How 'Ben Is Back' Shines a 'Strangely Hopeful' Light on the Opioid Epidemic (Exclusive)

Ben is Back, Lucas Hedges, Julia Roberts
Courtesy of LD Ent./Roadside Attractions

Director Ben Hedges tells ET how he convinced son Lucas Hedges to star in his addiction drama.

The title Ben Is Back poses an inherent question: Back from where? In a literal sense, 19-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges) has returned home from a treatment center, where he has been living following a heroin overdose, to surprise his unwitting family on Christmas Eve. But he's back in another sense, too: He is 77 days sober and feels like himself again. Or so he tells his hopeful yet cautious mother, Holly (Julia Roberts). Over 24 hours, deep-seated emotions -- regret, resentment, hopelessness -- will be dredged up as traumas from the past threaten the family's future.

"I wanted to write a love story about a hard thing," writer, director and Lucas's father, Peter Hedges, says. "I wanted to write a love story about a mother who will go anywhere and goes everywhere out of love and an ache to help her son. And a son who wants more than anything to show his family that he has put his life in order and that he can be heroic."

With Ben Is Back in select theaters, ET spoke with Hedges about how he convinced his son to star in his movie, what it's like directing Julia Roberts, and the "rewarding" response audiences have had to his addiction drama.

ET: I want to start by saying congratulations on Lucas' Golden Globe nomination for Boy Erased. That must be so exciting as a family. Did you have the chance to get together and celebrate?

Peter Hedges: The whole journey, watching him flourish, watching him grow, watching him take on incredible challenges. We try not to put too much attention on awards and put more attention on celebrating process, because those come and go. Obviously, they've come quite a bit for Lucas! But we just try to celebrate what matters most, which is his process and engaging in meaningful work and he keeps growing. He keeps challenging himself. We definitely take a moment and go, "Isn't that wonderful?" But mostly just try to keep moving forward and make sure all of us in our family are pushing ourselves to grow and be better at what we do.

What was the first kernel of the idea that became Ben Is Back?

I wanted to write something about the opioid heroin epidemic, because of loss in my life -- I lost a friend to overdose, then my favorite actor ever [Philip Seymour Hoffman] overdosed and died and a relative nearly died. So, I knew I wanted to write about the epidemic. I just didn't know what story to tell. I began a period of intense research which lasted several years, and most of my free time was spent researching or meeting with people and hearing [their] stories.

Eventually, I ended up in a writing workshop, and I wrote the first 10 pages of what became Ben Is Back -- over three sessions, I wrote three pages. That was when I began to think, "I could write a story about one family over the course of one day." Those first pages felt very promising, and I quit other projects I was working on and gave myself a six-week window to see if I could get an actionable rough draft. In five weeks and five days, I had a first draft that was stronger than most of my third or fourth drafts are. I felt like, if I do a bit more work on this, we could be shooting this very soon. And I wanted to put the story out as soon as possible, because I wanted to be a part of a bigger conversation that I think we need to be having.

Julia Roberts has worked consistently over the years, but it feels like, between this and Homecoming, we're entering a Julia Robertssance. She is as great as she's ever been in this. You directed an exceptional performance from her.

[Laughs.] I wish I could say it was hard, because then I would be evidencing my immense gifts as a director, but the truth is, she brought it every day, every frame, every scene. She connected deeply to Holly Burns and one of her great capacities is that she can embody both ferocity and fragility and can go between the two on a dime. That was very important to me, that Holly has this real capacity for action and then has moments where she's tender and vulnerable and broken. And Julia brought it. She brought it in every way.

Did the role of Holly evolve at all from what you'd written when Julia signed on?

It evolved right before I sent it to her. I realized I wanted to send it to her and I did what I call a "Holly Pass," or "The Julia Roberts Pass," which was just to make sure we felt her in every scene, that we felt her concern, that she's watching, that she's paying attention. Because the tension of the film is: Is Ben telling the truth? Is Ben going to use again? What's going to happen next? And I wanted the film to go, primarily, through Holly's point of view.

Where it did change is once she takes on a scene -- and the same thing happened with Lucas [Hedges] -- both of them brought moments and qualities, and their energy and their energy together. They were so playful with each other. They played off of each other, and they gave so much to each other that, invariably, moments occurred that even transcended what I had hoped for. That's why I love directing, honestly. Not to have it turn out exactly the way I imagined, but have it become something more that I could've ever hoped.

Did you write the role of Ben intending, or hoping, for it to be for Lucas?

I never imagined he would be in a film of mine. We had talked about how he didn't want to be in a film of mine -- not because he doesn't like me, but because who at 20 or 21 wants to work with their dad? Particularly when they've worked with Greta Gerwig and Martin McDonagh, Kenny Lonergan, Jonah Hill, Joel Edgerton and Wes Anderson, twice. Why would you come work with me? And he didn't need to do this film. He really did it for me as a favor, because when I went to meet with Julia, I had a list of actors who would've been very good in the part and who had expressed interest. She didn't want to see the list. She just wanted Lucas.

When she wanted Lucas, that was the first time I began to even imagine that that was possible. He had been committed to do a play on Broadway, anyway. That play was postponed, so he suddenly became available. It was really Julia that made me begin to want Lucas to be in the film. Then we just needed to be very thoughtful about it. Lucas needed some time to, one, read the script. He'd never read it. He did like the script very much and the part and the idea of working with Julia, but it's become clear to me now, post-having made the movie, that he gave me an immense gift. I come from a family of addicted people. My mother was an alcoholic who got sober when I was 15. Something about Carol Hedges' grandson playing this part in this film is particularly meaningful to me, and I didn't know how much it would mean to me until he said yes and we got to make the film together.

Once you did imagine Lucas in the role, were there things you saw in him as an actor that you thought would be right for Ben? Or, were there things that you wrote in Ben that you thought you could draw out in Lucas -- something we haven't seen yet?

What I did know is that I wanted you to love the character of Ben and root for him. I wanted him to be winning and charismatic, at times, and I wanted you to feel his potential as a vital being. I mean, I don't think anybody has written a part that comes close to capturing all of what Lucas can do. He's had some great roles. I saw him in Manchester by the Sea, [and] I didn't even recognize him in that film. There were a couple of moments when I went, "Oh, that feels like Lucas." I watch him in Boy Erased, and I don't recognize him. He does things in Ben Is Back that I don't recognize, that I don't see him as Lucas.

He's playing very different characters, if you look at what he did in Mid90s compared to, say, Lady Bird. They're just different creatures. I think I wanted to make sure that you had a complex experience, as an audience member, with Ben. That you found him charming but also found him full of shame. You found him believable at times, but then at other times, you didn't know what to believe. I wanted an audience to have the experience that I've had with many people I know who suffer from heroin or alcohol or opioid overuse -- or dependency -- because they are remarkable people, sober. They become different creatures, really. They become different beings when they are in the throes of their disease.

How does your father-son dynamic shift when it becomes director-actor?

One, he called me Pete or Peter on the set. I needed to be careful. The first day he showed up, I said, "Hey, Bubba!" He looked at me and wasn't mean about it, but was like, "Dad ..." He didn't say dad, but it was like, "You can't call me Bubba." I made sure to not call him Bubba again. I tried to stay out of his eye line. I tried to stay out of his way. I tried to direct more with questions and less seeking a particular result. So, "What if we try this? What if we explore this? Let's go again." I wanted Lucas -- and all the other actors -- to feel immense freedom. I didn't want them to feel that they had to please me, but what they needed to do was play truthfully off each other.

The one thing I probably did is... I think there were some instances where I did more takes with Lucas than I would have if it had been another actor. Because I sometimes felt my judgment, my capacity in the moment, to assess how he was doing in a scene would get complicated. Like, I'd be his dad going, "Did he have a good lunch? I wonder if he's sleeping enough. I hope he's having fun." Whatever those thoughts were. So, sometimes I'd go, "We need to go again." I didn't always have a reason why, except I just wanted to make sure we had it. Then, when I got into editing, we started to look at the first or second takes and almost every set up I'd go, "How many takes did I do this?" They'd say six or eight and I'd go, "You're kidding! What was I doing?" I don't expect to get the chance to direct him again -- I don't even expect to get to make another movie again. I always treat it like it's the last movie and if I get to make another one, I feel so lucky -- but, if I were to get that amazing opportunity to direct him again, I probably would trust more that he's bringing it in every frame, in every way.

What response have you personally seen from the public with this project?

I'm so happy you asked that question. One of the best parts of making a film like Ben Is Back [is that] it's a festival film. I've been to nine festivals. I've probably done 20 Q&A's after the film. Every Q&A, either an audience member stands up and says, "I have lived this. I'm living this. You got it. You nailed it. I feel less alone. I feel less ashamed. I feel like I can point people to this movie and they can see what I've gone through." Or someone has said, "I didn't know what I put my mother through or my father or my family, and I'm going to leave the theater now and I'm going to go call them and I'm going to apologize, because I realize my eating disorder or my--" whatever their issue had been and sometimes it wasn't heroin or opioids, made them aware of their family.

I'm not saying it impacts everyone that way. Some people, the movie doesn't touch them because they can't imagine the world or they don't believe it's possible. But I've had so many impactful and meaningful face-to-face encounters with audience members where they've reflected back to me their own stories. My favorite kinds of films... You see them and you may not even talk about the film after it's over but you may find yourself talking about your own life and listening to the lives of others. To say it's rewarding is a bit odd because, in my heart of hearts, I wish we didn't need stories like Ben Is Back, or the other stories that are coming out that are attempting to deal with this matter. But at the core, the one thing that also comes back to me, is that while it was inspired by the opioid heroin epidemic, I did want to write a love story about a hard thing. I wanted to write a love story about a mother who will go anywhere and goes everywhere out of love and an ache to help her son. And a son who wants more than anything to show his family that he has put his life in order and that he can be heroic.

The only reason you make a film like this, on some level, is you want it to be impactful and useful. And if it's neither of those things, I don't feel great that I wasted somebody's time or everybody's energy in making it. But it does seem that there are people who are deeply moved and touched and actually feel strangely hopeful, that they're not alone and that maybe love can ultimately prevail.