Australian-born Joel Edgerton achieved his international break in the role of Uncle Owen Lars in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, followed by Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith. Recently, Edgerton headlined The Thing and Warrior, opposite Tom Hardy; some of Edgerton's other major credits include Animal Kingdom, The Square, Smokin' Aces, Kinky Boots, King Arthur, and Ned Kelly, and he will soon appear in Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby. Writer-director Peter Hedges rose to prominence with his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which he adapted into a screenplay. He also co-wrote the scripts for the literary adaptations A Map of the World and About a Boy; co-wrote the original screenplay for Dan in Real Life, which he also directed, and wrote the screenplay for Pieces of April, which he also directed. Now, Edgerton appears in The Odd Life of Timothy Green, directed by Hedges from his own script. I spoke to the pair at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So Joel, in the production notes, you are quoted as saying "Being an onscreen parent has its responsibilities too." I like that. Can you talk a little bit about what you meant by that? I think it was sort of in the context of working with a child actor, but I think you could also maybe say that of representing parenthood on film as an actor.
Joel Edgerton: Yeah. And then that second part of what you just said is not really what I intended, but it is very true. And that should be said that there is a responsibility that you have as an actor toward any character that you play—for the film and for anyone who’s giving you two hours of their life to watch the movie. But the idea of being an onscreen parent is definitely a responsibility because kids, where I come from—it really can spin their life out of control, and I think the most important responsibility is on behalf of the producers and the directors, because they’re the ones who are actively choosing our child, and they have to be very careful about who that child is, and as Peter has mentioned in the past, I think his very good point is "What is that child’s family like?" Because they’re going to be an important part of re-setting the equilibrium of that child once that fanciful time of movie-making is over. But, you know, we had a responsibility to CJ [Adams] to have him feel comfortable with us. And for us to feel comfortable with him. And, as a character—my character is not a father, and the idea of the fatherhood is just thrust upon him. We didn’t have to have it all right. In fact, it was more important that we didn’t have it all right along the way, and we were making up as we went along. But, yeah, we had a responsibility to CJ.
Joel Edgerton: Because Jennifer—was it Jennifer or was it you who said—Peter said once, "You cast a kid in a movie, that child is in your life for good."
JE: You don’t just sort of say ‘hi’ and then cut them loose.
JE: They are connected to you forever, then—and you to them.
G: Peter, you’ve written a lot about dysfunctional families or, as some people call them, "families." How would you rate your own upbringing?
PH: How would I rate my own upbringing?
PH: I had a very dramatic childhood. There was an incredible amount of love. But there was a huge amount of confusion and stress and anger in my childhood. It was a very—it wasn’t all one thing, but it was everything all at once. And I was raised by my dad. My mother left when I was seven. And she came back into my life when I was fifteen. My father was a minister. He still is, in fact. We were in the public eye. But we were confused and hurt, and I really needed a mom. And so a lot of filmmaking for me—a lot of my theatre work previously—was not only about writing about family but also trying in the process of making a film like Timothy Green to create a family. And, you know, obviously the family on film but also to create an environment that’s safe where people are excited to be and where we can do our best work.
G: The film is set in small-town America. And I suppose that’s something else that you’ve also written a lot about, having come from—your town was really small, right?
PH: I grew up in Iowa. West Des Moines, Iowa, which is a suburb of Des Moines. It’s not small but all of my grandparents were from small towns and spent a great deal of time in small towns.
G: I guess there’s ups and downs to small town life, and I think you’ve talked a bit about everybody sort of knows your business. And the good side of that, I think you’ve said: it holds you accountable.
G: Because everybody sort of knows what you’re doing. And I guess what you were saying about creating a family with a film—in a way, a film is sort of like a small town that springs up and then—it’s like a circus, you take it down.
PH: Yes, like a circus.
G: But it’s kind of a tight-knit community for a while there.
G: I guess I just wanted you to talk a little bit about what you see as the ups and downs of—the good things and the bad things about—living in a small town.
G: Or how that is expressed through the film, too.
PH: I think the small town—what draws—one other aspect of the small town, which I think is exciting from a storytelling standpoint is that anyone acting in a particular way affects everyone. In a big city—I live in New York—when I first moved to New York, I said, "It’s the land of no consequence." And for a tightly woven story like this, the ability to impact—I mean, to impact New York City—to completely alter New York City, one has to do something that—
JE: You need a movement.
PH: You need a movement. But in a small town, it just seems everybody can become almost representative of whole groups of people. And, I don’t know, it—I didn’t consciously say, "Oh, I’ve got to set this in a small town." But when I started to write the screenplay and expand on the story that Ahmet [Zappa] had brought me, I read about a town in Indiana that used to manufacture campers. And that factory closed, and it affected everybody in the town. And I knew I wanted to write about economic duress. That I felt if we were going to put a story with magic and this much love in the world, it needed to be tempered by the harsh economic realities that are facing everybody today. That I didn’t want this movie to be born out of some fantasy world that doesn’t exist—even though there are magical elements in the story, I wanted the story to be rooted in the real and in the now.
G: Mm-hm. Joel, you mentioned that your character has fatherhood thrust upon him quite suddenly so in a way the—you know, oftentimes an actor has to create the backstory for a family or make it feel lived in even though you’re maybe just meeting the actors, as the case may be. But I guess in this case you needed to set up the background for this marriage—
G: With Jennifer Garner. Can you talk about what you did to feel prepared when you first walked on the set, and maybe from one day to the next, to be that guy and be in that marriage?
JE: There was a very cool natural kind of feeling between Jennifer and I from the moment that we met each other, basically. And we got along very well. I feel like we enjoyed working together. We were on the same page when it came to the movie, and I just liked her a lot as a person. And, you know, beyond that, as far as the characters are concerned, I often say that the greatest research you can ever hope for approaching a character is found within the pages of the script for the movie. It should always be a great foundation for a movie. And sometimes Hollywood fails to recognize that and makes movies the wrong way around—which we won’t get into. But most of what we needed about Jim and Cindy was there on the page, and we actually had a really nice rehearsal period. CJ, Jennifer, Peter and I and John Toll, the cinematographer, came along and ran around shooting it like a hard movie, and we just kind of explored a lot of stuff and improvised a lot of stuff, and Peter’s history in the theater meant he’s apt at creating a good environment for rehearsal and a bit of playing around within the material and outside the material—so we also learn a lot there. Sometimes, the kind of abstract, hard-to-put-your-finger-on chemistry—or whatever that happens between actors is the main thing that kind of volumnizes the right stuff in the movie. You know?
G: Yeah. What about setting the tone with CJ? Is it mostly about making sure he felt utterly relaxed?
JE: Yeah. Look. We did our bit, and Peter did his heavy lifting and, you know—because kids are curly people. They’re so honest. And they’re so direct and disarming. CJ was full of ideas and we watched with glee—Jennifer and I—as "Mr. Peter," as CJ called him, would have to listen to CJ ideas. And I’m not saying that because they weren’t good ideas; he had really thought a lot about his character. He had some thoughts and ideas. Peter, to his credit, would let CJ run his ideas out—sometimes throw it in up on film, even some of the more outlandish ones. (Laughs.) And—
G: What comes to mind?
JE: Well, there was one particular move that I thought was genius called the slow walk-away.
JE: And basically there was a scene where CJ had to—he left Jennifer and I in a particular emotional state by his disarming quality on screen. And then [Timothy] realized that he’d done something slightly wrong or felt that he caused something slightly wrong. And while Jennifer and I were in our own space, our own mindset, inward glancing—whatever—he just crept out of the room. Now CJ’s idea was that he would do this slow walk-away. Which basically meant he kind of comically crept, you know, one foot at a time—
JE: Almost like a wedding step. But a backwards wedding step out of the room. And it was hilarious. (To PE:) You surely put that on the DVD extras—
PH: You know, we need to.
JE: You should have.
PH: I’ve forgotten. But it was astonishing.
JE: It will appear—you know how you have "Director’s Cuts"? Like Ridley Scott did a "Director’s Cut"? There’s a "CJ Cut" of Life of Timothy Green which will just include a lot of slow walk-aways.
G: That’s great. Peter, I think you said in the production notes that "This film was a chance for me to make a movie that I hoped would not only entertain and inspire people but will also change me in the process of writing and directing it." With some hindsight now on the whole process, how do you think this film changed you?
PH: Well, I’ll have a minute. I’ll tell you a story I haven’t told anyone.
JE: I’m listening.
PH: (Of Groucho:) I like him. When we were filming, my wife called me to say that a casting director had seen our son in the school play and wondered if he could come in to audition for a film. And she said, "No." And I said, "What do you mean, you said 'No'?" And she said, "Well, I think he should just have a normal childhood." And I said, because of—having writing—being in the middle of making Timothy Green, I said, "Well, don’t you think you should ask him?" She said, "You’re right." So she asked him, and he said he would like to audition. And he didn’t get that film, but the producer of that film saw him and had him come in for another film, which was called Moonrise Kingdom, which he was cast in. And the reason I give that as an example was that I had seen my son in the school play, and I knew when I saw him that he was a magical kid—very much like CJ—he’s a little older than CJ, but he really had an ability that was evident to anyone watching—even people who weren’t his parents. But I also knew that it wasn’t my job to encourage him or tell him. But the opportunity emerged, and it was an example where, you know, we can’t protect our kids. And he’s old enough and mature enough that we can navigate it. And so that’s an example. And my older son wanted to take a gap year before going to college, and I might have—before I made this film—been much more like "No, no, no. You need to go right to college." But he was very clear about what he wanted, and he formed his own plan and we got out of the way. And it’s made all the difference. Now, obviously, if you have a small kid, you need to be more in their way.
PH: But there is a point where your kids are becoming who they want to be—who they need to be as opposed to who you might like them to be. And early in their lives, I might have been more apt to try to influence who they were to become. They need to be citizens. They need to be kind. They need to be polite. They need to understand certain rules of civility. You know, our job is to civilize our kids. Otherwise they’ll be savages. But who and what they become in the big scale—that’s theirs. They get to determine—or life will help them determine. It’s not for me to determine. And that’s I think probably the biggest way in which I was changed as a parent. I also think I came to understand that I may not be that much of a better parent than I think my parents were. You know, I came face to face with my own failings. They’re not like huge parental crimes, but I definitely committed some parental misdemeanors.
G: Well the film sort of—it says to be conscious, but also it’s all about learning from mistakes.
PH: That’s right. So--to make new mistakes. And one of the things I’m proud of in the film is that I was able to exploit some of my—some of my lesser moments. And bring them in a way with a little more buoyancy, a little more humor than maybe they were experienced in my personal life.
PH: But to do it in a way that might actually be useful not only to me but to others who have been parented or will parent.
G: Right. Well, we’re almost out of time but I do want to ask Joel about The Great Gatsby, if you don’t mind.
PH: Oh, you must.
G: Obviously it’s a project that all eyes are on. Tom Buchanan has a physical power and a fiscal power—
G: And they both kind of corrupt him with this sense of entitlement.
G: And I wonder what it was like to live in that skin or what you might have learned from playing him?
JE: Well, definitely my way in was through the physical aspects of him, because I certainly didn’t really possess any memory or experience of the other. I never—
(JE & PH laugh.)
JE: I never was incredibly wealthy in my life and I don’t know—apart from seeing characters like that and judging them from the outside, I don’t know what it is to have that arrogance about me. It was great walking in that skin. Baz Luhrmann kind of taught me that I was allowed to walk in that skin, because I didn’t really see it in myself at first, but he saw it in me and gave me the confidence that then I was allowed to run away with. You know, look, one of the great challenges with Tom is that we’re supposed to love to hate him in a way. But I think every character in that book is so corrupt in some part of their psyche. Money-hungry—or whatever their flaws are. Everyone’s got one—which is a great thing about the story and why it’s a classic, I think. But for me the challenge is, you know, I always want a character to be understood, albeit, they don’t need to be liked—or loved.
JE: But understood. And I feel there’s a couple of moments there, for me, where you really, you know—I call it the Malvolio equation, is that you could hate a person for the longest duration of time, and if they commit one act that you understand, or appreciate—
JE: Then they can redeem themselves. And I think that Tom has that in the story for me. And I strive to make him understandable. But at the same time still satisfy the equation of the book, which is that we’ve got to also hate him because he’s a pig. (Laughs.) Oh, and he’s sexist and racist and selfish and all that—things that are not great to observe in human characters but great to play.
G: Yeah. Well, I think I’ve got to wrap it up here, but it was fantastic talking to both of you.
PH: Thank you.
JE: Thank you very much.
G: Hope we’ll get another chance.