When it came to casting the leading man in Loving, writer and director Jeff Nichols says simply, “It was Joel’s time.” Loving is Nichols’ fifth movie, the latest in a lineup of complex, genre-toppling films that garnered fervent critical applause, if tepid mainstream momentum. But it’s Nichols’ time, too, and Loving—the quiet, understated story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the Virginia couple whose Supreme Court case legalized interracial marriage—has made it’s way into this year’s inner circle of Oscar prospects, propelled in no small part by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred.
The success of Loving is surprising to few; even in its infancy backers saw the project’s potential as a career-defining vehicle for whichever actor got the part. “It was tricky when we went around for financing,” Nichols says, “because people were like, you know, you could get someone really famous for Richard’s part. They weren’t worried about Mildred’s part, but for Richard’s, it was like, are we getting enough star power? And I just kept saying, ‘Look, it’s Joel.’ And you know after doing the thing with Mud and Matthew McConaughey and everyone else, I just kind of—I didn’t have the patience for somebody not listening to me. I was like, listen. It is his time.”
The 42-year old Australian actor has been in front of the camera for over two decades, and sometimes behind it, working alongside his brother Nash for their film production company Blue Tongue Films. Edgerton has always had an uncanny ability to recede into his characters, transmuting his bull-doggish good looks from suave—as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, for example—to slimy, as Whitey Bulger’s corrupt cop in Black Mass. But it wasn’t until Loving that Joel was handed a role that really put his chameleon instincts to proper use. Richard Loving was a simple man who laid bricks for a living, and loved his wife and children with mute obstinacy. The monologues that Edgerton delivers are epic variations on silence, his jaw clenched shut and brow furrowed deep. And when he breaks his tortured peace to make a promise—the sort made millions of times in human history—it’s heartbreaking in its defiance, repeated again and again in hopes of making it true: “I can take care of you.”
What a powerful character to take on. How did playing the role of Richard impact you?
I think with Loving, more than any project I’ve ever been involved in, I was really transported and able watch the film so objectively that it gave me quite an emotional response the first time I saw it. You really see a man who’s thinking so much more than he’s saying. He has so much more to say and is choosing, or being limited by outside forces, not to be vocal within the confines of the situation he is in. I think it was such a wonderful choice for Jeff to tell this true story truthfully and to speak to those qualities of Richard—violently shy and frustrated—that rendered him unable to speak. And it really made me reflect on injustice, because in my white bread, upper middle class upbringing, I’ve never really experienced it. And particularly, I’ve never experienced an ongoing situation of injustice. What I’ve realized is that those situations can cause a person to be limited in their ability to debate, or argue, or fight. People often learn to stay silent, and walk within the limitations they’re given, and lie down instead of standing up to a situation.
Do you consider yourself a political person?
I often think that actors are given a soapbox to stand on because people have a curiosity about them. It’s like, an actor can wear an outfit and it becomes news. An actor can tip over on the sidewalk and it becomes news. An actor can break up with someone and it most definitely becomes news. So a byproduct of this is that if an actor has a voice on any political stance, they can become a spokesperson. And I think that can be very powerful, but at the same time, I think those people have to be really mindful. On one hand, you’re scrutinized by those who are, by their own definition, more aware or more schooled or intelligent on a subject. But also, our words can become gospel to those who are looking to us with too much admiration. So I’m kind of cautious about stepping into any political debate. I’m an artist—an entertainer. But every now and then you find yourself involved in a project where you’re almost intrinsically linked to a political debate. And in this case, Loving really brings us closer to the debate on race relations and civil rights, and in this current climate, same-sex marriage. And I definitely have an opinion about that. I’m Australian and Australia, as we speak, has still not opened up those rights for same sex couples to marry each other.
Do you feel like the fight for marriage equality is what this film will speak to most directly?
Ruth and Jeff and me—we’ve talked about it, and all three of us feel there is a complete connection to that. The film is defending the rights of people not to be seen as ‘other,’ and not be scrutinized or judged or discriminated against based on ‘otherness.’ Richard and Mildred were two human beings, just like two same-sex individuals, seeking to be married to each other. They were two human who wanted to live peacefully under a roof in a union that affected nobody but themselves, while having the same rights as everyone else. So there’s definitely a parallel to people today seeking those same rights. And there’s also a parallel to the off-shoot damage it causes to the children whose parents are being discriminated against. Because those children inadvertently suffer the ramifications of that discrimination.
How do you think we can view people who perpetuate that sort of discrimination now?
The absurdity of what happened to Richard and Mildred and the absurdity of what’s happening today is that the decisions to limit the freedoms of others are made by people who often will never meet the individuals they’re affecting. They don’t share the same experiences, so empathy is harder for them to find. And yet, one interesting thing I discovered by watching the movie is that human beings are very sluggish, and the wheels of change move often too slowly. But they do move, they do work, and change is inevitable.
What were some things that changed or impacted you this year, personally?
I think the birth of my niece. Although she was born last year, watching her grow and the impact it as on my brother and his life and personality has had a great effect on me too. And in the world at large, the Nice attacks had such a huge impact on me. It was such a devastating event, and I wasn’t far away—in Marseille. I went to sleep the night before, jet lagged and grumbling about traveling so far for a couple days of press, and woke to the news early the next day. It reminded me on a personal level how privileged and truly lucky I am, and yet, on another track, it was a reminder of how unsafe and unsuspecting everyone is.