Actor Joel Edgerton avoids conflict in real life, but embraces it on-screen
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actor Joel Edgerton, is Australian, but he's learned a lot about American racism through the roles he's played. In the 2016 film "Loving," he played Richard Loving, a white man who married a Black woman, leading to the historic Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, the case that overturned state laws that made interracial marriage illegal. In the streaming series "The Underground Railroad," he played a determined slave catcher. And now he stars in Paul Schrader's new film, the third in Schrader's trilogy of films, each about a lonely man who has emotionally shut down to escape the past.
Each of these films has echoes of Schrader's screenplay for "Taxi Driver" and his character Travis Bickle, God's lonely man. As in "Taxi Driver," the lead characters in each of these films is known by their profession - a minister in "First Reformed," a card counter in "The Card Counter," a horticulturalist in the new film "Master Gardener." The main characters, like Travis in "Taxi Driver," keep a journal. In "Master Gardener," Edgerton is the head gardener in a historic public garden that has existed for four generations on a Southern family estate. His journal is filled with his thoughts about gardening and how it's a metaphor for much of life. Here's a journal entry from early in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MASTER GARDENER")
JOEL EDGERTON: (As Narvel Roth) The nandina is a species of flowering plant native to eastern Asia. The smell at certain times of the year is minty with a hint of almond. Gives you a real buzz...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUN FIRING)
EDGERTON: (As Narvel Roth) ...Like the buzz you get just before pulling the trigger. Gardening is the most accessible of the arts. It's already there. Every seed is a plant waiting to be unlocked. It was commonly thought that 150 years was a lifetime of a seed. In the 1950s, a Japanese botanist discovered viable lotus seeds in an Ice Age lake bed. A substantial portion were germinated. It is now believed that the lifetime of a seed is between 850 and 1,250 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EDGERTON: (As Narvel Roth) Given the right conditions, seeds can last indefinitely. I wear mine on my skin every day.
GROSS: As the gardener writes this in his journal, we see him shirtless, revealing that his back and chest are covered with swastikas and other white nationalist symbols. It's shocking, and we don't know what to make of it, but we slowly learn as the movie progresses.
Homophobia was at the center of Edgerton's film "Boy Erased," which he wrote and directed. He co-starred as the director of a religious-based gay conversion therapy center with the mission of converting gay teens into heterosexuals. The film was adapted from a memoir by a gay man who'd been sent to such a center when he was in his teens. Edgerton also wrote and directed the psychological thriller "The Gift." Among his many other roles are Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby" and Owen Lars, Anakin Skywalker's half-brother, in two of the "Star Wars" prequels and in the Disney+ series "Obi-Wan Kenobi." He started making movies with his brother Nash when they were still in their pre-teens - home movies. Nash became a stuntman and did the stunts for Ewan McGregor in his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy.
Joel Edgerton, welcome to FRESH AIR. You are so great in this new movie. You know, the movie starts in the garden. And I thought, what? Has Paul Schrader gone pastoral? What's going on here (laughter)?
GROSS: And of course, as soon as I heard the bullet in that clip that we just played, I thought, aha, here we go (laughter). What was your reaction reading the beginning?
EDGERTON: I remember as I started reading and reading about the garden and reading about his approach to gardening, the character's approach to gardening, thinking, all right, when is the violence going to seep into this place? And when we were in Venice talking about this film - it's really interesting, you know, to hear Paul talk about his evolution through these stories, which bear resemblance to each other. But they are starting to shift into a softer, more optimistic and hopeful place, in particular the "Master Gardener," which, you know, without spoiling anything, it will be an interesting thing for anybody who's a fan of Paul to see how that there's not only the setting but the kind of culmination of the story, where it's headed is somewhere more hopeful than other things that he's written.
GROSS: You know, obviously, I recognize the swastika tattoos on your back, but what are the other symbols and writings tattooed on your body?
EDGERTON: Well, a lot of them are, you know, iconic symbols of white supremacist or white nationalist kind of organizations - the birth date or birth year of Hitler, symbols of the SS and various other symbols and numbers that are significant and mean something to people in these sort of white nationalist enclaves.
GROSS: Did you have to get them retattooed every day?
EDGERTON: You know, Paul is very restrained in the way that he makes films and expounds story. And I remember wearing them for the first time and feeling the kind of strange power that they had. And Paul told me that he'd artfully sort of written the film so that we only ever see them on a specific three occasions. So it was really a matter of only having to wear them on three different days. And he specifically made my character's costume so much a kind of veil and a cover for all those tattoos so that when I'm operating within the garden, it's not - there's no hint of any of those markings until, you know, it's important that I take that shirt off.
GROSS: What did Paul Schrader tell you about the kind of performance that he wanted? Because your character is both very charismatic, but during most of the film, he's emotionally shut down. You know, he's, like, created this rigid structure for himself. There's rules of gardening. There's rules in his life. He allows himself one cigarette a day. Everything's very regimented. I think that must be really hard to do. So what did Schrader tell you about what he wanted from the character and from your portrayal?
EDGERTON: Well, first of all, Paul is somebody rare that I've encountered that knows exactly what he wants and is very straightforward in communicating the things that he wants. And as an actor, his interest in sort of letting me know from our earliest conversations what he imagined and expected of the character was very clear. And I remember Paul using the analogy of the ocean and the turbulence of - different stages of turbulence of water, and that he saw his stories populated by characters that were the waves and the movement of water and the chaos and which I equated and he equates to, you know, emotional expression and that the central character of his stories was generally a kind of a pillar or a rock or a lighthouse amongst all that turbulence.
And essentially, what he was telling me was do nothing. You know, let the story kind of - let the words come through, that the less of an actor that I was, the better for the film that he wanted to create. And I found that a really interesting challenge because I am an actor, and, you know, there's maybe a fear of doing nothing, a fear of not being good enough unless you're doing something. And by something, I mean, you know, bringing your bag of tricks of performance and emotion and being loud and soft and emotional and angry and upset and all those things.
GROSS: And even bits of business, like putting your hands in your pockets or fidgeting - you know, fidgeting with...
GROSS: ...Something. Like, your character can't do any of that. He's just still.
EDGERTON: Yeah. And creating a character is often the gravitational pull. But this is a different kind of character in the confidence to be still and the confidence to be quiet and the confidence to just let the thoughts come through. And I found that a really sort of difficult but, you know, a really alluring challenge. And Paul actually cited "Loving" as something that he admired in terms of its restraint. So at least I had a guide in some of my previous films that I understood what he was sort of gravitating towards.
GROSS: Yeah, your character in "Loving" is so kind of unexpressive. He barely talks, and he doesn't even go to the Supreme Court case that bears his name, Loving v. Virginia. Do you understand being as emotionally shut down as your character is? Is there anything that you can draw from from your own experience that understands what it is to push emotion down like that?
EDGERTON: Oh, I think I really understand it when it comes to aggression. You know, I have a really interesting relationship with uncomfortability and tension. I try and avoid it at all costs. I feel deep anxiety when I see things of conflict. And I've often wondered if that's part of the reason that I - that drew me to become an actor is that I go to work, and I get paid - well, it's less about being paid. It's more that I get to go to an environment where I can be all of the things that I'm not comfortable doing in my real life and feel comfortable within conflict. But yeah, if you catch me in the midst of conflict in my life, I am like a snail, you know? And I know what my threshold is. I know what my male pride and ego draws me into, and I can feel when my blood goes up. Like, I'm not - it's not like I don't feel the effects of it, but I would rather avoid it. And so here I am, living a life where I have a job that requires me to participate in all this stuff.
GROSS: Do you understand why you're anxious about conflict?
EDGERTON: I don't know. I really don't know. I'm a people pleaser. I think I take that lead from my mother, whereas my father is very happy to rock the boat, to really be assertive. I think, you know, my mother and I just want to make sure everybody's OK. And I think sometimes that is to your own detriment because it requires you to bear the load and repress certain other things. I mean, I'm like - I'm not, like, a combustible bottle ready to smash and burst open and create some massive flash of violence, but, you know, I feel that compression and repression at times, but I'm pretty good with my other emotions, I think.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Edgerton, and he stars in Paul Schrader's new film "Master Gardener." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joel Edgerton. He stars in Paul Schrader's new movie "Master Gardener." Edgerton plays the head gardener of a historic public garden that has existed for four generations on a Southern family estate. The gardener has a secret past as a white nationalist.
So did you have to do research about white supremacists in America? I mean, 'cause, like, you're from Australia. I don't know how familiar you are with the American breed of white supremacy.
EDGERTON: The biggest concerning thing for me - and yes, I did a lot of reading about it, and it was even before Paul called me - is the (inaudible) into the public sphere and onto social media and to feel less fear about their opinions. I found that the most alarming thing. And it was like - an environment had been created that said, hey, all those things that you're thinking, it's OK to think them, and it's OK to say them, and free speech is there to protect you. And on one hand, there was this feeling like, OK, well, at least, you know, you know where danger lurks if it's walking around freely and talking freely. But it was alarming, I think, that there was such a growth in a certain acceptability of those opinions, according to some sections of the community.
And so, yeah, I was pretty well aware of certain different groups, and, you know, I could understand exactly where the birth of Paul's creation of character had come from. But the question - or one of the questions he's proposing is, can we forgive the actions of a person within their own lifetime if they start one place and evolve to another? And the starting point for Narvel's character is as a white nationalist with very strong opinions and violence towards people of color, which he states, I think, through - I state throughout the film that there's an implication there are ideas that were handed down to him that he didn't question, which I think goes for a lot of people who hold racist opinions and racist points of view in our world. They have to learn it from somewhere.
GROSS: So let's talk about your film "Boy Erased," which you wrote and directed, adapting it from a memoir by Garrard Conley, who was sent to a gay conversion therapy center as a teenager. And in this film, the main character is sent to a gay conversion center whose mission is to turn gay teens into straight teens. The teenager is sent there by his Baptist parents. And it reminds me of your character Narvel in "Master Gardener," the former white nationalist who says, I was raised to hate people different from me. I was good at it. So what do you relate to about that? 'Cause it's a theme in "Boy Erased" and a theme in your new film.
EDGERTON: Yeah. I remember - 'cause this was something that really sort of brought to bear for me when I was making "The Gift," which is really underpinned by this theme of bullying, is that I've seen both sides of that situation. I remember being part of groups that would sort of, you know - the safety in numbers feeling, like, the way to kind of fit in would be to treat other people unkindly and be a bully. And I don't think I was ever smart enough to be a ringleader of bullying but definitely, like, part of being cruel to other kids. And I was definitely on the receiving end of that as well.
And I remembered - you know, on the press tour for "Boy Erased," I remember the kind of homophobic slurs that you - you know, you perhaps would say without ever really understanding what you were talking about. Like, I remember in high school, I don't think I ever knew anybody of the LGBTQ community until I met and realized that a very close friend of my father's had come out. And I started to really understand what being gay was when I was a teenager.
But before that, I was like - there are words that I won't repeat here that I'm sure I didn't really quite understand, but it was just a way of teasing somebody, you know? And I think those sort of formative years - in particular, I'm fascinated by the ages of, you know - as a guy anywhere - young men and young girls at the age of sort of 13, 14, 15, as they start to understand how they can hurt others. And where is that point where we start to understand that we can hurt others and how to sort of go about not letting that live into your later teens and into your adult life?
GROSS: You say you were on both sides of bullying. What were you bullied for?
EDGERTON: I remember a particular event. I was locked in a bathroom when I was in grade seven and thrown around by about three or four much older boys. And I am certain now that all they were doing was sort of entertaining themselves and found it quite fun and funny. But, to me, I really thought my life was in danger, that I was in a very vulnerable position. And I was sort of stuck in there for probably only a couple of minutes, but it felt like an eternity. And it resulted in these boys getting suspended from school. But I felt this really deep fear that day.
And years later, I was in a cafe, and this boy came up to me - or this man came up to me - I would have been probably 19 or 20 - and introduced himself. And the moment he said his name, I knew that he was one of those boys. And he apologized to me and told me that his father had taken him out of school because of that event and that it was the best thing that ever happened to him because he was very unhappy at that school but that he wanted to let me know that, now that he'd run into me, that he was sorry. And it was quite a significant thing, you know, really weird, short, little moment that happened in a cafe in Sydney - surprising.
GROSS: How did it affect you emotionally to have him apologize? 'Cause it sounds like this is something that you'd carried around for a long time.
EDGERTON: You know, I felt the guilt of having told my dad that this thing had happened and the fact that my dad then went to the school, and I was mortified. And then these boys got suspended, and I felt like I was then in danger. You know, I mean, school is a dangerous place. I - you know, I think - you know, I'm fascinated with that age that I was talking about - 13, 14, 15. And, in fact, recently I'm working on another story that deals with bullying and with the dangerous environment of high school. And I don't know why. It's just one of my fascinations.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Joel Edgerton. He stars in Paul Schrader's new film, "Master Gardener." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "TWENTY YEARS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Joel Edgerton, who has starred in many films, including Paul Schrader's new movie "Master Gardener." In the 2016 film "Loving," he played Richard Loving, a white man who married a Black woman, leading to the historic Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that overturned state laws that had made interracial marriage illegal. In the streaming series "The Underground Railroad," he played a determined slave catcher. Edgerton also wrote and directed the psychological thriller "The Gift." And among his many other roles are Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby" and Owen Lars, Anakin Skywalker's half-brother, in two of the "Star Wars" prequels and in the Disney+ series "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
It sounds like when you were in, I don't know, your teens or 20s, you worked at a hotel in a very dangerous area of Sydney, Australia. And was the hotel itself dangerous? Like, what went on in that hotel?
EDGERTON: No, it was - the hotel was actually quite a sort of gentrified - I think it was part of the Hyatt chain. It just happened to be at the entry gates to the red-light district in Sydney, you know, where - it's slightly changed now because of sort of nighttime curfew laws, but King's Cross was where - and is where - most of the sort of hub of prostitution and drugs, the drug trade, and lots of sort of nightclubs are. And the hotel was right at the beginning edge of that. And I was sort of terrified. I mean, I was a quasi-country boy growing up, and I had only just moved to the city and gone to a drama school, which was back out in the country sort of areas. And here I was living in the city, and I needed a job. You know, I was out of college, and I was working as a porter or a - you know, a bellhop as Americans would say, I guess.
And it was more the things that would go on outside the front doors and, you know, fights spilling in. And somebody that I was working with ended up going to prison for selling guns out of that hotel. I remember there was a really, really awful event that happened where one of the - one of my co-staff - I wasn't around that particular week, but - had committed suicide at the hotel. It just felt like, for the environment that I'd grown up in, which was very leafy and safe and bushland and lovely, I was suddenly in the chaos of the city, and it was, like, very eye-opening for me.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were in a movie, but nobody had written your part in the script?
EDGERTON: (Laughter) Yeah, I...
GROSS: Because you were not used to any of this. All of this is happening around you.
EDGERTON: I feel like danger is just part of the optimism of youth, you know - that, you know, my brother and I would go skiing, and the things that we would do on a pair of skis I would never even dream of doing now. You know, children want to defy gravity and climb really high, and I think the same could be said about the curiosity for weirdness and unusual things and trying to get into nightclubs when you're way too young, you know, forging your own ID to try and get into places. And I think part of life is understanding that you're not immortal. And I have this strong belief that we all, at some point, learn that lesson, and hopefully, we learn it in a semi-safe way.
GROSS: How did you learn it?
EDGERTON: Oh, I remember exactly when I learned it. I was in Thailand when all the planes were supposed to fall out of the sky on the turn of the...
EDGERTON: Millennial to - Y2K. And we were expecting - I think Nike's ads had giraffes running around in the city. And, you know, I went to Thailand, and we were counting down to midnight, and we were waiting for all the chaos to happen, which we all know now never happened. But my chaos happened that night. I got super drunk, and I was doing acrobatics on the beach, something that I'd learnt through my brother and his stunt guys, friends. And I landed upside down on my neck in the sand at about 2 o'clock in the morning. And when I stood up I couldn't feel my left arm at all, and I had a feeling like I'd almost broken my spine.
And it turned out that I - I was told I had completely torn the nerves in my left neck that extended to my left arm. And it took me about eight months to rehab. And I saw a neurosurgeon who told me I hadn't torn the nerves. I'd just stretched them. But I think the significant part of it was I realized that I had been careless with myself, and I put myself in a lot of danger and that I could easily have ended up in a wheelchair that day. And I was lucky. I was so lucky that I'd been injured in a way that was bad but not lasting. And it really made me reassess my point of view on dangerous things in general.
GROSS: Meanwhile, your brother Nash became a stuntman, and so...
GROSS: ...I guess he did not lose his taste for danger. And what's been the craziest thing you've seen him do in a movie?
EDGERTON: The craziest thing he's ever done is in real life, which I'll tell you about. But the most awful thing I've ever watched my brother do - and I've seen him do it three times now - is set himself on fire or be set on fire.
GROSS: This is a movie?
EDGERTON: Yeah. I've seen him do it a few times - two times in a movie, and once in a TV show. And I get very scared because fire is just - like, I've seen him jump off things, and I've seen him get injured badly. But something about watching your brother get set on fire, I mean, it even makes me upset talking about it. And he's always been fine. He got burnt once pretty badly on the arm, but he's OK. The craziest thing, to lighten the mood (laughter)...
EDGERTON: ...My brother jumped out of a moving train because he was late for a basketball game.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
EDGERTON: Yeah. And he basically realized the train he'd got on wasn't going to stop at the station where his ride was. So he pushed the doors open, waited for the platform to come along, put his backpack on and just figured he could jump out and do a dive roll. And he cut himself up so badly that when he got in the car with my friend's mother, he said he'd been in a fight with somebody. And she took him to the basketball court, and he walked on. And I was there, and I was like, what happened to you? And he's like, I'll tell you about it later. And he tried to go on and play, and the referee told him he wasn't allowed 'cause he was bleeding so much.
GROSS: I can't even imagine opening the door 'cause they're closed. I mean, I've never been on Australian train, but from start to finish that's just impossible for me to imagine...
EDGERTON: Yeah. Well, our trains are...
GROSS: ...especially with, like, a backpack on.
EDGERTON: The train would have been going about 50 to 60 miles an hour. And, yeah, he jumped out. He was probably about 16. Crazy.
GROSS: Very, very. Well, let's take another break here. Let your brother heal.
GROSS: And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Edgerton. He stars in Paul Schrader's new movie, "Master Gardener." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMY WINEHOUSE SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joel Edgerton, who's starring in Paul Schrader's new movie, "Master Gardener."
I want to play a clip from the first really famous film that you were in, and that was "Star Wars: Revenge Of The Clone" (ph).
EDGERTON: Oh, OK.
GROSS: OK? So I want to play a clip. And you are Anakin Skywalker's half-brother in this. This is where you first meet.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES")
EDGERTON: (As Owen Lars) Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru.
BONNIE PIESSE: (As Beru) Hello.
NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Padme) I'm Padme.
EDGERTON: (As Owen Lars) I guess I'm your stepbrother. I had a feeling you might show up someday.
GROSS: OK. I think that's all your lines in the film.
GROSS: That's it, right? That's your part. Oh, I should mention, you know, there's also a scene indoors. That's outdoors. There's also scene indoors, when you both go indoors, and we see the back of your head mostly. And that's it, right?
EDGERTON: Yeah. But that was my crowbar into Hollywood, I'll call that.
GROSS: And how did you use that crowbar?
EDGERTON: Well, you know, I had a curiosity about going to America and that George Lucas was probably going to take about 18 months to put the movie together. And I knew that I could go to Hollywood and say that I was in the new "Star Wars" film, and nobody would know that it was only, like, three minutes (laughter), and that it would allow me to, you know, meet with agents and do things, get the opportunities or the opportunities to audition for the kinds of things that I thought I was capable of, which I did. And, you know, at the time, you know, the - I guess it was, yeah, 2000. You know, I went to LA and started doing meetings and trying to get people to take me seriously. And so "Star Wars" really sort of opened that door for me.
GROSS: And what happened? What happened after anyone saw how small your part was?
EDGERTON: No one called me and said, hey, you conned me. And, even to this day, for all of the work that I've done, you know, when I go to a festival and sign photographs for fans, if they're there, it's still - half of them are photographs from me in "Star Wars," whether it be the Disney+ series recently but more so the old "Star Wars" films. And, ironically, I heard someone say - this is a secondhand story - that Liam Neeson quipped at some point about signing all of his Qui-Gon photographs from "Star Wars." He's like, I'm - he's, like, thinking about all the other work he's done. He's like, I was Schindler for - sake, you know?
EDGERTON: And it's amazing. The legion of "Star Wars" fans are there, and they'll always be there. And as much as my few lines in "A New Hope" - I mean, in the second installment of "Star Wars" weren't "Hamlet" or they weren't "Henry V," they are very much part of my timeline that I am - I have gratitude for.
GROSS: What did "Star Wars" mean to you growing up? How old were you when you saw your first "Star Wars" film, and which one was it?
EDGERTON: "Star Wars" was huge to me. I was a collector of the little toys. I remember one of my - the first significant cinema experiences I had was my father waking my brother up and putting us in the car and driving 20 minutes to the Roxy Cinema in Parramatta, which is where he worked, like, where - near where he worked. And we wore pajamas and our slippers to go watch "Return Of The Jedi." And so "Star Wars" was very much part of my youth, as was "Indiana Jones" and "E.T." And, you know, Lucas and Spielberg kind of were very much part of my - the seeds of my interest in cinema. And so, you know, being cast even in a small role in "Star Wars" was like a dream that I never imagined could come true coming true.
GROSS: Well, you had access to the set. You got to see how things worked. You got to work with George Lucas.
EDGERTON: Yeah. Yeah. And I got to go to...
GROSS: Unless there was a second unit director, and you didn't get to see him.
EDGERTON: Yeah. And, you know, I had long had a dream that I could potentially be an actor and see the world at the same time. And it was the first time that I had proved that that could come true because I got flown to Tunisia to do a couple of scenes. And I remember getting out of this white Land Cruiser in the sweltering heat in the Sahara Desert in Tatooine. And I looked across, and there are the water towers, the iconic water towers of Owen Lars' moisture farm. And there was C-3PO standing there next to George Lucas. And I felt like I was moving in a direction that I wanted to move.
GROSS: So let's talk about growing up. Your parents were Catholic, I think, like, pretty religious, would you say?
EDGERTON: I was given a Catholic upbringing and did my Holy Communion I think specifically because my parents were actually just trying to please my grandparents. You know, in my church going, I was very much a little Ned Flanders kid.
EDGERTON: You know, once I'd done my Holy Communion, it was like Sunday morning I was full of beans. It was like, let's go to church. And looking back on it, I realized my parents at the time would have been in their early to mid-30s. And every couple of Sundays, they'd be like, well, we're not going to go today. And they were probably hungover or, you know, just tired from having friends around the night before. And I stopped going to church for about a month. And then I was terrified of God being angry with me. So, no, my parents weren't necessarily deeply religious. I think they gave us the option of a Catholic religion to please grandparents.
GROSS: Was there a point when you felt like the church subscribed to views that you no longer believed, whether it pertained to divorce or LGBTQ rights, marriage equality, abortion?
EDGERTON: No. You know, at the time, my questioning about religion was more about what I would call the fairytale aspect of it. You know, it's this idea of adhering to a bunch of stories that seemed - you know, in fairness to anybody who is dedicated to these religions, I admire you, and I have envy for your - for the aspects that religion gives you. But I sat there going, what? How did he go around the world and get two of every animal? Like, how did that happen? And, you know, questioning some of the - what I felt like were the more far-fetched stories within the Bible started to make me wonder. And to be honest, you know, there were a couple of times that I lost friends late in high school, and that really reinforced for me my questioning about where did God fit into the scheme of things if he took good people away.
GROSS: Wait. Why did you lose friends? What was the conflict?
EDGERTON: Oh, no. I mean, like, lost as in they passed away.
GROSS: Oh, they died.
GROSS: Sorry. Yeah.
EDGERTON: Car accident and motorcycle accident. And, you know, I've - I was fascinated by the Book of Job, to be honest, because it felt like an explanation to me about how we can have things taken away from us but still have a devotion. And I couldn't really fathom that as much. I couldn't really put that into place in my head. I'm being very diplomatic here. But it just raised a lot of questions for me.
GROSS: Was there, like, a specific moment when you officially left the church, or was it a gradual not going this week, not going next week?
EDGERTON: Yeah, like, we didn't go for a few weeks in a row, and I actually started to get very scared that I'd be in trouble with God. Like, it was a real feeling for me. And I would pray before I went to bed every night, and the two things I prayed for was that I wouldn't get sent to war and that I wouldn't get taken away from my parents, like taken away by a stranger. And I remember them being very potent fears for me. I think part of our education in junior school or, you know, primary school was stranger danger and watching images of news on the war. They were my two big fears, and I asked God to make sure that I was protected from them. And so when I stopped going to church, I don't think I ever really got rid of my Catholic guilt.
GROSS: And you had no one to pray to about not being sent to war?
EDGERTON: Yeah. So I think it was a slow kind of atrophy, in a way, my relationship with religion. It wasn't, like, a definitive kind of line in the sand.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joel Edgerton, and he stars in Paul Schrader's new film "Master Gardener." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joel Edgerton. He stars in Paul Schrader's new film "Master Gardener" as a gardener who runs a historic public garden that has been in four generations of one family, and the garden is on the family estate in the South with the implication that this garden was probably part of a plantation many years ago.
So you are the father of twins, and you were so close with your brother growing up. Is your closeness with your brother and knowing what a brother can mean and what a profound effect you had on each other's lives, is that effecting your approach to having - you know, to being the father of twins?
EDGERTON: My brother and I ended up in the happy situation where I think the bar is set very high of my expectations or hopes for my own kids, you know, like, because my brother and I will talk to each other every couple of days. We hang out a lot. We share ideas. We're working on things together. You know, I think we made our parents very happy to know that we were so close and have remained so close. My brother is the godfather of one of my kids. And I just hope that their close, and the expectation of twins are that they will be, but you never know.
And look; I've always taken my brother's lead on so many things. And I watched him become a father before I became a father. And I watched how he shifted a little bit and softened a little bit, and opened up space in his life in a beautiful way. And it was all positive. And I remember feeling very envious about that. And it wasn't like I suddenly was like, all right, well, I'd better hurry up and have kids (laughter). But I remember thinking I hope I get to experience what he's experiencing and what he's thriving from. And so we get to have a whole different level of conversations with each other now, which is about our children. And it's beautiful.
GROSS: Yeah. Has your brother Nash ever served as a stuntman for you in one of your roles?
EDGERTON: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: Oh, really?
EDGERTON: I - there was a very funny moment in Australia where we're on the rooftop of a car park, like, a parking structure. And my character in this TV show called "Dangerous" had to get hit by a car. And it was - I think it was the moment my character gets killed. And what happened that night is I got to sit in a chair with a blanket over myself, with a cup of tea in my hand, (laughter) while my brother got hit by this car and broke the windshield. And then I watched him get shards of glass sucked out of his hand with a vacuum cleaner, which is a great way of getting glass out of your hand, people, if it ever happens. And prior to that night, I remember my mother said, Nash, you know, does Joel ever have to do anything dangerous in this TV - in this film or this show? And make sure you do it for him. And he's like, what? So I can be broken but Joel can't?
EDGERTON: She said, but it's your job.
GROSS: Was he OK after going through the windshield and the glass shards?
EDGERTON: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, he's fine. And, you know, I'll tell you something else, because I just did nine episodes of a TV show. And these young stunt guys that were working, doing certain things for me, I realized that stunt people - hats off to them all over the world because they're the opposite of actors, you know? An actor will complain about something that's not even worth complaining about. A stunt guy could be almost broken in two - and you'd be like, are you OK? - and he's like, yeah, yeah, I'm fine.
EDGERTON: Stunt guys never complain. They always downplay injuries. And an actor will want to die off over a tiny splinter.
GROSS: Does that describe you?
EDGERTON: Yeah, unfortunately. I said to you earlier that I wasn't a tough guy (laughter).
GROSS: You did (laughter).
EDGERTON: No, you know, I like to mix it up. I like to get involved with, particularly, fights and horse riding and the kind of slightly safer aspects of stunt work. But stunt people are all part of the close pit crew of actors that help us do our job better and make us look better.
GROSS: Joel Edgerton, it's been really great to talk with you. Thank you so much. And congratulations on "Master Gardener."
EDGERTON: Thank you very much. What a pleasure.
GROSS: Joel Edgerton stars in Paul Schrader's new movie, "Master Gardener." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be author and humorist Samantha Irby. Her new collection of essays, called "Quietly Hostile," takes us through her rise as a Hollywood TV show writer, the trials of getting turned away at swanky LA restaurants for not dressing hip enough and the impossible task of making teenagers think you're cool. I hope you'll join us. To keep up with what's happening on our show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
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