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Peter Hedges, director of ‘Ben is Back,’ on helping his actor son Lucas by not helping

Peter Hedges talks about directing son Lucas in 'Ben is Back.'

Courtney B. Vance (left), Lucas Hedges (center), and Julia Roberts in a scene from "Ben is Back."
Courtney B. Vance (left), Lucas Hedges (center), and Julia Roberts in a scene from "Ben is Back."Read moreMark Schafer (custom credit) / Roadside Attractions via AP

Young Ben is Back star Lucas Hedges seems to have a suspiciously good eye for scripts, so I asked his dad, Peter, the movie’s writer and director, if he helps pick them out.

“I don’t help at all,” said the elder Hedges (Pieces of April), whose son has starred in the Oscar-nominated Manchester By The Sea, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Ladybird. “In fact, he’s better off choosing on his own. He showed me the script for Ladybird, for instance, and while I thought it would be an interesting experience, I really didn’t get it. But he did. And he was obviously right.”

Lucas stars in Ben in Back as a drug addict in recovery who surprises his family by visiting over the Christmas holiday, creating a tense situation among family members (Julia Roberts, Courtney B. Vance) who are not sure whether to believe he’s sober.

It’s the first time the two have worked together since Lucas was a kid, shooting a bit part for Peter’s Dan in Real Life. After dad insisted on nine or 10 takes, a perturbed Lucas nearly swore off the entertainment business for good.

A decade later, his performance in a high school play caught the eye of a talent scout, who asked Lucas' mom if he could audition for a film. She said no, based on movie industry friends who said never let your kid act -- it’s too damaging.

“I told her if that’s true, then I’m going to hell, because I cast like 10 children in Dan in Real Life,” Peter said. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you ask Lucas if he wants to do the audition?’ And she did. And what Lucas said was, ‘I’ll do it, as long as dad’s not directing.’”

They’ve obviously squashed that beef and have collaborated on Ben is Back, a harrowing story that requires Lucas’ character to confront the damage his addiction has caused himself, and his family. Hedges has intense scenes with Roberts, who goes with him on a trip that reveals an ugly past.

Hedges said it’s a substantial role for his son, but the movie really looks at the problem of a child’s addiction through Roberts' character, and from the standpoint of a confused and terrified mother.

"We parents are always second-guessing ourselves. Was there too much tough love? Was there too much smothering? We never feel like we did it right. But the truth is, the disease is so massive and unmanageable that it brings us all to our knees.”

Hedges was moved to write and direct the movie after seeing so many relatives and friends (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) succumb to addiction. He knew that Hoffman had been in recovery for many years, and had worked hard on it, which is part of what made the relapse devastating.

“I wanted to explore the fragility of recovery, the tenuousness of it, the perils that always exist even if you have built a bunch of days [sober].” Hedges said. “I think people who haven’t been through it have a fixed idea of what it is: somebody who just makes bad choices or wants to feel good, and who should just say no. Hopefully this movie shows the situation in a different light, and maybe will expand the capacity for compassion and understanding.”