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Sundance 2012: Joel Edgerton on Avoiding Hollywood's 'Crap Movies' and His Hunt for Bin Laden With Kathryn Bigelow (Q&A)

The star of "Wish You Were Here" talks to THR about the indie thriller, his collaboration with the Oscar-winning "Hurt Locker" director, and his future ambitions in front of and behind the camera.

Joel Edgerton
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

While it’s certainly the sort of opportunity that's simultaneously a blessing and a curse, there was a long period in Joel Edgerton's career when he was known stateside for playing the young version of Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels, and little else. But after memorable performances in films fun (Kinky Boots) and flashy (Smokin’ Aces), Edgerton used a project he developed in his native Australia (Animal Kingdom) to gain a foothold in Hollywood, and since then he's bounced back and forth between Tinseltown and The Land Down Under with increasingly high profile roles in films like Warrior and The Thing.

And in Wish You Were Here, his latest film, Edgerton reunites with his Animal Kingdom co-star Kieran Darcy-Smith – albeit this time with Darcy-Smith behind the camera – for a domestic potboiler about a husband and wife torn apart by the mysterious disappearance of her sister’s new boyfriend while the four of them are on vacation in Cambodia.

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The morning after Wish You Were Here premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Edgerton sat down for a chat with THR about juggling work opportunities at home and in Hollywood. Additionally, he talked about his ongoing efforts to "act less," and offered a few insights about his upcoming collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow for the Oscar-winning director's follow up to The Hurt Locker.

The Hollywood Reporter: How has your Sundance experience been so far?

Joel Edgerton: Good so far. I love coming here. I mean, I always sort of brace myself for the experience - it’s not easy to be here because of the climate and all that stuff. But I do love it, and I feel like Sundance is a real kind of clubhouse for us or a home in a way because of the interest as a festival or organization that they’ve taken in Blue Tongue in general and other films that I've been involved in happen to come here more often than other festivals.

THR: What was the timeline for your participation in Wish You Were Here? Did this come together after you and Kieran did Animal Kingdom together?

Edgerton: Blue Tongue stuff is kind of constantly evolving, so this screenplay had been evolving for a couple years. There had been like four or five drafts of it, so that was just going on in the background, in the same way that right now we’ve got a few other things going on in the background that are simmering away. The way we operate is we’re all writers, directors, actors, whatever, but we bring in other producers, and thankfully most of the producers we bring in are female producers, which throws a nice balance in for us because we’re such a kind of a boy-heavy group. So then Kieran starts to really kind of focus in and work with Angie and they go off in their own little alleyway in a way, the same way [my brother] Nash [Edgerton] and I did with Louise Smith on The Square, and David [Michod] did with Liz Watts on Animal Kingdom. So this was just sort of going on and then at some point when you’re lucky to cobble the finance together, something is off and running and you know, but I'm really kind of - look, I’m having a great time in Hollywood, but at the same time I sort of have to go, okay, to all my team in LA, this is a project that when it gets financed I really want to do it and it’s likely to happen here, so I want to block out that time. Because they’re very important projects to me, and to be honest, some of the stuff we’ve done back home is the thing that makes the most noise over here, compared to some of the other American projects I've done. So I think it’s important, for my soul anyway, for our group as well, but also just for career in general, I think the stuff we’re doing in Australia is good for all the other stuff that goes on in my life.

STORY: Wish You Were Here: Sundance Film Review

THR: Because this movie has a sort of elliptical structure in terms of chronology, how do you create a continuity for his behavior, both in terms of the escalation of his anxieties, and the behavior that sets the whole mystery in motion?

Edgerton: I think the great thing about characters is the ways that they can be surprising. I mean sometimes you think you’ve got a lock on a personality, even just in life, and then they’ll shock you by their behavior. I mean, Dave is a responsible father, and at the same time he’s had a past where he’s probably dropped a lot of ecstasy and had that freewheeling life. I know Felicity [Price] said one of the inspirations for writing it was [asking] what does it feel like to be someone who has experienced the chaos of youth and the enjoyment of being freewheeling and vibrant and young, and then you’ve got to knuckle down and be responsible? Okay, we’ve got kids now, we’ve got our relationship, we’ve got a mortgage, and it’s like you’re trying to wear kind of an ill-fitting garment, but you’ve got to wear it. It’s responsibility and none of us really want too much of it. I know I don’t.

But I always seek projects that I just love the writing, because the good writing on a project will alleviate the need for an actor to act. I remember one of the great things I read about David Mamet saying was that an actor doesn’t really need to act - that a good film with good writing and good direction, you could almost like a fucking mannequin there and there will be an emotional journey. And we should be able to march around being very po faced and not act the shit out of every scene you know. Actors want to act, actors want to emote. It’s like the emotional equivalent of tearing your shirt off and screaming to the heavens; you want to express and you want to be seen to be expressing. And that is an urge and it exists in most actors I'm sure, but when a great writer gives you a great piece, then they navigate for you in a way what needs to happen and then you just stay true to each moment. Otherwise, an actor finds themselves feeling responsible for writing the journey. And I think an actor in many ways should just be like getting on a well plotted cruise, if you’re lucky, and I think that’s what Kieran and Felicity have done for us.

THR: How tough is it to resist that impulse to “act?”

Edgerton: Oh, it’s daily (laughs).

THR: How tough is it to figure out when to do your thing, and when to get out of the way for your collaborators?

Edgerton:I guess in a way you just kind of look at what part of the puzzle are you, and sometimes you’re a larger piece of the puzzle and sometimes you’re a small piece of the puzzle. And sometimes you’re a really bright, colorful piece of the puzzle and other times you’re the beige piece, but that’s not to say that the beige piece isn’t a very important piece; and that if I tried to turn the beige piece into the rainbow piece, then I might fuck the whole movie up. I think in Warrior if I went too large or went too kind of character you know I might have thrown the balance of that movie out, whereas, in Gatsby it’s almost my responsibility to be a bit colorful and have a bit more sharper edge, and I think that’s a great skill that I don’t feel like I'm really that adept at yet and I hope I just get better at it. It’s like really, really understanding what your parameters are within the story and having the best time within those parameters and you know. Who is it? Someone recently said that an actor is like a dog - the director throws a stick and you go, “I'm going to get that stick and bring it back.” We want to please everybody, and it’s like within pleasing someone you could work within those parameters and please them in a perfect way, but the trouble is when you want to kind of go over the top and please too much, you might throw the balance out.

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THR: Wish You Were Here demands a lot of intensity from the actors. How easily do you tap into the struggle a character like this has, and how easy is it to let go of at the end of the day?

Edgerton:I have a good glottal stop, I guess, a good kind of flicked-switch between character and life, and I like to search for characters or for parts or whatever, characters that have a deeper kind of psychological situation. I like movies that have a challenge for the actor, and sometimes a residue of that, you take home with you and sometimes you don’t. And it’s weird - sometimes there are things that you think are going to leave a residue on you maybe don’t and the ones that you never think will, they do. Like recently with Gatsby, I find like that has a definite residue for me in a way, and with Wish You Were Here it was difficult because there is a lot of careful plotting that goes on with a movie like this where you try to find the right balance of trust and mistrust and empathy and judgment. It’s a constant evolution and constant learning process, but I just try and find a place where I try not to filter a character through my own ego and I try not to judge a character. And if I could find that space, then I feel like I could do the right thing by a character and therefore the right thing by a film, but I tend to find my films sort of have a residue with me. Because I love so much what I do that I spend so much time thinking about it and then I go home and then I'm thinking about it, so it’s nice sometimes when a movie is over and then the niggling feelings about whether you’ve did it right or not start to ebb away.

THR: One of your upcoming projects is the Bin Laden film with Kathryn Bigelow. What sense have you gotten so far that it might be similar in execution or scale to The Hurt Locker?

Edgerton: I don't know about the scale of the budget for this, but I know Hurt Locker was a tiny budget, and all I can say to that is I actually hope that it resembles The Hurt Locker in its aesthetic because I loved that movie. I thought it was really kind of immediate - I felt like I was there. It had a real kind of rough and ready feeling about it that I hope this other project has. I mean, I don’t know exactly what the plan of approach of style and all that is; we’ll get into that. But I love Hurt Locker and I love a lot of her other movies, and I think that I'm more than anything just kind of excited to go and work with her and with Mark [Boal].

THR: Liam Neeson recently compared Bigelow to filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks. What have your experiences with her been like so far, and what sort of collaboration are you expecting?

Edgerton: Well, initially our collaboration was based on the previous incarnation of that project, but in my initial meetings with her, what struck me about her is just how interested in actors she was. She had taken a real shining to Animal Kingdom and was just excited to meet all of the guys from Animal Kingdom and David [Michod] and just had such wonderful things to say. I just think she has a really great organic process - that really shows in Hurt Locker and I think that will carry through into this. She's obviously doing something right, so she'll just keep doing that.

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THR: How important is the multifaceted aspect of your career now in terms of producing and writing and doing those other things in addition to acting, which seems to be landing you larger opportunities in Hollywood?

Edgerton: Well, it’s great. I mean, it’s great to have that opportunity. It’s just been like, without meaning it to sound too arrogant, I have a lot of stuff in me that I know I can do and I've wanted to have the opportunity to do and now thanks to people like Gavin O’Connor and David Michod, I'm starting to kind of spread my wings a little bit more and get new opportunities. And I'm fucking ready for them and I'm dying to do more stuff, but at the same time I want to keep writing projects. I want to write characters that I want to play. I want to direct. I want to do a lot of stuff. I just don’t want to do crap movies, man, because I just love that I can get up and talk about them and talk to journalists about stuff that I'm really proud of. I mean, fuck, man - there is so much money out there to be made out there in the industry, and unfortunately the most money gets given for the subpar quality projects, so I don’t need money to survive. I don’t need shit tons of money, I just want to be satisfied all the time, and I want to be proud. I don’t want to sit here and talk to you and know that in your mind you’re going, “I fucking hated this movie and this guy is a sellout and I hate him.” So we’ve got high expectations of ourselves at Blue Tongue and I've just got a high expectation myself. And I know I've got a brother, Nash, who if I took a step too far out of line or did it a couple of times in a row in terms of choosing the wrong project, he would slap me down (laughs). And I'm like you - I just love good movies. And not every movie you’re going to end up in is always going to turn out right, but at least walk into it with the right intention. I have an issue with the commercial aspect of moviemaking: I don’t see why a movie can’t make a lot of money and also be good. We see at least two or three of them every year. Like last year I think was a really good year for movies, and they made some money and they also satisfied people on a number of levels. But there is some shit movies out there now. - it fucking pisses me off - and I hate it when a shit movie comes out that’s obviously made just to make money, and it does make that money and it lets everybody know that it’s okay to make shit movies because you can get rich off of it. I hate those people (laughs). There has got to be a business, yes, obviously it’s a film business. But at least try along the way.