STELLAR PERFORMANCES ALREADY HAVE HIM CIRCLING THE HOLLYWOOD ELITE. NOW, IS READY FOR THE FINAL PUSH – AND A FIRST OSCAR.
The acclaimed Aussie actor’s poised for leading man status and Oscar success, thanks to his brilliant new film, Loving.
Joel Edgerton is detailing this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He’d been before. But that was then, 2013, aboard Gatsby with Baz et al. And three years ago, it meant just 36 hours on the ground – one red carpet appearance, one press conference, a wave to the crowd, gone. “But this time,” says Edgerton, “I was like, ‘Fuck. I have eight days. I’m going to arrive early, acclimatise, see a couple movies.’ And I just went to party after party after party...” He’s not joking – the amfar gala, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association fete at Baoli Beach, and the Vanity Fair bash at the Hôtel du Cap with Leonardo Dicaprio, Mick Jagger and a Jenner. Kendall, apparently. “Yeah, that took some stamina.” Edgerton was, finally, acting like the Hollywood star we always knew he’d be. If the tuxedo fits, wear it. His time on the Côte D’azur this May was to support Loving, the gentle exploration of a real-life, interracial couple from Virginia – the pair jailed in 1958 before taking their fight for marriage equality all the way to the Supreme Court. The film is more timely than ever, and that resonance – along with stellar performances by Edgerton and co-star Ruth Negga – made Loving the toast of the Croisette, suggesting Edgerton could be the first Aussie to win an Oscar for best actor since adopted-australian Russell Crowe in 2000. Variety labelled Edgerton a born-again star: “He’s been on the rise for several years now, but when you watch him in Jeff Nichols’ delicate and original civil-rights drama, you feel as if you’re seeing a brand new actor.” Truth is, you could say that about most films Edgerton’s appeared in. The guy’s a straight-up shape-shifter. It’s his greatest gift, and also the reason he’s not yet a household name – in America, anyway. Hollywood prefers its stars to pick a lane and perform the same trick again and again, but Edgerton refuses to be pigeonholed. He was an arrogant, moustachioed prick in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, more than holding his own opposite Dicaprio, Carey Mulligan and $100m in 3-D sequins. It’s hard to believe he’s the same guy who played a shredded animal, wrestling Tom Hardy in Warrior. Or the corrupt FBI agent who convinces Whitey Bulger to flip in last year’s underrated Johnny Depp outing Black Mass. Edgerton’s joked about his status in the Hollywood food chain before: “That’s why they pay us the medium bucks.” Right now, he’s at a crossroads – the kid who grew up working class in Western Sydney poised to become a bankable leading man after a decade spent stealing every scene he’s in. If he’s basically unrecognisable in Loving, hidden behind tobacco-stained teeth and Eminem’s ’90s bleached cut, the Oscar Industrial Complex will assure his rugged face is everywhere. And the tension of what that could mean for him is palpable. Months on from Cannes, we’re sitting down to a late breakfast in Beverly Hills, not too far from Laurel Canyon, where Edgerton and his director brother, Nash, bought a “shitty little house – a kind of stop-in thing”. He’s dressed like an urban cowboy – denimon-denim, a felt hat from Venice Beach, tortoiseshell sunglasses and half a dozen thin necklaces that nuzzle at his neck. He removes his jacket to reveal a snug T-shirt and a tattoo of three seagulls peeking out from beneath a larger-than-expected left bicep. His eyes, often described as small, are – more noticeably – ocean blue. It all screams off-duty Hollywood star, down to the eggwhite omelette he orders with an apology. “I’m losing weight right now for a fucking job,” he offers. “I’ve dropped 10 kilos in three weeks. Yesterday, I had a can of tuna.” He’s in a contemplative mood, and for good reason. Having broken off an engagement to fashion designer Alexis Blake in 2013, he’s since worked non-stop and, finally, it seems the prize is within reach – a shiny gold statue and the spoils that come with it. For Joel, such excess is irrelevant – he’s a proud and dedicated ambassador for The Fred Hollows Foundation, unfazed by the ludicrousness of celebrity that arrives in free three-piece Savile Row suits, expensive skincare products and daily adornment. He hasn’t lost his way. And he won’t. “You have to be careful about how much you indulge and how much you buy a ticket to your own parade.”
The real Richard Loving was a soft-spoken bricklayer who looked quite a bit like Edgerton. The two share a strong profile and a good-oldboy demeanour. But Loving had no interest in the spotlight – he came to prominence despite himself. In 1958, police entered his bedroom in the middle of the night and arrested him after he’d crossed state lines to marry an AfricanAmerican woman. A photo of the couple ran in Life magazine under the headline: ‘The Crime of Being Married’. True to his name, Loving was a simple man who couldn’t understand why the world was so cruel. On paper, the part of Richard Loving seems muted. He’s the silent, brooding type, his speech saddled with Forrest Gump’s southern drawl. There’s no obvious Oscar moment here, either – no explosive clip that screams, ‘Get this man a podium.’ Come to think of it, even the finale is quiet. There’s no climactic scene at the Supreme Court where Richard and Mildred are tearfully reunited. They don’t even decide to take their case to the courts until well into the second half of the piece, and it wasn’t even Richard’s idea – it was his wife’s, as well as a few upstart lawyers, perhaps swayed by the idea of making a name for themselves. Most of what we’re viewing is a Norman Rockwell painting – a family eating supper around the dinner table, or watching TV after the kids have gone to bed. We’re witnessing the mundane beauty of a couple in love. And this is deliberate. Because who could have a problem with this? While their willingness to take on the judicial system forever changed the US constitution, the film is a slow burn that honours their truth. And Edgerton is a masterclass in subtlety. “The fact is, when the Supreme Court ruling was handed down, Richard was mowing his lawn. Mildred was at home. I think the actual un-jingoistic, un-flagwaving aspects of the truth become the strengths of the movie,” offers Edgerton. In other, more commercially minded hands, the story might have been juiced – Argo’d if you will – to set up an explosive courtroom showdown: “You can’t handle the truth!” But here the truth is, once again, greater than fiction. “One of the reasons we don’t know this story as well [as other battles in the Civil Rights Movement],” adds Edgerton, “is because it wasn’t marked by blood. It was a gentle, step-by-step process.” Loving is, among other things, a meditation on humans fearing what they don’t understand
I FELT LIKE SOMEONE HAD DIPPED ME IN ALCOHOL AND THROWN ME ON THE KERB.”
and, sadly, it’s all too relevant in this political climate. Setting aside the simmering US racial tensions for a second (and only a second), the parallels to the fight for gay marriage are obvious. For what it’s worth, Edgerton expects change to land in Australia, soon. “Oh, fuck, it has to. When you look 50 years back into the past and think that a brown woman couldn’t marry a white man? It’s embarrassing to think about as human beings in a sophisticated society. And it’s embarrassing to think that we’ll look back even 10 years and go, ‘We were still embargoing that kind of relationship?’” Racism is hardly an American problem, but the United States does seem especially divided – unarmed black men, shot by police, bring the issue to the fore on a daily basis, Donald Trump’s campaign often accused of fanning the flames. When asked about living in the US under a possible President Trump, Edgerton smiles and wonders how things got here. “This is maybe going to come back to haunt me,” he says of Trump’s candidacy, “but it’s like a drunk person is meanderingly driving through the streets and you expect him to be pulled up within five minutes, and yet three hours later, he’s still driving around and no one’s pulled him over. It’s like a weird kind of collision of shit that keeps on going.” So-called ‘casual’ racism has long existed in Australia, which Edgerton acknowledges with a nod of agreement. But he stops short of claiming he was pierced by direct racial barbs when dating Olympic champion Cathy Freeman. Together for two years, the pair split in 2005. “Catherine was probably more famous than any other Australian. If anything, all people wanted to do was get a photo with her.” Edgerton’s motivation for making Loving – besides working again with celebrated director Jeff Nichols, the pair combining on this year’s Midnight Special – was less personal and more about the challenge. “It was the most immersive experience for me so far,” he says, perhaps because he couldn’t take his costume off at night. When he looked at his bleached hair in the mirror for the first time, he admits, “I felt like a polar bear.” But the joke ended there. The cast and crew descended on Richmond, Virginia, for seven weeks, and authenticity was the watchword. Edgerton visited the couple’s gravesite and the production filmed at the jail in which they’d been imprisoned. For the movie to succeed, the character needed to feel lived-in. And so, Edgerton went to bricklaying school – taking five or six classes. Some classmates worked as extras on the film. “There’s 15 or 16 bits in the movie where I had to lay bricks,” he says, “and I learnt from Warrior that there are certain things, physical things mainly, that you can’t fake. If you told me I had to be a bartender, I could fake that in a day, like, teach me to make a mojito.” He mimes muddling lime. “But bricklaying has an elegance to it. It’s not something you can fake easily.” The role got so far underneath his skin that even now, when he spots a brick building, he’ll think, “OK, that probably took 10 guys three weeks to do. Because they lay about 1000 a day.” Given Loving’s lack of lengthy speeches and conversations, this level of preparation was especially important to Nichols. “You strip away the benefit of a monologue,” the director says of the obvious challenge. “There’s no outward emotion. This idea that he was a brick mason was such an important part of the story. Obviously, the metaphor there is pretty strong – about building your own house. But for me that’s a little cutesy. The reality is that he was this blue-collar guy who went to work almost every day and the repetition of that as they endured this struggle over nearly a decade. He still had to go to work every day. The need to earn a living didn’t stop because they had some legal problems. That was really at the core of his character.” Whenever an Aussie is hired to play a rugged American, a rash of op-eds wail that no ‘real men’ are left in Hollywood. Nichols says, “I don’t want to incite riots on the American side... but you can’t fake those hands. Joel’s got those meaty paws that, you know, when you shake his hand... That job – being a brick mason – creates a very specific physicality. The way you’re kind of hunched over. And I thought that the more muscle memory he had, and the more access he had to that stuff, the better. And he got really good at it at some point. I think he built his dad a pizza oven or something.” In lesser paws, Edgerton might have looked like a pretty boy in a Carhartt commercial. Instead, he’s soul-crushing. This is no parlour trick. He exudes the agony of a man who feels powerless to change his surroundings. Edgerton is a cerebral actor. To clear his head, he sometimes paints in the mornings, a hobby he picked up years ago; nothing fancy, just simple (if evocative) figurative pieces he makes using quick-drying Japanese ink. He sometimes posts photos of his work to an Instagram account. “If I’m on location,” says Edgerton, “One of the first things I’ll do is go to an art store, get an easel, and fill up with stuff. It’s kind of like meditation.” When asked if this is one of those hobbies that’s actually intended to impress women, he laughs: “If you sketch a woman really well, that might be great. But if you sketch them really badly, they might be like, ‘Who the fuck is this supposed to be?’” Edgerton devours his omelette and an iced coffee. The conversation is easy. But there’s nothing casual about this film for him – or its prospects at the Academy Awards. If he’s cautious, it’s because he walked this stretch of bitumen with Black Mass. “I had too many people in my ear, early on, going, ‘It’s a possibility, it’s a possibility.’ I bought into that a little bit too much. It was a really nice learning experience just to go, ‘OK, remember to check yourself and not buy into that whole myth.’ [But] I hope it’s different this time.” Whatever does happen in February, Edgerton’s already received the most important endorsement of his work. While Richard and Mildred Loving have both passed away, their daughter, Peggy, was on set during production, paying the actor a stunning compliment. A very personal memory, Edgerton pauses before deciding to share it. He looks up and reveals, quietly, “She called me daddy.”
Spend even an hour with Edgerton and you can sense his gratitude – for the work he’s done and for the jobs he’s turned down. He’d like to make more than the medium bucks. But at what cost? “If I’d done a shitty movie,” he says, “maybe I’d have a Maserati. But I’d be sitting across from you, biting my tongue all fucking day going, ‘I fucking hate myself for this shit.’” The idea that any actor in Hollywood ever really has control over their career is a bit of a joke. Financing films is a tricky business and who’s ‘hot’ changes daily. But an Oscar would certainly help. And Edgerton isn’t averse to talking about the star system. “If you’re super good-looking and charismatic and you like playing the same character every time, good luck to you – you’ll make squillions of dollars. The interest I have in being an actor, though, is adapting your energy to play all sorts of different characters.” Thankfully, interesting offers come in regularly. He’s about to shoot a low-budget thriller in rural, upstate New York – It Comes At Night, about a virus and a group of survivors holed up in a cabin. He’ll then bury himself in sci-fi make-up to play an Orc opposite Will Smith in Bright, directed by David Ayer.
Edgerton compares this character to something from Lord of the Rings – insisting that his role isn’t motivated by easy money. “When I first started reading the script, I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Then, within 30 pages, I couldn’t stop reading. Days later, I was haunted by it. It was totally antithetical to what I ever imagined I’d be doing. But it was one of the best characters I’ve ever read.” Still, there’s unrest; wanting more but also wondering: ‘When is it time to slow down?’ He recently tore his ACL while playing soccer on the beach in Mexico. “The doctor goes, ‘If you were 45,’ – which I am, almost – ‘and you just wanted to go for a jog in a straight line or wanted to ski every now and then, I’d tell you not to have the surgery.” Edgerton went under the knife two days later. He’s not slowing down. Not yet. Edgerton’s also going to a lot of children’s birthday parties these days. If he did want to have kids of his own someday, he’d be great at it – Jeff Nichols’ four-year-old son already has his own nickname for him – ‘Cookie Monster’. “Every time we ate lunch,” Edgerton explains with a smile, “I’d try and steal his cookie – just as a joke, and it would electrify him and then he’d protect his cookie at all costs.” Still, of fatherhood he says, simply, “Yeah, I think about it. I just turned 42. I have time. Plenty of time.” It moves him to share something truly intimate. “I made a decision, just before I did Exodus... I broke up from an engagement.” It was not a decision made lightly. Shortly before parting ways, he’d taken Alexis Blake and her daughter to the south of France. It was 2013, and the three were photographed looking very much like a family. Of their engagement, he offers: “You’re really close to the line and that [position] makes you re-evaluate a lot of things. Right at that time, I made a decision that I was just going to work my arse off. To be honest, I haven’t changed that thought. I’m seriously married to work. Just recently I was like, ‘Maybe I need to take a little bit of time off,’ because ever since then I’ve worked non-stop. And that’s been fine and it’s been rewarding to a degree. But at the same time...” His voice trails off. He admits a failing. When it comes to friends and family, Edgerton says they’ve become “out of sight, out of mind. My friends are constantly at me about it. It’s like, ‘Haven’t heard from you in a fucking long time.’ I’ll use Facetime with my parents, but I’m not constantly octopus-ing hands out to all my friends, reminding them that I’m around and that I’m well. I could be more mindful of the closer people in my life.” Edgerton’s unwillingness to take a break may also be framed by the fact he’s well aware of how quickly ‘this’ can go away. He alludes to a moment in his twenties. “There’s a story,” he offers. “I was very frivolous.” Was he arrested? “No.” Was he drinking too much? “Yeah, that kind of shit. I was a very naïve young kid. I never drank. I never took drugs. I never did any of that stuff. And then, when I hit my twenties, I discovered all that stuff at university [the Nepean Drama School at Western Sydney University], then I started working and just hit a moment where I nearly went off the rails. It was right at the cusp of when I was starting to get a name for myself in Australia and that’s always very volatile, when you become someone in the public eye – you really do have to behave yourself.” His family intervened, teaching him about “good living and good health. It was a sort of severance in my life – moving from a place of what I would call self-abuse to understanding that I had an open future to something really good and I was willing to embrace it. I’ve dodged a lot of bullets in my time, and my twenties was a pretty big bullet.” It’s not to say he’s immune to good times. Earlier this year, he was linked to 24-year-old model Wanessa Milhomem, who’d previously dated Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis. And yet, Edgerton was happiest while shooting 2015’s The Gift. It’s surprising, given the tense psychological thriller he wrote, directed and starred in is a story built on a seemingly perfect couple and the childhood friend who returns to ruin their lives. But the shoot meant he was in LA for eight months straight. “That’s the longest I’ve been in one place in the past 10 years... And I loved that, to have a routine and continuity. I realised how much I skim around the world. “Look, here’s the thing about me – I’m a slow burn. I’m fucking 42 and I finally have a career. If success had come earlier, I definitely would have pissed it up the wall...” Still, there’s excitement in the unknown. Another great role, another Cannes party and, perhaps, large post-oscar celebrations, all waiting around the corner. Loving is in cinemas in January