The Bare-Knuckled Rise of ‘Warrior’ Star Joel Edgerton
It was on a mountaintop at the Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, a health spa on Australia’s Gold Coast where cell phones are forbidden and kangaroos roam freely, that Joel Edgerton fell back in love with acting. Then a disillusioned actor who checked into the resort to luxuriate after a series of grueling film shoots, he was sitting atop a grassy peak, overlooking the canopy of green that stretched out before him, when suddenly he felt fulfilled by his craft. “I switched something on inside of myself that I used to have when I worked in theater,” he says. “I realized in that moment that I need to be fully in love with what I’m doing to get the best out of it.” That’s when his luck changed.
Flash forward two years, and Edgerton is waiting for me at Souen, a macrobiotic Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. When I arrive, he stands up to hug and kiss the three exiting publicists with whom he’d been dining, and who are ecstatic to have their LA-based, suddenly indemand client in New York. Edgerton, for his part, is also pleased to be here. At 37 years old, he is very much at home in his own skin. He is lean and just the right amount of muscular—more like a swimmer than a boxer—having, by his own estimation, shed half the bulk he put on for his role as a mixed martial arts fighter in the scrappy sports drama Warrior. His is a handsome not commonly found in show business, that of a high school star athlete whose face has weathered while still retaining its youth.
Edgerton reclines in his chair, one arm cocked over its back, the other using a fork to pick at a plate of steamed vegetables. He is simultaneously laid-back and present, and laughs often. At first, his ease feels like the relief of an actor who, after years of false starts and missed opportunities, spent the previous day rehearsing with Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan for Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby. But it could also just be genetics. Good vibes are written into Australian DNA.
Edgerton was raised in the semi-remote town of Dural, about 20 miles northwest of Sydney, where he fought boredom by making ninja and cowboy movies on his Betamax camera with his brother, Nash. He graduated from drama school at the age of 20, after which he spent years rounding the Australian film and television circuits.
In 2003, he appeared in Ned Kelly, a western set in 19th-century Australia. On set he met its two stars, Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom—at the time newly-christened Hollywood golden boys. Their overseas success convinced Edgerton to abandon his blooming stage career for the sunny shores of California. Bouncing between Melbourne and LA, Edgerton landed supporting parts in big-screen disappointments like King Arthur and Smokin’ Aces, but it was his lead role in 2005’s unconventional British comedy Kinky Boots that got him noticed in Hollywood. Meetings with the Coen Brothers and Woody Allen followed, and Edgerton could feel the fireball of stardom fast approaching. But Kinky Boots bombed at the box office, and Edgerton found himself back in cattle-call auditions with other unknown actors. He learned a valuable lesson about expectations: Get rid of them. “After Kinky Boots, I came to the realization that in Hollywood, it doesn’t matter if you’re in movies, only if those movies make money,” he says. “That’s when I was like, Fuck this, and I went home.”
His future as a successful actor in limbo, Edgerton spent the next few years in Australia writing, financing, and acting in the tense noir film The Square, directed by his brother Nash. The experience left Edgerton invigorated but disoriented. “At the end of that, I looked up and said, What happens now? No one was calling me about a job.” But like a weakened superhero slowly regenerating his powers, Edgerton replenished his “mojo,” as he calls it, with a series of roles in small but compelling projects, culminating in 2010’s Animal Kingdom, a murky crime drama in which he portrayed a criminal with a conscience. That film, which earned his costar Jacki Weaver a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, also put Edgerton on directors’ wish lists for some of Hollywood’s most buzzed-about projects.
One of those projects was filmmaker Tony Gilroy’s Jason Bourne redux, The Bourne Legacy, conceived of by Universal as a new trilogy loosely tied to the original Matt Damon triptych. According to online rumors, Gilroy, who wrote the first three Bourne movies, wanted Edgerton for his superspy, but the studio, seeking a well-known name, opted for Jeremy Renner instead. Edgerton laughs when he hears this version of events, and he confirms it, albeit diplomatically. “I don’t know if I’ll ever know the complete machinations of it. I do know there was really strong support for me from certain members of the team, but it wasn’t unanimous,” he says with a no-hard-feelings chuckle.
Losing a role on name recognition won’t be a problem once Warrior hits theaters later this month. In Edgerton’s grand American debut (a few Star Wars fanatics might recognize him as Anakin Skywalker’s father in Episode I: The Phantom Menace), he plays Brendan Conlon, a recession-hit schoolteacher and former MMA fighter who trains his way back into the ring, a journey that climaxes with a battle against his estranged brother, played by Tom Hardy. With the popularity of mixed martial arts in North America at a fever pitch, Edgerton expects the film to go gangbusters at the box office, but he also admits that he’ll be “fucking pissed” if the movie fails to find an audience. He’s proud of it. “If I had to quit acting today,” he says, “I’d be happy because I did this film.”
While Animal Kingdom breathed new life into Edgerton’s career, the actor credits his Warrior director Gavin O’Connor with giving him enough marquee clout to compete for major roles. “Gavin just wanted the two right guys to play these characters,” says Edgerton. “There’s been the odd screening of this film in LA, and what directors and producers are seeing is the potential for a movie that could go big, which adds a little bit of stock to Tom and me.”
Investing in that stock is Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, who not long ago tapped Edgerton to star in her follow-up to The Hurt Locker, a film initially centered on the failed 2001 attempt to kill Osama bin Laden. Edgerton, who was thrilled about being cast—“I truly believe that if she wanted to film the phone book I’d be like, Alright, I’m in”—remembers celebrating the news of his upcoming part with friends in Sydney, when a chorus of cell phone vibrations interrupted their lunch. Reports had begun circulating about the death of bin Laden. “The first thing that popped into my head was like, Wow, fuck. Suddenly I had mixed feelings about everything. Obviously, it wasn’t just about me, but I knew the whole project had to be reassessed.”
Bigelow’s film will now focus on bin Laden’s death. The rewrites freed Edgerton up to take on another project, so he met with Baz Luhrmann, who was looking to cast the character of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby after Ben Affleck dropped out. “Baz did what Baz does best, which is to create a comfortable environment for his actors,” he says of the audition. “More than anybody, he makes you forget you’re auditioning and makes you feel like you’re working.” Now that he has the part of Buchanan, Edgerton is doing all he can to embody the role of the aggressive, shorttempered millionaire. After our interview, he’ll head out alone to Long Island, where The Great Gatsby is set. “I want the whole image of the place in my head and the feeling of it, that decadence. Warrior was a real reminder for me that there’s nothing, in that case, more valuable than spending two months learning to fight. You put on a pair of shorts and gloves, get in the cage, and feel comfortable because you belong there.”
Edgerton not only belongs in Hollywood, but he lives there, too. The owner of a “modest” home in Sunset Hills (“Don’t imagine a mansion or anything like that”), he spends his spare time surfing and relishing the warm weather. When he’s not on location filming—like the three months he spent last year in Toronto shooting this October’s remake of John Carpenter’s creature classic The Thing—he writes screenplays. “I want to be really proud of everything I make. If you want to blow millions of dollars putting together a pile of shit, and then pretend you never did that pile of shit, I think that’s theft,” he says. “Of course, you’re just stealing from an industry that often provides more money for the shit it makes than it does for its quality projects. You can get paid so well to strive for mediocrity.”
Edgerton, however, is proof that good things really do come to those who wait. “I’m happy that it’s taken as long as it has,” he says of his rocky rise to stardom. “I’ve had a wealth of experience in my life that has culminated at a point where I now feel at ease with who I am,” he says. “I had to fall out of love with being an actor, and then rediscover that passion again, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
JOEL LIKES: Souen, New York