Garrett Hedlund, a Braver and Freer Actor (Exclusive)

Garrett Hedlund
Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

The star of ‘Mudbound’ and HBO’s ‘Mosaic’ -- easily his best work -- explains how he’s more confident in his career choices.

Garrett Hedlund is contemplating his hair color: once sandy blond, as a model for L.L. Bean and Teen magazine, now, 15 years into his acting career, a deep brown. As the hair has darkened, so have the roles.

"The towhead in me is quickly vanishing," he jokes to ET. "You know, there might have been more days prior where I spent a little more time in the sun, and now maybe I'm more of a hermit and that's the result. Also, we had to dye it for a film, Lullaby [2014], and I don't know if it's ever recovered from that."

Nonetheless, the deeper tresses have complemented the darker tones of his captivating work on screen recently, with a haunting turn in Netflix's Mudbound and now in Mosaic, a gritty Steven Soderbergh-directed crime drama, premiering Jan. 22 on HBO.

Hedlund plays Joel Hurley, an aspiring artist cast under world-famous children's author Olivia Lake's (Sharon Stone) seductive spell, in the twisty, experimental six-part miniseries, which also stars Paul Reubens, Beau Bridges and Frederick Weller. When Olivia goes missing, an investigation finds that Hurley may have been involved with her disappearance -- depending on who you believe.

Hedlund was hooked from the get-go, before the show was a show. Initially designed solely as an interactive app, wherein users navigate the story's wild turns for a unique, individual experience much like a video game, Hedlund's interest in Mosaic was piqued just knowing Soderbergh would be occupying the director's chair.

"I was open to whatever was going to happen," the 33-year-old actor says. "I just always want to work with great directors and learn and grow, and that's exactly what I got to do."

Furthermore, Hedlund relished the three-month break between shooting the present-day and flashback scenes. Is that how long it took Hedlund to grow an as-full-as-he-can-grow beard for the flashbacks? Hedlund unleashes a hearty laugh.

"You know, hereditarily, I'm sort of blessed with horrible facial hair," he says, "but it was funny in terms of, we weren't given that [flashback] script until a week before. It was more exciting than fearful for me."

Garrett Hedlund and Jennifer Ferrin in a scene from 'Mosaic.' - Claudette Barius/HBO

Then, of course, there's Stone, whom Hedlund met for the first time at the Grey Gardens home in Long Island, New York, right before he shot 2011's Country Strong. "She appeared to not remember," he says, laughing, noting they took a photo together. But Hedlund was still mesmerized by Stone's presence when they teamed up for Mosaic. "It was a similar fascination [to Soderbergh]. I mean, obviously, I looked across the room and was like, Man, that's Sharon Stone, and my character within that views Olivia Lake in that same fashion."

Soderbergh, he says, got a kick out of his personal Stone story and thought "it was just perfect" for nurturing their onscreen chemistry. But Hedlund is a revelation to behold, as Soderbergh showcases the actor's capacity for intensely haunting performance and the capability of his ever-expressive eyes to reveal a story all on their own.

For additional proof, look no further than Dee Rees' critically acclaimed Mudbound, starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Golden Globe nominee Mary J. Blige and Hedlund as World War II soldier Jamie McAllan, who combats his racist father's bigotry upon his return home to rural Mississippi.

Hedlund felt compelled to work with Rees based on her talent alone -- the same reason he worked with director Angelina Jolie for 2014's Unbroken and writer-director Shana Feste on Country Strong. Gender, he says, is not necessarily a consideration when it comes to the filmmakers who interest him. In fact, of three movies he's currently considering for 2018, he confirms two are directed by women.

"People will ask if there's anything different, and I don’t see why the question is even a question, because they're all artists, they're all geniuses and they're passionate, and that passion is infectious," he says. "I would work with a female director any day of the week in comparison [to a male director] if it keeps going the way it's been going for me. There's no boundaries, no divide. And I've never seen it that way or feel it that way, and I'm proud to have been a part of the [films] I've been [a part of]."

Though his awards-caliber performance in Mudbound speaks for itself, Hedlund professes that he now has a keener sense of the kinds of stories that appeal to him as an actor. His criteria: "Has this been seen before? Has it been done before? Do I care to watch this? And I don't want to knock on Hallmark, but is it a TV movie?"

"The films that inspired me to become an actor were ones that moved me emotionally," he explains, "so what I look for is something that I hope would move others or transform my perspective on the world and life and love."

Hedlund's latest drama Burden, which premiered over the weekend at Sundance, satisfies his desire for rich, affecting filmmaking. Starring alongside Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker and Usher Raymond, the actor leads as real-life clansman Mike Burden, who opened the first KKK memorabilia shop but becomes a changed man thanks to an African-American reverend (Whitaker). Hedlund was first struck by writer-director Andrew Heckler's tale of redemption and love, but moreover, "I was really excited for this side of a love story," he says, cracking up. "This is the first script that had me being with a lady in a long time!"

Now, armed with some of the most buzzy roles of his career, Hedlund says, "I've gained a bravery and a freedom to know that I can possibly do anything that I want to put my mind to." A very different attitude than when he made Troy with Brad Pitt 14 years prior, when he didn’t "know anything about being on set."

Hedlund's newfound fearlessness means that, yes, he's game for taking on James Bond -- that is, if it's directed by Rees, who expressed interest in directing a Hedlund-as-Bond movie last year. "With her doing anything, I'd be on her team," he insists. "If she's the captain of the ship, I'd be on that boat any day."

Hedlund the lover? Hedlund the action hero? So much change -- something this former towhead is wholeheartedly embracing.

"At the beginning, I thought I knew what I wanted and didn't want," Hedlund says, "and now I feel like I do know what I do want and don't want, and I know how far I'll go and I know what chances I will and won't take. And, really, what I've found is there are no chances I won't take."