So what’s been the most anticipated film this year so far? The Dark Knight Rises, maybe, or The Avengers? For comic books fans, yes. But for a certain audience, it’s On The Road.
Influential to generations for its trail-blazing portrayal of youthful rebellion amid a growing sex’n’ drugs-fuelled counterculture, a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel has been mooted ever since its 1957 publication.
From Marlon Brando to Francis Ford Coppola, numerous Hollywood legends have considered bringing the trans-US road trip of Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, and his untameable friend, Dean Moriarty, to screen. Nobody could crack it, until along came Walter Salles.
‘This is a book that’s had a very deep impact on my life,’ says the Brazilian director, whose 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries detailed a similarly formative road trip by Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. ‘It’s really about young men in the transition from youth to adulthood, who live in a very conservative society.’
The likes of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke are just some of the many hip actors who have been attached to the project in the past. Salles, though, wanted lesser-known stars.
For Sal, he chose Sam Riley. Best known for playing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control, Leeds-born Riley, 32, admits taking on such a role was pretty intimidating. Not least when, at a four-week
‘Beatnik boot camp’ set up by Salles to educate his young actors, Riley watched footage from earlier auditions.
Johnny Depp is saying: “I’m glad I didn’t do it. There would be too much pressure playing this part”,’ says Riley. ‘And I’m thinking: “Too much pressure for him? Why are you playing this to us, Walter? What the f*** are you doing?”’
Riley came on board late, joining a cast that included Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst. But Tron: Legacy star Garrett Hedlund was attached to the project to play Dean – the book’s version of Beat legend Neal Cassady – for more than three years. Salles remembers being particularly impressed by Hedlund at the audition. ‘He had travelled for three days and three nights on buses to get there, entering bars, including strip bars, along the way.’
Having feverishly written about his experiences, the actor then read them out. ‘It was as if Cassady had written it,’ says Salles.
Hedlund, 28, related strongly to the rites-of-passage element of Kerouac’s book.
‘We’re under our parents’ rooftops until we’re 17 or 18. And that’s when your life begins,’ he says.
‘It’s when you start painting your canvas. And it’s very similar to these guys – Dean is 21, Sal is 24. It’s at a point where everything is possible.
‘I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and the furthest I ever travelled until I was 14 was three hours away from home. My dad said that anybody that lived outside of God’s country was weird. It was maybe his mental trick to say: “Never leave home.”’
For Stewart, taking on the character of Marylou, the girl who comes along for the ride with Dean and Sal, was about doing something more adult after the Twilight franchise. Now 22, she first read On The Road as a teenager.
‘It opened a lot of doors for me at that age,’ she says. ‘It introduced me to a lot of writers. It was the first time I ever ripped through a book and actually liked it. It got me into reading… I think it represents a stage of life that is so full of emotion, passion and conviction. You just haven’t really put your finger on why you feel so much.’
Still, you can philosophise about it all you want. The practical realities of making On The Road meant a gruelling five-month shoot that went from Canada to the US, Mexico and Argentina.
‘No one wants to hear that an actor’s life is difficult, do they? But it was quite stressful at times,’ says Riley, who – together with Hedlund – saw all manner of stars (Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss) come and go in cameo roles.
Hardships aside, it’s easy to see how much it means to the cast to be entrusted with finally bringing this to the screen.
‘To do On The Road right, it needs to be found,’ says Stewart. ‘It needs to be really studied and learned and then forgotten. You need to trust that somehow all of that information is going to be in your bones. That is very free.’ The way she sees it, it meant giving up control: ‘In On The Road, our whole job was to lose ourselves.’
Of course, it helped they had Salles, who even made a documentary, Searching For On The Road, as part of his prep, interviewing real-life figures from the Beat scene, including Cassady’s wife, Carolyn.
‘It was so inspirational to meet those people that, at that point, the existence of the feature film ceased to be that important to me,’ he says.
Thankfully, he – and his cast – got back on the right road.