If we can radiate compassion for what others go through on a daily basis that you’ll never have to experience in your own life—man, then we’ve really done something.

The cinematic centerpiece in a long line of films, the US-Mexico border is framed and reframed by the camera as a multidimensional space: the backdrop to colonial fantasies, a place of contested historical heritage, and a landscape for cultural hybridization and encounter. However, the border is, above all else, a politically charged icon symbolizing not only the separation of two sovereign states, but also, on a different scale, the fundamental divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Marco Perego-Saldaña’s The Absence of Eden is the latest crossing-the-border film to put a human face on undocumented immigrants who make the perilous journey to the “promised land,” even though there is every chance that—especially for women and children—they could fall victim to human trafficking and drug cartels, or end up dead. Esmee (Zoe Saldaña) takes that chance and navigates murky waters, which includes Shipp (Garrett Hedlund), a morally conflicted ICE officer.

The Absence of Eden marks the directorial debut of Perego-Saldaña—Zoe’s fine artist husband. An Italian immigrant himself, this is a personal project for Perego-Saldaña. Zoe’s connection to the narrative cannot be overlooked, either. She is known to take great pride in her Latina and Afro-Carribean roots, and here, she also serves as an executive producer. Perego-Saldaña dedicated the film to Zoe’s maternal grandmother who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in the 1960s.

Anthem caught up with Hedlund to discuss his involvement with the Saldañas’ passion project.

The Absence of Eden hits theaters on April 12.

Hi, Garrett. How are you doing, sir?

Very good, very good. It’s been a while.

We haven’t sat down to chat since Dirt Music. Congratulations on The Absence of Eden.

Thank you very much.

Why don’t we start at the beginning? You and Marco [Perego-Saldaña] and Zoe [Saldaña]—

How did we meet? [laughs]

You’re way ahead of me.

It was through mutual friends. Geez, really early on. Zoe and I met in my formative years in LA.

It appears that you were all headed towards a collaboration for a while now, too. Marco said he’d been wanting to work with you on something. He’s also the first to admit that when actors work with first-time directors, they’re really taking a risk. Does it feel risky to you?

Gosh, I believe the opposite is true. There’s an artistic hunger that first-time filmmakers come with. It’s a beautiful thing. I like to be a part of that creative hunger. Marco wrote a wonderful script that encapsulated the very human struggle of moral dilemmas, the struggle of duty, and the struggle of conscience. And it was only after sitting down with him that I realized how personal this all is to him. I didn’t know how personal it was to Zoe, either. It’s about where they come from and where their families come from. So, of course, I wanted to be a part of something that felt so dear to them.

To your point, that first-time freshness is something you never get back—ever. It’s fleeting.

It’s very similar to bands making their first album on whatever budget they can, and it’s absolutely phenomenal and raw and honest and poetic. The second album might have a better producer and more instruments, but things become overproduced and over-polished. That happens sometimes. Sometimes, it doesn’t. It depends on the band. But Marco is someone who’s always gonna put his genuine, sensitive, and vulnerable touch on anything he does moving forward. I can’t wait for it.

There’s also a bit of an echo between The Absence of Eden and Lullaby in that, like Marco, Andrew [Levitas] was making his directorial debut and transitioning from the art world to film. You’ve obviously worked with a wide spectrum of directors, including titans from all different walks of life. Do helmers with a fine art background bring a different sensibility?

You know, I think there is a different sensibility within them in how they put everything they have into something that is very personal to them. Lullaby was Andrew’s story about what his father was going through. He was dealing with a lot of obstacles and personal turmoil. He was spending long hours in the writers’ cave going, “Is this gonna mean anything? Is anybody gonna read this?” Well, someone did read it and wanted to make it. And then it’s like, “Gosh, now what do I do?” I’ve been on a lot of journeys with first-time filmmakers. It’s their determination that is so revitalizing and nourishing. For someone that’s been doing big studio films for a bit, to go back and work with first-time directors on something that’s so personal and honest, it’s almost like a necessity for me.

I really enjoyed your character work in this one. Law enforcement characters are so often one-dimensional, but Shipp has a moral complexity and there’s a lot going on in his interior.

With this character in particular, he wasn’t dealt the best of cards and he’s got some built up aggression about that. Life hasn’t been all that fair to him, even though he has meant well and has tried hard. And in the kind of environment that he’s in, you gotta find a way towards stability or security. It’s that whole thing about becoming a man. He’s also dealing with a tug of war between his romantic interest and the law. He has to come to terms with the reality of his job, which is that he has to make quite harsh decisions. And in order to do that, he has to get introspective and ask himself, “Can I continue living if I break a moral code?” It’s complex when it comes down to it.

Marco has been sharing this story about him taking Martin Scorsese’s MasterClass online for fifty dollars. That’s how he educated himself on filmmaking at the beginning of this project.

Yeah, I know. [laughs]

Talk about stretching fifty dollars. Of course, he then got Scorsese to watch The Absence of Eden and got him to sign on as one of the film’s executive producers. What did you think?

I thought, “Of course. Of course that happened to Marco.” It’s one of those things: energies attract. Marco has this poetic, artistic passion. Everything’s so infectious that it attracts like energy. So, of course, that’s the case with this. Marco’s a student of life—as I feel I am. We’re curious about what makes beautiful things tick. We’re curious about what tarnished things can survive. I think that’s why we’ve been so close for so long. You can find poetry and beautiful imperfections in life, and honor that. To be able to get Scorsese involved with the film in any way, shape, or form is a gift.

Making any film is quite the journey. I think you shot this film back in 2019, is that right?

Man, it’s so refreshing that you bring that up.

Why is that?

Nobody else has brought that up. People make it seem like we shot this just yesterday. [laughs]

Coming back to it years later, what has really stayed with you?

When you work long and hard enough on something, there’s a lot to cherish. It’s about getting to work with friends. No matter what the subject is, it’s being able to find a way to have fun every day. It’s being able to share this with our families because Marco and Zoe brought their kids along. That’s a magical thing. We’re hopefully gonna get to do this more and more over the next 20, 30 years. Marco and Zoe’s connection to this story also gave me insight into how personal things can get. I just shot a film [Paxton Winters’ Outside the Wire] in the northern region of Iraq and got to witness some of that story’s scenarios firsthand. During that time, there were ballistic missile strikes not so far from the hotel. Every two nights, there were drone attacks on the US base. I’d go to set the next day and the local crew would be like, “Please, do not worry. This is very normal for us.” Everything’s gonna be okay.” Seeing something on CNN, my family would be calling.  Everybody’s worried: “Are you okay? Are you okay?” To show up on set the next morning and have the locals say, “This is normal,” and be so at peace with it, it’s astronomical. The experience is so profound. It’s educational. I have the gift of being able to jump onto a film and learning, even though I’m just playing a character. The script is there and I do some character research, but to really experience something so profoundly like that is such a gift. Through films, we can share a glimpse of that. If we can radiate compassion for what others go through on a daily basis that you’ll never have to experience in your own life—man, then we’ve really done something. That’s really what I feel this is all about. The Absence of Eden is an awareness piece. It’s a compassion piece. It’s an educational piece. It’s a little light being shined on the struggles of humanity.

Thanks for doing it.

Always, always. Thank you so much.

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