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Joel Edgerton on addiction, great dads, and why he's buying a Batmobile

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Chris Sayer
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Joel Edgerton

There are two very good reasons why we’ll never, ever see the footage of Joel Edgerton’s childhood acting days. Why we’ll forever be robbed of the ‘comedy cowboy’ movies that he and his older brother, Nash, shot on their dad’s Betacam in the Australian national park that their family home backed on to. Or the Chuck Norris kung-fu recreations, complete with shonky two-camera special edits that allowed Edgerton the ability to flea-leap from the ground onto the roof of a house. Or the many (wince) DIY rap music videos, complete with (double wince) choreographed dance routines and questionable lyrics that, he’d later find out, weren’t as school performance-friendly as he’d perhaps thought.

“She’ll hate me for saying it,” Edgerton tells me as he picks up his black coffee. “But mum taped over them. She taped over a huge amount of them with her daytime television shows. I’ve never been good at labelling things that belong to me, or general organisation.”

And the few that made it out of the ‘80s soap-opera steamrolling?

“My brother has a small cache. I’d take the rap for murder before letting anyone see the things in there,” he says. “There’s a video of me, drunk, aged 15, singing a U2 song, and really, seriously believing that I’ve got the chops. It’s actually, very seriously, part of the reason why I never had a 21st birthday party. I just knew that it was going to be a video slaughter of me.”

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Edgerton, coffee safely resting in his set of huge and well-worked hands, is sitting across from me in a hotel room that would be the epitome of luxury, were it not for the intermittent drilling and hammering happening one floor above. Work that, according to Edgerton, sounds a lot like “Claridge’s is farting!” But there’s never a threat of the Hollywood tantrum you’d maybe expect of a guy who’s shared top-line film-poster space with Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. As if to further emphasise his nice-guy credentials, Edgerton cracks into a tribute to actors who have found success at half his age.

“You know, I look at a guy like Timothée Chalamet and a guy like Lucas Hedges. Man, they had it all worked out by the age of 15, maybe 20. I’m so impressed by those kids. The kids who put the puzzle together sooner. Because when I was 20, I was stumbling, definitely, around in the dark. I was never that.”

DRIVING THE MONSTER

Edgerton is the first to admit his 20s were a bullet he was lucky to dodge – a late discovery of drugs after a good, Catholic childhood risked “it all coming off the rails”. In fact, he’s the first to admit quite a lot of things. At one point, he jokingly – half-jokingly – accuses me of using Jedi mind-tricks when he self-diagnoses a higher level of ambition than he’s comfortable confessing to. Later, he wonders how he’s turned our interview into a “psychoanalysis couch situation” when he concedes that it’s his fault, and nobody else’s, that his life is extraordinarily imbalanced.

But you don’t need to be a psychoanalyst, nor a Jedi, to see that Edgerton’s last 12 years have been consumed by a punishing, borderline masochistic amount of work. A catalogue propelled, presumably, by a monster ambition, as much as he’s loathe to admit to one. The gaps between big-league blockbusters (The Great Gatsby, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Bright) are filled with criminally under-the-radar gems (Loving, Animal Kingdom) and punctuated with his critically acclaimed director and writer credits (The Gift, The Square, and next year’s Boy Erased). And then there’s Warrior, Black Mass, Star Wars and the Russian spy drama he’s here to premiere tonight, Red Sparrow.

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It’s a monumental workload – an average of almost four films a year – that spiked in 2013 after breaking off his engagement to Balinese fashion designer Alexis Blake. When that happened, five years ago, he did what many a man has been guilty of when emerging from a huge life upheaval: he went full-steam ahead into a cloud of work, and nothing else, to distract himself. Why do men do this? He considers it, pushing the sleeves of his muscle-hugging and expensive-looking cream long-sleeve.

“I think men just need to do stuff. For me, the idea of sitting quietly and just being present, or talking about my internal feelings, is the less-favourable option to getting up and fidgeting or cleaning or writing a script. It’s so easy to mask life with work. It’s like a complete avoidance tactic. And how amazing is it for me to have found a way to monetise avoidance? To have the excuse to say, ‘Hey, I have to go to this country far away for four months for work, they’re making me, I have to go.’ Err, no, they’re not making you. You could take the time off, to sit and be quiet. That’s what I think I really need, because I feel like I’ve been on a 10-year journey and I don’t know what I’m trying to prove. I do still think that, deep down, I want my parents to be impressed by me. I do feel like I’ve checked that box. But I feel like I’d still be trying to impress my parents even if they were long gone. That feeling of ‘wherever you are, I hope you’re proud’.”

THE GOOD SON

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It’s clear now that a huge driving force behind Edgerton’s unrelenting approach to work is his parents. His father, in particular, gets spoken of with boyish pride. After all, he’s the reason Joel and his filmmaker brother both went on to become storytellers. Despite his dad being a devoted family man from a young age, and helming his own solicitors firm, Edgerton crowns him “the most qualified unpaid performer I’ve ever met”, owing to an ability to “make moving or funny speeches” that fascinated his sons from a young age.

“I don’t think he was holding this burning dream to be an actor, but I think there was a moment in his life where it occurred to him that it was a thing that he’d like. But the prospect of ditching his law degree to have a bit of a play around as an actor, it didn’t match up with feeding me and my brother.”

The fear of disappointing his parents, also, was what got his life back on course in his 20s.

“In my mid-20s everything risked going off the rails. Some people are always inches from chaos. I definitely am that person. I’ve got an addict’s personality, it’s a part of my DNA, and it means I sometimes make choices that are outside of myself. But at the same time, I’ve also got a really high level of control. I’m a massive control freak. The chaos and the control, somehow, they co-exist. And although it really annoys me sometimes, I care too much about what people, in particular my parents, think and feel. I could never let the chaotic side of me take too much control, because it would be so upsetting for them.”

ADDRESSING THE IMBALANCE

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Everything has changed for Joel Edgerton over the past two decades, and yet very little has changed, too. Despite out-acting some of the industry’s greatest names on the big screen, and making every role he’s undertaken his own with a restrained brilliance, the chaos and the control, it still exists inside him. They’re still yet to find an even balance. Right now it’s the control, not the chaos of his mid-20s, that’s tipping the scales. And that means films. A lot of films.

“Now, the control is the burying myself in work, my chaos is my inability to sit and be quiet. And I totally need to solve that problem. I know that, as I get older, there are going to be more moments of quiet, and more moments where I don’t work. And I need to know better how to be in those. I mean, in this psychoanalysis couch situation that I’ve managed to talk myself into, what I’m willing to say is that my life is pretty imbalanced. It’s too much work. And it’s nobody’s fault, except for mine.”

Is this not just a common symptom of modern life that we’re all suffering from? That modern life is work? That we’re married to the office. That we spend too much time from home. That we never get to see our kids…

“Yeah, but those people, at least they got to have the kids,” he interrupts. “But there’s a certain thing that, being a man – and I do it, and I know other men who do it – there’s the element of avoiding life. It’s a curse and a blessing to really enjoy what you do. It undulates for me, the peaks and troughs. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones. Some days you feel like you’re moving forward, and other days you feel like you’re not. But, the sum total of it all is, regardless of whatever good days and bad days I have with work, I’m totally engaged and very passionate about work. And that’s the blessing and the curse. I’ll look up every two years and think, ‘Oh shit. Two years just went by.’”

Evidence of a radical self-care programme is apparent, though. 43-year-old Joel Edgerton is… buying himself a Batmobile. It’s the name he’s given the new camper van he’s currently negotiating for, that he’s planning to leave at his “pretty cool” base in Sydney. He hopes it might help him to ease off the career accelerator that’s been anchored to the metal this past decade, and has kept him from his home city for all but two opioid-hazed, routine surgery-filled weeks in the past two years.

“I have this theory. If the garage is loaded up with The Batmobile, and it’s ready to go at any point, I’d be able to decide on Friday night that I wanted to go on a surf trip, and could just head off, shooting up or down the coast looking for waves. It’s a lure. I want to have the arrow nocked and ready to fire whenever I need to. It’s something I want to make life more fun. Because I have to force myself to stop working. To plan a trip. The thing is, I often forget that I have the means to do it.”

Red Sparrow is in cinemas now 

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