“I’ve never had such an emotional connection to any movie I’ve been involved in,” says Australian actor Joel Edgerton, on playing Richard Loving in Loving, which premiered on Tuesday to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in 1967, Jeff Nichols’ film chronicles the love story between Caucasian brick-layer Loving and his African American wife, Mildred (played by Ruth Negga), and the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage. To prep for the role, the 41-year-old actor spent weeks revisiting Loving's path in Richmond, going to brick-laying school, visiting the couples' graves, and filming at the prison where they were incarcerated. Here, Edgerton talks race, tolerance, and the lengths he went to to get into character.
The last time you were at Cannes was with The Great Gatsby in 2012. Yes, last time I was at Du Cap being fancy. This time it feels special in a whole different way. We’re here with a film that was made for a lot less money, and with a lot less glamour and moving parts. Somehow it feels very appropriate that we’re here. The films shown here are not that glamorous.
Jeff Nichols was really dedicated to incorporating Richard Loving's real life experiences into the film. Yes, the spirits and the ghosts of those people and that world surrounded the shoot. For example, when Mildred and I are sent to prison, that was the actual prison they were sent to. A lot of the roads we drove on were roads Mildred and Richard would have driven down. I’ve been to one of their old houses. We went to the main street of Bowling Green [Virginia], and Richard would have built those buildings. He was a bricklayer who would have laid some of those bricks. I went to bricklaying school because there are certain physical things you can’t fake. I had to feel like I knew what I was doing. Brick laying is an art form. I went to a school that was founded by an African American woman. It was the first full African American school. Once the anti-segregation laws kicked in, that school became a trade school for African Americans and low socioeconomic families – from hair dressing to brick laying. The kids from that school were extras in the movie. There was a great feeling in the community about this story. People who knew about the story were generally people that the story touched in some way. I’m interested in how the film can educate what I think is one of the biggest tectonic shifts in America, and one of the most unknown. It wasn’t marked by any bloodshed or trauma.
Was it emotional to revisit all of these sites? Yes, and it makes the experience more reverent and interesting. Jeff wanted to shoot it in the real places. Straight away, it galvanized Ruth and I when we arrived for a research and rehearsal period. Day one we visited the jail house and then the graves where Mildred and Richard were married. I saw Ruth standing in the cemetery getting immediately involved, and Ruth didn’t have a head stone, just a piece of tin. I don’t know why that wasn’t rectified, and the producers actually invested in one for her. But even that says so much about the state of race relations today. In that moment I could see we were going to belong to the movie in a way that would be a special experience.
How much did you know about the case before you signed on to the role? Nothing at all. I’m from Australia, we don’t study American history. I was suddenly aware that the state motto of Virginia, which is ‘Virginia is for lovers’ relates to the case. Jeff didn’t want to make a courtroom drama, he wanted to show two human beings and their love for each other. The courtroom stuff is not primary to the movie.
Do you find America or Australia more tolerant? I don’t know. It’s easy to forget how intolerant a society is when you live in a city, surrounded by artists and liberal-minded people. Every now and then you’re reminded that there’s a group of people who aren’t so open minded and tolerant. There’s this new YouTube video of an Australian woman yelling at an Asian woman telling her to go back to where she came from. These things flare up, and you realize how there’s a deep amount of intolerance out there. Australia has a shameful history too, a colonial scenario that decimated the original inhabitants of the country. Where we are today is a fascinating thing. Even though this a period film, it still has resonance. We think back even fifty years and see how absurd it is that their marriage involved a third party that said you can’t live together. A crime should be defined by an act of negativity. I think in fifty years’ time we will look back at legislation of gay marriage and go, “That didn’t change until 2015 in the U.S.?!”
It seems so backward that we needed approval for same sex marriage to begin with... That’s how I felt with Loving. There was this great joy and sadness when I first watched it. I’m celebrating the triumph and success of the supreme court. But then I realized, that shouldn’t have had to happen. The moment Richard dropped a knee in the field and asked Mildred to marry him should have been the end of the story.
Films have been dealing with race issues since the '50s. While this particular court case has never been cinematically treated, how did you know this film wouldn't get lost in the mix? It’s so gentle. It was a massive step forward at the time in America for so many reasons, and also a gentle step forward because it wasn’t scarred by violence. The script reflects the restrained nature of the film. There’s a tension of oppression, an accumulating weight that bares down on this couple. Jeff didn’t allow himself to drag the truth, he wasn’t going to add scenes of histrionic melodrama or violent scenarios that didn’t happen. He simply took the truth, and trusted this truth would accumulate into an experience that would allow them to contemplate the concept of love versus injustice versus oppression. It was the truth and honesty that struck me about the script and movie. I’ve never had such an emotional connection to any movie I’ve been involved in. It taught me about relying on simplicity and truth.
What was the best advice Jeff gave you? Early on I would get worried about my southern accent, and would ask him if it was ok. The one note he gave me was that he would like to understand me less. If you ever heard Richard talk, he’s almost impossible to understand. He hardly ever spoke, except when it was necessary.