For the first time in his career, Australian actor Joel Edgerton is getting some serious awards hype in the States. His newest film, Loving, is the reason why. Directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial American couple who were arrested after getting married in 1958 Virginia. Blacks and whites weren't allowed to get married back then and the film recounts their struggle to simply be together.
Edgerton, who plays Richard, gives a quiet performance as the reserved bricklayer who just wants to live a quiet life and raise a family, not be hounded by journalists. It's far from flashy, but critics are hailing Edgerton and his co-star Ruth Negga for their realistic portrayals and Nichols' understated direction. The movie doesn't force Civil Rights down your throat, it's a human story that just happens to be set against one of the most important issues of the 20th century and today.
Sitting down with Edgerton at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco for a roundtable with two other writers, the actor was his usual charming self. Eager to talk film, we asked him about his involvement with the film, working with up-and-comer Negga, and other actors who've impressed him over the years.
This is your second time working with Jeff (Nichols). What drew you to the story? Was it the story, was it Jeff?
It was a whole combination of elements. I'm literally like Mike Shannon, I'd probably do anything for Jeff. He's that confident a filmmaker and a wonderful guy. I think his talent and personability makes him an easy guy to work with and for. The fact that it was this story—I remember asking him, "Are you sure?" Because it sounds like it's one of those rare important stories that anyone would want to get their hands on. So I watched the documentary and I was very moved by the story and very shocked I didn't already know about the couple. And I know enough about the timeline of American Civil Rights to wonder why they seemed absent on that timeline. I suspect now, looking back, it was because there was no real newsworthiness about those nine years of oppression. There was no bloodshed, nobody murdered, so I understand its lack of newsworthiness has taken it off that timeline. But, hopefully, this movie puts it on there. It's impossible not to connect to it.
Your eyes and your posture tell a lot of the story, could you talk about your approach to the movie?
I really don't get to say much in the movie so I thought, "Oh this is good. No homework." (Laughs) And sometimes you think the thing that's gonna be easy turns out to be hard. Not that I thought this was going to be easy, but trying to be specific about silence and the mechanism behind the thoughts that don't evolve to words was the challenge. And there're scenes where I'm sitting with the sheriff and he's talking about "a robin being a robin and a sparrow being a sparrow." It's one thing to sit in silence. It's a different thing to sit in silence knowing what you wish you could say.
The performance, on a physical and vocal level, was really guided by having access to Nancy Buirski's documentary (The Loving Story), especially the extra footage where we could see them walk and talk and interact with their children, interact with each other. I went off to masonry school and learned to lay bricks to fulfill my role as a bricklayer onscreen but also to really understand the posture of Richard. But, psychologically, it's a different story. You get a mimicry of a character that's true, but going beyond that becomes a real energetic, psychological thing—understanding what their engine is. The biggest thing for me in this wasn't striving to create Richard, or watching Ruth create Mildred, but the two of us creating that third thing: the two of them together, that space between the two of them as a couple.
You seem to be building a resume of American accents with your work. I'm from Massachusetts and I really liked what you did in Black Mass. I liked what you did in Loving. How you prepare vocally?
I grew up with American TV. Everything I watched was American: The Brady Bunch, Eight is Enough, Gilligan's Island... so the sound of the American accent was always, I think, second nature for Australians and British people because that's all we watch. But there's something special about the specificity of different accents, I realized a while ago, if I had one source. It starts with that for me. I take a passage of someone's voice—I had all these court conversations of John Connolly (in Black Mass) and daytime TV interviews. I'd literally write them down, have a piece of paper with a minute and a half of John Connolly stuff, listen to it, listen to it, mimic it, mimic it, until it goes beyond. But it's so, it becomes an anchor for all the different sounds of that accent. It requires me to work so hard in the preliminary stages. I thought Loving was gonna be easier than Black Mass because I had so few words to say, but then you don't get the rhythm of an accent when you're only saying one or two words. So I found John's arrogance and talking so much actually made it more fun to find that accent...instead of mumbling a few words here and there. But having the real source is so great because then you can live with it and try to move beyond that.
Can you talk about working with Ruth? How did you work together to create the intimacy between you?
It goes back to that third thing I was talking about. There's me trying to be Richard; her striving for the authenticity and divinity of Mildred; and together, what are we as a couple? It's that really hard to measure essence of onscreen chemistry whether you have it or you don't. It's so weird. Sometimes actors really, really love each other and, onscreen, it's like cardboard, or the opposite: they may hate each other, but there's a percussiveness—a kind of explosiveness to their chemistry.
I think Ruth and I just really liked each other and felt together that we had this secret enjoyment and pleasure at being given the job. Like we were the two kids in class who'd been told we could present an award or something. Like we were special in some way. I think carrying that together gave us a kind of support that was indicative of what Mildred and Richard enjoyed. There're no constant declarations of love and no sex scenes, none of that typical stuff. But there's a complicitness, a support, a kind of a sharing of duty and, really, she's the spine of the couple. They dance and never really let go of each other's hands. We felt that together, that responsibility.
I admire her so much as an actress. Sometimes you work with somebody who's never done a movie before and you feel like the person's had 20 years of experience. Sometimes you clock people and you're like "Yeah I see what you're doing...cool, cool." And, sometimes, you look at people and you're like, "I have no idea what you're doing. No idea, but whatever it is, it's very special." I think sometimes Ruth would channel some of the qualities in Mildred you see in the documentary: a real elegance, almost like a rural princess, that milk and honey voice. And, occasionally, things would come out of Mildred's mouth that seemed crafted by a journalist, by a writer of some kind. "We might win the small battles but lose the big war." That's quotable. I would look at Ruth and think this was something very special. And it felt good to be next to that.
We know Ruth is great, but I wondered about other actors you've worked with. Who has impressed you most?
Oh wow. That's a really good question. I'll tell you the actor that impresses me the most, and you'll probably agree with me, is Ben Mendelsohn. I've worked with him five times and I feel like that's a real privilege. My first ever job where I got paid to act was playing his brother on a TV show called Police Rescue. Ben was a featured guy on this episode and I was his younger brother. And we did Animal Kingdom, we did an animation thing called $9.99. We did Exodus. And we did a movie I won't name (Laughs) in Australia. It was reviewed in a magazine with a picture of me with a gun to my head, which is a shot from the movie, and the quote underneath was "Don't blame me, I didn't direct it." (Laughs)
You've got Star Wars in common...
Yeah, Star Wars in common...Ben is one of those guys who you look at and say "What are you doing?" I worked with Dennis Hopper years ago, who was extraordinary. He spoke once about James Dean and said that he'd sat in a car with him on Rebel Without a Cause and he looked at him and said, "What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?" Because he wanted to know! Because they were all in this process of trying to revolutionize acting at the time. They were all in that changing of the guard period of time. I think I've seen him talk about that in interviews as well.
So I love working with actors who seem to be on another level. Ben's one of those guys. He's incredibly dangerous. I think (Tom) Hardy is amazing, Nick Nolte is amazing, I've had a lot of great experiences working with a lot of people. Cate Blanchett is amazing. We worked onstage together... And I think there's a commonality there, and it's something I think a lot about, which is getting rid of vanity. Because if they're holding on to the way they look or sound or appear from the outside and their vanity seeps in too much they might miss out on something. I think audiences don't care as much about vanity as much the individual does. But Ben is amazing, dude, isn't he?
Yeah, he's an incredible guy too.
What's next for you as a writer/director?
I'm working on stuff right now. I'm trying to decide what to make. I'm writing this big, based on a true story, crime story. I'm also working on a science-fiction thing. I don't want to repeat myself. As an actor I like to jump around. I had a great time making The Gift and I love psychological drama. But I think the main takeaway from it was I just loved working with actors. I'd love to make a drama and throw more actors in there like an ensemble thing. But I'm interested in making more movies. Hopefully I'll be making something by the second half of next year.
Cool, thank you for your time, Joel.
Thank you very much.
Loving opens in limited release on November 4