A Movie Star With a ‘Weird Relationship With Confidence’
Version 0 of 1.
SYDNEY, Australia — There was a hint of mauve peeking out from behind Joel Edgerton’s left eyelid, barely discernible beneath a newsboy cap.
“I ran into my van, hit it on the awning,” he said, pointing at his face.
But it was the camper van, not his face, that preoccupied the actor and filmmaker as we met at a coffee shop near a house he owns north of Bondi Beach.
He took out his phone and pointed to custom trappings, an annex with a tent and shower at the back, all designed for surfing holidays along the Australian shoreline.
And something more.
“This is all part of the building of the enticement to come back home more often,” he said.
Mr. Edgerton grew up in the rural outskirts of Dural, northwest of Sydney. Back then, he and his older brother, Nash, would escape to national parks and collect blue-tongued lizards for pets. They both wanted to make movies; Joel became an actor, Nash a stuntman.
In the years since, Joel Edgerton has played Tom Buchanan, the bigot who experiences a nanosecond of humanity when his mistress dies, in “The Great Gatsby”; an Egyptian tyrant in awe of his firstborn son in “Exodus: Gods and Kings”; and a bricklayer breaking anti-miscegenation laws in 1960s-era Virginia by marrying a black woman in “Loving.”
His close-knit family keeps him tethered to Australia, even as he has spent much of the past 20 years in Hollywood. Starring in low-budget productions and blockbuster films alike, Mr. Edgerton has accumulated awards and accolades, including a nomination from the Directors’ Guild of America for his first directing foray, “The Gift,” a thriller released in 2015. He also wrote the screenplay and took on a central role. The internet is still debating the final twist.
His newest directing effort, “Boy Erased,” has already won him an Australian film award for best adapted screenplay. Nicole Kidman picked up an Australian award for best supporting actress, and Lucas Hedges received a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.
The film, based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same title, tells the story of a college student who is outed to his conservative Baptist family. His parents respond to the revelation by sending him to “gay conversion therapy.” He does not last long in the program.
Mr. Edgerton, who has made a career out of playing the kind of broad-shouldered, stoic male his homeland has exported to Hollywood since the days of Errol Flynn, might seem the last person to make a film about gay conversion therapy, had he been set in that mold.
The story gripped him immediately and refused to let go. He thought that as a straight man, he had no business turning the book into a movie. As time passed without anyone else taking up the project, his reluctance faded.
“Somebody’s got to make it, but nobody was interested in the rights for the book, which made me feel more safe to step forward,” he told audiences after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Mr. Edgerton said he was initially drawn into Mr. Conley’s book by the institutionalization aspect, but that the impact on the family was the story he wanted to tell. It was so far from his own childhood, he said, with a lawyer father and a stay-at-home mother; he had always been certain of his place in the family and of his parents’ unwavering love.
“Trying to imagine my parents thinking there was something wrong with me, when there wasn’t. I don’t know how I could reconcile that,” he said in an interview.
“I’ve done bad things in my life — I’ve gone down the same old roads that a lot of people do, being self-destructive with bad behavior,” he said. “But I knew in those moments when my dad pulled me up that there was a reason and that reason revolved around me and my treatment of myself, and it wasn’t just him going, ‘Because of who you are, and everything you are, I reject you.’”
After graduating from film school in western Sydney, Joel Edgerton took on small acting roles and began producing short films with his brother, fellow stuntmen and filmmaker friends.
“We were creating our own opportunities,” Nash Edgerton said in an interview. “We just kept making stuff with our friends, which is how we ended up meeting David Michôd, and we ended up working on each other’s stuff, and it just snowballed.” Nash Edgerton’s FX series “Mr. Inbetween” is going into its second season. Last year, he released ‘‘Gringo,’’ a dark comedy starring Charlize Theron, David Oyelowo and his brother.
Mr. Michôd, whose work includes the Netflix production “War Machine,” starring Brad Pitt, is a member of Blue-Tongue Films, which counts the Edgerton brothers among its founders. They have cast one another in their films, directed one another, written for one another, screened edits, helped produce and finance projects and generally supported one another in all their years in the film industry in both Australia and the United States.
“Joel worked out very early on that actors spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, waiting desperately for someone to like them, and that the best way to combat that is to keep moving, just keep doing things — and that’s what he does,” Mr. Michôd said. “He’s the guy who can tell me about an idea he’s had for a screenplay and then three weeks later deliver me the first draft. That’s a work rate that blows mine out of the water.”
That work ethic has earned the brothers trust in an industry that warily shells out serious money and always expects serious returns, said Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor.
“You’ve got to remember,” he said over speaker phone while driving around Los Angeles on a recent Sunday, “these guys come from the country. They come into the city, they do well in the city, then they come to America and they do well here, and that, you know, is certainly not typical. They’ve really got something.”
If Joel Edgerton has managed shifting between acting and directing with confidence, it comes in spite of an Australian attitude that disdains ego and arrogance, qualities he sometimes wishes he had.
“I have a weird relationship with confidence,” Mr. Edgerton admitted. “As I get closer to a shoot when I’m acting in it or directing it, I get really terrified. And if it wasn’t for my relationship with those guys, watching them go through the process of directing a movie, I maybe would never have done it.”
Nicole Kidman, who plays the mother in “Boy Erased,” said Mr. Edgerton’s demeanor on set belied the stress he contended with.
“Joel is such a strong actor and so naturally gifted in that area, and the way he can just step in and out of character is glorious to watch,” she wrote in an email.
“When you do things with such ease and grace, and you don’t trumpet your accomplishments, you can sometimes get lost in terms of what people see and how much work you’re actually doing,” she said.
Mr. Edgerton immersed himself in “Boy Erased,” traveling to Arkansas to meet with Mr. Conley’s parents and reaching out to members of the L.G.B.T. community. He sent drafts of the script to Mr. Conley and to Glaad, an organization that tracks representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the media. He brought advisers on set and hired L.G.B.T. people for the cast and crew.
Even as he travels the world promoting the film, Mr. Edgerton is not done working on it. Asked what he’s reading these days, he mentioned the novel ‘‘Boy Swallows Universe,’’ about a boy coming of age in 1980s Australia; the usual scripts; and “Boy Erased” all over again.
“It’s kind of my compulsion,” he said, “to reimagine what I could have done.”
Want more Australia coverage and discussion? Sign up for the weekly Australia Letter, start your day with your local Morning Briefing and join us in our Facebook group.