Only moments after his Odd Life of Timothy Green director Peter Hedges described him as “the real future,” it’s hard not to see the truth in that statement about Australian actor Joel Edgerton. Full of energy and essentially a kid at heart, Edgerton is the type of person who has boundless charisma and an intelligent, affable nature. It’s hard to define what people mean when they say so-and-so has “it,” but it’s hard to put any other concrete term to Edgerton’s charms.
Known primarily for roles in heavier fare like Animal Kingdom, The Square (which was directed by his brother Nash), and most recently and notably opposite Tom Hardy in Warrior, Edgerton plays an entirely different kind of role for him in Timothy Green as a pencil factory foreman who desperately wants a child with his wife (Jennifer Garner), but they just can’t seem to conceive. One night after drunkenly writing down a list of attributes that they would love their theoretical offspring to have and then burying the notes in the yard, a young boy named Timothy (CJ Adams) appears from the ground as their son, and minus some pesky leaves on his legs, he’s everything they could have hoped for.
Edgerton sat down with Dork Shelf recently while in Toronto to talk about this departure for him, the films that made him want to be an actor, and creating a familial bond with his co-stars.
Dork Shelf: I think the best place to start would be to talk about how this is a different kind of movie for you, but not necessarily a different kind of role for you since you seem to play a lot of characters that are very headstrong, intelligent, and wilful, but who always fall prey to outside influences beyond their control. Is that something that you usually find interesting as an actor?
Joel Edgerton: Yeah. I often think that you look from the outside and look at directors and think that they’re always choosing the same general spirit or heart and soul of a movie. You know, one story could be set in Chinatown and another can be set in space, but they’re generally about the same thing.
DS: And Peter Hedges is definitely one of those filmmakers since he tends to almost exclusively do films based around the concept of family.
JL: Yeah! And I think actors have the same thing, too. For myself, it’s not until I look back over the movies that I think “Maybe I have something going on here.” That I have this sort of thread going on. I think I just really respond to stories where the characters are trying to find their voice and trying to kind of stand up to something. I also think that I definitely respond to that same idea of family. You know, Warrior was definitely in that vein with the fractured relationship my character had to his father and brother. And Animal Kingdom is definitely about family. So maybe there is something going on that I don’t realize when I read something, even though this is a movie that’s a lot more open hearted than anything I’ve done before.
DS: And the characters you often seem to be drawn to already have fully fleshed out lives and backstories by the time the film starts, and your films largely deal with an element being introduced into their lives that ultimately changes them.
JE: It’s also, I think, out of the control of an actor. If you’re lucky enough to be in a role and working with these kinds of stories, you have a face or a physique or a personality or a demeanour or an energy that the camera just gets from you that says that one kind of actor will be a villainous sort of guy for most of their career or here in the case of a woman like Jennifer Garner they will get all sorts of roles, but what they usually get from her is what she really is, which is a very bright, warm, and maternal person. I think that maybe with me there’s something going on where… I don’t know… Maybe it’s a combination of strength and vulnerability that allows me to play those characters that are put upon without being too kind of wimpish about it. I don’t really know.
DS: Another thing that’s different about this movie for you is that it’s adding a fantastical element to the story that you haven’t really worked with before. Was that part of the appeal for coming on board?
JE: Yeah! Sometimes the movie grabs you, but also sometimes the idea of you in the movie grabs you. I wanted to do King Arthur because I thought how awesome it would be. When I was a kid all I did was make bows and arrows and swords and pretend I was a medieval guy. So I was, like, “I get to sit in a cinema and watch as my childhood fantasy plays out!”
Now in this movie I get to watch a movie that I’m participating in that if I was a child it would have become a big deal to me. You know, movies like E.T. or Big. Movies like that were the first things that ever moved me in the cinema where I felt bereft, but in a good way. It really taught me something that really responded with my DNA, I guess. So I get to be a part of a movie that I hope kids will want to run home and stick leaves to their legs and to participate in their own imagination and by placing themselves in that story.
DS: I can see that because you definitely seem like someone who’s a huge kid at heart still.
JE: As an actor I think you must always be a kid a heart. Always.
DS: And yet at the same time, your character is a worker in a pencil factory that’s about to go under and your also a part of this film with an old timey almost Frank Capra feel to it that definitely appeals to the sort of adult that’s been around film for a long time.
JE: That was exactly the kind of movie we were aiming to make, and Peter would have said this to you, as well, but he wanted to make a movie that people could watch over and over again. One of the movies that I always watch over and over again is It’s a Wonderful Life, and for that reason I saw Jim as a kind of modern version of a Jimmy Stewart type character. This guy that didn’t really have a bad bone in his body and was a little bumbling, but he was essentially going to stand up for what he believed in. That whole element also has so many resonant things that are still relevant now. You know, this whole question of it being okay to be different and not to bully people. That it’s important to make stuff and be producing because economically we’re in a tough situation. We like to say that this is speaking to our generation, but anything to do with those subjects are always ongoing and they have certain intensity at times for different people, but they’re constantly flowing.
And you know maybe this is another running theme with me, but I did this movie called Kinky Boots, which was another film that had the theme of necessity and trying to find new ways of doing things, but that was a shoe factory and here it’s pencils.
DS: CJ Green seems like a really special kid to be working alongside and have playing your son. What was it like trying to build a relationship with him to have it come across onscreen?
JE: It’s one of those kind of things that happens or it doesn’t. It’s all organic, but for me I just like kids! My only problem with me being around kids is that sometimes I can be too much, too soon with them, you know, rather than just letting them come to you. My brother has this wonderful quality where he can just be completely nonchalant and kids just somehow take a sudden interest in him, where with me it’s the exact opposite.
With CJ, we just had a lot of fun with each other. We spent a lot of time kicking a soccer ball around with him and getting to know him. We were all really close during the shooting of the film, and Jennifer and I both in different ways became very parental towards him and very guarding of him and we looked after him. We always made sure that he was well fed, well rested, occupied…
DS: Well the movie does rise and fall on that character, so it kind of becomes in your best interest not only as a parent, but as an actor to make sure he’s at the top of his game so you can be at the top of yours.
JE: Yeah, and you know, he would always ask me questions about movies and acting and that sort of stuff, and I said to myself that the ones I’m going to answer are the ones that are going to help him manage practically on a day to day level on set. I’m not going to try to profess to teach him about acting because he’s just got his own sort of purity and maturity going on right now. He doesn’t need that, and perhaps as the movie is there to say, children are there to remind us maybe more than to remind or teach them. As an actor, a child actor is there to sort of remind you: “Remember when you weren’t so embarrassed by things and you weren’t so ashamed to be acting any which way?” Because kids will get up and dress up and walk down the street however they want, and I think it’s kind of a shame how people are always trying to bring them into the army of normal life, which is just a total lie.
DS: People sometimes tend to see maturity as an excuse to hold back on things and guard themselves a bit more closely, especially if you’re an actor that probably tends to come a little earlier. Most child actors tend to really only have that childlike element to them until they’re about 16, at best.
JE: Exactly! You’re lucky in this business if you survive beyond the age of 11 or 12 without getting that sense of self monitoring going on or that you must like certain things or listen to certain music because you never want to be the odd one out.
DS: And that’s something that still carries on well into adulthood.
JE: (laughs) Oh yeah! And every now and then you meet someone really great and you just think, “You’re so weird, but you’re so great because you’re so weird.” There was a line that Peter cut from the movie… Well, he uses half the line, but the other half got cut, when a guy stands up in the town hall and he says, “I’ve seen his leaves and it’s okay to be different or a little weird, even,” and the line that was cut said “And if you’re not weird, then that’s weird.” You know, we’re all our own animal. We all started that way and we all have our own personality traits and our own ways that we dress and things that we like. Perfection is imperfect.
DS: Was there anything in particular that Peter Hedges said to you that ultimately made you want to go along with the film?
JE: He didn’t really have to say much at all, really. I’ll tell you what he did say. It’s more what he had written. He wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and that was up there along with a number of other influences that contributed to me becoming an actor in the first place. He wrote that story that became that film of Lasse Hallstrom’s and it starred Leonardo DiCaprio, who was my age and I just fucking love that movie. It was one of those first moments like when I watched Indiana Jones and I knew I just wanted to be that character. I just started to think about being an actor and specifically that actor. I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to have his job and do what he’s doing, and I think I can, maybe, if I do all that. So Peter was actually responsible for one of the reasons I was an actor in the first place before I even met him. So it was weird that in the span of about 12 months I got to work with Peter and I got to work with Leo (in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming The Great Gatsby). It felt like maybe I was having one of those full circle moments; not that I think you ever complete the circle, but you complete a lap and then you’re onto the next lap.
DS: Well, now that you’ve gotten that out of the way you can just do whatever you want now!
JE: (laughs) Bring it on!
DS: (laughs) I had a two item checklist!
JE: All done! You know, maybe I should have set bigger goals or at least constant goals. (laughs)
DS: You have no clue what you’re going to do next, do you?
JE: Maybe hit the wilderness. (laughs)
DS: That might not be too bad of an idea, actually.
JE: Well, I did once write sort of as a joke that exact idea in a book of the complete works of William Shakespeare as sort of a motivational thing, so it’s not that far out of the realm of possibilities.