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
Aussie star Joel Edgerton on his varied career in directing and acting.
ALL I WANT OUT OF A FILM IS THAT IT’S WORTHWHILE TO GO THROUGH ALL OF THAT WONDERFUL TORTURE
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.