To­tal Film in­ter­view

From An­i­mal King­dom to Zero Dark Thirty and It Comes At Night, few ac­tors are in greater de­mand than Joel Edger­ton. But he also has a bur­geon­ing ca­reer be­hind the cam­era – The Gift thrilled and chilled, and now gay con­ver­sion drama Boy Erased is at­tractin

Total Film - - Contents - Words Jor­dan far­ley por­traits eriC ray daVid­son

Aussie star Joel Edger­ton on his var­ied ca­reer in di­rect­ing and act­ing.


On the sev­enth floor of the Shangri-La Ho­tel, Joel Edger­ton is shuf­fling un­com­fort­ably on a $2,000 sofa. This is the fourth time the Aussie ac­tor has at­tended the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val and he’s here to talk about his least favourite sub­ject: him­self. “Fes­ti­vals make you put a lot of fo­cus on your­self,” he says, pulling a thick woollen cardi­gan across his chest in a mild room. “You get into your head a bit too much.”

Edger­ton has a trans­par­ent strat­egy for avoid­ing this dreaded sit­u­a­tion – ob­ses­sive work. As an ac­tor, the 44-year-old New South Wales na­tive has av­er­aged three to four films a year since his late twen­ties – in­clud­ing At­tack Of The Clones, War­rior and The Great Gatsby. As a writer he’s penned seven fea­ture screen­plays – in­clud­ing The King, Net­flix’s up­com­ing Shake­speare epic. And as a di­rec­tor, he’s in Toronto to present his sec­ond film – Boy Erased, star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man and Rus­sell Crowe as de­vout par­ents who put their teenage son Jared (Lu­cas Hedges) through de­hu­man­is­ing gay con­ver­sion ther­apy. Adding in­sult to in­jury for the rest of us mere mor­tals, it’s a film that Edger­ton also wrote and plays a sub­stan­tial role in.

This sin­gle-minded com­mit­ment hasn’t come with­out great cost. In 2013, Edger­ton broke off his en­gage­ment to fash­ion de­signer Alexis Blake on the grounds that he’s “se­ri­ously mar­ried to work”. Even now, as Boy Erased is lauded by the press, Edger­ton’s mind is fix­ated on the fu­ture. “Fes­ti­vals in­spire me to start think­ing about what I want to do next,” he smiles, a pat­terned neck­er­chief tied loosely around his throat. But for a man with an aver­sion to self-re­flec­tion, he’s re­fresh­ingly open, thought­ful and forth­right to­day. The son of a so­lic­i­tor and full-time mother, Edger­ton’s work ethic comes as lit­tle sur­prise when you learn he’s wielded a cam­era since he was a teenager, shoot­ing dread­ful kung-fu shorts with his brother Nash – a fel­low film­maker who di­rected this year’s Gringo.

A straight ar­row who shies away from the spot­light, he’s an ac­tor con­tent to let the work speak for it­self. For the film­mak­ers lin­ing up to cast him, Edger­ton’s virtue is that he can’t be cat­e­gorised. And, un­like his im­age­con­scious peers, Edger­ton isn’t afraid to go out on a limb, em­brac­ing the guy­liner and bald bonce for Ex­o­dus: Gods And Kings, or head-to-toe pros­thet­ics to play orc cop Ja­cobi in Bright. It’s af­forded him a rare free­dom to choose the roles he wants, not the roles ex­pected, and he hopes that will trans­late to his ca­reer as a di­rec­tor: pres­tige drama Boy Erased is the po­lar op­po­site to his di­rec­to­rial de­but, 2015 genre thriller The Gift. “I’m happy if peo­ple can ac­cept me as a di­rec­tor go­ing, ‘Maybe I’ll make a com­edy!’” he says.

Given his mis­chievous sense of hu­mour, we wouldn’t be sur­prised. But for now Edger­ton has a se­ri­ous sub­ject on his mind. Adapt­ing from Gar­rard Con­ley’s mem­oir, he writes, di­rects and co-stars in Boy Erased as Vic­tor Sykes, the head ther­a­pist of gay con­ver­sion camp Love In Ac­tion. A com­pli­cated, un­flat­ter­ing per­for­mance in a ro­bustly di­rected and el­e­gantly scripted drama, it’s a highly ac­com­plished triple whammy that should see Edger­ton pick up a bevvy of awards nom­i­na­tions. But ac­co­lades – at least for him­self – are the last thing he craves. “I just need each film to have some sub­stance,” he smiles. “I don’t think I’ll ever be a di­rec­tor for hire to make the ninth se­quel of some­thing – not while I have my own fresh ideas.”

It’s hard to be­lieve gay con­ver­sion ther­apy ex­ists in these ‘en­light­ened’ times. When did you be­come aware?

I’d heard about con­ver­sion ther­apy, but re­ally it was read­ing [Gar­rad’s] book… “Fuck, there’s re­ally a place where kids are im­pris­oned?” Of­ten not locked in, but you don’t need pad­locks to be locked in. Be­liefs are prison bars. If your re­la­tion­ship with God is so fear-based and your par­ents have de­manded change, that’s go­ing to keep you in a place like that. By the end of it, I was like, “I’ve got to be in­volved in this.”

You write, di­rect and act in Boy Erased. When did you know it de­manded that level of com­mit­ment?

Ini­tially, I thought, “I’m not the right per­son to [write and di­rect] this film, but I would like to help pro­duce it.” And then no one had en­quired after the rights of the book. So one day, I was sit­ting in my ho­tel, and thought, “I’m just go­ing to write a few scenes.” And then two weeks later, I’d writ­ten a first draft. Gar­rard was baf­fled, be­cause a few weeks ear­lier I was telling him, “I don’t know if I’m the right per­son,” and then I was send­ing him the script! I be­came so im­mersed in it that I had to make it.

Is that typ­i­cal of how you write?

When I write, it has to con­sume a lot of my day, and a lot of days in a row. If I’m not ob­sessed, I won’t drag my­self to a com­puter. I’ve been re­cently di­ag­nosed as a bit ADHD, and when I get ob­sessed about a thing, it’s all that I do. When I wrote Boy Erased, apart from eat­ing and a bit of sleep­ing, it’s all I did. I was in

a ho­tel room. I stayed in there all day long, and I just kept writ­ing. It was like I was pos­sessed by Gar­rard’s book. That’s what I need. As an ac­tor, you can sign on to some­thing for all sorts of rea­sons, but it could cap off at 8/10 – you love the script, you love the di­rec­tor… To make a movie, it takes so much time that you have to love the sub­ject mat­ter 11/10. That’s so rare.

Just how in­volved was Gar­rard?

Gar­rard was there ev­ery step of the way. Ev­ery time I wrote a draft, I’d send it to him. I’d be an­noy­ingly on the phone, pac­ing in my ho­tel room. “Is it OK if we do this? What about that? I’m chang­ing these names.” He was in­stru­men­tal, ac­tu­ally. I’d writ­ten the first ren­der­ing of the as­sault scene, and at the time he was spend­ing a lot of time with Lu­cas [Hedges]. They called me, and he said, “There’s some­thing that’s a bit off here. Let me tell you what re­ally hap­pened.” And straight away I rewrote it. So that feed­back loop was re­ally im­por­tant.

You cast your­self as the film’s least sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter Vic­tor Sykes, Love In Ac­tion’s head ther­a­pist…

I like to play these “un­usual” char­ac­ters – Vic­tor Sykes has a ter­ri­ble mous­tache and ter­ri­ble clothes and a flat top. And The Gift was an­other one of those com­pli­cated dudes. So I’m not striv­ing to look good. I thought it was im­por­tant. John Smid [the real-life ba­sis for Sykes], when I met him, I said, “I’m go­ing to play a ver­sion of you and I’m go­ing to de­pict one of the fake fu­ner­als. And that char­ac­ter, some­thing pretty ter­ri­ble is go­ing to hap­pen to him, and I need you to know that.” He had no re­sis­tance to it, be­cause there’s one story of a kid he’d men­tored who, years later, John was at a church, and he saw a plaque on the wall ded­i­cated to that boy who had killed him­self. There’s so much col­lat­eral dam­age. There are so many kids that, through the ideas that were fed to them, and their lack of ac­cep­tance, have led them­selves to see death as a way out. And I felt like we needed to rep­re­sent that.

It’s a hugely se­ri­ous sub­ject, but you do find mo­ments of lev­ity. How hard was it to strike that bal­ance?

That was tough, ac­tu­ally. There were other ther­apy scenes that we’ve cut out of the film, which I don’t know if I’ll ever share with any­body. But it was im­por­tant for me to show the cracks in the ide­ol­ogy. It was im­por­tant for me to con­stantly re­mind peo­ple that LIA is weird. There’s a scene that we cut, which was al­most too funny, be­cause it made Sykes look like he was los­ing con­trol, but it un­der­mined the fear that my char­ac­ter com­mands. But I’m happy there are mo­ments of lev­ity, I didn’t want it to be just 100 per cent bleak.

Did it feel like a step up from The Gift?

Yes, in many ways. When you’re do­ing a genre ex­er­cise – and The Gift was a genre ex­er­cise – there are ref­er­ences in the DNA. So, stylis­ti­cally, I felt safer. This movie has a more mot­ley jum­ble of el­e­ments. It’s a drama, but there’s an el­e­ment of sus­pense as well in terms of the move­ment of the cam­era, and the mu­sic, that puts it al­most into hor­ror land at times. So, tonally, The Gift was a much eas­ier thing to imag­ine. But ul­ti­mately, what I was striv­ing for was to put great ac­tors in a room, and cre­ate these sce­nar­ios. And thank­fully, be­cause

the epic scale of some movies still takes my breath away

of great ac­tors – Lu­cas, Ni­cole [Kid­man], Rus­sell [Crowe] – I feel I’ve achieved that.

Have you started to think of your­self as a writer/di­rec­tor first, ac­tor sec­ond?

As I get older, I’ll be won­der­ing if maybe I’ll get be­hind the cam­era more. But also, I don’t have a plan. It’s not like I’m go­ing, “I’ll do this, and then I’ll do a $40m movie, and then I’ll do a block­buster…” I’m just go­ing to be sniff­ing around, liv­ing my life, and then go­ing, “Ooh, there’s a cool story.” And maybe it’s a com­edy, maybe it’s an out-and-out hor­ror, I’m not sure. But I love be­ing an ac­tor. I’ll al­ways, hope­fully, do both. Life as an ac­tor is much eas­ier, be­cause you just jump around. Ac­tors get to have a richer, quicker ta­pes­try of work. Watch­ing Ni­cole and Lu­cas be at all the fes­ti­vals with two or three movies each, you go, “Oh, yeah, they didn’t di­rect a movie for a year-and-a-half and tor­ture them­selves ev­ery day!”

Has be­com­ing a di­rec­tor changed you?

It def­i­nitely gives you a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ma­chine of the movie. If some­one comes to my trailer and says, “We’re ready for you,” I don’t sit around and waste time, be­cause I know what that’s like as a di­rec­tor. But it hasn’t turned me into an ac­tor who sits there scru­ti­n­is­ing how a di­rec­tor makes a movie. After The Gift, I went off to make Lov­ing, and I thought, “Am I go­ing to be that guy now who’s just like, ‘Hey, Jeff [Ni­chols], shouldn’t you be us­ing a 65mm or some­thing?’” I never was like that. While I was in post on Boy Erased, I was shoot­ing The King, which David Michôd and I had writ­ten to­gether. I loved the lux­ury of be­ing re­moved from the de­ci­sion-mak­ing. He was the boss, and I just got to turn up, sip lat­tes, chew the scenery, wear cos­tumes and do my thing. There’s a cer­tain free­dom with that.

When did you know you wanted to be a film­maker?

I was al­ways writ­ing. I was in­spired by Monty Python as a kid. The first writ­ing I re­mem­ber do­ing was try­ing to ape the style of those Monty Python sketches. When I went to drama school, I was writ­ing lit­tle plays. And once we grad­u­ated, my brother [Nash] and I were like, “We need to get work on film, and no­body’s go­ing to hire us.” So writ­ing, at that point, was a means to an end. Blue-Tongue Films, which is our col­lec­tive, started be­cause we were all just try­ing to show peo­ple that we’re worth our weight and get a job.

When you started to find suc­cess as an ac­tor, did you put writ­ing to one side?

No. It wasn’t like, “Once I have a ca­reer as an ac­tor… fuck all this hard ‘other’ work.” I’ll tell you what I did do, though. I was like, “What am I not be­ing given the op­por­tu­nity to do? And what if I just write that for my­self?” The Gift started like that. I was like, “I want to play an un­usual, creepy, stalk­ery-type per­son.” I’d writ­ten a movie called Felony, which we did with Tom Wilkin­son, my­self and Jai Courtney in Aus­tralia. That was about ex­plor­ing when good peo­ple morally trip up, and how do they cor­rect mis­takes. That’s what a lot of my writ­ing is re­ally about.

Does that in­clude Boy Erased?

The two peo­ple that rep­re­sent that idea in Boy Erased are the par­ents. Their mis­take comes out of be­lief. And they learn through watch­ing the pain of their child it’s a mis­take. That’s a thing ac­tu­ally borne out of my own re­li­gious his­tory. My grand­par­ents were su­per-re­li­gious, and they sent my par­ents to Catholic school. So when I was young, they gave us the op­tion, and we em­braced it, my brother and I. We went and did our Holy Com­mu­nion. So guilt lives in­side of me. I al­ways have this strug­gle be­tween be­ing a good per­son and be­ing a bad per­son, be­ing self­less and be­ing selfish. And I think I’m ex­plor­ing that through writ­ing. What if you re­ally did some­thing ir­re­versible? How do you atone for that? If I ever solve that prob­lem, I’ll prob­a­bly move on and write about other stuff. [laughs]

Get­ting cast in At­tack Of The Clones must have felt like hit­ting jack­pot in 2002…

It to­tally was, as minis­cule as my part was in Star Wars. I couldn’t be­lieve they were shoot­ing in Aus­tralia, that I was an ac­tor of the right age to play a young Un­cle Owen. It was my 26th birth­day when I found out I got the job. I was so fuck­ing over the moon. And then it gave me the op­por­tu­nity to go to the States. Star Wars al­lowed me, in that 18-month pe­riod while they were putting that movie to­gether, to bluff my way into any meet­ing I wanted. “I’m in Star Wars. I’m not telling you I’m only in it for five min­utes and that I don’t have a lightsaber.” I would have meet­ings

bright was an ex­cuse to com­pletely hide my­self in make-up

with peo­ple, and let them be­lieve I was a larger part of the story than I ac­tu­ally was. That was a good time, and it al­lowed me to get my first job out of the States.

You had Smokin’ Aces, Ned Kelly, Kinky Boots and King Arthur shortly after…

But after King Arthur came out it was si­lence again. I was like, “Fuck.” I had this per­cep­tion: you do a movie, and then that’s it – you’re in the movies. Like it was a club. So I did my first movie in Aus­tralia, and I was like, “Where’s my next job?” And it’s the ter­ror of whether you’re go­ing to work again. Then King Arthur, I was buried in long dread­locks and fa­cial hair. It didn’t ex­actly set the world on fire. And then I did Kinky Boots, which is great. It’s lived on. But Kinky Boots didn’t set the world on fire at the box of­fice ei­ther. And I found my­self back in those rooms where you’re sit­ting next to 12 guys who may as well be you. You’re like, “Shit, we’re all just com­pet­ing for the same thing.” The blood bath of au­di­tion rooms.

When did things turn around?

It fi­nally hap­pened be­cause of An­i­mal King­dom, and shoot­ing War­rior that same year. I didn’t have proper mo­men­tum un­til later [in life], but I ac­tu­ally think that’s bet­ter for me, be­cause I would have just done some ter­ri­ble early work on a world scale. That’s why I’m dead im­pressed with guys like Lu­cas [Hedges] and Ti­mothée [Cha­la­met]. At their age, I was lit­er­ally stum­bling around, bump­ing into fur­ni­ture. These guys are per­form­ing on a world stage ev­ery time they step in front of the cam­era. And they han­dle it so beau­ti­fully. I was never made of that stuff. I’m like a meal that needed slow cook­ing. And I ac­knowl­edge that I’ve got a long way to go. Ev­ery time I make a movie I think, “What is it that I didn’t do last time that I can do this time? How can I start to hold on less tightly to cer­tain ideas?”

Are you learn­ing from the likes of Lu­cas and Ti­mothée?

Ev­ery time I meet new ac­tors, there are things I can learn from them. And the next time you go to work, you pull a dif­fer­ent as­pect out of your­self, and you go, “Fuck, ac­tu­ally that worked. I should have been do­ing that for 20 years.” [laughs] When we made The King, it was a whole new bag of things for me to ex­plore. Maybe it’s a back­wards step, but try­ing new things opens up new path­ways. So I’m keen to see if that’s a pos­i­tive evo­lu­tion. Be­cause there are times where you move in some slightly new di­rec­tion, and you go,

“That didn’t work!”

How did The King come about?

I’d been of­fered a big sword-and-horse movie for a stu­dio. I didn’t love the project, but look­ing at the big pre-war speeches, I was like, “Fuck, this re­minds me of a lot of Shake­speare.” Es­pe­cially Henry V, be­cause I’ve done the plays, back in ’99 and 2000. I knew them in­ti­mately. This was when I was do­ing Gatsby, I went to the stu­dio and said, “Have you ever thought of do­ing Henry V?” I thought I’d get laughed at, but they were like, “Yeah, that sounds like a cool idea. If you’re will­ing to write…”

When did David Michôd get in­volved?

When the stu­dio said yes I went and sat down on Bondi Beach with David. He was to­tally into it, and then, once we got talk­ing, we were like, “Well, we have po­ten­tially some­thing to say about war through this per­sonal story of a young man who takes on the fam­ily busi­ness. He’s anti-war, and yet finds him­self con­quer­ing a coun­try.” Just five weeks ago, I was in the mid­dle of a pile of mud, in a field in Bu­dapest, with 200 ex­tras in full ar­mour and 80 horses. I looked at David with mud all over my face and a big grin and said, “We’re shoot­ing the Bat­tle of Agin­court. How trippy is that?” You’ve had some ex­pe­ri­ence of di­rec­tors com­mand­ing huge sets – Baz Luhrmann on Gatsby, Ri­d­ley Scott on Ex­o­dus. Do you ever get used to it?

They’re amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, but you do con­stantly marvel at: who put all this to­gether? The epic scale of some movies, it takes my breath away, still. I never take it for granted. And you just fuck­ing hope they turn out well, be­cause there’s all this money spent; peo­ple are away from their fam­i­lies, liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent city. And I feel heart­break for any­one who makes a movie and then peo­ple go, “That was a pile of shit.” Not that an au­di­ence needs to lay down at the feet and wor­ship ev­ery di­rec­tor. But it al­most makes you not want to do it, be­cause of the idea that could hap­pen to you one day. As an ac­tor, you can be re­moved, “Well, I did my thing.” And if it is great, you can con­ve­niently get the pats on the back. When you’re mak­ing a movie, you’re ba­si­cally say­ing, “This is me. I stand be­hind this.” And you just hope that it lands a bit. Did you ex­pe­ri­ence that with some­thing like Jane Got A Gun? You didn’t di­rect it, but you did write and act in it… Anthony [Tam­bakis] and I rewrote the script. Well, ac­tu­ally, we played Cupid with two scripts. The orig­i­nal script was more like His Girl Fri­day. Heavy stakes,

but gen­er­ally a lighter tone. And then Lynne Ram­say had come in. Lynne’s sen­si­bil­ity is quite dark and re­ally deep psy­chol­ogy. She’d half rewrit­ten the script, then she left pro­duc­tion on the first day. There were a lot of com­pli­cated is­sues be­hind that. When Gavin O’Con­nor came on board, he was like, “I’ve got a script that’s one half chil­dren be­ing scalped, and one half light and frothy. What do we do here?” So Anthony and I brought the tone some­where in the mid­dle. I don’t know that we got it as right as we could, be­cause we were rewrit­ing while it was shoot­ing. You shouldn’t have to make a movie that way. I loved work­ing on it. I loved Natalie, and ev­ery­body in­volved, but you don’t build a house with­out a foun­da­tion. So that’s our bad, but we were try­ing to sal­vage some­thing that we felt we had to.

It’s al­most the ex­act op­po­site with film­mak­ers like Jeff Ni­chols and David Michôd, right? They’re all foun­da­tion…

Yeah, both of those guys have a thor­ough­ness to their work. There’s noth­ing in Jeff’s process that is un­re­searched. Ev­ery­thing about Jeff’s films is so well-crafted in the writ­ing process. He knows ex­actly why ev­ery word ex­ists on the page. He knows ex­actly what is be­hind each line of di­a­logue. He knows why each im­age is there. So you feel very safe. And then, on an ex­e­cu­tion level, there’s noth­ing flashy about what they’re try­ing to do. They’re not try­ing to draw at­ten­tion to them­selves as di­rec­tors. They just know where to put the cam­era in or­der to tell the story. And that’s the way I like to make movies, too. There are cer­tain cam­era things that we do in Boy Erased with long cam­era takes and long shots. But for the most part, there’s just a reg­u­lar-ness and a sim­plic­ity of a way to shoot, so that we’re not re­ally draw­ing at­ten­tion to the cam­era.

Bright was the first ever stream­ing block­buster. Was that ex­cit­ing for you?

The big ex­cite­ment for me was when I read the script, and against my own logic, go­ing, “I think I’m go­ing to learn a lot from en­tirely cov­er­ing my face.” [laughs] It was an op­por­tu­nity to com­pletely hide my­self, and see what I would learn about us­ing my en­tire phys­i­cal­ity. It was tor­tur­ous for me, putting on a pros­thetic for three hours, be­ing stuck in it all day long. But be­tween “ac­tion” and “cut”, it’s one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever done.

How did you feel about the crit­i­cal re­cep­tion it re­ceived?

Crit­i­cally, it was some­what evis­cer­ated. [laughs] I was like, “Guys, be fair – we’re not try­ing to save the world here.” There’s a beau­ti­ful, sim­ple mes­sage about ac­cep­tance in that. And yeah, it may have been a lit­tle heavy-handed, but that’s what fa­bles do. I also won­dered if there was a lit­tle bit of ha­tred to­wards Net­flix get­ting too big for their boots. I may be be­ing too cyn­i­cal, but I just felt like they wanted to cut that off at the knees. I re­ally do think that if some­thing’s not great, you shouldn’t say it is just for the sake of it. But I do think that peo­ple should be re­warded for step­ping out with some­thing orig­i­nal.

Is Boy Erased go­ing to change the type of films you make go­ing for­ward?

I think so. I’ve got five or six sto­ries in my head that I’d like to tell. But it’s not like a dot-to-dot draw­ing. It’s not like The Gift leads to this, leads to this. Although I have this real lure to get back and do a sus­pense film, just be­cause I re­ally en­joyed work­ing in that genre, and scar­ing an au­di­ence. All I want out of a film, if I’m go­ing to make it, is it’s got to be worth­while to get out of bed ev­ery morn­ing, and go through all of that won­der­ful tor­ture.

Boy ErasEd opEns 8 FE­Bru­ary.

i love sus­pense films – i en­joy scar­ing peo­ple

on the edge Star­ring with Michael Shan­non in Jeff ni­chols’ sci-fi Mid­night Spe­cial.

in good faith Di­rect­ing and star­ring in Boy Erased, with his lead, Lu­cas hedges.

boyS in bLue Play­ing orc nick Jakoby op­po­site will Smith in net­flix sci-fi Bright.

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