Joel Edgerton
Photo by John Russo

Joel Edgerton: “I create my freedom around that”

Short Profile

Name: Joel Edgerton
DOB: 23 June 1974
Place of birth: Blacktown, New South Wales, Australia
Occupation: Actor, director

Joel Edgerton's new film, Boy Erased, is in theaters in Germany on 21 February 2019.

Mr. Edgerton, what does freedom mean to you as an actor and director?

A quest to things like having lack of censorship, being able to explore creatively without limitation. Being a director is sort of the same as being an actor, or a writer — it’s all part of the same thing, and that’s storytelling. But I’m very aware of the fact that the privilege I have as a person, the opportunities that I’ve had as an actor have allowed me to be a director. There’s many people in the world who would make greater movies than I would, or write greater scripts than I have that don’t have the access to facilities or equipment or finance like I do.

The freedom to pursue your passions often overlaps with a certain level of privilege.

Exactly, and so even though I’m proud of the work that I’ve done, I also understand that it comes with a lot of access to freedom and privilege. I also think there’s a difference between public and private freedom of expression. I think the only limitations I have are the limitations I set for myself. If I want to try something and I’m given the space to do it, I’ll do it!

“I chose to do things that I embrace, that I feel passionate about for whatever reason and I create my freedom around that.”

Like what?

Well, I like to paint — I don’t presume to call myself a painter, but I have the freedom to express myself in that way. And it doesn’t matter if somebody’s going to pay me or pat me on the back for it. It’s just that some things you can turn into a job and monetize and other things you can’t. And I chose to do things that I embrace, that I feel passionate about for whatever reason and I create my freedom around that.

Is it even possible to have that kind of artistic freedom in a system like Hollywood?

I don’t know that there’s anything that I’m not allowed to do, it just depends on what opportunities there are available to me. A lot of that depends on how important everybody thinks you are, how much money you make other people. Movie stars continue to be movie stars because they continue to make people money. You know, I exist on certain lists of a certain quality — I’m not Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, but there is a certain space that I occupy that certain jobs are available to me, and I’m happy to exist in that space because it also allows me to do more interesting projects. 

And I would imagine this also gives you the space to define your identity independently from blockbusters.

Absolutely. You know, a few years ago when I decided I wanted to direct a film, I was begging people to finance the movie and to get involved — it may have been my first and only movie, but thankfully people received it well enough so that I could go and make a second movie. That’s proof that you can redefine yourself! And there’s something very freeing about acting in the film you’re directing.

Ralph Fiennes actually said the opposite — that he prefers to make a film without the stress of being in it, but often feels pressure to play the lead because of financial reasons.

I actually think there’s something really wonderful about having no premeditation about the moment of acting because your brain’s been so consumed with every other aspect of production that suddenly you just have to walk in front of the camera and act. I realized the greatest preparation you could ever have as an actor would be to be the person who wrote the script and was there for every single day of preproduction! (Laughs) That allows you in that moment to actually step off the cliff and just see how you can land.

Is that spontaneity the most essential element for you as an actor?

Yes, when I’m acting my movies, what I do is I get my brother to sit behind the monitor so I don’t have to re-watch myself. If you’re performing, it’s great to be intuitive and I think the moment you look at playbacks you start to let vanity come into the equation. That’s why I prefer my actors to not re-watch their takes either: I don’t want them to get inside their head and second-guess what they’re doing. Everything you need is already in the back of your mind and you can make it work.

Has that kind of easy, open attitude always been something you’ve strived for?

I’ve always had a big fear of loss of freedom, even as a child, and I’ve come very close to losing my sense of control in the past. I had an accident in my personal life that I thought was going to change my life irreversibly. I would equate that to a sense of loss of freedom and happiness. That fear was the foundation of a lot of my prayers as a young Catholic kid about things like separation anxiety from my parents or being sent away to a place where I couldn’t get out. As irrational as that was, it was very real to me as a child.

“Injustice to me is when your freedom in society is limited by people outside of yourself, for no other reason than the color of your skin or your sexuality or your religion.”

How did that eventually effect you when you became an actor?

Well, as I grew up and started working as filmmaker and an actor, I was always very interested in stories about prisons and asylums and cults, or stories where parents decide to just get rid of their kids and send them to a boarding school — almost like a complete sign to the child that they’re unloved. That’s what got me interested in the story of my film Boy Erased. I hadn’t really heard much about conversion therapy, and what confused me and what made it more complex, is that the reason that these parents send their son to conversion therapy is not that they didn’t love him.

It was because they did love him and thought they were doing what was best for him.

Right, they thought they were able to help change him. I had never thought about that. I grew up in a very lucky way and my safety net has always been family. When I read stories of other people who don’t have access to the simple things, it really does resonate with me. Injustice to me is when your freedom in society is limited by people outside of yourself, for no other reason than the color of your skin or your sexuality or your religion. I’ve never experienced any of those limitations but I think it’s beneficial to realize that you are as vulnerable as every other human being on the planet. The greatest tool of an actor is to have empathy because it allows you to see the paths of another person’s life.