THE QUIET AMERICAN
Australian actor Joel Edgerton transformed himself to play Richard Loving, a role that required dogged persistence and a deep connection with his co-star, writes Philippa Hawker
Joel Edgerton plays a man of few words in his new movie, Loving. And there was more to finding his character’s voice than simply capturing the slow drawl of a quiet rural southerner of the 1950s, he says. “It was not just the way he spoke, but also the reasons why he didn’t speak, and what was behind the silence of a guy like him.”
Loving, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, has a true story at its centre. It’s about Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who lived in Virginia in the 1950s and brought about, in a quiet, undemonstrative way, a landmark civil rights decision.
Edgerton, who plays Richard, says Nichols seems to have “set a mantra for himself that he was going to tell this true story truthfully. It sounds like a silly, obvious thing, but in actual fact Hollywood doesn’t often do that. They add a bunch of stuff, they really pimp the ride, they soup-up the story, because I think that the assumption is that the audience needs more than the truth for it to be a movie.”
Richard and Mildred Loving didn’t set out to be trailblazers when they got married in Washington, DC, in 1958, then returned to Virginia. Richard, a bricklayer, had bought some land and planned to build a home for them. But they fell foul of the state law, which forbade interracial marriage. They were arrested and given an ultimatum: they could either divorce or leave the state. At first they left, then returned covertly, living in a remote location and trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves. In the end, they took a stand. They could have divorced and still lived together, but that was not what they wanted. A civil rights case, Loving vs Virginia, conducted on their behalf, went all the way to the Supreme Court, where their right to marry was finally affirmed in 1967.
It’s a story charged with implications, yet its focus is always on the people at its centre. Filmmakers might once have turned it into a narrative that focused on lawyers, courtroom dramas, verdicts and speeches. Neither Mildred nor Richard Loving went to court to see their case argued. Their most powerful, eloquent state-
Joel Edgerton as Richard in the film Loving; with co-star Ruth Negga as his wife Mildred, below