When Joel Edgerton first read the script for “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” he was immediately drawn to the inspiring and magical tale about a happily married couple, Cindy (Jennifer Garner) and Jim Green (Edgerton), who can’t wait to start a family but can only dream about what their child would be like. The story resonated with Edgerton who loved the idea that “when you see this film you may walk out of the cinema and actually say life is good and being a good person is a great thing to strive for.”
Last week, I sat down with Edgerton at a roundtable interview to talk about his new film, which opens in theaters on August 15th, and what it was like going from tough guy roles to playing a loving and vulnerable dad. The Australian actor told me why this movie is not so different from other movies he’s recently starred in, how he found the right balance to play Jim Green, how he established a wonderful rapport with his young co-star, C.J. Adams, and what he looks for these days when he considers a part such as his role in the upcoming “The Great Gatsby.”
Question: What was the attraction for you to this material which is a little different from what you normally do?
Joel Edgerton: It is different on a first look, but it’s not really when you think more about it. I often think a lot of directors have a running theme about material that interests them, and when you think that an actor, once they get to a point where they have some form of luxury of choosing what they do, you can start to see that actors have a bit of a thing that draws them in. Now, on the one hand, that could be a genre thing or it could be “I like to just do action movies” or “I like to just do broad comedies,” but I’m talking about on a thematic level. To me, it’s interesting to think that “Warrior” and “Animal Kingdom” were all about family. And this movie, more than any other movie I’ve ever read is about what it means to be part of a family and so much around that topic. So, whether I’ve got a gun in my hand or I’m punching someone in the face or whether I’m cuddling a child, sometimes the movies can be more similar than they first appear.
Q: You develop a very strong familial and parental relationship with CJ’s character, Timothy, but then you’ve got this very strained relationship with David Morse who plays your father. How did you go about finding the balance there to bring out the really loving, tender father and then the sad child within you?
Edgerton: Ah, that’s easy because I think we’ve all got the capacity for love and we’ve all got damage in some way. I mean, I have. My father, to me, is one of my top five people in the world. I think every member in my family holds one of those positions. My father has a particular thing for me. He has always been amazing to me. But what I find interesting is that where I relate to Jim is that I think the reason I’m sitting here before you is probably as a result of me as a young boy really desperately wanting the attention of my dad. Some people have childhoods where they go “I was beaten by my parents.” They’ve got serious things to hang their problems on. The beauty and the sadness of a child is that they interpret the tiniest thing as the biggest thing, and to me, my father worked so hard to give me, my brother and my mum the life that we were going to have that I think the whole time I was like “Where’s my dad? Does he love me? What can I do to make me more exciting that he will think I am cool to hang around?” And that was sports, and then later on, it was being on stage. That attention grabbing is about seeking more love and I think that’s an undercurrent for a lot of performers actually and it’s true of me. I related to that in the story because it breaks my heart when towards the end of the movie we see a particular photo that Big G has been concealing that really shows you that he does care. And fathers all around the world I’m sure replace words with grunts and speeches with pats on the back. It’s amazing how that can mean so much to us because we’re craving it so much. My dad just winking at me from across a room says the same that my mother can say in essays about how amazing I am.
Q: The movie is an emotional roller coaster with high highs and low lows. How intimidating or challenging was that role for you and was it exhausting?
Edgerton: Well it definitely has softer edges. It’s a film with a lot of softer edges. A lot of people say “Well this is a very gentle movie,” and I think in a way there are things that are more challenging because what Peter (director Peter Hedges) is striving to do is make a movie where the chest cavity is just open and you can see the heart. The risk is that it becomes too cheesy or too corny, but the benefits are that you really feel something and you really go home with something because it makes you bring your own life to it. I love that. I think this movie wasn’t a challenge and it was. As a guy, I think you’re always like “I’ve got to be doing something cool or tough.” One thing I said to Peter the other day is what I really admire about what he’s done is he hasn’t tried to be cool. He hasn’t tried to be anything that he thinks a movie-going public might want, and it’s unique in that sense because it kind of strips the skin off. But, at the same time, it’s a fable. It’s real life with magic dust on it. Strangely enough, those movies with a bit of magic dust say more about real life in a way maybe because we get to go into the cinema and go “This is a fable.” And fables have this cheeky way of leaving messages in your pockets. You come out of the cinema and you’re like “Oh, it made me think about this. I thought it was a film about a kid with leaves on his feet.” If it was hyper-realism, if Peter had made more of a “Pieces of April” version of a family for this, it may make you go “Oh, that’s not my family.”
Q: How did you build your relationship with CJ? The two of you have a very nice chemistry.
Edgerton: Thank you. That’s always one of the greatest compliments in a way is when you feel like the relationships you have on screen work. I believe if you have those relationships and they work off screen, that somehow they seep into the movie. The same was true of Jennifer and I. We got along famously. We had a great time together. And then, together we had a great time with CJ. CJ is easy to like. You can see that on screen. He’s inquisitive, he’s very disarming, which also makes me think he’s just had great parenting himself. I met his parents and I think they’re wonderful. CJ is great. Obviously, he’s incredibly charming. He really looked up to me in a way that I found flattering and confusing. I think it’s amazing how children can worship you in a way that makes you look at yourself and go “Am I really that amazing? And how can I be more amazing?” There’s an incredible responsibility when you cast a child in a movie. It’s not really my responsibility. It’s the director’s and the producer’s responsibility. That child is then in your life for life. You can’t just pick them up and put them in your movie and then throw them away, because as we’ve all seen in five, ten years’ time, it becomes “Watch this space. What’s going to happen to this kid?” Too much attention at a young age can be problematic which is where the good parenting comes in, I think, too. He’s such a great kid. He saw Jennifer and I in different ways and then together we had a great time. He would come to us for advice, and I felt very protective of him too, considering that he was a kid in this big machine. That means that he can be exploited. I mean, he’s not making shoes in a factory, but you have to be careful of him.
Q: The movie is like a fairy tale but the issue is very serious. How does it work?
Edgerton: You’re right. I think Peter wanted to make a movie that you would come back and watch over and over again in the same way that I like to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” over and over again. I also think movies like “Big” and “Splash” say so much about what’s going on emotionally for people, and in this case, within families. The way they do it is they put it in kind of a magic envelope, I guess. I love that because it really sets up from the beginning that you join the movie, because if you can’t believe the conceit of it, then you may as well go home. It’s not Peter’s job really to try and over explain the science of the magic because it’s just magic. In “Big,” he puts a coin in a fortune teller machine and suddenly his wish comes true. Alright, cool, we get it. Let’s watch this story. And then, so much happens and you realize that the magic was … I don’t know. I guess you’re never constantly reminded of the magic. What I really love about this story though is – and these stories used to break my heart and I call them the happy cry movies — that it’s that thing when a mystical stranger rides into town and changes everybody around a little bit and they’re thinking. And then, inevitably, they have to go, and it’s the going that’s really sad. But, it’s what they’ve left behind that is really special, and I think that’s what Peter was setting out to achieve. That’s a classic story, and maybe because of that classic-ness, hopefully people will watch it and revisit it.
Q: You’re getting more and more well known to American audiences. What do you look for now in parts, such as your upcoming role in “The Great Gatsby”? Do you look to the script, the character, the director?
Edgerton: All of those. It’s a combination of everything really. Yeah, I like a script. I like a good character within a good script and then I look at the team making it. And then, you even look at the amount of money they’re making it for – not because you’re worried about your own slice of the pie, but if you tell me you’re going to make this particular movie about the world ending or about asteroids hitting the earth and you tell me then that you’re going to make it for a tiny, tiny budget, sometimes the budgets don’t match the ambition. So, you’re kind of looking at it like a science in a way. Is this thing challenging, exciting? Do I feel like I’ll learn something new? Is the character something I’ve never done before? I have this intuitive thing too, where sometimes if a project has all the right exciting elements and it terrifies me, then it’s a reason to do it. I think with “The Great Gatsby” it terrified me a bit because as I was leading into it, I was like I don’t know if I can do it. And the idea that I thought I couldn’t do it meant that was a good enough reason that if someone was willing to let me have a go at it that I should do it.
Q: Did this make you change your opinion at all or reinforce your views of parenthood on a personal level at some point?
Edgerton: Yeah. There’s so much in this film that makes me think that this is cool because I’m not a parent and that maybe I could put some lessons in my back pocket. One of them I find very, very enlightening in the movie is that a child is their own human, that you can’t relive your life through a child. They’re getting their way enough but not getting their way too much. I think this stuff about being articulate may be a lesson for me. I hope when I’m a father that I will be vocal about my feelings rather than assume that others [know] and this is true of life really. Sometimes we think everybody around us gets what we’re thinking and gets what we’re feeling more so. Sometimes without being oversharing, as Cindy says in the movie, it’s maybe worth letting people know things before it’s too late. There’s a ton of stuff in this movie and everybody can go into it like a good grocery store and pick what they want.
“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” opens in theaters on August 15th.