ORLANDO, Florida — He was the quintessential character of the quintessential American novel of the 1950s.
Dean Moriarty, a coiled spring of speed, greed, curiosity and impatience, was “the igniter” of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, says filmmaker Walter Salles — who directed the new film based on the Beat Generation novel. “Dean invites the other characters into forbidden territories.”
In Kerouac’s book, the struggling would-be writer is inspired and moved — literally — by his new friend, who pulls the young Keroauc, named “Sal Paradise” in the novel, out of New York and onto the road with him or on cross-country trips to see him.
“These are guys who would drive a thousand miles for a good conversation,” drawls Garrett Hedlund, who plays Moriarty in Salles’s film.
Moriarty, based on Neal Cassady, pal and inspiration to Kerouac and Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes (who wrote the first “Beat” novel, Go), was “a con man and a wise man, a mystical lecher, a debauched embodiment of spiritual purity,” Creighton University scholar R.R. Reno wrote of him in First Things magazine. “Dean steals without hesitation, cheats on his women, ignores his children, and abandons Sal [the book’s narrator, based on Kerouac] when he is sick.”
A swirling vortex of energy, Reno says that Dean creates chaos wherever he travels, but “rises out of the chaos he creates.” To Kerouac, he embodies “the purity of the road.”
Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) spent hours with the real Neal Cassady’s family — his children — before deciding how to play the fictionalized version of him.
“With Neal, and Dean, there’s a fine balance between wanting to become a writer and wanting to be the igniter, to inspire the ones seeking inspiration,” Hedlund says.
“He became the muse for a lot of writers. That required adventure. He had to go back and provide — be the father, be the husband. Until he got the urge to flee again,” to go back On the Road.
Generations of readers of On the Road have been mesmerized by Moriarty, and put off by him. He soaks up experience, drugs and jazz and sex and books — all at highway speeds. He also wins and abandons women and families, sets out to procure “a girl” for his writer-pal Sal, only to keep her for himself. He drives with reckless abandon, steals when it suits him, seduces whatever sex is expedient and generally sucks the air out of every room he enters.
Kerouac described him as a guy who spent “a third of his life in prison, a third in public libraries and a third in pool halls.” Hedlund said that Cassady’s family complained that “Kerouac made him out to be this selfish SOB — using people, living for the moment, for himself. The family says he was a wonderful father. The kids couldn’t wait for him to come home. If I didn’t have them, maybe I would have played him further out there. There’s a sadness and vulnerability to him that they suggested that I played.”
Salles saw a “fatherless boy who had a hard time being a father later in life. He’s not just restless energy. He suffers. We wanted to capture that.”
Hedlund, trying to balance the manic energy with the emptiness that drove it, came up with what he feels is the essence of the man and the character.
“You’d better say something intelligent if you want him to stick around,” Hedlund says. And as to Moriarty/Cassady’s voracious appetites and seeming selfishness?
“Sometimes, sucking the life out of those around you makes them open to new life coming in.”
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