The Australian actor Joel Edgerton actually came to the attention of audiences here first as a writer-performer with The Square, a noir his brother directed and which took American critics by surprise with its taut thrills. Since then, he's become known for his pugnacious, hyper-masculine roles in films like The Great Gatsby, Animal Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, and Warrior. In 2016's Loving, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, he played one-half of the husband-and-wife duo Richard and Mildred Loving (opposite Ruth Negga), who were arrested in Virginia in 1958 because he was white and she was not. Their decade-long legal battle to live as an interracial couple in their state was the basis of Jeff Nichols's Oscar-nominated drama. It turns out, though, that Edgerton is not the taciturn man he often portrays. In fact, he's quite talkative and silly.
How did Loving come to you?
I was in the middle of working with Jeff Nichols at the time [on Midnight Special], and towards the end of that process he talked to me about this other project, Loving. That was about a year-and-a-half before we rolled cameras. But I think he was looking at me on set in Midnight Special and my hair was cropped really short, and there was something about the way I looked in that movie where I think he saw Richard Loving in me. In terms of just the weird simplicity of the shape of my head I think was enough.
[Laughs.] One of the things I thought was amazing about your performance is that you are naturally a very communicative person, and Richard Loving is so taciturn and American. He's very un-Australian.
What you're basically saying is that I won't shut-up. [Laughs.] And Richard was very, very quiet spoken.
To me, he is so quintessentially American.
Yeah, a very rural aspect that we also have a lot of common with in Australia. What is known as the strong, silent type. I think that type, they're all over the world. To me, it seems more bred out of rural places. When people are not bumping into each other every 30 seconds like they are in a city, there's no onus on people to constantly be having conversations. And I think that breeds a certain, ah, economy of language.
Did you find him easy or difficult to play?
I thought it would be a little bit easier than it turned out, on a few levels. Because he doesn't speak very much I thought that might be easier than having to talk a lot. [Laughs.]
I think that's harder.
Yeah, well that's what it felt like. It seemed not so much harder, but a more specific and detailed challenge in understanding why a character is not talking, you know? You know why a character is talking when you have a big speech to learn. And you can interpret that however you want, sub-textually or whatever, but when you have nothing to say and yet the camera is on you for a large portion of time... I think there's a responsibility to be specific about the nonverbal communication. That became the real task for me and seemed harder than I expected at first, naming the silences in my mind and writing those speeches that were thoughts unable to be verbalized.
Did you know the story before you started?
No. I didn't know about Richard and Mildred. I'd heard about Loving v. the State of Virginia as as a case, but I had no idea who they were. But I'm Australian, so I figured I'm off the hook. It wasn't like I missed that day at school. But then you like wonder where was that day at school, because most young Americans don't know the story. Most people of my generation, even the generation before, don't know about it unless they have an experience in their family that relates to the Lovings'. Like the people who run up to us and say, "Oh I love this movie. This is my father and mother's story." Or, "This is my story."
We were the first feature film to screen at the National Museum of African-American History, in Washington, D.C. We got a private tour. The Richard and Mildred story just occupies one small corner of the building, they're one tiny piece of that whole quilt of very painful stories. Some of them very joyful, others very inspirational, and everything in between, you know? So for Richard and Mildred's story to be plucked out of that barrel and given a moment in the sun, I think now resonates with the injustice and inequality that are really loud conversations right now.
Did you carry Richard around with you afterwards? Do you carry your characters home with you?
A little bit. I mean, I don't know. How do I say this without it seeming like a complete esoteric weirdo comment?
Go for that esoteric weirdo comment.
There's that feeling... [in low voice] he's right behind you. No, the memory of the film and all the traits of the character and the things that went into building it, the experiences he had along the way, the qualities that you turned up or turned down in order to create that person—they're all sort of tucked away on your shoulder somewhere. You got to love them you know, even the baddies. And so you have a bunch of imaginary friends. God. Low and behold I ever get crazy and start talking to all of them individually, or turning into them all. [Laughs.]
I saw The Gift, the movie you directed, again recently. And I wondered what movies scare you?
Well, this is why I made The Gift. I love being scared at the movies. I recently saw a YouTube video clip that scared me and made me feel more tense than anything I've seen in a long time.
What is it?
It's an iguana running away from a bunch of snakes, you got to watch this. [Laughter.] One animal versus another animal video is some of the favorite real-life dramas I've ever seen.
What happened? Does he get him?
You gotta watch it. It's only three minutes of your life, but it makes you feel so tense. Basically the snakes can't see, but they can feel and sense movement and this iguana is just trying not to move. But there's three or four big brown snakes kind of swirling around and he knows that if one of them happens to slide over him he's done. And the moment the snake touches him he just takes off and there's like 20 different snakes all trying to chase him on this beach.
Oh my gosh.
He's got to get to this rocky cliff and... dun-dun-dah. My point I love movies that put me in that feeling of being tense and a little bit frightened. Because movies are, I guess, a safe place to feel fear. I love aliens, I love ghost stories, I love all that stuff. But there's nothing more terrifying than watching a story where you go, "Oh that could actually happen." Or, "That person could really exist." And so the premise of The Gift was really tapping into the fear that we all might possess.
What is your biggest irrational fear?
I mean, heights, spiders—I'd put them all in the irrational world, wouldn't you? I think the irrational fear that drives a lot of my behavior is kind of irrational—the fear of not being appreciated and not being liked. I know this isn't like a psychologist's couch here, but... I think a lot of us walk around constantly putting too much effort in and trying to please people, or deciding that other people don’t value us, or that they don't like us. And it really actually doesn't matter.
Do you have a pet peeve?
I don't like people who talk in the movies. Unless they're watching one of my movies and they're saying, "This guy is awesome. This movie is awesome and this guy in it, wow, he's awesome." Those people can talk.
So where was your first kiss?
Where was my first kiss? On the lips. [Laughs.] Ah, no, my first proper kiss was in a game of truth or dare. But the first kiss that had some proper feeling behind it was a different thing and I really ballsed that up.
I messed it up, yeah. I kissed a girl and I was sort of making the approach and I made what I thought was a really great split decision—and I don't know why at the time—to kiss her on the arm instead of the general face area. And she broke up with me two days later.
[Laughs] Why did you go for the arm?
The arm? I was just terrified. She had a light-blue flannel shirt on, I remember that.
You somehow went for the shirt? Did you like the shirt better?
It wasn't like I was trying to kiss clothing, it was just that I was trying not to kiss face. [Laughs.] Because I was scared. I didn't know how to handle women.
How old were you?
Thirty-six? [Laughs.] No, I was 14 and there was a party at my house. That was Friday night, and then Monday morning at school she broke up with me. It was definitely because I kissed her arm. She was like, The sign of things to come. [Laughs.] I think I'm going to cry if we talk about this anymore.