Guest of Honor

Joel Edgerton on Lies, Guilt, and Our Need to be Loved

The breakout Aussie actor muses on the murky moral terrain in his new flim "Felony" (which he also wrote)... and about his brief stint as a break-dancer.

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Australian movie star Joel Edgerton is probably best known in the U.S. for portraying the rich brute Tom in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.”  He also took on memorable roles in the Oscar-nominated flicks “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Animal Kingdom,” and earned raves for his work in the MMA sleeper hit “Warrior.” This week he stars in a movie he also wrote: “Felony.”  It’s about a good cop who lies about badly injuring a kid in a drunken hit-and-run accident.

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Rico Gagliano: What inspired you to write this film?

Joel Edgerton: I was interested in good people committing accidental crimes.  And what fascinated me was the way people conducted themselves in the aftermath of making these mistakes. I was constantly looking at newspaper articles about particularly hit-and-run crimes that involve the death of the victim, where otherwise normal citizens would drive home and literally hide under their beds.

I was curious about what drives people to do that, and also to answer the question for myself: How would I conduct myself in that situation? To be honest, I can’t tell you 100% truthfully how I would conduct myself without having to walk in those shoes.

Rico Gagliano: It’s interesting actually, in that I found myself being kind of put in those shoes. I wanted your character to get away with it, even though if he does, it means the legal system doesn’t work and I’m essentially rooting for a corrupt police force. What are you trying to say to us, putting us in that situation?

Felony.MR_-843 - Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton) and Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson)
Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton) and Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson) in the film “Felony.”

Joel Edgerton: Well I’m kind of asking the audience to really examine their own point of view on crime and punishment. In the film, the different characters have their own different relationships with this crime and what they feel should be the balanced punishment for that crime.

Particularly the character Carl — played by Tom Wilkinson — is sprouting the question of whether a person may actually serve the best kind of punishment inside their own conscience, rather than in some form of social justice.

Rico Gagliano: Yes — there’s a line Tom’s character says that really stood out for me: “Prison is for people who don’t have their punishment in here.” He’s pointing to his own head when he says that.

Joel Edgerton: Yeah — and Tom actually throws a few dirty words in there as well!  And it’s true. On one hand, you could examine justice and say they may be two forms of justice: for the intentional criminal, versus the accidental criminal. However, society doesn’t really work like that way, as we know. It’s not fine for me to say “You deserve prison, but I don’t.”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. That’s when you become a totalitarian or something.

Joel Edgerton: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: So this movie really unfolds like a morality play. It is very literally about morality. And a few years ago you co-wrote an Australian thriller called “The Square,” that also has characters doing bad things and struggling to deal with the consequences. What focuses you on that kind of story? Between the two films, I can feel that morality is something you’re really struggling with it.

Joel Edgerton: I don’t know myself well enough to say that I’m struggling with it, but it’s definitely a theme I keep returning to. It’s interesting, in the next project I’ve written, a character is wrestling with a mistake they made 20 years earlier.

Rico Gagliano: Wow. You’re not working out guilt for some crime you committed that you’re keeping secret from us, are you?

Joel Edgerton: No, and I mean even if I was, I probably wouldn’t tell you!

But I think… I was raised as a young Catholic. I definitely remember feeling strong feelings of guilt as a child with regard to sometimes even the most minor things, and I wonder if there’s something of that operating within me.

And also as a movie buff, the most fascinating movies to me were movies about deception, and movies where I was watching characters lie about things with that dramatic irony that I, in the audience, knew the truth, while watching a character lie to another character.  And I always found that fascinating.

Rico Gagliano: As I watched the movie, it struck me how tense, but also very quiet, it is. And your character especially says very little. But you’re a writer. You’re obviously a guy who’s into words. Why write yourself a nearly wordless part?

Joel Edgerton: Well I did realize I’d sort of written myself a tricky character who, yes, doesn’t say much, but is kind of locked into his stasis.  Which could result, I thought at the time, in just a series of long faces. I was worried…

Rico Gagliano: …That you’d just frown a lot!

Joel Edgerton: Well, I was always fascinated, at drama school, by the Hamlet dilemma.  Which is: “Hamlet” is about a character who does the opposite of what all good screenwriting and theater-writing manuals tell you to do, which is have your central character be incredibly active.  And here was Shakespeare writing a character who basically sat there and did nothing.

And this is what my character does in the movie.  He’s shocked into his own stasis.  But I was interested in that, because what we started to really explore was: Why do we lie? Why do we cover things up? I started to suspect that it’s really grounded in this very deep human need — constant need — to be liked and to be loved and not to be judged as a bad person.

Rico Gagliano: Do you mind if I look very quickly ahead to your forthcoming work for a second?

Joel Edgerton: Not at all.

Rico Gagliano: You play the Egyptian king Ramses in Ridley Scott’s big Biblical epic coming out in September. Biblical movies are so easy to push over the edge into kitsch. What was tough about that for you as an actor?

Joel Edgerton: It was sort of like being a kindergarten kid jumping into the Olympic swimming pool for the first time! I mean I’ve been in big movies, but the responsibility of playing one of the major roles in a big production like that — that was one thing.

And the other tricky thing is, as you pointed out, with Biblical epics there’s the potential for kitsch. And it lies in the fact that if you take religion out of the equation, you are asking the audience to believe a certain amount of true human interactions… and then all of a sudden one of those characters parts the Red Sea! Or two of every kind of animal turn up to get on a boat that one family has built!  And sometimes that’s going to land in the world of kitsch.

I truly believe having seen Ridley’s film, that there wasn’t a single moment where I went “Oh, come on.” To be honest, the first time I was watching it, I was sitting there watching it with my hands over my face, which is how I usually watch my movies for the first time. And I just kind of unfolded from that tense kind of ball, and I realized by time the movie was over I’d had a wonderful experience.

Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask everyone who’s our guest of honor on our show. The first question is “What question should we not ask you?”

Joel Edgerton: Usually the cold stare comes to any journalist who asks me deeply personal questions.  You know, “who are you dating” or “what is going on in your personal life?”  Those are the big ones. I will say that what is fascinating me recently is the regurgitation of information on the internet. And I find myself quite often having to tell journalists, “Well that’s not exactly true.”

Rico Gagliano: well, then I’m going to ask you very directly a question that you’re probably sick of being asked recently: Are you going to be playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in a Star Wars spin-off?

Joel Edgerton: Aha, well here we go! The regurgitation of information! I was asked that by one journalist, who informed that those movies are going to happen.  And I said I would love to consider being a part of that…

Rico Gagliano: …Which then gets reported as, “He is definitely going to do it!”

Joel Edgerton: “…And now I’m doing it!” I don’t care, that’s fine with me. I love “Star Wars” fans and their speculation, because I just love anybody who’s that passionate about anything.

Rico Gagliano: All right, and our second question: Tell us something we don’t know.

Joel Edgerton: I started break dancing back in the 80’s.

Rico Gagliano: You were a break dancer. Really?

Joel Edgerton: Probably ’86. But the reason I started that was because I had a major crush on a girl whose mother was the dance teacher.  So I was like, “I better get some of this break dancing in!”

Rico Gagliano: That… is the most tortured path to a date that I’ve ever heard.

Joel Edgerton: I just knew that if I was there learning the backspin and the windmill — not that I quite got there — that Tiffany would be there watching ’cause she’d be waiting for Mom to finish teaching!