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Actor Joel Edgerton avoids conflict in real life, but embraces it on-screen

Joel Edgerton plays a horticulturist with a secret past as a white nationalist in <em>Master Gardener.</em>
Magnolia Pictures
Joel Edgerton plays a horticulturist with a secret past as a white nationalist in Master Gardener.

In his personal life, Australian actor Joel Edgerton feels a deep anxiety when he experiences conflict or tension. But on set, Edgerton says, "I get to go to an environment where I can [do] all of the things that I'm not comfortable doing in my real life."

There's plenty of tension in his latest role in the Paul Schrader film Master Gardener. Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a horticulturist with a secret past as a white nationalist. Narvel is covered in racist tattoos, which are only revealed to the audience when the gardener takes his shirt off.

"I remember wearing [the tattoos] for the first time and feeling the kind of strange power that they had," Edgerton says.

Master Gardener is the third of Schrader's trilogy of films, including First Reformed and The Card Counter, each about a lonely man who has emotionally shut down to escape the past. For this film, the director instructed Edgerton to be especially understated in the role.

"What [Paul Schrader] was telling me was do nothing, let the story kind of let the words come through, that the less of an actor that I was, the better for that the film that he wanted to create," Edgerton says. "And I found that a really interesting challenge because I am an actor and there's maybe a fear of doing nothing, a fear of not being good enough unless you're ... bringing your bag of tricks of performance and emotion."

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga played Richard and Mildred Loving in the 2016 film <em>Loving.</em>
Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
Focus Features
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga played Richard and Mildred Loving in the 2016 film Loving.

Edgerton previously played Anakin Skywalker's half brother, Owen Lars, in the Star Wars prequel films and in the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the 2016 film Loving, he played Richard Loving, a white man who married a Black woman. The relationship prompted the historic Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned state laws that made interracial marriage illegal. He also appeared in the Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad.

Interview highlights

On how his very small role in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones changed his career

That was my crowbar into Hollywood. ... I knew that I could go to Hollywood and say that I was in the new Star Wars film and nobody would know [while the film was in post-production] that it was only like 3 minutes and that it would allow me to 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. It was 2000. I went to L.A. and started doing meetings and trying to get people to take me seriously.

Star Wars really sort of opened that door for me. ... [When it came out] no one called me and said, "Hey, you conned me!" And even to this day, for all of the work that I've done, when I go to a festival and sign photographs for fans, if they're there, it's still half of them are photographs of me in Star Wars, whether it be the Disney+ series recently, but more so the old Star Wars films.

On the magic of being on the Star Wars set

I had long had a dream that I could potentially be an actor and see the world at the same time. It was the first time that I had proof 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 on Lars Moisture Farm, and there was C-3PO standing next to George Lucas, and I felt like I was moving in a direction that I wanted to move.

On his brother Nash being his stuntman

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 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, a cup of tea in my hand while my brother got hit by this car and broke the windshield. 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 hand people if it ever happens. And prior to that night, I remember my mother said, "Nash, does Joel ever have to do anything dangerous 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?" She said, "But it's your job."

Stunt people — hats off to them all over the world because they're the opposite of actors. 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." Stunt guys never complain. They always downplay injuries and an actor will want a day off over a tiny splinter.

On a turning point when he stopped being reckless as a teen

I feel like danger is just part of the optimism of youth. My brother [Nash] 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. Children want to defy gravity and climb really high. And I think the same can be said about the curiosity for weirdness and unusual things, and trying to get into nightclubs when you're way too young, forging your own I.D. 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.

I remember exactly when I learned it. I was in Thailand [for] the turn of the millennium to Y2K. ... and I got super drunk and I was doing acrobatics on the beach — something that I'd learned through my brother and his stunt guy friends. And I landed upside down on my neck in the sand at about 2:00 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. I was told I completely tore the nerves in my left neck that extended to my left arm. And it took me about eight months to rehab. I saw a neurosurgeon who told me I hadn't torn the nerves, I just stretched them. ...

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. I was lucky, so lucky, that I'd been injured in a way that was bad but not lasting. It really made me reassess my point of view on dangerous things in general.

On his experience being bullied as a kid, which later informed his 2018 film Boy Erased

I was locked in a bathroom when I was in grade seven and thrown around by about three or four much older boys. 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.

Years later, I was in a café and this man came up to me. I would have been probably 19 or 20 and [he] introduced himself and the moment he said his name, I knew that he was one of those boys. 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.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: May 15, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly identify the Star Wars movie Joel Edgerton had a small role in. The film was Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.
Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.