June 2013

Essays

Luke Davies

Joel Edgerton’s flirtation with fame

© Bazmark Film III Pty Limited
After Gatsby

We’re sitting at the kitchen table in Edgerton’s temporary digs, a log home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I’ve ostensibly come to observe him for a couple of days on the set of the Gavin O’Connor–directed western Jane Got a Gun, in which Edgerton is the leading man, opposite Natalie Portman. By any measure, the actor has made some progress in the two decades since he left the Hyatt; on sites such as brainyquote.com he even warrants his own page of citations. (“The sum total of all my stop-starts has made me less concerned about the future. I’m just aware now that I’ll always land on my feet somehow.”)

“Whatever ascension I’ve had,” he clarifies in Santa Fe, “has been a slow-building, hard-working process.” Notions of ascension and of landing on one’s feet are vivid in our minds at this moment: hours earlier, when I arrived at the airport, Edgerton had finished shooting for the day and suggested I join him at a local climbing gym. Thank God for the thickness of the floor pads, is all I’ll say for myself. Edgerton, focused, methodical and fit, was a little more about the ascension.

I had known Edgerton slightly over the years – he was part of a loose-knit collective calling itself Blue-Tongue Films which progressed from making shorts and music videos to feature films such as Edgerton’s brother Nash’s The Square, Spencer Susser’s Hesher, David Michôd’s sublime Animal Kingdom and Kieran Darcy-Smith’s recent Wish You Were Here. To an outsider, a defining quality of the Blue-Tongue gang was a casual kind of supportiveness: everyone pitched in, and the affection seemed genuine.

I had got to know Edgerton a little better in recent years in Los Angeles – a strangely gentle, soft-aired town where expat isolation is from time to time alleviated by strolling with fellow expats. On hikes up Runyon Canyon, Edgerton proved an effortlessly eloquent talker: a storyteller experiencing his own life as an unfolding yarn. I’d spent enough time in Los Angeles to observe a certain kind of Australian actor: there’s an anxiety and discomfort that can catch fire at the place where personal ambition meets Hollywood brutality, leaving a kind of psychic scorched earth.

But Edgerton is not like that. “He’s present in a way that actors often aren’t,” says Michôd, who directed him in Animal Kingdom. But he adds: “His way of dealing with the self-implosion that besets actors is that he’s constantly moving. Whenever you see Joel it’s like he’s coming from one place and going to another. He has to keep moving or else he sinks. But his way of steeling himself against the film industry’s relentless challenge to your sense of self is to be a relentlessly good and compassionate person.”

“I remember being a young actor,” Edgerton tells me, “watching another actor on the side of the stage doing, like, 20 chin-ups every time he was about to walk on stage, like he had to get breathless and feel like he was straining himself. But life is so about ease: whether you’re angry or whether you’re happy, you are that emotion, that experience, and there’s an ease to it.

“But when I was younger, there was always this sort of tension. I always made the mistake of not trusting myself enough. I remember on a couple movies, I’d spend a lot of time watching playback, and … shifting my performance based on what I was seeing. I was doubting myself.” Gradually, he says, he learnt to say “‘OK, it’s out of my control, I did my job.’ And that’s the thing about film: everybody’s got their hand in it, everybody can make it better and everybody can make it worse. Some more than others. The director can fuck up the movie more than the caterer can, sure. But everybody’s pitching in, and I can’t tell the editor how to cut my performance, the sound department how to modulate my voice, the director what pacing to cut the scene to. But I can do my job.”

Edgerton has become more interesting as an actor as he has grown older. The moral complexity he brings to his roles now wasn’t always evident in earlier films, in some of which he seems adrift and insubstantial. I ask him about Sample People (2000): “Diabolical,” is his summary of the experience. “But I met [producer] Emile Sherman, and he was a sweetheart.” (Sherman would go on to win an Oscar for The King’s Speech in 2011.) “The day Emile met me he said, ‘This is my first movie. I don’t know what I’m doing and sometimes I won’t know exactly what’s going on.’ That was Emile’s beginning.”

It wasn’t so much that Edgerton was making bad choices: a young actor needs to work. It’s more that good films don’t get made all that often. Thinking back, he’s always able to separate the experience from the film itself. The Hard Word (2002) was a “brilliant” time but the film was “made the wrong way”. The Night We Called It a Day (2003), a truly terrible movie, was, in Edgerton’s polite rendering, “a great story not as well told as I’d hoped. But I got to work with Dennis Hopper!” Of the quirky Kinky Boots (2005), he says, “I thought it was a beautiful movie. Not quite brilliant, but I’m very proud of it.”

In film after film, Edgerton has been touted as “the next big thing” and “about to break”. Now, with The Great Gatsby burner turned onto high, the hype is back. It’s clear it doesn’t perturb him one way or the other. “If I’d had a huge success at 20,” he says, “it would have been too much for me. Or I would have behaved badly, and to be honest, looking back at some of my work when I was that age, I cringe at it. I think I didn’t really get it. Like, when I was 26 I did Star Wars and I was doing a few clunky movies. I had the opportunity [as] someone in the shadows to … somehow trip over and get back up on my feet and learn certain lessons and then take them into the next project, without ever being blinded by the limelight. And now I feel like I’ve got my feet on the ground as a human, as a person … I’m kind of lucky that it happened slowly. Because I’m well off, it’s fine; I can do what I want. I complain every now and again, but like my brother says, it’s all high-class problems.”

The latest high-class problem is Luhrmann’s Gatsby, currently splashing across a screen near you. Edgerton, often cast as an everyman, is Gatsby’s nemesis. “Baz Luhrmann casting me as Tom Buchanan was a real surprise to me,” says Edgerton. “I thought that going to New York [to audition] was a waste of my time, and his time. Tom Buchanan was a blue-blood. The most accessible point for me was the fact that he was a sportsman, that he wasn’t exactly the brightest man in the world. But the money aspect and the privilege – that side of it to me was like, ‘I’m not really even a candidate.’ It was Baz who showed me that [the role] was within me, and then I had probably the greatest experience I’ve had so far, because I was allowed to do something that other people normally wouldn’t let me do. He has that much belief in what he’s doing, what he’s creating, that you want to just kind of jump on his barge.”

It’s a very big barge indeed. Gatsby holds hundreds, perhaps thousands of stylish extras, all of whom seem to have ingested aphrodisiacs. It’s festooned with streamers of every colour. It’s a frenetic dance floor, a heady, intoxicating montage about the “vast carelessness” of the wealthy. It’s more grand spectacle than compelling narrative – no surprises there: in Luhrmann’s hands, tragedy inevitably tends towards farce – but at least it’s not entirely the lush, saccharine catastrophe that Australia was. Rather, for the first half of the movie we see the same dance party we saw in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, while the plot is being laid out in increments. Then, in the second half, the actual drama is allowed, to some extent, to play out. The film tries to heed the essential darkness of the novel – but Luhrmann and darkness don’t really move in the same circles.

There are some beautiful, lavish scenes in The Great Gatsby. Every frame, so brilliantly lit and designed, could be none other than a Lurhmann frame. And for all the lack of narrative power and authority at the film’s centre, Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby executes the task well, and the frosty rage of Edgerton’s Tom – contained, until it is not – is its own power source.

“What I really loved about Baz,” says Edgerton, “was that he managed to make Gatsby seem so lavish and large and grand scale when essentially we know that Gatsby is just about a handful of characters who are kind of colliding into each other with different needs.” Tom Buchanan, of course, is at the centre of those collisions. The well of drama at the heart of the film’s pomp is the extraordinary scene at the Plaza Hotel where Buchanan confronts Gatsby about sleeping with Daisy – the moment in the story where all social niceties disappear. In Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann demonstrated a near-pathological aversion to letting scenes actually play out dramatically. In the Plaza Hotel scene in Gatsby, we remember that when Luhrmann does more than just allow his actors to swing like ballast through the production design – when he compels them to act, in conflict and distress – he is capable of an electric greatness. Everybody is on point in the scene, but Edgerton owns it. He may not ever be the kind of leading man that di Caprio became at an early age – “I’m nearly 40 years old. I’m never going to be mobbed, I’m never going to be Robert Pattinson” – but he may be something far more interesting: a natural character actor.

The scene demands a complex mix of spleen and entitlement, with an edge of anxiety about how all might be lost – Buchanan’s self-image, his Daisy. The ten minutes on screen took ten days to shoot. (Later, there were even reshoots, to capture tiny moments.) “Tom is exposing Gatsby,” says Edgerton. “I was getting into Leo in this ten-page scene. And I realised I was bringing too much aggression to it, too much effort. And I remember Baz saying to me, ‘Tom is not accustomed to being the loser. Tom never loses. Tom’s a winner.’ And I remember it just added this colour to me, it added this ease, which was like, ‘I don’t need to try too hard to push this guy into shape. I have all the cards and I’m just doling them out at the right time.’

“That to me is what a great director is: [someone] who invites you into a challenge. Who doesn’t give you the road map, just tells you the destination. Because an actor is a dog, who you throw a stick for. You get a director that you really like, like David Michôd, or Gavin O’Connor, or Baz, they set you a task – they throw the stick and you fucking run after it and you bring it back as quickly as possible in the most dynamic or efficient way, whatever serves that owner the best. And they give you a little ruffle of the hair, and pat you on the back, and throw you a bone. It’s a symbiotic relationship. They satisfy the actor’s need to be loved.”

While at high school in Sydney’s north-western suburbs, Edgerton saw a performance of The Crucible at the Opera House. It was a transformative moment for the 16-year-old: “I could be an actor in the theatre,” he thought to himself. He acted in school plays. He went to Texas on a high school theatre exchange. Straight out of The Hills Grammar School, he was accepted into the acting course at Nepean College. Straight out of Nepean, he started working regularly in Sydney theatre. At first, his ambitions didn’t extend much beyond that world; he was happy just to be working. “I never imagined in a million years that one day I’d be sitting in Santa Fe playing a cowboy, starring in a western. That was not on my radar at all. I didn’t back myself at all. But as things started to happen in the realm of theatre, and I realised there was TV stuff out there, and film stuff out there, I was like, ‘I want a piece of that.’ But … I’d sign a contract for a play that would take six months of my time, and TV and film didn’t work like that. Film people would call you up and expect you to start work three weeks later, so if you were booked up, you were booked up. So I cut off that lifeline and then things started to happen. And then I did [TV series] The Secret Life of Us, and I realised I had to cut that lifeline as well.”

More recently, Edgerton re-entered theatre in a big way, when in 2009 he played Stanley Kowalski (to Cate Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois) in the Sydney Theatre Company’s much-lauded, Liv Ullman–directed production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which later that year moved to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (This is the production where Edgerton famously clocked Blanchett on the head with a prop radio, drawing blood and forcing the cancellation of the evening’s performance.) At the kitchen table in Santa Fe we talk about the nakedness of theatre as opposed to cinema: the full bodies in three-dimensional space, every creak of the floorboard, everything that can go wrong – no tricks, no cover-ups, no close-ups, no reverse angles, no editing. “Strangely,” says Edgerton, “the things that go wrong – as traumatic as they are – become the great moments. But you gotta survive them. It’s like a shark attack – if you were attacked by a shark and came away without significant damage, then ultimately that’s a great story. But it needs the passage of time.”

“Any examples?” I ask.

“Opening night in New York,” says Edgerton. “There’s a part of the play where I’m trying to get through the bathroom door, and I’m trying to get to Cate and I’m drunk. It’s the end of the play, I think. Anyway, the latch on the door broke. I’m supposed to go through the door, I’m very drunk, and the latch wouldn’t work – it had locked itself from the inside. And I pull the door handle, and I pull it again. And, without a second’s thought, I just kicked the fucking door in. One kick, splintered the door, totally suitable for what the character was and the situation, and I would have completely looked like a fool if I stood there arguing with the door handle and whining like a little bitch. Which Stanley’s not, by the way. They’re the moments you live for. You hope they never happen, but when they do …”

It was good to be back in the theatre, despite the pressures. “The audience was populated by very famous people all the time,” says Edgerton. “I was reminded constantly that New York was the birthplace of Streetcar, and that Marlon Brando had single-handedly steered acting in a new direction through that film and that production.” (One theatre blogger later wrote: “[Brando’s] performance as Stanley is often said to have revolutionised acting in America. It is safe to say that Joel Edgerton’s performance as Stanley in the current production does not revolutionise acting in America, or even in Brooklyn.”)

The year 2009 was huge for Edgerton. He shot Animal Kingdom early in the year, the film that became the gift that keeps on giving for a number of its actors. Ben Mendelsohn has been working constantly since its release. Sullivan Stapleton has seen a spike in his profile. Anna Lise Phillips was cast in the American TV series Revolution. Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for a second time (the first was for Animal Kingdom itself) for Silver Linings Playbook. Edgerton, meanwhile, went straight into two months’ training for Warrior – adding 10 kilos of muscle in preparation for his role as a mixed martial arts fighter – and then a brutal shoot that was even longer. “Gavin wanted to make a movie with no stars in it, because he needed people to go and train, and most Hollywood stars don’t have that time, and he didn’t want people to be watching the movie with the [star] baggage.” Two days after Warrior wrapped, in July, he was in a rehearsal for Streetcar, which then ran in Sydney, Washington and New York. “Yeah. Yeah, I had a meltdown at the end of the year. I got spat out on the 23rd of December, and went to a health retreat and had a little cry. I felt like my body and my mind were a bit broken down. I just felt wrong … It only took me a week to get over it, but I really did have what was the closest thing to being not capable of processing all of my thoughts.”

Warrior, a $25-million film that took $23 million worldwide and is thus considered a failure, is a good film – far better than The Fighter, with which it jostled for box-office space. Despite some broad commercial strokes not to every-one’s taste, Warrior has an enormous heart. Tom Hardy’s perfomance as Edgerton’s brother is good, if occasionally tic-filled and self-consciously brooding, and Edgerton mirrors in Warrior what David Michôd describes him doing in life: his character steels himself against the chaos emanating from his father’s alcoholism and his brother’s dark destructiveness by mustering, through a kind of trial by fire, compassion for these damaged souls.

It takes great skill to create a character on screen that is psychically and emotionally transparent. Edgerton, as he enters his 40s, is coming into control of his skills. The skilful get noticed. “I’m on the list that I thought I’d never be on,” he has said, elsewhere. “I’m not sitting here thinking, ‘God, I might get this part’ or ‘Is it too late for me to play Hamlet?’ It’s really about: ‘Who do I get to work with?’ There’s so many people on that list.

“I get to explore the sides of me … that I would never in a million years let myself be. Like ultra-violent, misogynistic, racist … As an actor you get to kind of lock up parts of you and unlock other sides of you and I think that part of the great thing about being an actor is kind of resetting your ego, if you can. Resetting your values, resetting your ego and kind of going, ‘OK, well, I’m allowed to do this now. And not only am I allowed to do it, but I’ll enjoy doing it.’”

When I first rang Edgerton to propose writing a profile on him, he said, “Sure. I’m shooting this western in Santa Fe. Why don’t you come out here and hang on set for a couple of days? Watch us shoot some stuff. We’ll do the interviews in the evenings.”

But things didn’t turn out quite so simply. Edgerton was originally to play the villain in Jane Got a Gun, a small role that would have involved a couple of weeks’ shooting. At some point, behind the scenes in pre-production, trouble brewed. (Much of what happened is still uncertain; the details will likely emerge in legal battles.) The original male lead, Michael Fassbender, left, for reasons unclear. Edgerton, though he carries less box-office weight than Fassbender, replaced him, and Jude Law was cast in Edgerton’s former role. Meanwhile conflict between director Lynn Ramsay and the producers escalated as shooting neared. Ramsay left. (Ramsay’s manager, Jessica Steindorff, happened to be the daughter of the film’s producer, Scott Steindorff. When Steindorff père released the statement announcing Ramsay’s departure, Steindorff fille released one too: “My father Scott Steindorff prevails under extreme amounts of stress and the show will go on. Sorry, but in this town it’s family first.”) Jude Law left. Bradley Cooper was brought in to replace Law as the villain. Natalie Portman, the film’s star, stayed.

Come the first day of shooting, there was no director, and no final script. By the next day, partly with the help of Edgerton’s behind-the-scenes hustle, Warrior’s Gavin O’Connor was the new director, and Warrior screenwriter Anthony Tambakis flew in to work on rewrites with Edgerton. For the first few weeks, Edgerton was shooting by day and writing by night. All in all, only about ten days were lost of the original production schedule.

All films are hard to make, but these were not propitious circumstances, with 120 cast and crew rushing somewhat disconcertedly around Santa Fe. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that, by the time I arrived at the production office, before the trauma of the climbing gym, the film’s lawyers had a contract waiting for me. The conditions laid out in the “Jane Got a Gun Set Visit Guidelines Agreement” were onerous, so much so that there wasn’t any world, outside of the junket and the puff piece, in which its constraints were acceptable. (The deal-breaker was that I would have to submit all material to the production company, and to the publicity company, for “approval, changes and/or deletions”. “There’s one other thing,” the publicist said. “You have to give us a verbal agreement that you won’t write anything about the fact that you’re signing the written agreement.”)

Having declined to sign, and unable to visit Edgerton on set, I interview him in the evenings and ask him to keep a diary for a day, to tell me what I would have seen, had I visited. “It’s very mundane, in general,” he says, perhaps to make me feel better. “There’s a lot of waiting around. As an actor, you’re not using your brain all day long.”

More and more, Edgerton has been trying to use his brain as a writer. He co-wrote the screenplay of The Square, wrote (and starred in) the recently completed Matthew Saville film, Felony, and is developing his own feature, Weirdo. With David Michôd he has written King, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts I & II, and Henry V, for Warner Bros. The tale of a leader tricked, by means of false intelligence, into invading a foreign country has modern resonances. Day to day on film sets there may be a lot of waiting around, but there’s not much of it between projects in Edgerton’s life just now.

Edgerton’s sense of quiet gratitude is never far from the surface. “I’m hardly digging trenches for a living,” he says. “I’m getting to tap into my boyhood fantasies of being a larger-than-life character.” But there are niggles, too. He talks of “butting up” against his “lifestyle” – read, work – in his relationships; thus far, and occasionally quite publicly, the relationships have generally had to give. “Sometimes I wonder whether I’m just doing the things I’m doing because I thought once upon a time that’s what I really wanted. Can you understand that? Like once upon a time I had an incredible ambition to be an actor, and then be a movie actor, and then be in Hollywood, you know. And maybe, it doesn’t sit as well with me now as it did.”

He’s aware, too, of fate and all its quirks: of how, at any point, things can turn out differently. “Let’s say Kinky Boots made a hundred million dollars,” he says, “then I’d be a quirky sort of romantic comedy actor and I wouldn’t necessarily be considered a dramatic actor, you know what I mean? No one even remembers me from Star Wars. I was in it for two minutes. If I’d been Anakin Skywalker, I’d have a different career. But it was Animal Kingdom and Warrior for me, so suddenly I’m a dramatic guy. That’s it.”

The twists of fate have continued for Edgerton, even recently. “I thank Ben Affleck for dropping out of Gatsby to make Argo,” he says, “and I thank Michael Fassbender for dropping out of this [Jane Got a Gun], because then I got elevated to the hero.” More recently, his stellar turn in Gatsby has secured him the lead role alongside Michelle Williams in the Josh Marsden–directed thriller The Double Hour; he’ll also star alongside Johnny Depp in the new Barry Levinson film, Black Mass, about Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston crime lord.

“I’m not focused on being a megastar, but at the same time I want to stay in the game – I want to have the option to choose the movies that I want. So there’s a bit of a game that you play: you want to do some movies that make some money so you have an international box-office [ranking]. It’s like the stock exchange, basically. You become a good stock or a bad stock. And through the process of dealing with your agent, you’re like, ‘I’d like to put my hat in the ring for this job,’ and they’re like, ‘Uh, they need someone that’s going to secure their international financing,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, cool, I’m not at that level yet, fuck, all right.’ But then do you want to put on the tights and the cape in order to do that?”

Later he muses more on his uncertainties surrounding this notion of being the hero, the star. “I always felt like I’d rather be an actor like Gene Hackman than an actor who had a shelf life because all they did was play the hero and then, at a certain age, they’d have to kind of hang up the towel.

“Certain actors will always play the villain, maybe because they’re sharp-featured and subconsciously the audience just reads them as untrustworthy. Certain other actors are heroes because they have a trustworthy quality to them. And then there are actors, who can, what I call, be the centre of the wheel – as in, the spokes could go off in any direction: they could be evil, they could be loving, they could play a cop, they could play a businessman, they could play a road worker. Like, they’re the lucky actors to me.”

“Are you one of those?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I would like to think that I could be that person.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

June 2013

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