When we meet Ben at the beginning, we’re introduced to him as probably the world’s worst son. With that in mind, what was it that made you cast your own son?
[laughs] I read recently that none of us are as bad as the worst thing we’ve ever done, and I think that’s true for the character of Ben. He has made some mistakes that are alluded to. We don’t necessarily always know exactly what he did, but it obviously created a tremendous amount of damage in the family.
I never imagined when I wrote the script that Lucas would ever be in it. He had been pretty clear that he just wants me to be his dad. He has plenty of directors in his life, but he just needs one dad. The mixing of those roles, I don’t think was very appealing to him in concept. But what happened was Julia Roberts read the script and, when I went to meet with her, I came with a list of actors I thought would be good choices. Lucas was not on that list. At the time, he was not even available because he managed to do a play during the time we would be filming if Julia agreed to do the film.
When I sat down, Julia didn’t even want to go over the list. She told me that Lucas needed to do it. I said that would be a problem and told her why, but in the time after Julia agreed to do it, Lucas’s project that he had committed to was postponed and he became available. He read the script and, after a lot of thought and a pretty intense but wonderful discussion where we talked about what it would be like to work together, he decided to do the film.
For me, it was thrilling because he’s a fantastic actor. I was nervous because I didn’t want to fail him. He has been in a string of really remarkable films and I worried that I would be responsible for the dud film on his most recent series of projects. But I also have to say that I’m the son of an alcoholic mother, as I think I mentioned. Over the last 22 years of her life, she was sober and devoted her life to helping other people get well. Even though Lucas barely knew her – she died when he was three – the idea that Carol Hedges’s grandson would be part of a story that Carol Hedges’s son was making was for it to be part of a big, important conversation about what we’re going to do with all of the people who are suffering from this disease. The idea of us making that movie together was really meaningful to us both.
Taking off your director hat and putting on your father hat, what has it been like to see what Lucas’s career has become?
I remember when he was in a seventh grade play. He came out and he was playing Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. The other kids were beating him up on stage and he looked up and his eyes were filled with emotion. His performance was just breath-taking and I knew in that moment that he had a gift, which was innate and evident. A casting director then put him in Moonrise Kingdom, which was his first real film, and that was such a wonderful experience and then I watched him be very selective about what he would even audition for. He played squash and was on the baseball team but, if he thought a project had appeal, he would go in and audition and he got a lot of those projects.
It has been remarkable to watch him grow, not only as an artist but as a person. He’s a very deep and soulful young man, but where I think I have really been impressed with him is how he has handled what could have overwhelmed him. He really keeps his head down and he is about the work and serving the work. He keeps picking projects that he believes in and works with people who inspire him and are often his heroes. I’m just watching a young man learn and grow. Most actors don’t learn to act in front of the world. They get training often. But he has been learning to act by being in films and plays. I really admire his choices.
I think the best part of being a parent – and I’m a father of two – is when your kid finds something they love to do and they pursue it. That’s what I am watching with both of my kids. It has been surreal at times because I thought he would have a nice career because he certainly has the work ethic to find a place at the table, but I never imagined it would’ve moved as fast as it has for him. He has been lucky enough to get films like Manchester By The Sea and Lady Bird and Three Billboards. There’s a lot of luck in any person’s life, and he has had plenty, but he has also worked hard and is doing the artist’s work, which is inspiring to watch.
I always hoped to be proud of my kids, but I never expected that they would be so inspiring to me. I didn’t ever imagine that when I became a parent, that I would be so in awe of them. Genuinely I do feel that I am watching these two young men that I get to be a father of – my other son works in finance and he’s so hard-working – and I find it exciting to watch their lives unfold. I’m at an age where I’m looking back and seeing a lot of young people, certainly in the political sphere and artistically too, that are really inspiring. Lucas is one of those people for me. He just happens to be my son.
That’s amazing! By way of a final question, you worked with Disney a few years back on The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Would you be interested in taking on another big movie for them, given their current level of blockbuster dominance?
My film before that, Dan in Real Life, was a Touchstone film, which is a Disney entity, so I did almost a decade of work for Disney. I spent two years trying to turn Pinocchio into a little girl for them – a reinvented take. I have had a great experience working with that company. I like [president of production] Sean Bailey and [chairman] Alan Horn and the whole team there so much. I think I really want to make a series of films that are like Ben is Back in that they’re about urgent and contemporary original works, if that makes sense. But if Disney wanted me to come and spend some time with them and they had an idea, then of course I would listen because I like the people there so much.
But I think my next series of pieces will be probably more akin to Ben is Back and my earliest work like Pieces of April and Gilbert Grape rather than the work I did for Disney. But I had a really great time there, and I can’t wait to see Dumbo. Have you seen it?
No, I’m seeing it next week. I’m very much looking forward to it!
The trailer just wrecked me! It seems like Tim Burton and his team where able to take the iconic elements of the original story, but have also reinvented it. I’m very excited to see it.
Well, I look forward to seeing that and I certainly look forward to seeing whatever you do next. Thank you so much for speaking to me!
Ben is Back is in UK cinemas from today. Read our review here.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.