Australian-born actor/writer/producer/director Joel Edgerton has amassed an impressive canon of films and television in his 25+ year career. To larger audiences he’s probably most well known for playing Owen Lars, Uncle and surrogate father of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, a role he’ll reprise in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series from Disney+. From there he built on that recognition with Ned Kelly (2003), Animal Kingdom (2010) and another breakthrough role, as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby from 2013.
In 2015, after producing and writing a handful of shorts and features, he directed his first feature film, 2015’s The Gift (which he also wrote, produced and starred in) and earned himself a Directors Guild of America (DGA) nomination for Outstanding Directing – First-Time Feature Film. He followed that directing effort with 2018’s Boy Erased, starring Lucas Hedges and featuring the first on-screen pairing of Oscar-winning Australian legends Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Since then he’s earned a Golden Globe nomination for 2016’s Loving with Academy Award nominee Ruth Negga and co-wrote and co-starred in The King with Academy Award nominee Timothée Chalamet.
Edgerton has been a distinguished ambassador for The Fred Hollows Foundation for a number of years and has strong personal ties to the organization, which works to restore people’s sight in poor countries and to improve the health of Aboriginal Australians.
I sat down with Edgerton last week to talk about working with with the younger actors on the set of Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, playing Ridgeway, by far his most villainous role, and stalking the Oscar-winning director.
Joel Edgerton: Hey Erik.
Erik Anderson: Hey Joel. How are you?
JE: I’m pretty good, actually. How are you?
EA: Actually doing very well too? I got my second shot and had a couple of days of feeling pretty bad and now I feel amazing. How things have been for you and your family the last year and a half and how you’re doing now post quarantine and everything.
JE: We’re doing very well in Australia in terms of COVID and numbers, but as a result there’s not an urgency with the vaccination. Australia is like an alternate universe. We’ve been in very sort of back to normal place and every now and then COVID escapes one of the quarantine hotels and states lock things down. We feel very looked after. It’s interesting in the context of Underground, the very few last days of my shoot, people were opening doors with their elbows and fist bumping each other, and people starting to wear masks and it was like, what’s going on? And then we wrapped. Barry went off into the edit room and here we are a year and a half later or a year and three months later, and it’s almost like it’s a timeline of that whole experience for me.
I was just saying to a journalist recently that as hard as it has been, and I’m aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. I live in Australia, I have a house and I’ve been healthy. I’m very blessed. But I look at it all and I think it’s reset my dial. It’s made me take some time to sit back and realize that acting and entertainment actually has a real valid place in the world because what have we… I’ve been watching so much while I’ve been unable to do anything else, and I’m like, I used to look down on my profession a little bit. I’m like, what do I do for the world? And I still don’t think I’m saving lives or anything obviously, but entertainment does hold a place that gives us pleasure and I have a lot of gratitude now that I’m able to get back to keep making stuff in a different perspective now than I had before, if that makes sense.
EA: I love that. I remember talking to you in 2018 for Boy Erased at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and that reminded me that Barry’s Beale Street was there at the same time and then at TIFF and I started thinking… is that where you connected?
JE: That’s where I stalked Barry Jenkins.
EA: I knew it.
JE: Not at Mill Valley but at an event in Toronto, because Dede Gardner from Plan B had made The King with us and she was like, “Barry’s making a thing and there’s a character in there. He’s not a very nice guy, but I mean, as in the character, not Barry. So he’s not a very nice guy, but you could be really good and you should talk to him.” I tapped Barry on the shoulder in Toronto, I was like, “Hey man, I really do want to work with you if there’s a possibility.” And that’s where that all started, that whole press tour.
EA: I had a feeling and good on Dede for doing that. She’s aces.
JE: That’s a good producer. One of the great aspects of a producer is being great partnering people up and like playing a creative Cupid.
EA: Yes, exactly. Getting into The Underground Railroad, you have been quoted as being a pacifist. What part of your process allows you to access the darkness of a character like Ridgeway?
JE: I’m glad you bring that up. It’s definitely one of the reasons I think I am an actor and I’ve often talked about that in the past that I get to do on a day’s shooting between action and cut, all of the things that I would never either allow myself to do as a person in life, or that I would judge in other people in life. And yet performing gives you a freedom to express things like violence, for example, and not that it gives anyone any pleasure to do that, but I look at stories as an important thing to tell, and particularly a story like this, and the way I configure my brain is I go, as reticent as I was to step into the shoes of Ridgeway, this story is heroic and if I play the villain in a heroic story, then aren’t I in some way participating in heroism by willing to be part of an ensemble where… And the more terrible I am, the better it is for the story, and that’s the way I could trick myself into going, this is a challenge that I’m terrified of but I’m willing to do.
EA: Yeah and Thuso really lead the show. Even when you’re not in an episode you kind of both just loom over it at all times, but most of scenes are with her, and they’re of such a cruel nature. How did you establish trust in the more emotionally and physically violent moments?
JE: Well, I think there’s a sort of a feeling you get when you go to set where you’re like, “You’ve read the script. I’ve read the script. We’ve been around the block. We know what this is about.” But, maybe this show more than ever was this feeling like we’ve got to have conversations ahead of time about what’s about to happen. I need to talk to Chase and remind him that I’m Joel and that this character has a different inner workings than me, and there’s an infrastructure on set where we take care of each other. But at the end of the day, you’re striving for realism in violence and psychological intimidation, and you’re just hoping that along the way you don’t cross any lines where you really affect someone.
And the tension between those two things was one of the challenges. Like I want this to feel real, but I don’t want anyone to feel they’re going home without being looked after. I found that really challenging, and not a nice place to be living in. But I always counteract that stuff onset by having fun after cut, and particularly with Chase. I had a great time. Thuso, I mean, more than honorable mention for stepping up to the plate every single day of a 116 day shoot, and while I might complain about the ickiness of having to do certain things, she had to have that stuff done to her, and I think that’s slightly worse to receive and to react to that stuff as a performer.
EA: Sure. And just the generational imbalance of that reality. I’m glad you mentioned the in-between scenes because I was going to ask about that too; what you did to kind of decompress and allow yourself some peace in between everything that you were shooting.
JE: It’s almost like you had to distract yourself from what was going on with frame. For me, I really put a lot of my energy into Chase. We had a lot of fun together and there was one point actually and this is a real tip of my hat to production for employing someone to be there as a counselor, because it was a sign, regardless of whether you used them or not, that they cared about us, they cared about their actors and their crew. Like, if any of this is triggering, if you’re having any… Take time, talk to this person. But knowing they were there was a great comfort.
One day I’m mucking around with Chase and I’ve just dragged Thuso a hundred meters from a murder scene to a cart, and I got a tap on my shoulder from someone, who was the counselor, and she said, “You know, you can take some time for yourself if you want. You don’t need to put all your energy into thinking you’ve got to manage Chase.” And she was right. I think she’d seen something in me. There were days where I felt like I was walking under a dark cloud and I was like, “I don’t feel so good today.” And I think it was just all psychological. It wasn’t like I was coming down with anything. I just felt like maybe the residual effects of going through the motions of some of this stuff really does stick to you a bit.
EA: Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned Chase Dillon, because that kid is an absolute marvel. I was just stunned by him at every moment. And as a small child actor or not being able to manage what was going on. So how was that to work with him because he is just incredible.
JE: I’ll tell you something. If you ever meet Chase you realize just how brilliant he is because when you meet him, he’s very modern; he dresses modern. But his behavior is like a young kid and he’s very bolshy and precocious. It doesn’t matter that I was 30-something years older than him, he would play tricks on me and call me names and laugh at me. The Chase Dillon is very different from the character he’s playing. Homer was not allowed to look certain people in the eye. He would only speak when he was asked to speak. That’s the opposite of Chase Dillon. Chase doesn’t wait for you to ask for him to speak. He speaks. If he has an opinion, he’ll tell you. He’ll tell you when you’re wrong and watching Barry say to him, “Hey look, in the context of this story, if you were to do that to the wrong person, they would punish you.”
So watching him put on that costume, put on his hat and slip into this more subservient energy, I was like… Okay, I’ve worked with a lot of kids before, but I’ve never seen such a marked understanding in a young child of going, I’m Chase the actor and I’m Homer the character and there’s a line that I step across, and I was very impressed by that, and never underestimate a child.
EA: Yeah. I hope if you decide to direct again, and I hope you do, that he’s on your call sheet there because-
JE: I’ll never hear the end of it if he’s not.
EA: I know. I think so.
JE: He’d be like, “Hey, Mr. Joel, I noticed you making a movie. Why aren’t I in it?”
EA: Joel, I super appreciate chatting with you again.
JE: Oh, absolute pleasure. Thank you.
All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad will be able to stream on May 14 from Amazon Prime Video.
Photo: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios