There came a point in Joel Edgerton’s busy career where it realized it would be a crime if he didn’t commit his idea for Felony to paper.
The Australian actor’s career has been in full throttle in recent years, with high-profile and highly regarded turns in such films as Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby and Warrior. But along the way, a notion for a story about the outcome of a police officer’s morally questionable choices following a tragic misstep took root in his head, and Edgerton found himself adding the roles of screenwriter and producer to his resume, and taking on the central role of the conflicted cop as well.
Sitting down for an interview with Spinoff Online, Edgerton outlined his path from actor to screenwriter and revealed his fascination with moral quandaries. He also looked ahead to his role opposite Christian Bale in director Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and reflected on his stint in the Star Wars universe as the young Owen Lars.
Spinoff Online: You’ve mentioned there’s a sort of cultural Australian fascination with a juicy crime story. I’m curious, where did that nugget of the story come for you? What prompted that creative impulse to craft one for the screen yourself?
Joel Edgerton: I was talking to a friend about how I’m sure in any given city there’s going to be somebody, late at night, who knocks someone down and takes off, without performing a duty of care or without owning up to the incident, and the question of what I would do in that situation is interesting. We had this debate, like, “How can I really tell you what I’m going to do? Because any of those people you read about in the paper, prior to the accident, they probably would have said the same thing: ‘I would do the right thing.’” But something shocks us into doing the wrong thing, or certain individuals. That was the first kernel of the idea. And then it very quickly became this interesting thing to me: What about all the people around? And the electrifying situation of taking that guy and going “What if he was a detective? What if he sort of sat on the blue line?” And his associates, his coworkers, could either be his biggest enemy or his supposed best friend in that situation.
As Felony started to take on a life, did you flirt with the idea of directing, given that you were wearing so many other hats? Or was that just like, “I can’t do that this time around?”
It was a case of “I can’t do that this time around.” It felt to me like a very complex, complicated little web. Also because we were seeing certain events from different people’s points of view, and because I was such a big part of it as an actor, and I’d written a role for myself for it, I just felt as my first time around the block as a director, it would have been too complicated a task for me. I already had my sights set on this guy, Matthew Saville. I’d seen his movie Noise, and it was so rich in atmosphere and tension that I was like, “If I can get that guy, whatever I write as a script he’ll elevate it come time to put it on the screen.” So, no, I wasn’t up for the challenge.
Is that the next step, though? On the next movie you write do you think you’ll be behind the camera?
Yeah. I’ve written a project, which, again, deals with similar moral territory, but about a person facing, owning up to a mistake – or an intentional crime, I guess – they’d committed 20 years earlier. And it’s all around bullying and at what age we become, proper adults, and when should we be responsible, sort of thing. It’s a more manageable story, a lot darker, but yeah, I’m going to make that.
You’ve worked with so many great filmmaking talents, great actors, in really meaty projects, so what were the key things that you’ve learned. through the course of your career, that you really wanted to pull from the toolbox as you were making this movie?
One thing is subject matter. I realized that I get engaged and I get interested and I wake up better in the morning if what I’m going to work on I feel passionate about. So the first point is, “Do I care?” But then on a filmmaking level, to me it’s about exploring character, and for this I wanted to write a bunch of characters who all dance on that line which I explore when I approach character, which is, “Today you’re a good person striving to do the right thing, moving through your life. Tomorrow you might trip over and make a mistake, but then what do you do next?” So each character is the sum total of their actions, sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, and I look at that when I play wholesome characters. “How do we rough them up a little bit? How do we play a villain and bring in the understandability and the likability, the empathy, so that it’s not just one thing or the other?” So that’s what I’ve learned about being an actor, striving for that complexity, and now I wanted to bring that into the writing. There are many things. I consider the writing, I consider directing – even though I’m not that experienced at it – and producing and acting all part of the same equation, which is: you tell the stories.
Was it a different experience being an actor on a piece that you had written and were producing? Or do you go into an actor’s zone to get the job done?
I had to stop the producing. I said to Rose at some point – our real producer – I was in the office and I said, “You know, Rose, I think I’m going to go home now. Because I’m not actually doing anything, and I think I need to get my head together for onscreen.” It does distract me a bit, because I feel responsible for everything that’s going on, because it’s my fault that we’re all there on set, but I have to put that aside. The other hard bit is saying words that you’ve been writing for years, because normally it’s like, you get the script, you’re on set a month later. There’s an unavoidable freshness to working on most movies, but when you’ve been writing for five years, they do feel like they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a while.
Tell me about working with Ridley Scott – and on such an epic production, Exodus: Gods and Kings. You’ve worked on some pretty big films, but I imagine this was a whole different ballgame.
I’ve done big stuff, but I’ve always been relatively on the periphery of it. Even with Gatsby, I wasn’t a regular visitor to that set, I wasn’t there every day. With Ridley’s film, again, I wasn’t there every day, but I definitely felt a bigger responsibility and inclusion in the process. Look, it was just a massive dream come true for me, because I’d been watching that guy’s movies and been inspired by them for the longest time. And I had this near miss with Ridley back in the Kingdom of Heaven days, where I was really trying to get a job on that movie, and I heard that he had a photo of me up on his board of possibles. I was over in Ireland shooting King Arthur, and I actually looked perfect to audition for another movie of the kind of sword-and-sandal variety. I remember obsessing over it for weeks, and then it never came to fruition, so it was almost like an unfinished conversation in my head. And so when I got this phone call from Ridley, I was like “Here’s my chance.” There was no way I was going to back down.
And you’d mentioned to me earlier that Christian Bale is one of your favorite actors working today, so tell me about the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with him in some scenes and tear into it with a guy you respect like that.
Someone once told me, “You should never meet people you really admire,” but there was no real reticence for me with Christian. Because you’re only ever one phone call away from someone who’s worked with someone that you’re about to work with. I never really did the whole kind of “What do you think of this person?” I never did that. I was just like, “I’m going to go work with this guy, because he’s awesome.” He’s such a transformative, surprising, dangerous, interesting actor, and we had a great time. It’s funny. I think I have this flick of the switch, where instead of going into a process like that and being nervous, I feel like I’m about to saddle up for a great match at Wimbledon or something. You know, let me play against someone who I perceive to be a great player. And then in the aftermath, I go, “Wow – I just did that with that person and that was great.” I’ve had that experience with Cate Blanchett, I’ve had that experience with Leo [DiCaprio] and Tom Hardy – it’s like “Bring it on!” It’s exciting.
You’ve got such an interesting slate of projects coming up as an actor, so tell me how you’re managing that side of your career alongside this burgeoning filmmaker side of your career. How’s the balancing act coming together for you?
Well, I think the writing’s manageable, because it sort of fits in the cracks. I’ll write wherever I am. I got up at 7 o’clock this morning and put in a couple of hours before our press day. So the writing falls into the cracks, in a positive way, as in, I make use of time when I’ve got it. As far as directing goes, it really is a matter of having to stop the acting train, because I may just bite off some time, but I feel like I’ve had a great amount of experiences now. I can take a little pause. I just had a great experience with Jeff Nichols [on Midnight Special] and another one with Scott Cooper [on Black Mass], another run around the block with Gavin O’Connor [on Jane Got a Gun], and I’ve got this movie coming out. So I feel like, I’m going to just take some time out and concentrate on something else for a while, just to satisfy that curiosity for myself. Because I suspect it’s something that I’ll keep doing as well. And I’ll never stop being an actor. But I do have an article, ironically, that I found in Details magazine, Affleck’s on the cover, there’s an article in it about workaholism, so I definitely think I’m a candidate to be looked at for. And the irony of it is, I started reading the article and I had to stop because I was too busy, or I perceived that I was too busy, so I think I’m a bit of a workaholic.
Star Wars is in the zeitgeist again, and I’m curious, especially at the age you worked on it, what was it like to be a part of that kind of thing and to be directed by George Lucas?
Star Wars will always be one of the great movie experiences for me, because of the complete synchronicity of the moment. I was 26. I happened to look enough like Uncle Owen as a “junior” when they were coming to Australia to shoot on location there, and I was an actor – all the pieces fit together. It just happened that I was then invited into the world of Star Wars -- and I have to tell you, it’s kind of a dream that I never had. As in, it was such a farfetched situation. I never sat there as a kid going “Oh, I wish one day I’d be in Star Wars,” because I didn’t expect they were going to make another one. But then it happened, and I got the phone call on my 26th birthday, which I still recall as being the greatest birthday present I’ve ever had! And I have a very clear memory of getting out of the Land Cruiser wagon in Tunisia, on the set of the exterior water towers of Tatooine on Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, and the simmering heat, and looking off into the distance and seeing George Lucas having a chat with C-3PO. And I’m like “I’m actually in fracking Star Wars! It’s fucking brilliant.” And then of course they’re talking, likely, about some spinoff of Obi-Wan Kenobi movies, and I’m like, “Hmm …” I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but I think I’d be a bit offended if someone didn’t at least send me a script to have a read.
There should be a role for Uncle Owen in there somewhere!
Yeah, as long as he’s not sitting around just fixing droids. I think he needs to bust out some moves.
Did anything from the set walk home with you?
No, no, nothing. That was before what I call my “movie kleptomaniac phase,” which is that there is an almost desperate desire – an insatiable desire – to have things walk home with me after a movie: “He points to ring on finger which happens to not have been able to come off on the last day of Black Mass.” Also, because recently I made some money for a charity by donating one of my gloves from Warrior, it’s like those things mean a lot down the line, so I might as well collect them.
Playing in select theaters, Felony is also available on iTunes.