Sitting across from Joel Edgerton you are struck by the fact he looks nothing like the men he plays on screen. His brown hair, almond-shaped eyes set behind oversized glasses and trim build give him the look of someone who manages a hip, downtown bar.
It’s hard to see him as The Great Gatsby’s macho, mustachioed Tom Buchanan, who looms menacingly over those around him, or as the bald-headed pharaoh Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, who struts with such graceful arrogance. For the recent The Gift, a film he wrote, directed, and in which he also starred, he transformed into the bespectacled Gordo, a creepy lost soul dripping with ominous intentions.
Now comes the critically acclaimed Loving, a film in which the 42-year-old Australian once again changes his appearance to give, arguably, his finest performance.
Directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), the movie recounts the real-life story of Richard Loving, a caucasian man who married African-American Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) in 1958. Although the couple wed in Washington, D.C., they lived in the segregated state of Virginia, and in July 1958 they were yanked from their bed in the middle of the night and arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage.
Forced by the court to move to Washington, D.C., an unhappy Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy asking him to intervene in their case, and thus began a prolonged civil rights battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Nichols based his film on the 2011 documentary The Loving Story, which Edgerton watched closely to capture Richard’s look — blond crew cut, stained teeth — and quiet essence.
“Ruth and I had the footage from The Loving Story, so we could see Richard and Mildred move and interact, and the frisson between them. And we got Richard’s teeth and his posture, so it was a lot of soaking that up and striving to go beyond mimicry into getting them under our skins,” says Edgerton during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. Edgerton shines as the shy, but defiant, Richard who is devoted to his wife but is visibly uncomfortable being filmed by the various news outlets following the Loving case.
“When you really look closely at him in certain moments you see the cogs turning, and you say, ‘He’s got more thoughts than he has words.’ For whatever reason he kept shutting himself down. And I had this image of Richard as this guy who was closing his eyes and clenching his fists and hoping the next time he opens his eyes everyone would leave him the f-ck alone and the only person left standing in the room would be Mildred.”
Many people have not heard of the Lovings, and don’t know that June 12th is known as “Loving Day” to mark the day in 1967 that the Supreme Court struck down all anti-miscegenation laws thus making interracial marriage legal in the United States.
“I think it was because it was a civil rights shift that wasn’t marked by violence,” says the actor, “and because of the nine years sustained in this pressure cooker situation. It wasn’t one gunshot, and yet it brought a massive, seismic shift in civil rights. “The beauty of the film, and Ruth said it so perfectly, is that this movie firmly puts the names of these people in people’s minds and it’s a story that should be told because it resonates on a number of levels — about otherness, race, gender equality, marriage equality — and it’s happening right now in Australia. We’re still not there with same-sex marriage equality and it’s very embarrassing for us.”
Edgerton grew up in Blacktown, a suburb outside Sydney. Even at a young age he and his older brother Nash play-acted, made home movies together and were fascinated with America and Hollywood entertainment.
“I’ve obsessed over America since I was a child,” he remembers. “My TV, the moment you turned it on, American accents would jump out of it ’cause all our programing was American TV. So Australia was pretty much like a state of America to me. I feel very connected to American culture and I’ve lived in America for a long time.”
Edgerton seems to be hitting his stride as an actor, yet he wants to do much more. He’s a producer, has written nine short films and features, and is looking to follow up The Gift with another turn behind the camera. Yet, the most important thing for him is to keep having fun. “It’s like writing,” he says. “I love writing but the moment I am on a deadline and someone is going, ‘I’ll pay you if you deliver this,’ suddenly I freeze up ’cause it feels like the fun is kicked out of it.
“Filmmaking can sometimes feel like that, you go all serious, and then you think, ‘Remember you are living out your fantasy here, and you don’t have to take it too seriously.’”
However, Edgerton realizes Loving is a serious and important work, and one that stands out among the more than 40 films he’s made.
“Oh yeah, the fear of, ‘Is this going to be it, am I always going to have to live up to this ’cause it’s so special?’ This is some of the most challenging work I’ve ever done, and some of the best work I’ve ever done as an actor because I was given the space — and the gift of a character and story — that allowed me to do that.
“Because of its importance, its historical place and its truth, this film means so much to me.”
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