Joel Edgerton talks about The Gift and how he got from sleeping out the back of Phillip Noyce’s house to Hollywood success.By Donna Walker-Mitchell.
The Gift of Joel Edgerton
Joel Edgerton is standing in a corridor at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, following a screening of his psychological thriller The Gift, which he wrote, starred in and directed. As he waits, Australian director Phillip Noyce approaches and places his arms on Edgerton’s shoulders.
“You’re an animal,” Noyce says, “and a monster.”
They laugh, then embrace. The bond between the pair is clear.
“Well done,” Noyce enthuses at the Sunset Boulevard complex.
The 41-year-old actor smiles broadly as he gets the nod of approval from his friend, known as the godfather of the Australian expat community.
When Edgerton first arrived in Los Angeles in 2000, he stayed in a guesthouse in Noyce’s backyard on an intermittent basis, until he made the move to the City of Angels permanently in 2006.
Today, late-winter at an office in Sydney’s Pyrmont, Edgerton explains why the pair are so close.
“Phillip is one of the great patrons of young Australian people in LA,” he tells me.
“He would always be calling you up saying, ‘I’m having a barbecue; this band are in town called Jet; Heath [Ledger] is coming down, too. Would you like to come?’ ”
Edgerton emerged as one of Australia’s top talents after roles in Erskineville Kings, the TV series The Secret Life of Us, and co-writing the 2007 film The Square with his brother, Nash.
To this day, Edgerton is surprised by Noyce’s hospitality. “Phillip didn’t even really know me and he and his wife, Jan, basically let me live out the back of their house.”
He recalls his time with actor Jason Clarke, a friend and another Australian boarder at the Noyce home. They would go on to work on the Osama bin Laden manhunt action-thriller Zero Dark Thirty, but back in those early LA days they leaned on each other.
“Jason and I were laughing about this the other day,” Edgerton recalls, his smile lighting up his face. “Jason has this amazing house not far from where I live now and has a career that’s going exceptionally well. But there was a time when it was all very different.
“We were scratching around out the back of Phillip Noyce’s house wearing our trackie daks and Jason would be like, ‘Hey Joelski, I’ve got an audition for a spaceship movie.’
“So I’d be reading the role of the lieutenant to his captain or he’d be reading the wife to my husband. We helped each other with auditions.”
Despite their solid Australian resumés, success did not come easy for either. Many auditions were unsuccessful.
“Both of us were at the point where we had run out of money and were about to fly home with our tails between our legs,” he says.
“There was a time when I thought, ‘Is this final part of my plan going to be a fizzer? Is the American part of the scheme not going to work out?’ ”
Edgerton faced the challenges in his usual pragmatic way, holding firm about seeking quality work rather than taking any role that came his way.
“Does going to America and working on a flimsy, shitty movie equate to success?” he asks before taking a sip of water. “I wanted to be in that game, but I wanted it to have some nutritional value as well.”
Edgerton knew what he wanted. He also knew what he didn’t want. “That was always the fear – because I know all too well from looking at other actors’ careers where you see an actor who became successful doing a shitty comedy and then everybody goes, ‘You’re the shitty comedy guy.’ Or you become successful doing an action movie and then you’re the action guy. They’re very quick to point the finger and the people who actually point the finger are the audience. They’re the ones who tell you what your wheelhouse is.”
Edgerton’s luck in Hollywood started to shift with his role in the quirky British-American comedy Kinky Boots in 2005. Roles followed in highly regarded films, such as Warrior and the 2010 Australian drama Animal Kingdom, directed by Edgerton’s close friend David Michôd.
Not that Edgerton was ever really worried.
“I think I was pretty arrogant,” Edgerton says matter-of-factly. “If I came back to Australia, I always knew in a healthy way there’d always be a job to go to, and if that didn’t happen, I’d always create something to do. So I was never worried that I’d never work again or any of that shit.”
Growing up in the north-western Sydney suburb of Dural, Edgerton was drawn to writing and acting. At 16, he was part of a youth exchange program where he went to Lubbock, Texas, to perform a play in front of high-school students. That experience changed Edgerton’s outlook on acting as a career.
“It probably wasn’t amazing,” he says of his first time in the United States. “But that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, I get to travel and see the world. This acting thing is pretty good.’ ”
After graduating from high school, Edgerton attended Nepean Drama School at the University of Western Sydney. But the turning point for him was in 1991, when he attended a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre. The young Edgerton sat in the audience mesmerised by actor John Howard.
“I loved it so much, I went back twice,” he says of Howard’s work. “That’s when I really became interested in acting, watching John Howard – the actor not the prime minister. That was the moment where I thought, ‘I reckon I can do that. I should do that.’ My intention of the scope of possibilities was I would end up working on stage, not that I would ever do the things I am doing now. I never thought I’d be working on movies in America.”
Edgerton spent most of his 20s working in the theatre. “In my 20s I was a lot more carefree,” he tells me. “I would breeze in and out of experiences. I would surf all day and go on stage at night. Usually I’d be doing a play and I didn’t really beat myself up over things. Somewhere, though, I just developed into this obsessive workaholic.”
Although he plays down his ambition in his 20s, the boy from Dural had an interesting perspective on his career. Whenever he got comfortable, he took a chance and walked away to pursue something better, even if it meant leaving behind work that he loved.
“There’d been this sort of strategic plan of mine that unfolded moment to moment,” he says, taking his glasses off and putting them on the table in front of us. “It wasn’t like I had the whole scheme laid out, but while I was doing theatre, I thought, ‘If I keep working on stage, I won’t have other opportunities.’ So I had to cut that off. I stopped saying yes to theatre gigs and then Secret Life came up.
“I was so in love with that experience, but I thought if I just kept doing that I wouldn’t have the film opportunities, so I cut that off. Then I worked with Gregor Jordan on Ned Kelly, did The Hard Word and a few other things. Really, the next thing to do, I thought, if I really want to be ambitious about this, is to go to the States and see if I can peddle my wares over there. So I cut off the lifeline.”
The gamble has paid off. Edgerton is not only critically lauded for his acting but, with the success of The Gift, is in demand as a director.
“I’ll keep acting, for sure,” he says. “I’m a bit OCD and I think with age I’m becoming more and more high-frequency. Directing really felt good. I wouldn’t want to do it every job, but I definitely think I’ve earned the right to go and make another movie based on the goodwill and the reviews. Financially, we made a successful movie [with The Gift]. Hollywood is all about commodity and if you make a movie for $5 million and turn it into $30 million, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll want you again.”
With age, Edgerton has developed a growing perfectionism that shines through in his work.
Perhaps it is due to his father, Michael, a former solicitor turned property developer. Or his mother, Marianne, who instilled a sense of great character in her boys, Joel and older brother Nash, who works as a stuntman and acted as Edgerton’s right-hand man on The Gift when Joel had to take his turn in front of the camera.
“I am a perfectionist and a bit of a workaholic,” Edgerton says. “What’s interesting is that to be a perfectionist doesn’t necessarily mean at the end of the day you’re perfect. It just means you’re doing your best version of perfect.
“Look, I’m going to be totally honest with you here,” he says, leaning forward. “I’m not the greatest writer in the world. I don’t think I’m the greatest filmmaker in the world. I don’t think I’m the greatest actor in the world. But I will stay up and make sure that I work hard to get the best out of myself.”
Edgerton’s a man who, by his own admission, finds it hard to switch off and relax. Whether it’s reading scripts, preparing for film roles, or thinking up a new film he’d like to write, he is not one to rest on his laurels.
His upcoming week is about as relaxing as it gets for the actor, who will be based at his much-loved Bondi home, which he renovated recently but does not get to spend nearly enough time in.
After that, he will return to the US to make his next film, Loving, based on the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia who were sentenced to prison in 1958 for getting married.
Travelling between Australia and the US is second nature for Edgerton, but despite spending so many years on the other side of the Pacific, there are still some things the quintessential Sydneysider doesn’t understand.
“Gun control is a fucking crazy situation,” he says. “You end up being mindful of it when you spend a lot of time in America, don’t you agree? I’m not an aggressive person. I don’t get involved in road rage, but here in Australia, if someone cuts you off, I’ll go, ‘Yeah, go fuck yourself.’ In America, you stay quiet. You think, ‘Do whatever you want because I don’t want to get shot in the face.’ ”
It’s no wonder Edgerton has such strong views on the subject. While in New Orleans recently, he was walking down the street when he had cause for major concern.
“It completely freaked me out,” he says, shaking his head, as he stands up from the table to demonstrate exactly what he saw at 8am on a weekday in Louisiana.
“I walked around the corner and literally right in front of me was a guy who pulls out a full assault rifle from the back of his car. He’s wearing a combat jacket with camouflage on it and he’s facing me,” Edgerton says, his eyes widening. “I’ve already turned the corner and I’m walking towards him. I changed the cadence of my step because I was terrified. And then that weird thing came over me where I thought it would be impolite of me if I turned around, even though I thought this guy was about to start a mass shooting.
“I thought, ‘What do I do?’ He nodded at me. As he did that I thought, with the gun laws there are, he’s probably just come home from hunting and they have an open carry law where you can carry a gun in public. But I just didn’t know that.”
Although Edgerton now researches the gun laws of each state he’s about to work in, it doesn’t put the actor necessarily any more at ease.
“I thought I was about to be the first victim of a fucking mass shooting,” he says. “I don’t own those underpants anymore.”
While Hollywood success has well and truly arrived for Edgerton, he hopes to continue returning to Australia on a regular basis for work and holidays and has no doubt as to where he calls home.
“Mate, if all of a sudden you got told you had three months to live and you had to be in one place and it couldn’t be some new holiday destination, where would you go? I’d be coming straight home. No question.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "On Edgerton". Subscribe here.