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Midnight Special: Joel Edgerton on the mysteries in Jeff Nichols' film

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Sitting on a couch in a hotel conference room one block away from the Empire State Building, Joel Edgerton is sweating. When he raises his right arm, you can see perspiration bleeding through to the outside of his snazzy blue blazer. “I had a cold that I couldn’t shake,” he says. “I got on a plane to Berlin a week or two ago and thought I was healthy again. And then I woke up and was like, ‘What the f—?’”

The 41-year-old Australian has always been one of the movie industry’s most human actors. His roles in Animal Kingdom, The Great Gatsby, Warrior, Black Mass, and his own directorial debut, The Gift, have established him as a master chronicler of soulful, flawed men, each of them living in the gray area between good and bad — and for Edgerton, between rugged character actor and leading man. Exactly where he likes it.

And that’s part of the reason he’s excited about Midnight Special, the sublime supernatural thriller by Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols. It’s why he was flying to the Berlin Film Festival (the movie was in the fest’s competition lineup), and in two months he’ll be at the Cannes Film Festival as the star of Nichols’ next movie Loving, a drama about the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which abolished bans on interracial marriage. (It’s rare for a filmmaker to be invited to compete for the first two biggest international festivals in the movie world — for two different films.)

And yet Midnight Special marks an evolution for the director, working for the first time with a major studio (Warner Bros.) and a larger budget ($23 million), though Nichols is good-humored about his competitive relationship with Edgerton. While shooting Loving last summer, The Gift opened in theaters and became one of 2015’s sleeper hits. “I said to Joel, ‘Way to go — your movie has done better than all my movies combined,’” Nichols remembers. “And then I said, ‘Now, listen to me as I tell you what to do!’”

In two trailers for Midnight Special (both embedded below), Edgerton is only glimpsed three times, even though he probably has the most screentime in the picture, after Nichols’ frequent star Michael Shannon. Such is the gratifyingly mysterious way that the film’s story has been carefully doled out. And Edgerton, as an audience member, wouldn’t have it any other way. 

(Very minor spoilers about the plot of Midnight Special follow.)

ENTERAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations, first of all, on the success of The Gift. It was great to see you nominated for the new Directors Guild award for best first film.

JOEL EDGERTON: Yeah, thanks. I was so thrilled that the film got recognized.

But between that and The Square and The Rover, both of which you wrote, it makes me think that Midnight Special was an easy film to say yes to. It’s really your cup of tea.

Absolutely. It’s not so much the subject matter, yet I’m drawn to films that take place around violence but don’t focus on it or celebrate it in any way. But also there’s the austerity with which Jeff Nichols makes movies. He’s very classic in his structure and form. That appeals to me and the people who I work with. He’s not trying to draw too much attention to the filmmaking itself, and as a result, they end up getting a lot of attention. Because there’s something classic about their movies.

You knew his work before you met him?

Of course. And when I met him for the first time, just down the road Mud was playing. The day before, I’d gone to the cinema to see it, actually.

Did he approach you with the idea of you playing this character, named Lucas?

Jeff is very precise in what he wants, you know, from a lens on the camera to a line of dialogue. And I think that also includes casting. So, yeah, he was coming to me specifically to talk about this role. He gave me the script, and it was a no-brainer. Midnight Special is a page-turner in the truest sense. There’s a new mystery every couple minutes. And a new question asked and sometimes a part of an answer given.

You know you’re hardly in the trailers for it.

Good! [Laughs.] The movie’s a delectable collection of mysteries. And it moves at a rapid pace, but it has its own languid rhythm as well, reminiscent of science-fiction movies of days gone by. 

That’s what also makes it tricky to talk about. I mean, we don’t even find out that your character is a State Trooper until about the one-hour mark.

I think it’s about 45 minutes actually. Or maybe it is an hour. But, yeah, the parsing out of information is very interesting, because there are certain actions that my character commits, and then it adds an added significance when you find out my job. Jeff doesn’t like throwing out exposition in his movies. And in fact, there’s nothing better to keep an audience engaged than to let them paint part of the canvas themselves. I love being an audience member for a movie like that.

It’s a great supporting role, in the purest sense.

Right, not only for me as an actor, but in the way I support the other characters. And he has a choice, unlike some of the others. But he doesn’t really have to be there, and there’s great mystery as to what he’s left behind in order to be there, which could be a family of his own.

I love that there’s no flashbacks in the film.

Me too. Jeff and I talked about what it would have been like when Roy, Michael Shannon’s character, first came to visit Lucas. Something has led Lucas to the point at which the film begins. He’s caught a glimpse that maybe there’s something more to life, and he’s willing to go on that crusade in order to have that curiosity satisfied.

How much did you think about Lucas’ backstory?

Jeff made very clear points to me, but he was also flexible. Actually we said that Lucas had probably been at home working in the garage when Roy first came to him, so as a result that informed costume choices. I have these grubby pants. And also, without overstating it, there’s a conscious reason why Roy came to Lucas. Roy knows he’s a cop; he knows he’s going to have weapons and armored vests. Roy didn’t go see some buddy who’s ended up in IT or something.

You seem like you love to explore duality in men. I mean, The Gift is for sure about that. Also Black Mass, Animal Kingdom. In Gatsby, you created the best Tom Buchanan ever on film. That comes in here, too. Is this a good guy? What is he hiding? Why is he with this family?

Well, everybody is a bag of actions, right? Lucas is essentially a quiet protector, and he’s even willing to go against the child’s father to protect the child. That I found fascinating.

Jeff Nichols is making his first studio film. As a director yourself, do you think he’s under added pressure to have Midnight Special be a success?

Well, once I made a movie, I realized that I was in a very lucky situation, because I made a movie that was a small-platform release, but the themes within it were large enough that the studio mounted a wider release. We struck a little bit of gold, in a way. But the risk is that the artist part of your brain starts to get infused with the business part. And my concern is that artists then start to second-guess what kind of stuff they should make.

That’s a huge pitfall, especially now. 

But Jeff’s not that guy. I think Jeff’s more of a mind that says, “Look, I’m going to make what I’m inspired to make, and chances are there are people who will respond to it.” Yeah, it’s a studio film, but it’s still got all the DNA of his own personal style.

It doesn’t seem compromised, that’s true.

No, and Jeff won’t compromise. And I feel confident in saying that if Jeff caught a sniff that he was going to be compromised artistically, he would just shut the thing down. Go do it somewhere else or rethink what the plan was.

Have you seen any of Loving yet?

No, I’m going to see it next week. There was a little feeding frenzy in Berlin, when a few minutes of the film was shown. And it got sold to Focus, which was nice. I’ve never seen Jeff so happy about a movie. I know he’s very happy with Midnight Special, but there’s an extra new glow about him when he talks about Loving. I’m terrified to see myself in it, but I think it’s going to be really special.

It’s exciting that he’ll have two films out in the same year.

And also, Jeff grows in strength as his team grows in strength. Because he’s a good filmmaker who also happens to be a very nice guy, people want to keep working with him. Chad Keith, his production designer. Adam Stone, his cinematographer. Michael Shannon. They’ve all done every movie with him.

And Adam Stone’s work on Midnight Special

Oh, god. That’s what I mean about everyone around Jeff growing in strength. Adam Stone’s work on Midnight Special couldn’t be better.

And Michael Shannon has said he doesn’t ever want to be left out from a Jeff Nichols movie.

Yeah, at this point, I’d pretty much agree to be a potted plant in the next one. Or a bowl of food, if Jeff wants me for that. I just want to stay part of the family.

You’d be willing to play a tomato?

Well, look, as an actor you need to be rubbing shoulders with people who know how to tell stories. I realized that we actors are so powerless. When I was making The Gift, I realized how much power I wielded over the design and music and editing. And so much of a performance is shaped in the editing room, but as actors, we’re powerless with that. We’ve run off to some other movie set. And a year later we watch the movie, and it’s exactly what we thought it was or it’s better. Or sometimes it falls short, but we can’t do anything about that. But with Jeff, I felt pretty confident that he was going to land in the target.

And that’s sort of the long game, right? You’ve talked about Gene Hackman as someone you hope to emulate.

Yeah. What separates us from athletes is that we don’t have to retire at 30. There’s an audience for us so long as out brains keep going. We can keep transitioning. It’s wonderful being around Kirsten Dunst, you know, because she was a child actor, and I’ve just binged the second season of Fargo. And thinking about the transitions she’s made, it’s amazing. It’s difficult for some actors. It means that some have to hibernate for 10 years and, like a chrysalis, emerge to the next butterfly they’re going to be.

But that gets complicated with typecasting.

Particularly if you’re a young man who’s only been a heroic actor. Then all of the sudden you get criticized for aging, but f— man, human beings age. That is what we do. What I would like to do is to skip from one age to another and keep working in movies, and that’s why I say I’d love to have a Gene Hackman career, rather than I was some Catherine Wheel that burned out at age 45.

It seems like you’re really hitting that stride right now. 

I hope. There’s the other part of it, which is the regular people fantasy, where people like Tom Hanks or Helen Hunt or Donald Sutherland or Gene Hackman or Dustin Hoffman, and the audience sees themselves on screen. I believe the era of ’70s filmmaking, where you just had great actors onscreen, regardless of the way they looked. And audiences saw the real person, not the square jawline or perfect abs.

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