Most people know Joel Edgerton as an actor. I knew him first as the writer of The Square, a cool crime drama directed by his brother Nash. So while he was starring in Warrior, The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty, I was waiting for the next movie Joel Edgerton wrote.
Felony is that movie and it stars Edgerton as a cop who hits a boy riding his bicycle. He reports the injury but not his involvement in the accident, and considers coming forward while his boss (Tom Wilkinson) orders him not to. Felony is now playing in theaters and on VOD, and Edgerton will soon be seen as Pharoah Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Nuke the Fridge: Writing Felony, did you see it as a very slow burn drama?
Joel Edgerton: Absolutely. That’s always the risk too. The pacing of the movie is very interesting. I knew I wanted to make a thriller but I wanted to make an ideas based thriller, where it didn’t so much feel like a steaming ride on a runaway train, but more of a pressure cooker feeling if that makes sense. [Director] Matthew [Saville] and I discuss that a lot. What is the pacing of this movie? That feeling of the screws tightening so that the collision of ideas can be the tension that would otherwise be people chasing each other around with guns. It’s definitely not as visceral an experience as those kinds of movies like Narc or those other types of police thrillers, but I think a very rewarding one on a good moral debate thriller, a moral thriller.
Nuke: Was it also important that these characters live their lives, they’re not just debating this moral issue all the time?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, and I wanted to invite people into the movie and make them feel like they’re about to watch some police movie, but then the real dilemma of the movie became the internal struggle between these cops and their ideas. On the sideline, Tom and Jai [Courtney]’s characters are investigating a pedophile and it’s an ongoing investigation. My character is spearheading the sweeping and dismantling of a drug operation. But it was important that those crimes or investigations somewhat receded into the background while still adding pressure to the main event which was the internal drama between the men.
Nuke: Was writing Felony very different than writing The Square?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, I feel like I’ve gotten better at honing in on my thoughts and putting them down on paper. I feel like it takes me less time to write. I feel like I’m more decisive when it comes to writing. I feel like I agonize over things for less time. But it’s interesting, they’re both dancing around similar thematic territory. Again, what I’m writing for my next project is questions of characters trying to be good and being otherwise good people doing bad things and then trying to correct themselves. So I guess I’m slowly trying to work something out in my own head. But definitely with The Square I felt like I was wandering around the dark a little bit more when it comes to writing, but I had a bit more help with The Square. This was me alone and I feel like I’m maturing a bit more as a writer.
Nuke: Are you going to act in the next film you wrote too?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, but I’ll take a small part because I think I need to really have my head together behind the camera.
Nuke: Are you going to direct it also?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, that’s the plan.
Nuke: Was writing Felony also writing yourself the kind of role you wanted to play?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, because when I first started writing movies, I’ve always been writing stuff, stories. But once I started honing in on this idea that I was going to write movies, I was writing short films, like, “We’ve got to put ourselves in our movies because we’re writing our own feature” in terms of building a career for yourself. My idea was always what do I want to play on screen? If I could get a movie off the ground, what do I want to play? What am I interested in exploring? What kind of dilemmas? What kind of drama? And then seeing if we can go about making it happen. I’ve written a lot of stuff but this is the second movie I’ve had made and hopefully another one next year. The evolution takes a while.
Nuke: You cowrote The Rover also. Was there ever thought that there could be a role for you in that?
Joel Edgerton: I’ll let you in on a little secret, David [Michod] and I even at one point were like, because I said to David, “Should I be in this movie? I don’t know that I’m right for it.” And he’s like, “I don’t know if you’re right for it either.” Because it wasn’t just some complicated character, Guy [Pearce]’s character. We even decided to go out one day to shoot a scene together just to work it out for ourselves. It was pretty clear after doing it I’m not the right guy for this movie.
Nuke: Which scene from The Rover did you shoot?
Joel Edgerton: It was the scene where Guy’s character is talking about killing his wife, when he’s been caught by the police. So that’s a little something nobody really knows. We were at Fox Studios in Sydney, in very basic turns just shot an audition just to put myself to the test.
Nuke: They should’ve put that on the DVD at least. It would’ve been interesting.
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, but I was terrible. I never saw it. I never even look back at it. I just went, “David, all right, you go and look at it. You decide.” So I’m not really precious about that stuff. A lot of the things I’ve written, I’ve written a couple of projects that I’m not attached to. I’ve just written and I’ll let somebody else do something with this. Other things I’m going, “No, no, this is my character. Get your hands off it.”
Nuke: When you get an actor like Tom Wilkinson, did he surprise you with what he did with your words?
Joel Edgerton: On one hand yes and on one hand no. When I say yes and no it’s that he surprised me with how much care and attention he’d put into my screenplay. He didn’t change a word. If he did, he would come and ask me about it. He wasn’t brash about it in any way. He was so detailed and specific and complex, with such conviction and built that character’s arguments in such a careful way. But it didn’t surprise me because the reason I chose him was because of his ability at bringing complexity to the screen. His character in Michael Clayton blew me away, and In the Bedroom, the sensitivity he has towards material.
Nuke: Even in The Full Monty.
Joel Edgerton: Everything, even his diabolical turn as the mafia boss in the Batman reboot. Tom’s like the center of the wheel to me. When I say the center of the wheel, I mean an actor who can be the center of the wheel and his spokes can shoot off in every direction. He can be bad, he can be a good person, he can be a cop, he can be a garbage collector, he can be a politician, he can be a blue collar man. He can transform himself with subtle abilities into whatever he needs to be.
Nuke: I could ask the same question about Jai and Melissa George too.
Joel Edgerton: I mean, look. When we talk about this movie, we’re talking about Tom so much. The whole cast as a unified group are so on the same page. I mean, Jai was like the character on the page stepped into real life. These young cops, a lot of them, are sturdy young tough guys who could’ve been athletes. They’re in the police force. Jai’s sort of a contradiction of many things. He’s so intelligent. You can look at him and go, “You’re just a brute” but he’s super intelligent. That’s what I was imagining, this big, strong kind of dangerous guy. Matthew said, “Have you met this guy or heard about this guy Jai?” I was like, “I think I’ve heard about him.” I’d never seen a photo of him. I’d just heard he was working in big American movies. Then we met him by Skype and he put down a scene and was perfect. Melissa just gets better and better I think. She’s so perfect in this movie. We’re lucky we got a really good bunch of heads.
Nuke: We saw some scenes from Exodus: Gods and Kings and I was really impressed how the plague scenes show us the cities of Egypt having to live with these plagues. Is that how all 10 plagues play out?
Joel Edgerton: I wish I could tell you exactly because I haven’t seen. I’ve seen a cut of the movie but it has nowhere near any of the special effects done. Ridley manages to give you a great sense of the culture as historians may imagine it and his historians may imagine. Not just the palace life but the village life and the camps of the slaves, the Hebrew slaves. We get to see all of those different environments and I think his ability to swipe through that environment with these plagues of the locusts, the hail and the death of livestock and flies and alligators and all that stuff. He pushes that camera around so we get a great sense and scope of that environment in its complexity in different communities.
Nuke: And when Moses comes to warn Ramses, Ramses is just defensive. That human reaction is also something we don’t really get from reading it in books.
Joel Edgerton: And that was also the fascinating thing for me. What Ridley and Steve Zaillian had set up was this very personal family drama on one hand. It’s these two guys who are friends and grew up together are suddenly opposed in their ethical point of view. Ramses has a point of view too, which is who is this guy who’s sort of my brother now telling me he’s in conversations with God? And somehow being apart of this environmental attack on Egypt. How do you wrap your head around it?
Nuke: The ego of it is denial.
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, and then this question of the great thing that’s going to happen next, the terrible great thing that’s going to happen next is this potential murder of all the children. It’s hard not to then empathize with Ramses’ point of view. He’s about to lose a child or he does lose a child. It’s funny, because you read the stories, I remember hearing the bible stories and you read them and it’s one thing. Then when you make a movie, how does a filmmaker go, “I’m going to turn this thing which, religion aside, is this event which is hard to wrap my head around, the parting of the sea or two of every kind of animal walking onto a boat, how do you turn that visually into a satisfying and seamless event for the sake of a movie?” Hats off to Ridley because I wouldn’t want to do it.
Nuke: You looked pretty bronze in it. Were you really tan, or was there a lot of makeup?
Joel Edgerton: Well, I wouldn’t go to a solarium. I heard recently that they banned them in Australia. I think they obviously must be bad for you. Yeah, I’ve got makeup on. I’ve got my eyeliner and a bit of gold dust makeup on. I had my entire body shaved and I’m wearing a lot of jewelry and a lot of gold skirts. You could say I’m definitely not the immediate template for an Egyptian Pharoah but for whatever reason he asked me to do it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m there.”
Nuke: We haven’t heard much about Jane Got a Gun. Did that turn out well after all the trouble they had?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah, it’s coming out February. Look, we went through a complicated process as everybody knows. You can Google all the aspects of it, but losing our director so early on, replacing her, lots of different elements changing. The result of the movie is very special I think. I’ve seen a cut of the movie. Gavin’s been working constantly on it, in conjunction with Relativity and The Weinstein Company. It was born out of a complicated experience, has turned into a very special film, reminding me yet again that just because you have a great time on set doesn’t mean the movie is great and just because you might have a tricky time on set doesn’t mean that the movie’s not going to be good. You can never really match the experience up with the result, but I’ll tell you, for what we went through, I almost need that movie to be great because we put so much time and care and energy into keeping a difficult situation alive, that if it was bad, I’d be so angry.
Nuke: What do you get to play in Black Mask?
Joel Edgerton: I play John Connolly. John Connolly is an FBI agent who during the decades that we set the movie was an associate and some say enabler of Whitey Bulger in the relationship they had as an FBI and top echelon criminal informant. So I play a corrupt FBI agent to Johnny Depp’s Boston gangster.
Nuke: I wasn’t familiar with the story of Life with James Dean and Life Magazine. What do you play in that?
Joel Edgerton: I play John Morris, who’s the head of the Magnum Photographic Company, Dennis Stock’s boss so to speak, or agent and manager who sends him on this excursion or who dons his whimsy to go and photograph James Dean. It was an interesting project. Luke Davies wrote it. Rober Pattinson who I got to know through The Rover was in it. It was a situation where it was never going to be something I was involved in but for certain circumstances. They lost an actor, I love these people, I love everything they’re about, the story and script was really fascinating. So I left working on Jeff Nichols’s movie in New Orleans and just scooted across to Toronto literally for three days and shot five, six scenes. It was a blast.