If he couldn't act it, however, he could become it. And so he funneled all that residual On the Road energy into what became a lifelong writing habit, in freewheeling Kerouac fashion. "I spill it out as fast as I can," he says. "I don't really edit." Just about everything that's happened to him as an adult, from the "uninteresting" to the "wonderful," has found its way onto paper—in stories, in poems, in journal entries. "In Brazil, recently, I wrote 70 pages," he ticks off. "In London, 80 pages."

It was that writing—as well as the long on-again, off-again journey On the Road took to the screen—that led Hedlund back to the role he'd yearned for at 17. By 2006 Coppola had passed On the Road to the Brazilian director Walter Salles, who'd earned critical acclaim for another period road movie, the 2004 Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, and Hedlund was just four films into his career. Troy had led to Friday Night Lights, and then to 2005's Four Brothers, with Mark Wahlberg, and 2006's Eragon. But the right roles were elusive. "I just really wanted to do things that could make me proud or be emotional," he says. During a meeting with a casting director for On the Road, Hedlund read some of his writing aloud. "God, isn't Kerouac great?" the casting director said afterward. "No," Hedlund replied, "this is something I wrote when I was 18." Word got to Salles, who brought Hedlund to New York for a test reading, where Hedlund further showed off his writing—and a bit more besides.

In the script, as in the novel and as Neal Cassady was in real life, Dean Moriarty is frequently nude (Kerouac wrote of Moriarty, "He came to the door stark naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw"). For a scene in which Sal Paradise tells Moriarty that he's heading south to Mexico and Moriarty responds slyly, "Hey, Sal, you know, I habla español as well," the idea occurred to Hedlund: "Maybe I should just whip it out of the pants and say, 'You know, I habla español as well.'" He went with it, dropping trou on stage during the audition. Afterward, according to Salles, Hedlund read some pages he'd written about "his journey from Minnesota to California—gas stations, strip bars, the solitude of the road. The text was at the same time sharp and personal and had the same jazz-infused quality that you find in Neal Cassady's letters. He got the character's essence. The writing was impressive, more so than dropping the pants, although the girls in the room may have argued otherwise."

• • •

Whether Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady ever drank at the Ear Inn, just off the Hudson River on Spring Street, is unknown, but it's certainly possible, since Hedlund's favorite bar has been serving drinks, under one name or another, since the 19th century. It is, as Hedlund advertises, a great bar, though his affection might owe something to proximity as well. Kirsten Dunst, his girlfriend of a year (whom he refers to as "my gal"), lives nearby. They met on the set of On the Road, in which Dunst plays one of Moriarty's wives, and sometime later struck up a romance after Hedlund took her out on a 3 A.M. canoe ride. "It was not a stable canoe," he says. "We fell out and had to swim back in mucky, shitty water, like golf-pond water." This time around, sucking pond water didn't seem like such a bad thing.

If Kerouac and Cassady ever did drink here, they might have talked as Hedlund does as the bartender refills our glasses and night settles onto the city: allusively, with nods to Emerson, Frost, Fitzgerald, and Thoreau, and tangentially, with stories veering into bouts of recited poetry and then back again ("Everything you ever knew seems to slowly be forgotten," he quotes from a poem of his, an assault against the resignation of maturity that he wrote years ago in Mexico. "All the good nights are just nights, all the good mornings are just mornings, all the dots in the sky are the same dots you've been looking at all your life . . ."). "Garrett looks at everything with an artistic eye," McGraw says. Kristen Stewart, who plays Marylou, Moriarty's ex-wife and still-tumultuous lover, in On the Road, recalls that Hedlund was "always scribbling something in his notebook. We all heard tidbits. He was writing this on-the-fly poetry, which was beautifully reminiscent of what we were doing."