Actor Joel Edgerton has been on our screens for 20 years, but his new role is likely to make him a star, says Siobhan Synnot
Joel Edgerton is counting the cost of an active movie career. Two years ago he was chucked off a horse when learning to play polo for The Great Gatsby. “My fault,” he says. “Polo is like playing golf with a saddle and there are a lot of moving parts.”
Then there was Warrior, where he learnt mixed martial arts and bulked up for a Rocky-style wrestling saga that involved taking on all comers, including an equally beefy Tom Hardy. “My doctor made a point of saying to me, ‘I don’t think you should do this movie,’” because I have a problem with my lower back. So I told him, I’d get them to hit me in the head rather than the back, so they could treat me for concussion instead.” In the end, both skull and spine got off lightly – Edgerton tore the ligaments in his knee instead.
Now he stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s rationalist retelling of Moses, where Christian Bale’s brawny lawgiver is forced to confront Edgerton’s gold-plated, guylinered King Ramses. In the course of its epic 150 minutes, Edgerton races chariots, wields hefty swords, and milks a cobra of its venom. So what got hurt this time?
His feelings apparently: “Christian Bale has made it his mission to tell everyone that I had a fancy pair of gold underpants on during filming,” Edgerton mockingly wails. “I nearly ran out to go get myself some, so the next time he said it, I could show him.”
Edgerton has been on our radar for a while now. He turned 40 this year and has been in the business long enough to have gathered some intriguing footnotes on his CV. At 25 he appeared briefly in both Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as the ill-fated Uncle Owen. He played a Nottingham cobbler designing flash footwear for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s drag queen in a small British comedy called Kinky Boots, and can be seen under a bushel of dreadlocks as knightly warrior Sir Gawain in King Arthur.
However, his big break was Animal Kingdom, written and directed by his friend David Michôd. In a coiled rattlesnake of an Australian drama, Edgerton played the most stable, and therefore most-shortlived, member of a criminal clan. He was on screen long enough to make people sit up and take notice of a quiet tour de force, and suddenly his workload exploded.
Edgerton has no regrets about a late-flowering career. “This would have been a tougher ride when I was younger, but I’m more level-headed now,” he says. “Back then, it would have been harder to stay on the horse.”
Ridley Scott’s epic is his biggest film to date, and the first time he has worked with the Alien director. “Many years ago I thought I’d got a role in his film Kingdom of Heaven, finally getting to have a steak dinner with him and hear all his stories really rattled my cage,” says Edgerton. “Especially when I had the thought that maybe ten years down the line, he might be telling stories about me.”
The role of Pharaoh came to Edgerton after Javier Bardem and Oscar Isaac both passed on the part. Edgerton met with Ridley Scott in London, where the first thing Scott asked was if Edgerton was willing to shave his head. “It made me look like a manbaby, but if it helps a character, I’ll do what it takes. One summer, I had to have a pencil moustache. That wasn’t a good look either, but it worked for Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby”
For Exodus, Edgerton clipped on large gold arm cuffs and a gilded gorget, and clipped off the rest of his bodyhair after historical research indicated that pharaohs kept themselves hairless. “It was shaving, not waxing,” he clarifies. “We’ve all seen what Steve Carell went through in The 40 Year Old Virgin”.
He arrived for his first day, excited and a little intimidated. “As an actor, I get to play dress up, but this was the shiniest look of them all. Then they put a big, big snake around my neck to complete the look. I could feel the warmth of it on me all the time. Sometimes, when it pressed against the veins in my neck, I’d think ‘this could all go very wrong’.”
Most of the picture was shot in the desert north of Almeria in Spain, where Edgerton was able to observe his 77-year-old director wrangle a $140 million picture. “At one point when we were shooting the battle with the Hittites, there were 1,500 people on set. Just feeding and hydrating them was a massive exercise and Ridley is at the top of that triangle – and yet the bigger things are, the more comfortable he seemed,” he observes.
“Ridley is decisive. He knows exactly what he wants, and he makes those decisions so quickly. The very first day, he drew my first guyliner on me, just on one eye. Then he handed over the pen to the makeup artist and said ‘that’s how I want it to look’.”
Other decisions were more controversial. After the 20th Century Fox film’s casting was announced, Scott was castigated by some for hiring white actors to play the two lead Egyptians. In response, he noted the impossibility of financing a nine-figure epic without international names.
Edgerton can see both sides: “On one hand, I go, ‘Look, it’s a movie.’ I got asked to do a job that was very enticing. But it’d be dishonest to say I wasn’t mindful of this concern. It’s a wider conversation to be had about Hollywood in general. This is an American-financed movie. I mean, I get it. But I had to put my faith in Ridley’s team that they would make it appropriate for me to fill those golden shoes and wear that jewellery and look that way. I had to find a reason to do it on an interior level.”
Edgerton is affable, thoughtful and given to smiling so widely that his eyes almost disappear, and yet lately he’s been a go-to guy for bringing shades of gray to characters in films like Exodus, The Great Gatsby and his own film Felony. “Really, no-one is bad except for serial killers and dictators. It’s usually the case that people try to do the right thing, but they mistakenly think the wrong thing is their way forward. I look for an empathetic edge to characters. It makes for better villains and a better experience for the audience.”
The way he tells it, being cast as the flawed monarch of Exodus arrived in the nick of time for Edgerton, because he’d reached a point when he had started to question whether he wanted to continue with acting. “A lot of actors do that, it’s not just me. There are moments when you think, ‘how important is what I do?’, and do I love this? I also had things going on in my personal life. Getting the call from Ridley Scott made me think that sometimes you just need to go to work. And doing the work reignited my passion for a lot of things.”
2015 is another busy year. Upcoming is the Boston crime drama Black Mass, the story of Irish mobster Whitey Bulger, which also features Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon. He also stars in Jane Got A Gun with Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, which hit the headlines when its original director Lynne Ramsay walked out on what was supposed to be the first day of filming. The chop and change was exhausting for those involved, according to Edgerton, but the new director was Gavin O’Connor, who directed Edgerton in Warrior, and the actor reckons they’ve managed to make a decent salvage job on the troubled picture.
During his downtime on film sets, he writes screenplays, including the acclaimed 2008 noir The Square. More recently he has been working on an adaptation of Henry IV and V with David Michôd. and in time, he plans to move into directing full-length feature films – even though that scares him a little.
“I’ve made a couple of short films so far,” he says, a little shyly. “And of course I’ve also had the luxury of having been around a lot of directors and watched a lot of films get made – but that doesn’t suddenly make me a great director.”
• Exodus: Gods and Kings is on general release from 26 December