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Fred Hechinger in The White Lotus playing Nintendo Switch while standing in a pool
Hechinger in The White Lotus
Image: HBO Max

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The White Lotus’ Fred Hechinger accidentally had the best year

And not just because he got to play Switch by the beach

I had one question on my mind at the end of HBO Max’s The White Lotus finale earlier this month — and it had nothing to do with dead bodies or criminal acts. What was the teenage Quinn playing on his Switch before the sea swept it up in a moment of ethereal metaphor?

“There are two real answers to that,” says White Lotus actor Fred Hechinger with the utmost seriousness. “If anyone wants to imagine a different game, I would like them to still be able to do that, but the two real answers are: The Legend of Zelda and Super Smash Bros.”

That ... makes sense. To be honest, everything Hechinger says makes sense, in a startling way. Though just 21 years old, the actor has clearly spent a lot of time, as actors do, thinking about The Human Condition and life, man. He admits that the typical “Gen Z” trends do not come easily to him; despite being part of the young triumvirate of actors Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady on set, he says creator Mike White, age 51, caught him up on what most people talk about online and how people his age speak. Still, Hechinger has an old soul in a good way. Over Zoom his reverence for actors and the craft has the effect of time travel; you feel like maybe you’re talking to the next De Niro or Denzel. The consideration for the work runs deep. He’s also been blown away by having one hell of a year.

Hechinger grew up in New York, attended the legendary Saint Ann’s School (a breeding ground for young breakout actors and musicians), and let loose improvising as a teen at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Only in the last few years did he finally step into the movie and TV industry, filming a number of projects that, due to the pandemic, all landed at once. At the end of 2020, he appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk and the Tom Hanks-led Western News of the World. He kicked off 2021 with the pulpy Netflix film The Woman in the Window, then appeared in two of the three Fear Street movies and Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad. The weekly chatter for The White Lotus solidifies him as 2021’s most promising “that guy.”

“It’s about three years of work that very serendipitously has come out around the same time,” he says. “I enjoy that kind of jumping around, and I love making movies — the intensity of it is a fun thing — but it makes it seem like I’m a little bit more of a workhorse than I am!”

Fred Hechinger looks over in a group of puritans in Fear Street: 1666
Hechinger in Fear Street: 1666
Image: Netflix

Chronologically, Woman in the Window was Hechinger’s first big break. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) shot the movie for 20th Century Fox in 2018, but reshoots and reedits forced release delays, and the pandemic prompted 20th Century (acquired by Disney while the film was in limbo) to sell Woman in the Window to Netflix. Hechinger played many characters in the interim — from spaced-out teens like Quinn to a puritanical do-gooder in Fear Street: 1666 — but Wright’s theatrical sensibilities and commitment to honesty, even when considering a character as campy as a troubled kid caught up in a murder that may or may not be a delusion, helped Hechinger define himself as an actor.

Hechinger goes on and on about rehearsing with Wright, and in the process, bottling up research into the psychology of his roles. He compares working with the director to the way Sidney Lumet did with his casts back in the glory days of New York cinema. Few could make the reference, and it’s indicative of Hechinger’s tastes, which skew to an era most of his contemporaries might overlook. He cites Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Houston, and Buster Keaton as idols.

But Hechinger isn’t some kind of artistic luddite either. He’s a thinker, then he’s a do-er. He doesn’t need to disappear into a role, he just needs to understand it — and in the Gen Z era, that means reading every bit of applicable research at his disposal. If he’s starring in a 17th-century slasher, he’s still studying the dialects and practices of everyday people. None of that method acting stuff. For him it’s about confidence.

“I enjoy the preparation period,” he says. “It’s where I can kind of funnel a lot of my nerves. To think through every possible thing [is important] because then you can kind of get that out of your system. You can be free to do whatever is best for that moment once you’re on set.”

Fred Hechinger crying and Amy Adams gasping in The Woman in the Window
Hechinger in The Woman in the Window
Image: Netflix

Improvising at UCB only nurtured those instincts — and his connections. Theater alum and Silicon Valley star Zach Woods eventually plucked him from classes to appear in his 2020 short film, David, alongside Will Ferrell. And Natasha Rothwell, who plays Belinda the spa attendant on The White Lotus, was actually his first improv teacher. “So that was very full circle,” he says, “and it was one of the best experiences in my life.”

Quinn stands out as, potentially, one of Hechinger’s more challenging roles: The guy is wealthy, he’s wayward, he’d rather play Switch than go scuba diving, though behavior-wise he’s a rather normal teen. But when he looks out at the beauty of the Hawaiian oceanside, something clicks. For Hechinger, understanding those moments came from White’s scripts, and not overthinking what might be running through Quinn’s head. But when I ask him if there’s a quality that might separate young actors like himself from the old guard, he turns toward an existential dread that his contemporaries have lived with in a clearer sense for their entire lives. And it makes sense why Quinn might find himself lost in the sea.

“The main generational thing that I think about is the impending climate crisis, the end of the world” Hechinger says, acknowledging that he’s not even sure if people his age can call it a generational fear. At 21, he’s now in a place to figure out the relationship between the classics he loves and the new era emerging from creatives of his generation. “There are definitely a lot of larger questions that I don’t fully know the answer to that I am working through that have to do with what’s different about now than in the past. I think film is a fascinating medium because it’s so young — obviously there’s VR, but out of the really popular art forms, it’s still one of the youngest. But also since it’s been over 100 years, film is also at a place where it’s always in conversation with stuff from the past.”

Hechinger had a hell of a year, but now the big question is: What to do next? In 2022, the actor will appear alongside Sebastian Stan and Lily James in the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tapa saga Pam & Tommy for Hulu. And then ... he’s not quite sure. Hechinger says while he’s talking to filmmakers about what might be next, nothing is set in stone. But he’s hungry for whatever it is, and to eventually tell his own stories.

“I very much have this urge to make things that only I could make. And so I have that mixture of adoration for capital-C Cinema, and what it’s given to me as an individual and what it’s given to me as a lonely person who felt more connected; felt I could understand life a lot better and in a much happier way through it. Then at the same time, I feel this constant urge to twist it and make something that is only true to this moment, and to myself and to these people that I know, and to these issues that are really pressing.”