STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
Even though he’s toiled in scores of American movies for nearly 15 years, Aussie performer Joel Edgerton is far from a household name.
But that could change this season when the actor toplines the already-acclaimed “Loving” opposite Ruth Negga. The film, which was written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Midnight Special”), looks at the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a white man and a black woman who wed in Washington, D.C., in 1958 and then discovered that their marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia.
After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, “Loving” scored rave reviews and instantly became a front runner for Oscar attention. When the nominations are announced in early 2017, Edgerton’s name is likely to be among those receiving nods for Best Actor.
“It’s very flattering,” Edgerton says of all the buzz. “I’d be crazy and dishonest to say it doesn’t tickle the ego a little bit, but I’m very careful because it’s happened in the past. I bought tickets to my own parade internally, having expectations about things and I’m just very wary of that.
“But as part of my diversion tactic to that question, [the attention] is really good for the movie. This is a small movie so to have that extra noise around [it] is good because this movie is one of the nicest movies I’ve ever been in, and I really want everybody to see it.”
While Edgerton has played Americans before, he knew that embodying a Southerner like Richard Loving presented a specific challenge. Along with Negga, Edgerton studied Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary about the couple called “The Loving Story.”
“The documentary was like a complete road guide to how to at least create an impression of, or mimic the two of them in terms of their accents, and the way they moved and their posture,” says the actor, 42.
“Then along with makeup and the costume and hair department, we could look like them. But I feel like a performance of a real person has to go beyond an impression or mimicry. I felt as if you need something more.”
The “something more,” as Edgerton sees it, was drawn from Nichol’s script and Edgerton’s own personal feelings about the couple and their deep bond.
“I think the real roadmap was Jeff’s screenplay and his very, very detailed and lovely observation and portrayal of a relationship that isn’t about overtures of love or speeches or false declarations or billowing curtains or love scenes,” says the actor. “It’s about the space between two people that’s unspoken.
“Their relationship [was] a connected, constant dance of, “You lead and I’ll follow”, and “You wish and I’ll grant.”
“Loving” doesn’t end with the couple’s marriage. After their return to Virginia, they were arrested. The Lovings were sentenced to a year in prison, or given the option of leaving the state. They moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived for a few years before chafing at the rules they were forced to obey.
After writing a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Mildred was steered in the direction of the ACLU which took the case and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1967, thanks to Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage was made legal in all 50 states.
The different ways that Richard and Mildred handled the restrictions placed on them reveal much about their characters.
“The law set up a fence around them that said, ‘You can’t go to Virginia any more. You can stay married but as long as you don’t go back.’ I think Richard didn’t think there was a way around that, so he just sort of walked around inside that fence,” notes the never-married Edgerton.
“But Mildred was the one who was standing on her tiptoes, looking over the fence going, ‘It’s naive to think that we can go backwards so how do we go forwards? What do we do next? What’s the help that we can get?’
“In many ways, I think she was the spine. He looks strong. He was big and sturdy and his hands [were huge] and all that, but she was the one that really kept them together and kept thinking of the strategy of how to move forward.”
Edgerton would be happy if “Loving” reminded viewers of the need for equality for all human beings, regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
“I think Jeff’s made a movie that allows a good conversation to happen, especially when it comes from a gentle place,” says Edgerton who’ll next be seen opposite Will Smith in “Bright,” a thriller with sci-fi elements.
“I think part of the problem we’re experiencing right now in [the political arena] is that the debate is so intense, and there’s so many flashes of violence, and that creates an intensity.
“It’s very hard to listen when there’s shouting. It’s very hard to turn a corner when you’re speeding. I think that if you can quiet down long enough for a conversation to happen where people are listening and actually taking on the broad ideas of each other, that’s a good thing.”