The LRM Interview: Joel Edgerton on His Role in Loving

– by Edward Douglas

Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been tooling around as an actor for quite some time--even playing Uncle Owen in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels--but he’s been making a bigger impact on these shores in recent years with dramatic roles in Warrior, The Thing, The Great Gatsby, Black Mass and other films. He even went behind the camera to direct last year’s thriller The Gift.

With his role in Jeff Nichols’ Loving—his second back-to-back film with Nichols after appearing in Midnight Special—Edgerton is starting to be taken more seriously as a potential Oscar nominee for his role as Richard Loving, a Virginia man who back in the late ’50s married his black sweetheart Mildred (Ruth Negga from Preacher), although it was illegal in the state for them to do so. They essentially leave their families behind and go into hiding until their story is discovered by the ACLU who want to take their case to the Supreme Court to overturn unconstitutional laws against mixed race marriages.

Edgerton doesn’t say a lot as Richard, a quiet Southern man who lets his wife do most of the talking, but it’s quite a departure from other roles we’ve seen Edgerton play, and his chemistry with Negga is what makes Loving such a stirring drama even without going for the normal emotional fireworks we might normally see.

LRM spoke on the phone with Edgerton a few weeks back for the interview below: 

LRM: I spoke to Jeff earlier, and you and I have spoken before. At what point during “Midnight Special” did he mention this other movie he was working on and having you play Richard?

Joel Edgerton:
It was towards the end of the whole experience. I was worried that he was jumping the gun, because it was so long before he was planning to make Loving, and I was like, “Has he checked with all his finance people that this is cool?” Because I got very pregnant with the idea of it as soon as I watched the documentary. I guess there was part of me that was very nervous that the film might not happen or the finance people wouldn’t allow me to be the guy. Jeff is very confident in his casting approach. He won’t e strayed by people trying to lead him down the star path. He finds actors that he feels are appropriate for the role and Ruth is a great example. He makes those decisions very confidently. It was towards the end of Midnight Special, and then Ruth and I had to wait almost a year and a half before we started rolling cameras on it. 

LRM: I’m surprised there was that long between projects, because I think when we spoke last year, I think you were just about to start shooting and then when you were in Toronto with “Black Mass” you were already making it, so you shot it about last year this time?

Yeah, it was a weird timeline because Black Mass and Midnight Special were held onto for a little while, their scheduled releases. I shot Midnight Special and then I shot Black Mass, then I shot The Gift, and then that was put together and released before any of those other movies came out. And then straight after The Gift, I went off to Virginia and shot Loving.

LRM: So you were switching your accents back and forth between all those movies, because I think you had a Southern accent in “Midnight Special,” too, but a different type of accent, right?

For Midnight Special, Jeff had sent me a link to this documentary that I’d seen before, The Thin Blue Line, which was about a rural guy from West Texas; he had given me this sort of voice. I actually picked someone else from the documentary, which was the guy who had that really high voice, so that was a West Texas accent, but this was something different. As Jeff points out, a lot of people approach the American accent and say, “Oh, well, the Southern accent is just one accent.” It’s not. I’m speaking to an American here, but there’s so many different accents, and even more importantly, I think, an accent is not just a general accent, but whose mouth is it coming out of and what life experiences that person had, what’s their lifestyle like, and how does that affect the accent? Richard was such a reluctant speaker that that in itself shapes his accent, too. In fact, Jeff spoke to me on set after four days of shooting, and I said, “What can I do better? What am I doing wrong? Is everything okay with the accent?” and he said, “I just have one note for you. I just want to understand you less.

LRM: There’s obviously footage of Richard from the movies that were made of them but he doesn’t say very much. It must be hard to get a handle on him from that or was it also about getting how he walks and moves?

We had access to all that footage, and there’s a ton of archival footage that’s not in the documentary that Nancy (Buerski) gave Jeff on a hard drive, but I was able to cobble enough of different things Richard said, in order to get the accent right, and like you said, beyond that, it was just watching this guy’s posture and the way he walked. Jeff and I talked about this, but that seemed very shaped by his job as a brick mason, so I went off and did a bunch of bricklaying classes at this trade school. A lot of the rest of the character is often built up by the beautiful heads of department of costume and make-up and hair, and that really helped with the visual look, but it’s up to us to do it energetically and Jeff to lay out the beats to make those characters sing. I’ve never done this before, but is to realize that the second part of the real consideration of the character was that character in unison with his wife, the relationship aspect.

LRM: Did you get to spend a lot of time with Ruth beforehand to figure out that relationship between the two of you even before you started filming?

Jeff introduced Ruth and I very early on, just sort of in a café in L.A. I think he was secretly working out, it seemed to be, a situation where we would like each other and there was a spark between us. I really like Ruth, and I love her sense of humor, and I just sort of fell in love with her as a person and had mad respect for her abilities as an actress. We went to Virginia for two weeks together well in advance of shooting and toured around and looked at stuff and places where Richard and Mildred had lived and been jailed, been told what to do in courthouses and we visited their gravestones. It just did a lot to the two of us to have that experience together and realized how lucky we were and how important this story was. 

LRM: Is it harder to play a character like this who doesn’t say a lot? When he does say something, it’s really important like when he says “I love my wife,” it just kills you, but so much involves just giving a look, so is that harder to do?

In theory, it would be harder if you had to say tons of stuff and do overly energetic and verbal, but it actually taught me so much about specificity and focus, which I’ll carry with me, I’m sure, until the next time I’m on camera. Because there wasn’t very much to say, it was very important that those silences were also energized with an intention of their own, or charged with a value of what was Richard thinking? And why was he thinking but not talking? Discussions with Jeff about what those silences were filled with internally really focused me as an actor I think, that sometimes too many words or a lot of words allows you to throw a smokescreen up, because you’re saying so much that you’re kind of tripping on words. To be exposed to the camera with no words is such a lovely challenge and quite terrifying actually, but ultimately, very satisfying.

LRM: Jeff mentioned to me that it reminded me of his grandfather, and I realized on second viewing that it kind of reminded me of my father who is like that—he doesn’t say very much but when he says something, it’s important.  He doesn’t do it just to talk.

Yeah, it’s particular for certain men. There are so many of them in Australia, and I know there are so many of them in America, too, but it’s a particularly rural thing I think, too. I don’t exactly know why, and I wouldn’t be able to define why, but I think country areas with space also breed that space in language—the pauses and the lack of a necessity to impress all the time—keeps it more economical in what we say.

LRM: You’ve obviously been keeping busy as an actor. Do you think you’ll direct something again soon or are you writing anything?

No, I’m working on stuff at the moment, developing a couple of things. I’ve got a couple projects that I’ve already written that are in the works for other people that are directing, but the thing I want to make next, I’m in the middle of researching and writing at the same time as I’m working away. I’m hoping that I’ll be rolling on something by the second half of next year.

LRM: That would be great. I heard you did another movie, which Nash (Joel’s brother) directed, too. That’s already finished?

Yeah. There’s no title yet. It’s still untitled, but he is deep in the trenches right now of post-production and putting it together. It was so awesome to work with him again and being in Chicago and Mexico and watching him stand behind the camera with confidence. He helped me so much with The Gift, both as a stunt coordinator and an actor and various other roles. It’s really nice to scratch each other’s back and having the pleasure of watching him work.

Loving is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to more cities over the rest of November. You can also read our interview with filmmaker Jeff Nichols.

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