Up For Air: Deep Talks with Joel Edgerton
The notion of celebrity is by definition exclusionary. Movie stars and pop idols attain a status of American royalty and are often considered to be super-human, existing on a plane far above plebeian emotions like empathy or loneliness, incapable of self-reflection or shame. But every so often there are moments when the celebrity construct is shattered and their humanity becomes exposed.
Australian actor, screenwriter, and producer Joel Edgerton, however, is so relatable that his status as a silver screen deity never even comes to mind. For a man with such a strong film pedigree, from starring in the cult classic Kinky Boots to playing Ramses in Ridley Scott’s upcoming blockbuster Exodus: Gods and Kings, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a tall pedestal beneath his feet. But Edgerton is refreshingly genuine, not only in the characters he chooses to play and write but also in his humorous and honest take on his elite industry. When he describes the world of celebrity as “equally interesting and exciting as it is disgusting and bizarre,” for a second, it feels as though he might be an outsider, just like us.
This is a logical response, of course, for someone just now on the edge of international stardom, despite a lifetime committed to theater and film. With Exodus, and the release of his thriller, Felony, which he wrote and starred in, Edgerton is uncommonly open about his self-doubt. And although he worries that his focus on career might clash with his hopes of having a family, Edgerton still feels overwhelmingly lucky to be doing the work of which he’s always dreamed.
How was the photo shoot? How do you feel?
I felt a little strange looking down the barrel. I find photo shoots to be completely unnatural. It’s kind of ironic that I find a film shoot to be natural because most people don’t feel that way. It’s the opposite for me.
Do you ever feel nervous to be on camera?
Of course, there are healthy nerves when you’re in a theater production or on the first day of a shoot, but the idea that some people are terrified to be in front of a camera, I totally understand. I forget that it’s not normal. It’s amazing how comfortable I have become. This is the normal thing to do: to pretend, to be on set. As Seinfeld pointed out, some people would rather be in the casket than speaking the eulogy. It’s strange because my levels of self- consciousness extend to things like singing in public, and yet, if you put me in a movie and say that the character is drunk at a wedding and has to sing “The Power Of Love,” I would love that opportunity.
Being yourself is much different than being someone else, especially when a lot of people are watching.
I think that’s it. It’s the hiding behind [a character]. In a photo shoot, it’s you, but dressed in some fancy clothes that you could never afford.
So you’ve been acting, producing, and writing movies for many years now, do you approach these types of jobs in different ways?
Well, the writing and the producing stuff is a compulsion. I have ideas that I need to get out there. There must be a lot of compulsion there because it takes a lot of effort.
Being drawn to a project as an actor is really about being compelled by the script. But it’s an easier prospect to get involved in a movie as an actor because you’re not taking responsibility for much other than your piece in the puzzle.
Does your experience working as a writer and producer have any influence on how you are as an actor?
They all seep into each other. Whatever type of writing I do is informed by the quality of screenplays I read, and I’ve read so many as an actor. Being a person who has watched movies get built from the ground up, it definitely gave me more respect for everyones part of the process on set.
Of course actors are a very important part of the process but we are just one part of the process. There are other people who may be more in the shadows but they definitely work harder than we do. They get there two hours earlier and leave two hours later and they get paid less money. Some people are really good at playing the movie star, they are really good at cultivating that mystique, but I’m not really into that.
Actors are excused from a lot of things, and we get away with a lot. We are allowed to do what we want and people are so nice to us, like we are sailors in port just for a night. They let you to the front of the line and it’s weird! And I find it equally interesting and exciting as it is disgusting and bizarre. The more and more I do it the weirder it is. It’s great, but it’s weird.
You wrote and starred in the new thriller, Felony, about a detective who accidentally hits a kid with his car and gets wrapped up in a moral dilemma of whether or not to confess. It’s an extremely realistic portrayal of the grey area between right and wrong, and not your typical Hollywood movie.
We wanted to put people—excuse the pun—in the driver’s seat. What would you do in that situation, if you did something wrong and there were no witnesses? What is your moral fiber? What would you do? And, further, can you really answer that question without actually being in the situation? It was important that in this movie there is not just a good person and not just a bad person. Not like in movies I watched growing up where there was the hero and there was the villain, I loved those, but I also love movies where there are a bunch of humans that are just bouncing off of each other.
On the other end of the spectrum, you just wrapped the blockbuster Exodus directed by Ridley Scott with Christian Bale, in which you are playing the Pharaoh Ramses. Are you the villain?
My character is trying to keep the status quo. Villains are never just bad people who just do bad things. Ramses has a point of view, and he has an ethical battle with Christian [Bale]’s character with some valid points. There are a lot of points in the movie where Ramses has the opportunity to do something villainous but he chooses to do the opposite; he could have killed Moses many times but he exiled him. It’s complicated. Here is this person who he grew up with, who he clearly loves, who is potentially losing his mind having come back from exile. He’s talking about having conversations with a God, and these crazy elemental forces of nature which he claims are the act of this God. He could be insane!
It’s such a great story, whether you believe that the Bible is real or if it’s simply a fable told for the purposes of education. Regardless, it’s important. It’s a story of oppression and revolution.
The story, and the production, are rightfully epic. Did you have a favorite plague to film?
My favorite one to shoot was the frogs. There was a frog wrangler and he brought about 500 frogs and unleashed them. When Ridley yelled cut, everyone had to run around and pick up the frogs. At one point, I was picking them up because I love reptiles and I used to collect frogs as a kid, and I was trying to save time between takes. Then I look over and Ridley was picking up frogs too!
But on an acting front, the most challenging was the final plague, the death of the first born. It really brings back the core of empathy for Ramses. It’s the one plague he cannot refute, or explain away as some random natural disaster. The flies and locusts can be explained, the blood in the river could somewhat logically be explained. What can’t be explained is when a Hebrew man walks in and says if you don’t release the slaves tonight all the Egyptian first born children will die, and not a single Hebrew will be harmed. And it comes true. It’s only then Ramses realizes that perhaps this mouthpiece of God is a dangerous force—that Moses is possibly even God himself. It’s the one thing that draws us back into some kind of humanity for this character, and it was a really great challenge to shoot.
That’s a pretty dark place to have to put yourself in for a role. What is your process getting into a character?
I take it very seriously. There is a great empathetic connection you need to have to the people you play. I think that once the camera is rolling, anything is possible, there is a great freedom in it. The more I work the more I’m interested in things that require a great challenge. If you can have those opportunities then they are going to be much richer, and terrifying. I am always terrified before a job starts.
Do you have anything that you like to do when you’re not working?
I can imagine living in New York City, when you’re outside there are a million things going on and you’re talking to so many people and then when you get home and close the door, suddenly, all the stimulation goes away. I think it’s like that for me whenever the work stops. When I’m working it’s a great distraction from myself.
Not that I’m tortured, but I realized recently when I stopped working that I felt really anxious and antsy. I’ve been going back to back for a year and suddenly that space was empty and was being filled up with my thoughts about me, and the world and where am I, who am I.
I’m getting older, I travel around a lot. I spend a good half of my year in cities that I didn’t know I was going to be in until a month earlier. It’s lovely but they aren’t my home. I’m hardly in Sydney and I’m really hardly ever in L.A. I go home and I feel like it’s all too rushed. I think I want to take some more time out, and that’s not to say I’ll be lazy because I’ll write and all that, but I want to take the opportunity to enjoy things more. I want to sit down in one space for longer. The last couple of times I’ve been in Sydney I’ve had to race around and touch all my friends and I haven’t been able to sit down and have a proper conversation…
Like we’re doing.
Yeah, I’ve spent more time with you, had a longer conversation with you, than half of my friends.
It is, but at the same time, I have everything I’ve dreamed of! Here’s the question for me: What is the thing that you dreamed of and when did you start dreaming it? Was it such a clear dream in your head that you just kind of blindly set out to achieve it, that you haven’t thought about shifting it? I feel like I’m still burning off the fuel of the dream I had coming out of drama school, and it’s fucking great, I’m having the time of my life on the work front. On the other hand, I think, What is that dream and what else could be included in it?
Sometimes work gets in the way of life and I pop my head up for air and look around. Its a feeling of being in a submarine. The work is great, but that’s the problem sometimes, you get enamored with it. You forget how to be human a little bit.
So, then, what is your WILD Wish?
That’s a good question. I think life is pretty wild and my wishes are boring and domestic. I want to have a farm and just be an old man painting pictures. But I guess, in some ways, I want to be that person that I was in my early twenties. Tap back into the chaotic part of me that I always enjoyed, not knowing and planning, just enjoying experiences in the moment. I wasn’t worried about stuff. Sometimes I find myself becoming too organized and serious. I guess I’m ruminating about life in general now that I have some time to. I’m trying to see what makes me tick. I’m trying to be at ease and content with life and see what kind of a human I am.
Text by Kate Messinger
Photos by Alexei Hay
Styling by Julian Jesus