Peter wrote such a clear, thoughtful essay on this family, and it was really about just absorbing that and then taking in each other, taking in one another,” Roberts said of tapping into Holly’s maternal drive. “It was really something that for me, ultimately just looking into Lucas’ pained eyes was all I needed to do to transport myself to the exact spot I needed to be in.”
Costar Courtney B. Vance, who plays Ben’s stepfather, told Hedges, “I’m still in awe of how… in that little gap where you call your father by his first name and not ‘Dad,’ you [and Lucas] made that leap for us so that we could feel comfortable as a crew, cast, group… and I will always be indebted to you for setting up the world for us to be able to do that.” He added, “That was life-changing…. You gave us the world, and I thank you for that.”
Ben Is Back hits theaters Dec. 7.