Fred Hechinger is talking about privilege. The actor has, after all, just shot to fame in a show absolutely dripping with the stuff. In HBO’s scathing satire The White Lotus, which follows a group of wealthy holidaymakers at a Hawaiian resort, Hechinger plays Quinn Mossbacher, a moping teenager who rarely looks up from his Nintendo Switch. His rich parents feel sorry for him. “He is a straight, white, young man,” says his mum. “Nobody has any sympathy for them right now.”
Hechinger (pronounced Heck-in-jur) has overheard parents saying these words, almost verbatim. “It’s bonkers,” he says over Zoom from his family home in Manhattan. “I think it’s so great that Mike [White, series creator] is able to hold that sentence up to the light and let us laugh at how ridiculous it is.”
But “inequality upsets everything” and is even detrimental to people like Quinn, says Hechinger. “The people who are clearly, cruelly benefiting from these systems are also deeply miserable. You look at someone hoarding wealth, like Jeff Bezos, it’s an endless pit. He has all this money, but is he any happier? With the straight white man thing, there is the discomfort there, and it’s not because that person isn’t getting any opportunities, it’s because they’re getting an unfair excess of opportunity.”
I get the impression that, just like Quinn, 21-year-old Hechinger is trying to make sense of the world around him – or, as he puts it, the “mess we’re in”. But he’s more articulate than Quinn. He’s a philosophical thinker, and speaks in an organic, unrehearsed way, in a loud voice, running his fingers through his hair and spinning on his chair. At several points, he apologises for rambling. “Sorry I’m longwinded and all.”
In a show full of exploitative, preening narcissists, Quinn is actually one of the more sympathetic characters. A recent Guardian article ranked him the “least dreadful” person on the show. Mike White, says Hechinger, has a “dedication towards seemingly unlikable characters that pushes us to really sit with people and take them in. His characters do incredibly cringe-worthy things and treat people with such cruelty, and Mike doesn’t look away. He shows that, if you focus on someone long enough, they always surprise you.”
At one point, desperately trying to cut through the delusional discourse of his family, Quinn says: “What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things? We all do the same s***. We’re all still parasites on the Earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating the last fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fires. A billion. Where does all the pain go?” It’s a satisfying, if brief, moment of clarity.
Quinn, says Hechinger, is trying to work out if it’s possible to “have a life where he’s doing what he wants but not bring about any more pain. So many of the luxuries of life are contingent on other people’s suffering – and that needs to change.”
While he speaks fluently about the motivations of his character, the one question Hechinger is stumped by is about the criticism surrounding the show. It was hailed by The Independent as “the comedy of the year” and The Guardian called it “2021’s best, and most uncomfortable, TV show”, but there was a minor backlash to the fact it was satirising appropriation and the wealthy and yet was written by a white, middle-class man. “I definitely get excited when people engage with a show enough to criticise it, especially when so much of this show is about deconstructing,” says Hechinger after a long pause. He was impressed by the way White was able to understand characters whose experiences he had not lived through. “He knew modern teenage lingo better than I did,” he says. “That shapeshifting quality is a part of all great writers.”
But White has said that Quinn – the loneliest and most solitary of the guests at The White Lotus – is the character he identifies with the most. Hechinger, too, feels a closeness to him. “I find, even at its best, life to be somewhat lonely,” he says. “When I was younger, loneliness was really scary – it felt like an absence – and now I feel human beings are incredibly connected in their loneliness. Even if you’re in a committed relationship or have a full family, there are parts of ourselves that we carry alone. I was thinking recently about that moment when you say ‘bye’ to someone. That breakaway moment when you’re back with yourself again. Like, ‘Bam! Now I’m alone!’ I want that to be a more gradual shift, not so sudden. We need something to get rid of that enormous, instant pain of loneliness.”
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As a child growing up in New York’s Upper West Side, Hechinger found refuge from his loneliness in storytelling. “My teacher at elementary school, Marianne, encouraged us to record ourselves telling a story – I chose The Devil and Daniel Webster – and submit it to a nationwide competition,” he says. “I felt less lonely when I was telling it, like I had a purpose.”
In his teens, Hechinger attended Saint Ann’s, a private school where his classmates included actors Lucas Hedges and Maya Hawke. His mother is a photo editor for magazines and his father a journalist. “They don’t make plays or anything but they’re storytellers, too,” he says, proudly.
During high school, Hechinger signed up for acting classes downtown. He joined the improv and sketch comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, where he was taught by White Lotus co-star Natasha Rothwell. Before long, he was cast in a small part in Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age movie Eighth Grade – as one of Kayla’s older schoolfriends, Trevor. Since then, he’s starred alongside Tom Hanks in News of the World, played a slave catcher in The Underground Railroad, a goofball teen in the Fear Street slasher movies and Amy Adams’s foil in The Woman in the Window. That one didn’t go down too well; critics called it “baffling” and compared it to “the wreckage of a car accident”.
In the film’s final scene, Hechinger’s unblinking psychopath chases Adams’s agoraphobic doctor up onto a roof, where he hooks her in the cheek with a gardening fork and attempts to drown her in a puddle. It’s a preposterous sight. Was it at all funny to film? “Making movies is always pretty funny if you take a step back,” he says, gamely. “If you actually look around and realise this is all made up and people are committing so intensely to it, there’s an inherent, wonderful absurdity to it. All those stunts were so fun. Taking that thing out of Amy’s prosthetic cheek – I could never even dream of a moment like that. It’s so specifically wild.”
Next, Hechinger is starring as the young pornographer who filmed Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous sex tape in the much-hyped Hulu drama Pam & Tommy. His character, Seth Warshavsky, is considered one of the 50 original pioneers of the internet, alongside Bill Gates, but has been described as having the “moral capacity of a used-car salesman”. “Word is Mr Warshavsky is in Thailand,” says Hechinger. “He took all his money and has been off the grid for the past 20 years or so.”
Pam & Tommy has been all over the press since pictures were published of Lily James’s extreme transformation for the role. “She had six hours of prosthetic makeover every day,” says Hechinger. “She physically looks nothing like Lily James and pretty exactly like Pamela Anderson.”
Did she go full method on set? “No – I feel like method has all these weird connotations nowadays,” says Hechinger. “I personally believe there’s a side of method for a long time that’s been an excuse to be an asshole. You never see someone playing a kind, sober nun and they’ve gone full method. It’s always like, ‘He was a raging, mean-spirited person who went full method.’ I mean, come on, we’re acting.”
He accepts that every actor’s process is different, and valuable, “but as soon as someone’s process imposes on other people and makes it harder to do their job or unsafe or uncomfortable, then that’s when method is just a big dumb fallacy. It’s a self-aggrandising, bogus practice where it’s just about ego.”
He smiles, spinning in his chair again. “To me, the exciting side of acting is experimenting with ego and letting it go.”
‘The White Lotus’ is available in full on NOW.
Read more of The Independent’s Rising Stars interviews here.