This weekend, Jeff Nichols‘ “Midnight Special” opens in limited release. We’re already on record as huge admirers of Nichols, and of his latest film especially (here’s our review), but one thing we particularly engaged with this time out was the film’s uncanny atmosphere, which oscillates between the wondrous and the humdrum. In that context, the role played by Joel Edgerton comes into its own. More perhaps than any of the other principals in the film, Edgerton is tasked with grounding the film’s more fantastical elements. There’s a blunt decency in his particular charisma that makes him the perfect choice both for this role and for the lead in Nichols’ upcoming “Loving,” the story of the landmark civil rights case of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving (and a film we hope to see in the Cannes lineup).
We got to meet Edgerton during the Berlin Film Festival where “Midnight Special” premiered, and while we wrote last week of his comments on his recent rough ride on the troubled Natalie Portman western “Jane Got A Gun,” the immediate future for the actor, who also recently made a cracking directorial debut with “The Gift,” looks very bright. Here he discusses “Midnight Special,” “Loving,” reteaming with “Animal Kingdom” director David Michod and his hopes for the shape of his directing future.
This combination of the ordinary and extraordinary in “Midnight Special” works so well, and your character, Lucas, is part of the “ordinary” —he’s such a grounding influence. It’s a recurring motif for the parts you play —was it part of the attraction?
Well, really I was attracted to working with Jeff. He could have dragged me to work on almost anything. But I do remember the feeling of reading the script that first time, how interesting a mystery it was, with the chase vibe and a science fiction element too, but it was really about every character’s relationship with faith and meaning beyond the day-to-day living of life.
And what I loved about Lucas was that you get the sense that [prior to] the story, four days earlier or so, his life was moving in a particular rhythm with a very day-to-day existence, albeit as a cop. But he just abandoned that life because he caught a glimpse of that comfort [of a higher plane]. And that was the pulling of the thread —that maybe there’s some greater purpose to him being on the earth.
And he is not completely devoted —yet— to the fullness of that vision, but he’s devoted enough to service, and to serve and protect this child, with the hope that at the end of that journey, however long it takes, that there was going to be a confirmation of that initial spark. That there is a purpose, something greater to the world and life in it. And I love that Lucas was the one character that had a choice, and he made that choice willingly. He’s not related by blood, and yet there’s a devotion. And in that, he really is a disciple.
He sometimes seems not exactly envious of the family unit, but very aware of his outsider status.
Yeah, there’s a couple of moments when he just observes them… I always said to Jeff that I like to think that one of the little mysteries of the movie is: what has Lucas left behind? And if it’s somewhat insignificant to the audience, it’s significant to me, and I always thought that either Lucas has left his own family or he longs for that kind of unity. And part of his interest in the journey is to [have some of that]. Like when he says “Y’all would have made a nice family,” knowing that there’s something coming that will divide them. It is a shame, because he sees there’s a togetherness, a comfort. The big word that leaps out of this movie for me is “comfort.”
Speaking of families and comfort, going straight from this to “Loving,” which is also directed by Nichols and features Michael Shannon again, must have felt a little like that.
Oh yes. We finished shooting “Loving” in November. A wonderful experience and much more of a kind of real-world experience than this one.
Really? Even though it’s a period film?
It’s a period movie, but Jeff was as thorough as he could be in the research of what really occurred, and the movie reflects that deep research. In terms of a civil rights seismic shift, the Loving case is actually very gentle. There was no bloodshed. And yet there was a huge cost to the couple in terms of their freedom, their rights, where they could live and so on.
Jeff had the opportunity, in taking that real-life story, to really dial it up, to make it Hollywood. He refused to do that, and in that sense the fabric of the movie is very real. For example, when the Supreme Court handed down the decision to change the anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S., because of the push by Mildred [Loving] and the young Jewish lawyers, Richard and Mildred weren’t in the courtroom. And you imagine the Hollywood version of that —they punch the air, and everyone’s hugging each other. Jeff wanted to stay true to the reality of it, which was that Richard was mowing the lawn when that phone call came through.
And there’s something beautiful about that, because they weren’t trying to be the poster children of the civil rights movement. They just wanted to love each other and have the right to love each other. And so the movie’s a love story first. The fact that it also is a watershed civil rights moment is the B-story to me. And so it remains true to what we all want, which is the right to love each other whatever the formation —whether gay, straight, white, black, whatever. The simplicity of that is really lovely.
And perhaps the stability of working with a lot of the same people is welcome after some less pleasant experiences of late?
It is. Things go smoothly on a Jeff Nichols movie —as smoothly as a movie can. Mind you, we were battered by the weather on “Loving”: it wasn’t such a comfortable shoot, since it was a cold winter in New Orleans. But there’s a precision and planned feel —there’s a very organized chaos on a Jeff Nichols movie, compared to other movies I’ve worked on. And it’s very clearly detailed in the script as well. He gives you a really thorough road map and makes sure to articulate that vision for an actor. So it’s always a very close replica of what the movie ends up being. He has really thought things through; he does not have a blanket scattershot approach.
And now that you’ve made your directorial debut with the “The Gift,” is that a lesson you’re taking for your directing career?
My feeling is there’s a nice combination: a detailed battle plan that needs to be open to a fluidity. Personally, I like to go with a plan, but not look at the plan until I really need to. But I’ve learned a lot from Jeff and from all the directors I’ve worked with.
One of whom, David Michod, told us a while back that you guys were collaborating again, writing a script?
We have a thing that we’re trying to make soon. He’s putting his next movie [“War Machine” with Brad Pitt] together now, and then we have a project. It’s like a reimagining of “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” with some parts akin to Shakespeare and some more detailed through history and some parts our own imaginings, our own creative license. He’ll direct and I’ll be in it.
It is definitely happening, then?
Well, you know, I can’t ever say that again, not until we’re there and actually shooting… But our intention is certainly to make the film. Someone just has to give us a lot of money to do it.
And how about your next directing gig?
I’m planning it, but I can’t say what it is yet. I am developing a couple of things. And, yeah, I hope to be shooting by end of this year or early next year.
On a similar scale to “The Gift”?
I want to go for something slightly bigger, but I don’t want to go too big. I think it can be a mistake for someone to do a small movie and then be given the keys to the kingdom and do a $100 million movie. Some people have made that transition well, but I personally want to do it in smaller steps.
But ultimately in a few years’ time, you see yourself directing a $100 million movie?
I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that mark. I imagine myself stopping around the 50-60 mark.
All he wants, Hollywood, is 60 million dollars…
I know. Come on! That’s all I want.
“Midnight Special” opens on Friday.