Joel Edgerton Talks Thriller ‘Felony,’ ‘Exodus,’ Trials of Shooting ‘Jane Got a Gun’

If Joel Edgerton has one piece of advice to aspiring actors, it’s this: always be sure to check your inbox.

“I found an email the other day from my old agent in London, that I’d just sort of discarded because I was too busy at the time,” Edgerton recalls on a recent afternoon in New York, looking a tad professorial in full-rimmed glasses and beard. “It was this screenplay for a film by a first-time filmmaker that, if I was interested, I should consider auditioning for.” As it turned out, the filmmaker was Steve McQueen and the movie was “Hunger.”

Well, you win some and you lose some in this business, and lately Edgerton has been chalking up the wins. After back-to-back breakout performances in the Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom” (2010) and “Warrior” (2011), the 40-year-old Australian actor and screenwriter has been working nonstop in Hollywood, from his Navy SEAL commander in “Zero Dark Thirty” to his memorably snarling Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” and his upcoming appearance alongside Christian Bale in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

He has no fewer than four completed films set for release in 2015: opposite Johnny Depp in the Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass”; as photojournalist John Morris to Dane DeHaan’s James Dean in the fact-based drama “Life”; on the run with Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller “Midnight Special”; and alongside Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in the much-troubled period drama “Jane Got a Gun.”

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But first up is a project particularly near to Edgerton’s heart: the Australian police thriller “Felony,” which he wrote and stars in as a Sydney cop who lands in a dilemma of rapidly escalating moral compromise when he accidentally hits a young boy on a bicycle while driving home drunk on a late, rainy night. Although Edgerton’s Det. Malcolm Toohey reports the incident, he fails to identify himself as the perpetrator, instead claiming to have merely happened upon the scene. And while Toohey’s story gets an unquestioning pass from a grizzled senior detective (Tom Wilkinson) who believes in looking after his own, Wilkinson’s bullheaded young partner (Jai Courtney) senses something is amiss.

That “Felony” has maintained a fairly low profile since it premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival says less about the film’s merits than it does about the challenges of releasing smart, outside-the-box genre movies in today’s overcrowded indie marketplace. With a more glittery festival pedigree or a studio-sized marketing budget, “Felony” might have had a shot at reaching the same sophisticated adult audiences who turned last year’s “Prisoners” into a surprise fall hit. Instead, it’s limping into a handful of U.S. theaters this weekend, along with more than a dozen other titles soon to be streaming on a VOD platform near you.

“Felony,” though, deserves a kinder fate, not least for Edgerton’s taut, twisty script and for Wilkinson’s towering performance as a boozing, beaten-down lawman who’s lost his conviction after watching too many bad guys slip through his fingers. Purely by chance, the movie’s delayed U.S. release has only made it seem that much more topical, arriving as it does in the wake of the Ferguson riots and the related spate of headline-grabbing police abuse and corruption stories.

“I wanted to make a redemptive thriller that didn’t end with some kind of big, crazy shootout and blood spill, but more of a collision of ideas and a discussion of ethics,” says Edgerton, who hopes audiences will trail out into the lobby after seeing the movie still debating the actions of the characters and, moreover, what they might do in a similar situation. “You could ask me: If you were driving home and did what Malcolm does in the movie, what would you do? I can’t look you in the eye and tell you with 100% certainty that I’d do the right thing. I’d like to think I would, but you never know.”

In a way, the movie’s three main characters reflect different facets of Edgerton’s own personality. As a child growing up in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown, he saw the world in clearly demarcated terms of good and bad, black and white. “When I was in high school and I’d hear about some couple that my parents knew where someone had had an affair, I would ‘That’s a bad person,’” he says. “If you have an affair, you’re a bad person. And if you commit a crime, you’re a bad person.”

But as he became an actor, Edgerton’s perspective began to change through the shared experiences of the characters he found himself playing. “You may ask me to play a bad guy, but I know in my bones that human beings aren’t bad,” he says. “There are, of course, psychopaths — let’s discard them for a moment. But most people are trying to stumble through this hard thing called life, and every now and then they trip up. Some of us are better at owning the responsibility of our actions than others. But essentially, I think we’re all people on our own missions, trying to do the right thing, hoping we’re doing the right thing, and every now and then we don’t.”

After briefly flirting with the idea of directing “Felony” himself, Edgerton instead sought out fellow Australian Mathew Saville, who made an impressive feature directing debut with the 2007 crime drama “Noise,” about a constable assigned to the night shift in a Melbourne community reeling from a mass murder on a suburban commuter train. Edgerton had read the “Noise” script and been impressed by the tense, atmospheric film Saville had made out of something that seemed very static on the page. But when he first met with the director, Saville balked at the idea of doing a second police story and he passed.

“But something stuck in his head,” Edgerton says. “He called me about four or five weeks later and said, ‘What are you doing with that thing? Because I’ve been thinking about it and I have some ideas if you’re willing to listen to me.’ Then we embarked on this four-year process of getting together, talking about it, I’d write a new draft, while Rosemary [Blight], our producer, was starting to walk around with a Starbucks cup asking for some money.”

A key to securing financing was the participation of Wilkinson, who plays the role with a spot-on Australian accent (specifically, the “Ten Pound Pom” accent of a British-born emigre to Oz) and whom Edgerton hails as “the center of the wheel,” his term for actors who have an elastic ability to transform themselves. “I’m not talking about sticking on wigs and other external devices, but their ability to physically and emotionally convince us that they’re high status, low status, a lawyer, a construction worker, an evil warlord of the universe or a lowly beggar,” he says. Also receiving “center of the wheel” status in Edgerton’s pantheon: his “Exodus” co-star Bale, and Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche DuBois to Edgerton’s Stanley Kowalski in the 2009 Sydney Theatre Company production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Edgerton  began writing scripts out of necessity, to provide material for the filmmaking collective, Blue-Tongue Films, he founded in 1996 with his filmmaker-stuntman brother Nash and their friends Tony Lynch and Kieran Darcy-Smith. Together with Darcy-Smith (who would go on to direct Edgerton in the 2012 Sundance competition entry “Wish You Were Here”), he taught himself the craft by camping out in a local bookstore and reading (but never actually buying) instructional guides like Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” and Viki King’s “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days.” By the time Blue-Tongue produced its first feature, the crackerjack 2008 film noir “The Square” (directed by Nash and co-written by Joel), Edgerton had amassed a drawer full of unproduced feature scripts that he now regards as necessary stumbling blocks on the path to enlightenment.

“I reckon I’ve got about seven screenplays at home that I probably would never show anybody,” he says. “Maybe there’s a germ of idea here and there that might be worth rewriting at some point. But I love them for what they are, and they kept me off the streets for however many weeks or months they took me to write. I was certain at the time that I was turning paper into gold. I’ve re-read a couple of them since and been like, ‘Wow, how delusional was I?’”

Today, the ranks of Blue-Tongue include “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover” director David Michod (with whom Edgerton is developing another script), “Hesher” director Spencer Susser (the lone American in the bunch) and even a female inductee, Mirah Foulkes, whose short film “Florence Has Left the Building,” starring Jacki Weaver, gets Edgerton’s enthusiastic endorsement. But with most of the members now scattered between Australia and America, and working on their own projects, the one-time collective has become more of a group email list used to trade screenplays and collective wisdom.

“I get asked to do movies and I’ll email those guys and say, ‘Please, if you have time, can you read this and tell me whether I’m a crazy person for wanting to do this?’” says Edgerton. It’s doubtful anyone objected to him taking the role of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses opposite Bale’s Moses in “Exodus,” a job that required the actor to shave all of his body hair and don a costume he describes as “essentially a netball skirt with gold armor, and yet I still felt tough. It was weird.”

Still, Edgerton notes, that was a less traumatic experience than the shooting of “Jane Got a Gun,” which made headlines earlier this year when director Lynne Ramsay quit the film just prior to the start of production — the first in a domino-effect series of departures, cast shuffles and lawsuits. When Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper left the project in rapid succession, Edgerton was recast from his original villain role to the more heroic part vacated by Fassbender. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s “Warrior” director, Gavin O’Connor, stepped in on short notice to fill Ramsay’s shoes.

“But out of the fire has been forged this quite remarkable movie,” says Edgerton of the completed film, which Relativity will release in February. “There’s never been a mathematical equation that says a good experience making a movie equates to a good movie, or a bad experience on a set is going to lead to a bad movie. That’s the unquantifiable nature of moviemaking, and it means you’ve got to go in with the right intentions and hope that the ship is steered in the right direction by all of the different people pulling the ropes, so that you eventually land at the port you wanted to land at.

“At the end of the day, the movie will be judged for what it is, and I think it’s fucking great,” he muses. “Thank God, because I would have killed myself if I’d gone through all that and then the movie was terrible. I would have been so disappointed. How could I have gone through all of this and then been disappointed in the result?”

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