For more than a decade, Joel Edgerton has been one of the most magnetic personalities onscreen with appearances in Zero Dark Thirty, Warrior, The Great Gatbsy, and more. Now the busy actor has added "director" and "writer" to his considerable resume with this weekend's release of The Gift.
The suspense thriller, which stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, has Edgerton in the role of "Gordo," a socially awkward loner who had knew Bateman's character in high school. What follows their reintroduction after 20-plus years is the stuff great thrillers are made of.
I had a chance to pick Edgerton's brain about how he decided to make the leap to directing, where the film came from, and whether he might have anymore Star Wars appearances in his future. Read on for the highlights (be aware there are some minor spoilers for the film):
So, you make your feature directing debut. You write it, you star in it, you really jumped in feet first. What surprised you about that?
Well, thankfully as an actor I've been on so many sets in my life so there wasn't too many surprises. And I have a collective of guys with me at Blue-Tongue, who I've watched all of them make movies. I've watched, sat beside my brother all the way through making a movie and I recently wrote and produced a movie in Australia that I starred in, but I kept myself out of the director's chair.
And it was all this sort of strategic stepping stone towards doing what I did on The Gift, which was finally put the headset on instead of sitting behind the monitor in the director's chair. I think one thing that surprised me is just how much I loved it. I suspected I was going to enjoy myself but I just enjoyed the pressure of it more than I expected.
( was constantly surprised at things that I didn't know about the movie business that I thought I knew as an actor. Actors are very, kind of, cradled and sort of protected from so much but I think they just want to actors to be happy, do their job. But we arrive so late and we leave so early. We're just there for the production, that's it.
And also I was surprised, even though I knew it, just how much the movie's made in the edit room.
And the idea originated with you, so what was the first kernel of what this became?
The idea of just sort of having someone tap you on the shoulder 25 years after high school and saying, "Hey, do you remember me? I remember you." It was kind of chilling to me in the context of someone who perhaps wasn't the greatest person in high school to be a bully, or to be a bit of a mean-spirited kid. To then have someone tap you on the shoulder like that, I thought what a great beginning to either a broad comedy or a dark thriller.
And given that my sensibility lays more in the sort of, thriller land, I thought like this is a great idea for a movie where bad stuff can happen and yet still have a social context. And I think that it straightaway got me excited. I always wanted to make a really cool suspense thriller but I needed to have an idea that did have some kind of takeaway for the audience, should have some kind of vibration that meant something rather than just pile up some bodies or spilled blood. And the real challenge was doing it without spilling blood.
To that point, I was monitoring my own reactions as I was watching and I found it interesting how the needle sort of kept changing where, who I was sympathizing with. And maybe you can't answer it, but I'd love to hear you hold forth on whether Gordo is the protagonist or the antagonist in this story?
Well, he's both. And Jason is both. I mean, the character Simon is both. It was definitely my intention to kind of allow the audience through the eyes of Rebecca Hall's character, Robyn, who is the center of watching this dynamic play out between her husband and his old acquaintances. It was definitely the intention for, for the character of Gordo and Simon to kind of do-si-do halfway through the movie. That this guy is, you know, creepy, a creeper, he's, an overbearing kind of constant visitor. But when you add up the sum total of his actions at that point, they're all virtuous.
He's been generous. He's helpful. He's been kind of, a kind spirited person. And, and yet it's just a bit, it's a one sided friendship. That's his, that's his only real social crime that he's guilty of. He's been too overbearing, or too generous. But we see him in that context of a triangle thriller as the villain, so we're, we're on guard. Here's this nice couple and their going to be besieged by this guy. And then he essentially kind of let's them be. He recedes into the shadows, but then what is he up to? And why is he still possibly taunting them with his gifts and his letters.
The taking of their dog. And as we start to discover that Jason's character is not being so honest with his past. We start to kind of then take our supposed sort of fear and place it on to him. Because maybe the villain is under Robyn's roof rather than in the shadows. And that was a very intentional thing and I figured we're so familiar with the, the tropes of this genre. It's like how do we then keep the audience wrong, wrong for you is keep them feeling unsteady and, and feeling unsettled. And I thought maybe one extra way of doing that is to now mess with our alliance of who we're supposed to trust.
There's a phrase that I love, "righteous vengeance," where the more a character is seen as being put upon, the more we as an audience forgive what they have to do. And I feel like at some point we allow for Gordo to enact righteous vengeance.
Yeah, it's interesting isn't it? And, and as, as an audience I think we have a very definite moral scale of justice. That is even more conservative in the cinema somehow than it is when we walk around in society. So when you do a bad thing, bad things are coming for you. You do a good thing, you deserve to live and, and have a good life. And Gordo is that simplistic moral compass, very Old Testament. Eye for an eye.
He holds a space for forgiveness only so long as Simon is able to prove that he's changed. And he has that opportunity. And I didn't want to make that straight thriller that said now that they've met, Gordo's just gonna get revenge. It's not until he sees his old nickname written on the board. That he goes, "You're not being genuine to me." All this sort of, "It's great to see you" and "God, you look well."
"Boy we have to catch up." It's such a load of bullshit and now I'm gonna test you. When he leaves them alone. "Now I wanna hear what you really have to say." And I wanted to, as I said, make a thriller. A movie that has one foot firmly planted in the genre. But at the same time I wanna allow myself to subvert that. It's really summed up for me in the fact that when they break up with Gordo and the next morning their dog goes missing, we saddle up for Fatal Attraction, we saddle up for Cape Fear, and yet hopefully we allow ourselves the chance to then unsettle the audience even more by not bringing the dog back in a body bag, or hanging from the shower, or in a boiling in a pot.
By bringing the dog back, in the middle of the night healthy and fine, okay, where the f**k are we now? And I always wanna keep the audience in that place, which is really questioning what their allegiance is. Really questioning what's gonna happen next. But all within the context of this sort of material that is...you know, I'm not trying to make an essay about bullying. But that's the foundation of it.
It's like what are those roles we played in school, and as adults have we changed or not? And should we, as Jason's character thinks, just keep moving forward and disconnect ourselves from our childish selves in the past, or as Rebecca's character typifies, wouldn't it be nice if we could look back, and we could acknowledge those things. And here we have a tale about what happens if you don't. There's a guy waiting to deal out some, some justice for us.
My last question, which my boys would be very upset with me if I didn't ask this, can you share one story about having been on the set of Star Wars at that iconic location?
Oh, absolutely, I've got a few. I mean, one of the, one of the my great, great moments was getting to Tunisia and, and realizing that many of the street signs that I saw were actually George had just taken straight and put in the movie. You know, "Tataouine" is an actual place. And then going to that set, which I was told by George that he had been approached by a kid at university who had found the old set for the exterior set of the water towers. Which was simply just the sort of a circular trench or hole dug with the water towers that they placed.
And I think when they left they just left everything there and the desert had consumed it. And some guy had, as part of his Ph.D in kind of sonar technology or some, I think it was a technology that was applicable to mining, had found the set from an airplane of the old Star Wars from 25 years earlier. And, and so George had excavated it and rebuilt that set exactly where we were, and I'll never forget that day we kind of rolled up in the land cruiser and the desert kind of simmering heat and through there I could see C-3PO standing there with George. I was like, "F**k, I'm in f**king Star Wars!"
"How'd you end up here?!"
And I am so jealous of this whole new gaggle of kids who are all in the new Star Wars. I'm so excited to see the new film. I think it's gonna be amazing.
Yeah, it sure looks like it.
And, and the idea that the Star Wars world is alive again through not just the new trilogy, but there's this very clever idea of doing the standalone movies, which don't think I haven't already sent an email.
So we might see uncle Owen again?
Uncle Owen. But he's gotta do some cool shit. Cause, you know, we can't just have an hour and a half of him moisture farming. (laughs)
Here's hoping he gets that chance! Many thanks to Joel Edgerton for his time. To hear the audio from this conversation, including my description of the moments leading into it, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below: