Better known for playing gruff and tough characters in films like Black Mass, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, and Warrior, Joel Edgerton was pleased when director Jeff Nichols asked him to play a much more sensitive albeit taciturn character in Loving. The film is based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia, who fell in love, got married, and were arrested in 1962 for violating state law barring mixed marriages.
"I had never heard about the case," Edgerton says. "Jeff [Nichols, who previously worked with Edgerton on Midnight Special] is the one who opened the door. Then I realised there were tons of people who didn't know about Richard and Mildred in America and I hope our film draws people in because their struggle occupies a prominent place in (America's) civil rights timeline."
Their case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court which in 1967 ruled in favour of the Lovings and struck down all such miscegination laws nationwide. Irish/Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga co-stars as Mildred, the woman who was as determined as her husband Richard (Edgerton) to fight for the right to be a lawfully wedded couple.
Ironically, the 42-year-old Edgerton was himself involved in an interracial relationship a little over a decade ago with Australian Olympic gold medalist Cathy Freeman, and he is outspoken on the issue of tolerance in his native Australia.
When asked last year to compare America to Australia when it comes to racial intolerance, Edgerton, who grew up in Sydney, was unequivocal: "It's easy to forget how intolerant a society is when you live in a city, surrounded by artists and liberal-minded people. Every now and then you're reminded that there's a group of people who aren't so open minded and tolerant... there's a deep amount of intolerance out there. Australia has a shameful history too, a colonial scenario that decimated the original inhabitants of the country."
Joel, this film examines a landmark case that eventually gave multiracial couples the right to get married anywhere in the U.S. How did you feel about telling the story of Richard and Mildred Loving?
I remember being moved as a kid watching people being exiled from their own country. People who came from a war-torn place and they literally carried all their possessions on their back. And I remember someone saying to me, "That could be you."
That aspect of saying, "You could be me, and I could be you" - the moment that clicks in your brain, it's impossible to hurt another person or to wish negativity on them. There's something about this movie that really said all that to me and more.
In the course of your research into their lives, what did you discover about them as individuals?
I fell in love with them as people. They were honest and true and didn't deserve that situation... There should never have been any struggle at all. As soon as Richard Loving got down on one knee and asked Mildred to marry him, that should have been the end of it. But they fought for a very basic human right and it's important that they be recognised for what they did.
Usually, events involving violence and assassinations receive more attention in the timeline [of race relations] in this country... but Richard and Mildred changed the law and that's no little thing to do.
Were they still alive, what do you think the couple themselves would have thought about making a film about their lives?
Richard was a very soft-spoken man. He wouldn't have even attended the premiere of the film unless Mildred would have insisted. On a surface level, he was a southern Redneck.
Even one of his attorneys said that when he first met Richard that he looked more like the kind of man who have been completely opposed to such a [mixed race] marriage. But he was a man with a strong sense of principle and he believed he should be allowed to marry the woman he loved. It was a very simple matter for him. He believed that if they weren't hurting anyone why couldn't everyone just leave them alone.
What kind of mark did this film leave on you in terms of our own personal convictions?
There's a sense of outrage and indignation. You think to yourself, "What happens between two individuals is nobody else's business." Society should protect those kinds of freedoms and promote tolerance and respect and kindness between people.
Richard was a very soft-spoken man... On a surface level, he was a southern Redneck
Your character was a simple bricklayer who actually hated being the focus of so much attention during that time?
Richard was a very good and decent man. You can imagine how under all that pressure he could have easily left that marriage. But even though it was hard for him, he was a quiet hero who stood by his wife. I find that his kind of bravery and quiet dignity is in many ways more exemplary that the typical movie hero who is often anxious to fight or has to resort to violence to defend himself or others.
Mildred was in many ways the real force behind the couple's fight for their rights?
Richard wasn't looking for a fight. He was always looking for a way to get back to the simple life he wanted to lead with Mildred. She was the one who understood that their case had a much wider significance for an entire country than just their own situation. [Their case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union].
Richard would have been very happy if the whole case had quietly gone away, but he was willing to accept all the hatred and humiliation in order to stay with Mildred.
Your performance in Loving is very low-key, much like your character. Is it difficult as an actor to suppress your desire to be more emotional or demonstrative?
This was the kind of story and kind of character where as an actor you've got to learn to hide your ego. I don't mind admitting that I have a pretty fair-sized ego but for this film you have to give up all sense of vanity or theatricality to do the story and character justice.
I've done plenty of films where I get to play very intense and dramatic individuals, so on this film it was a very interesting experience for me to play much more quietly and try to reveal as much about my character just by the way he moved, how he hunched his back... All those small things can be just as revealing as lots of dialogue or more expressive ways of behaving. That was the beauty of this role and this man for me.
Apart from your acting career, you've also written and directed a film - The Gift (in which Edgerton also co-starred opposite Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman) - which earned tremendous critical acclaim?
I love working with actors and as a director it was such a great pleasure working with Rebecca and Jason. My greatest thrill as a director is trying to build the tension in the story and then watching how the actors bring their own skills and ideas to the process and take a scene further or in a slightly different direction to what you imagined.
I also enjoy being able to make a lot of the important creative decisions because as an actor you're basically interpreting someone else's story. That's also a very stimulating and exciting process, but there are times when every actor feels that they would rather do a scene differently based on one's own vision. I love dramas mainly and now I'm working on a new film that's an ensemble film that's based on a true story. I can't wait to start shooting it.
Loving opens in Australian cinemas March 16.