Australian actor Joel Edgerton is ‘Loving’ life

Aussie star, 42, is earning awards season buzz for his role in the interracial marriage drama ‘Loving’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Joel Edgerton grew up obsessed with American pop culture. He studied American sitcoms and mimicked U.S. accents, including regional differences from southern to midwestern and beyond.

As a child growing up in Australia, Joel Edgerton didn’t want to be an actor. He wanted to actually be in the movies.

“I wanted to be the characters I was watching,” says Edgerton, who spent a summer obsessing over building an obstacle course that replicated the opening chase scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He wore a hat like Indy and would smudge dirt on his face to give the appearance of a 5 o’clock shadow.

“I didn’t want to be Harrison Ford,” he says. “I wanted to be Indiana Jones.”

He eventually settled for being an actor. Now Edgerton, 42, is earning early awards season raves for “Loving,” which opens Friday. In it, he plays Richard Loving, whose marriage to wife Mildred (played by Ruth Negga) leads to a 1967 Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage.

“Loving,” which is directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”), has a delicate spirit and Edgerton’s performance is quiet to the point where it’s almost a whisper. He says he and Negga cradled the film gently, “like two kids carrying an antique for daddy.”

He’s discussing it inside a suite at the Shangri La hotel during September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Loving” is of the fest’s most admired films. Edgerton is chatty and friendly, talking up the film and his career like he’s sitting down with a mate over a couple of pints of beer.

As his Indiana Jones anecdote illustrates, Edgerton grew up obsessed with American pop culture. He studied American sitcoms — he estimates he’s seen every episode of “The Brady Bunch,” “Eight is Enough,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Happy Days” three or four times — and mimicked American accents, picking apart the regional differences from southern to midwestern and beyond.

He first arrived in America at age 16 through an exchange program at his high school. His destination was Lubbock, Texas, but during a stopover in San Francisco he immediately picked up a Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey and a New York Yankees cap.

“Everything American was good,” he says, noting the first American he knew was his fourth-grade teacher, who hailed from Michigan. Later his drama teacher, Judith Boyd, encouraged his pursuit of the dramatic arts, though he didn’t know how to tell his parents he wanted to attend drama school out of fear of disappointing them.

“Then my brother took all the heat off me,” Edgerton says of his older brother, Nash. “He quit electrical engineering at college and became a stuntman, so while they were shedding tears and exchanging angry words about that, I just snuck into drama school.”

Edgerton began doing theater in Australia but kept his career expectations in check. He figured he’d do some theater, maybe a TV show in Australia, but nothing too big. Along with his brother and a couple of artist friends, he formed a production company, Blue-Tongue Films, and wrote, directed and starred in a handful of short films.

Some feature roles came around — including 1996’s “Race the Sun,” with Halle Berry and John Belushi — but it wasn’t until Edgerton landed the role of Owen Lars in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” that Hollywood became a reality.

“Being in ‘Star Wars’ for five minutes gave me the chance to go to America,” says Edgerton, whose brother worked as Ewan McGregor’s stunt double in the film. “I kept cutting off life lines in order for something like that to open up, and it paid off.”

“Star Wars” — Edgerton also appeared in “Episode III” in 2005 — led to roles in films such as “King Arthur” and “Smokin’ Aces.” His burgeoning clout gave Blue-Tongue some firepower, and the troupe’s 2010 Aussie crime saga “Animal Kingdom” put them on the international map. The following year, Edgerton starred in the MMA-fighting drama “Warrior” alongside Tom Hardy, and his career has been in overdrive ever since.

He’s starred in a dozen movies in the last five years, including “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Exodus — Gods and Kings,” “Black Mass” and “Midnight Special.” He also wrote and directed last year’s high-school-reunion-from-hell thriller “The Gift,” but “Loving” is at the top of his list.

“When I watched ‘Warrior,’ I said to (director Gavin O’Connor), ‘My fear is I’m never going to be in a movie this good ever again.’ And I felt the same way when I finished watching ‘Loving,’” Edgerton says. “In fact, I had a deeper experience, because it wasn’t like watching my own movie. I was racked, I was so upset by the happy-sad-angry feeling I was getting from it.

“It’s a very important story and it stands on its own,” Edgerton says, “but it also reaches out to now and clutches onto something that we all still need to do, on levels of race and gender and color and marriage.”

Edgerton himself has been in interracial relationships, “and you can feel the judgment,” he says. “The thing you can’t legislate against is opinion. You might have a law in place, but there’s still acts of violence by certain people who have certain opinions. That’s the message I hope the film gets across, is to shift people’s opinions into a kinder space.”

And if you can’t live inside the movies, shifting people’s opinions through them is a pretty good alternative.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

“Loving’ is based on the story that leads up to a 1967 Supreme Court decision on interracial marriage.

‘Loving’

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements

Running time: 123 minutes

Opens Friday

Come back to The Detroit News Friday for Adam Graham’s review