After two decades of supporting roles, the ''Warrior'' star finally has critics buzzing — and A-list directors lining up to work with him. But he isn't about to let newfound fame diminish his fighting spirit

By Sara Vilkomerson
September 16, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

He’s coming off a pair of critically acclaimed films — Warrior (in theaters now) and last year’s Aussie noir Animal Kingdom — and has a slew of high-profile projects on deck, including a starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But good luck getting Joel Edgerton to agree he’s the Next Big Thing. ”The first time I got a movie I was like, ‘This is it! Here I go!”’ laughs Edgerton. ”I was very naive.” Yet the 37-year-old Australian concedes that this time feels different. ”I’m excited on one hand, and on the other, I’m freaked out.”

He shouldn’t worry — this year’s momentum has been a long time coming. Edgerton has worked steadily since the mid-’90s in films such as Erskineville Kings (costarring Hugh Jackman), Ned Kelly, Kinky Boots, and — achieving fanboy credibility for life — Star Wars: Episode II and III. ”I remember getting the call [for Star Wars] on my way to a play rehearsal, and I couldn’t contain myself,” he recalls. ”We were doing serious theater and I’m going, ‘F— Hamlet, I’m going to Tatooine!”’ Still, it wasn’t until fairly recently, following his gritty performance in Animal Kingdom, along with his turn as Stanley Kowalski to Cate Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois in the Sydney production of A Streetcar Named Desire, that Hollywood execs seemed to take notice.

In the mixed-martial-arts drama Warrior, Edgerton stars as a troubled fighter at odds with his brother (Tom Hardy). Next month, the actor appears in the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing. Then in 2012 he’ll go toe-to-toe with Leonardo DiCaprio in Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and cozy up with Jennifer Garner in the Disney fantasy The Odd Life of Timothy Green. He’s also rumored to be in Kathryn Bigelow’s as-yet-untitled bin Laden thriller. ”It’s weird to read about yourself on the Internet and chart your own path,” says Edgerton of reports that he was, for example, thisclose to the lead in the next Bourne movie. (Jeremy Renner got it.) ”It makes you think, ‘Well, what do I really want to achieve?”’ For Edgerton, the answer isn’t limited to acting: He’s at work on three scripts, including one his brother plans to direct for the film collective they co-run with a group of other filmmakers like Animal Kingdom director David Michôd. ”It’s an interesting challenge when you suddenly have lots of possibilities to choose from. You have to stop and think about who you are and what you want,” he says. ”It’s like Star Wars — you can be seduced by the dark side.”