Joel Edgerton on the Meaningful Silences of ‘Loving’

     November 7, 2016

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Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, married on June 2nd, 1958. A month later they were arrested for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, dragged out of their beds, locked up in cells and released only under the condition they never step foot in Virginia again. The couple soon became a lightening rod for the Civil Rights movement, culminating in a Supreme Court decision striking down all anti-miscegenation laws. And yet Richard and Mildred never quite felt comfortable as national progressive symbols, only wanting to live a peaceful life together and amongst their family in Virginia.

Jeff Nichols Loving wisely reflects the Mildred’s quiet demeanor, eschewing the usual court-room postures and big speeches typical of ‘important’ social films. At it’s heart – Loving is just that: a love story between two kind, gentle people set against circumstances far beyond their control or want.

The performances reflect this tone. As the Lovings, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga don’t have much dialogue, instead relying on body language and comfortable silences to define themselves and their relationship. It’s a film that truly comes alive in between the words – a testament to both Edgerton and Negga’s commitment to embodying such reserved characters.

In our interview with Joel Edgerton, he discussed finding the motivation behind these silences, squaring away his ego and going far beyond a mere impersonation. In addition, he talks about the two films he’s planning on directing next: a drama and a science fiction film. 

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Image via Focus Features

When did Jeff Nichols first approach you about doing Loving?

JOEL EDGERTON: It was towards the end of Midnight Special. Because I had a really close cropped haircut at the time, I think he was looking at me going ‘Hmm… maybe he’s not that dissimilar from Richard.”

Were you familiar with the Lovings’ story beforehand?

EDGERTON: No — as an Australian, I didn’t know the story, but I felt that most young Americans don’t really know it either.

Yeah – it’s a bit under the radar.

EDGERTON: It’s such a big seismic shift in Civil Rights in America. It changed the Constitution. It’s nothing to be scoffed at but because it wasn’t an event marked with violence, it went under the radar.

What do you pick up from watching Richard in media appearances and in the documentary on Mildred and him (The Lovings)?

EDGERTON: That he wished he could just disappear. ‘Disappear’ was a good word for me. You saw him on a micro level just going how can I get away from this camera, his eyes searching for a way out. Richard was almost wishing everyone would go away and things could go back to before but that’s a very naive approach. This is all just my perception of it by the way. It was really Mildred who looked forward and said the way out is not to pretend. We have to keep moving forward and be strategic about it. But Richard is very silent. He was thinking a lot and not saying very much. It was important for me to me focus on what those silences meant…

I was going to ask: Are those silences written in the script?

EDGERTON: Well – there was very little dialogue in the script. A lot of descriptions of things. Jeff and I would talk about the scenes. For example: the scene with the sheriff when he’s doing the cross-examination, we would talk about what Richard was thinking: how much he wished to go away, how much he wished he could speak, and how hard it would be to [do so]. It says a lot to speak against the law when you think about the ramifications of the time. They would literally take a baton and crack your head open or worse… 

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Image via Focus Features

Given the performance is so reactive, are you finding the character in the moment with your co-stars? How much have you prepped ahead of time?

EDGERTON: I think it’s important as an actor to do as much thoughtfulness and preparation ahead of time and then show up on the day and forget all about it so you can be there in the room. That was always one of the risks of trying to create a character that was so much like Richard. The risk is that it only ever reaches an impression or mimicry. You’ve got to find a way to go beyond that. That was the trick in the first few days. There’s an inevitability to being self-conscious in drawing a character like this so let’s get over it. Let forget about it. Put it aside and allow it to live…

What tends to be the first thing you do after reading a script to get into character?

EDGERTON: Call the agent. Ask how much?

(Laughter)

EDGERTON: How big is my trailer?… No – I often from the moment I start reading a screenplay, I’m thinking about the evolution from the beginning to the end of the screenplay. It’s almost like you’re just willing it to be good, you’re hoping it’s going to be amazing. If you’ve ever got a ping pong ball and you blow it, you’re just trying to keep it in the air. A great screenplay that manages to keep that ping pong in the air by the time you finish the last page is very rare. So I felt very nervous by the time I finished this screenplay because it just was so perfectly put together. I could see it all playing. The end of the movie felt satisfying. The beats along the way felt true. I was very impressed that Jeff had taken a true story – because I had seen the documentary – and decided it to tell it truthfully, which is supremely rare in moviemaking. And definitely there’s ego involved too. Like what do I get to do…

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