In his filmmaking debut, actor Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) directs, writes and stars in “The Gift,” a thriller that tells the story of a married couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) whose life is thrown into a frenzy when a man from the husband’s past comes back into his life 20 years later to reveal shocking secrets from when they were kids. During an interview with me this week, Edgerton, 41, talked about the privileged position he feels he’s in as a director who is also an actor, and explains why he thinks the thriller genre is one that has to constantly evolve.
You probably don’t have a lot of say when it comes to the marketing of a film, but when “The Gift” is referred to as a modern day “Fatal Attraction,” how do you feel about that? Would you rather the film stands on its own than be compared to something from the past?
You know, it’s like when you move to a new city and try to compare it to the old city you used to live in. Movies are the same. People will say things like it’s like “Fatal Attraction” meets “Forrest Gump.” It’s an easy comparison and I’m fine with it.
You’ve worked with some very talented directors in your career like Ridley Scott (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and Baz Luhrmann (“The Great Gatsby”). How much influence do directors like that have on your own voice as a filmmaker?
Look, I’m in a very privileged position as an actor. I’ve spent so much time on set with these directors. I’d be crazy not to open my eyes and ears to what’s going on around me. Ridley and Gavin O’Connor, who made “Warrior,” and Jeff Nichols (the upcoming “Midnight Special” and “Loving”) and Scott Cooper, who’s got “Black Mass” coming up, these guys have taught me a lot just by being in the presence of them. I get a privilege that a lot of other directors don’t get.
We’ve seen you in some great thrillers like “Animal Kingdom” and “The Square.” What do you think it takes to make something work in this genre? What makes a great thriller?
It’s in the spirit that everything is not what it seems and you’re trying to keep an audience guessing and on their toes. It seems to me that the thriller genre really just has to stay ahead of the audience. Maybe that means the genre has to keep evolving. Anything that has been done successfully before, you can’t just do that again because the audience is waiting for that. They’re expecting it. We wanted to take the audience down that “Fatal Attraction” road and at some point start to mess with their perception of what was going to happen next. I think it’s the director and the writer’s job to keep messing with the minds of the audience.
As an actor, what does it take to get into the head of someone as creepy as your character? What kind of mindset do you have to be in?
That all comes in the writing. I was very determined to write a character for myself who was overbearing and socially awkward. He’s a person we’ve all encountered who wants a friendship with us more than we want with them. (Laughs) I was constantly reminding myself as I made the movie that the movie had to be more than just entertainment. Each character had to be real and resonate in some way, particularly in a film like this where the subject matter is about bullying and the way we can be cruel to each other as people. That danger element of my character is part of that subject matter. He’s a victim of bullying 25 years later asking for some kind of resolution.
Were there any specific challenges in having to direct yourself?
Yeah, I’m a very naughty actor, so trying to control me is unbearable. (Laughs) You know it was tough. Directing is very much about planning and using a lot of brainwork and acting is often about gut instinct, at least for me. Trying to bring those two worlds together on the same day in the same person is tricky. But I had a lot of help. I had a great team. My brother (Nash) was there as an outside eye. The challenges were there early on, but I worked out how to make it work. I was very happy with it.
What did your brother think when you told him you were going to direct your first film? Was he like, “Directing is my thing. Stick to acting!”
Nah, there’s none of that. My brother had an incredible amount of enthusiasm for me to direct. Someone once joked that my brother is a film bully. If someone is thinking about making a movie, he will bully you into doing it. He helped me so much. It was never like, “Hey, stick to your acting, man. I’m the director.” He wanted me to do it. It’s the same reason I’m really excited to see him get in front of the camera more. He’s a little too handsome, but it’s great. We love each other and we love encouraging each other.