Part of what makes film such a brilliant medium is its ability to make the impossible possible. They can transport you to worlds that don’t exist, timelines that never happened, and futures that will never occur. They allow us to witness stories set in other dimensions and galaxies – but what the great ones do is make the unreal in some way real. These films connect the fantastic with the actual and can deliver important messages that affect society as we live in it today. And that’s what drives Joel Edgerton to make the movies that he does.
In conjunction with the release of The Odd Life Of Timothy Green, which is out in theaters today, I recently sat down one-on-one with Edgerton to talk about not only what stories inspire him the most, but also the parenting message of his newest film, how being a writer affects his approach to characters, and his approach to playing Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Check it out!
What was it about this film that made you want to be a part of it?
I think it made me feel like I was going to be in my own Mary Poppins, or Big or It’s A Wonderful Life. I wasn’t going to be the magic in the movie, but I was going to be a part of a movie that had a sprinkling of magic in it. I really, really remember some experiences, particularly E.T., of watching a movie where the stranger, whatever form that stranger takes, rides into town or lands into town or flies into town or drives a spaceship, and then alters everybody’s life and then inevitably has to leave. I remember being really affected by those stories. The kind of place that those stories kind of hold in our mythology… and it really is part of mine. So I loved the idea when I first heard it. It had softer edges than all the other movies that I’ve ever been involved in, but it does share a commonality, which is the whole thing with family. Warrior was that and Animal Kingdom was that. So it feels, on one hand, like the same kind of movie I tend to always make, but it’s in a different capsule.
You’ve also done films in the sci-fi genre, like Star Wars and The Thing. Is that fantasy element a big attraction for you and part of why you do what you do?
No. I mean, I love fantasy movies, I’m actually striving for more “real life.” But it’s not to say that fantasy element I don’t enjoy. What would be ideal is a movie, no matter how fantastical it is, still has very human characters. I always sort of feel like a movie about asteroids hitting the Earth is only fascinating to me if you care about the people who are trying to stop the asteroids from hitting the Earth. So the characters have to be great and relatable and what’s relatable is real life. But then it has a filter of fantasy or filter of super-realness or magic or whatever that filter is. And then that’s great. Because we also go to the cinema to transport ourselves and escape real life. As much as I would love to do really hardcore, real movies all the time, cinema audiences want that little bit else, the cheeky grin or that cheeky sort of twinkle that is from somewhere else or a land far, far away.
I think you could definitely say that about this film as well, because there’s that fantasy element but at the core it really is about Jim and Cindy becoming parents. When it came to that element of the story, was that something you researched or made a part of your preparation process?
Not really. But it is. The movie says a lot about family and what it means to be a parent and what it means to try and be okay with making mistakes when you’re a parent. But to not try and make mistakes reacting to the way you were parented. It says to be a little bit more open and articulate to your kids. It says be open to learning from your kids as much as they stand to learn from you. Get out of the way of your kids. So it says tons about real life in ways that are so relatable, because we all, it was a joke the other day, we all have a belly button. We all came from a person or a couple of people. And if we’re lucky we’ll have a couple of people in our life that we bring into the world. But the movie is magic. It sort of tells us all that through this prism, this sprinkling of magic and I kinda love that because on the one hand you could say it has soft edges and it feels soft and it’s not edgy or any of that stuff, but in that sense it’s kind of bold because it’s saying incredibly important things. You’re not going to hear gunfire in this movie, or tires screeching and all that stuff, but you’re going to hear your heart beating.
Being a writer in addition to being an actor, is that something that you implement into your approach to your characters?
Yeah, I try to separate my writer’s brain from my actor’s brain, but the two of them are happily kind of fused in a way. And certainly I think that anything I’ve been writing lately has been improved by having read so many screenplays. Other writers are inadvertently educating me all the time. I think writing has allowed me to see my role as an actor in any film as less of a selfish approach. I’m one character in a movie, so I’m one cog in a machine. If I move the right way [pretends to be spinning gears with his hands] and all the other parts move the right way…but I have to be aware of all the other parts and not to get in their way but to do my job as best as I can. So you do find yourself being less selfish and you go, “Where do I fit into this process?” and what’s the best version of what I can do to make this machine work.
You’ve also directed a couple shorts. Is directing a feature something that you would be interested in?
Yeah, absolutely! I’ve got plans to do that. There’s something that I want to make, if I can, next year. And we’ve been writing a lot of stuff. We have a movie shooting in Australia at the end of the year that I wrote and I co-produced, but I’ll just be in it as an actor. It’s going to be directed by this guy Matthew Saville, and hopefully I’ll learn some more lessons from him along with all these other directors I’ve worked for. And I want to embark on directing something next year if I can. I already have that script ready and we’re sort of in the process of pushing that along.
What’s it called?
That project is called Weirdo.
Can you talk at all about the plot?
Not a lot, only because I don’t want to curse things before they happen. But it’s a psychological thriller. Which is one of my favorite genres.
I do also want to ask about Great Gatsby, which you have coming up at the end of this year [NOTE: This interview took place before the release date was shifted to 2013]. You’re playing Tom Buchanan in the movie, and while he’s a legendary literary character he’s also not exactly a nice guy. In your movies you typically bring a vulnerability to your characters, so I’m curious what it was like playing Tom and what your approach was.
I search for the empathy in each character. I search for an understandable terrain, like, “Why is Tom who he is? Why is anyone who they are and why do they do what they do?” And unless I’m playing a serial killer then no one is essentially a bad person. They just occasionally do bad things in the eyes of other people. And Tom is bullheaded, piggish, he’s a brute, you could argue that he’s misogynistic, on the other hand he’s a lady hound. So he’s also very sexual. And he’s a racist! There’s not a lot of ingredients in his character that you can love, but you could love playing him as an actor and you can also love to hate him. And he has a very firm place within that book. It’s my job to make sure that I don’t make him a lovable character [laughs]. That might throw the balance of the book out.
You mess up the gears.
Yeah! Knowing which cog I am in the wheel. But at the same time I don’t want to create a two-dimensional kind of guy that cuts his way through this movie, but you just hate nothing else. Tom has feelings. He has feelings about being threatened as an alpha male that Gatsby might actually come and poach his wife, whether he loves Daisy or not. That’s a fucking awkward position when you are the king of your universe. He has feelings towards Myrtle, whether he loves her or not – it’s a question, you see the movie and tell me what you think. And she’s destroyed, so there’s feeling there. And I love him as a character. I love playing characters that are morally kind of compromised. It’s always the way that I started working on film in Australia playing supporting roles that had weird little things about them and part of that challenge is finding that balance: serve the bulk of the film, at the same time find the humanity in them so that you can see them from more than one angle.