When you are on the red carpet at an international film festival, you have arrived. People are shouting your name. There are blazing flashes from dozens of jostling photographers, crowds have come to see you. It’s a moment of glory, affirmation and overwhelming attention
But for Joel Edgerton, it is acutely uncomfortable; an ordeal. His heart races, his anxiety rises.
“I know everybody thinks the premiere of a movie is glamorous, but it is sort of terrifying,” he says.
“You’re supposed to not complain about it because it looks like, wow, you’re so lucky.”
Anxiety is a thread that has run through Edgerton’s entire adult life. He had his first panic attack about eight years ago.
In paparazzi photos from Bondi beach where he lives, and in the intensely tightly coiled performances he often gives in films, Edgerton can appear stony-faced. But if he looks thunderous on the beach it is because the paparazzi have triggered his constant “general hum of anxiety”.
In fact — endearingly — the acclaimed actor, writer and director is very different to how he can appear. He is, says his sister-in-law Carla Ruffino: “A combination of James Bond, [a] suave, charismatic, charming guy crossed with a Labrador puppy, crossed with Manuel from Fawlty Towers.”
Those close to Edgerton say he is a clumsy person who constantly forgets and loses things.
“He’s like a comedy routine some days,” adds Carla. “He literally cannot leave the house without coming back at least twice because he’s lost something or forgotten something.
“He has done the dumbest things. This is part of his charm.”
Caught in a rare, unguarded moment during lockdown, away from the pressures of the movie world, and the first time he has ever invited media into his home, this notoriously private man opened up to Australian Story.
In his comfort zone, in a carefree frame of mind, he revealed himself to be infectiously humorous and candid. As relaxed as a driven man who never sits still can be.
Revealing his vulnerabilities to Australian Story was “brave” says friend David Michôd, who directed him in Animal Kingdom and The King, which Edgerton also wrote.
“Especially when you’re an actor who’s built a career on a certain kind of solid masculinity.”
‘Filling the void’ with acting
Television film critic Margaret Pomeranz believes that as an actor, Edgerton “is one of the best this country has produced”.
His bravura performance as the careless, entitled Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby was a tour de force. “Joel’s character sweeps the floor with Leonardo DiCaprio’s,” Pomeranz says.
Edgerton’s been acting for 25 years and in the last decade has worked with the world’s biggest stars: Jennifer Lawrence (Red Sparrow), Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Will Smith (Bright), Natalie Portman (Jane Got a Gun), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe (Boy Erased).
Because he “hides” in his characters, because he is so successful at being someone else, he says people who do recognise him say, “I know your face but I have no idea where from”. Or confuse him with actor Sam Worthington.
Edgerton is a deep thinker who has his own “psychoanalytical” theory on why he’s an actor.
“I can’t lie and say there’s not some ego involved,” he says.
“I suspect the reason is because you feel like you’re a bit unlovable and that you’re looking for attention.
“Because if you didn’t need to fill that void you wouldn’t need to look for an audience outside the people that are close to you.”
Michôd explains: “The life of an actor is designed to induce anxiety, if not madness.
“You’re being perpetually judged by other people, you’re constantly being told what your value is by the world. Even when you are a famous actor, you are a pawn in someone else’s game.”
‘Great people look after other people’
In fact, Edgerton finds a counterpoint to the absurdities and excesses of Hollywood, an escape from the stressful scrutiny, in the foothills of Nepal on camps with The Fred Hollows Foundation among some of the world’s most underprivileged people.
He has been a global ambassador for 10 years and it matters to him, even if he jokes, “I’ll generally come in like a good actor, you know, once everybody’s done all the hard work”.
He wanted something “significant” he could lend his name and voice to and has raised half a million dollars for the foundation at an event with his famous friends in Los Angeles.
He’s been on three trips to Nepal and one to Ethiopia to participate in the foundation’s work. He’s watched so many cataract surgeries he provides expert narration at every stage of the procedure.
“Joel is someone who’s just happy to roll up his sleeves,” foundation director of communication Alison Hill says.
“He will pitch in and really help people. He will take an old lady by the hand and lead her out of the surgery to the waiting area and talk to the families.”
He has become close to Nepalese eye surgeon Sanduk Ruit, who first met Australian eye specialist Fred Hollows in 1985 and has since restored sight to 120,000 people.
“Joel gets a lot of joy out of it,” Dr Ruit says. “He is at this level in his career and he wants to make changes in peoples’ lives.”
“People take an interest in actors,” Edgerton tells a room full of high school kids. “But to me, the great people are the people looking after other people.”
Edgerton has witnessed the blind being led or carried into eye camps after days of crossing mountains; “untouchables” who would remain blind and a burden to their families if not for The Fred Hollows Foundation performing simple cataract surgery.
But he is the first to admit that he gets as much out of his trips as the foundation gets from the publicity he brings.
“I noticed that when I came on my first trip, it was kind of, not like it fixed me, but it was kind of like a reset,” he tells Australian Story.
“You go home and for a while, you feel like all the little concerns don’t concern you so much anymore.
“Realistically, I make a lot of money for doing very little and I go back to that world of attention and realise how lucky my life is.”
Panic attacks under pressure
It was towards the end of shooting The Great Gatsby that Edgerton was rushed to hospital. It was his first anxiety attack, which has all the symptoms of cardiac arrest.
“They’re awful,” he says with feeling. “When you’ve never experienced one before you’re like, ‘This is the day I’m about to die’.”
It happened again — the inability to breathe — the night before he started shooting Boy Erased, which Edgerton wrote, directed and co-produced.
“It was just a build-up of anticipation of this mammoth task of making this movie.
“I think I just sort of bottle up stress.”
In the fantasy action film Bright, Edgerton played a humanoid monster goblin, an Orc, under heavy prosthetic makeup.
When he was struggling and feeling claustrophobic under all the makeup and “felt like he was drowning”, his elder brother Nash came to see him.
“He has a tough-looking exterior and he’s pretty robust but he’s a sensitive human being,” Nash says.
Nash has always been his protector, his advisor and has always led the charge of the Edgerton brothers.
Nash was the one who found a way to make their first short films; Nash is the one Joel turns to now that he has ascended the Hollywood heights and has to choose his films carefully.
“All of a sudden I had choice, so I needed a lot of guidance and phone calls to Nash,” Edgerton says.
When he is acting and directing a film, it is Nash who comes as his second eye to guide him.
“Literally, I don’t think there would be anything that I couldn’t call Nash and say, ‘Look, I really need you right now’,” Edgerton says.
“I don’t think he’d even need to know why; he’d just do it.
“I don’t think my life would be anywhere near what it is right now if I didn’t have Nash.”
Says actress Claudia Karvan, a friend since she worked with Edgerton on The Secret Life of Us, “Nash and Joel are like two halves of a whole.”
Film careers started with a family camera
The brothers grew up on five acres in Dural, NSW, with Marianne, a dedicated full-time mother, and father Michael, who worked long hours as a solicitor.
Edgerton says: “A lot of what I was motivated by was trying to get the attention of my dad.”
They lived next to a national park and were always outside.
“And how many grazes I had to nurse and how many broken arms when they fell out of trees. They were full-on, 100 miles an hour,” Marianne recalls.
Marianne believes Joel is like her in character: a “people pleaser”.
“We both like to make everyone around us feel good. I just think he’s a really nice guy with a heart as soft as marshmallow,” says Marianne, who Edgerton jokes may be banned — again — from speaking to the media after comments like this.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Dural, apart from outdoor activities and occasionally going to court cases, which would foster a deeper interest in crime stories, reflected in the Edgerton brothers’ later gritty film scripts.
Michael had bought a camera and the teenaged boys started making short films, doing ninja stunts, trying to recreate scenes from Indiana Jones; Joel was always the actor.
During high school, his parents were thrilled when Nash went to university to study engineering, but he soon dropped out to be a stuntman in films. (He has since become a director).
“We were worried he was going be dead in a couple of weeks,” Michael says.
But this reckless career decision made it a lot easier for Joel to then announce he was going to be an actor. Joel had seen The Crucible at the Opera House. He had felt the power of it, “and wanted it”.
That both brothers are driven is, Marianne says, because, “we weren’t the parents that gave them a car, we weren’t the parents that gave them a house. We wanted them to get it themselves”.
Terence Crawford, a teacher at Nepean Drama school at the University of Western Sydney, remembers the 18-year-old Edgerton clearly.
“My overarching impression of Joel is the energy with which he attacked everything, the hunger with which he ate up the work,” he says. “He had the head of a bricklayer and the heart of a poet.”
Slow burn to a big break in Hollywood
In 1996, knowing that they had “more to offer than was on offer”, the Edgerton brothers decided to make their own luck — and their own short film, Loaded, with friends and borrowed equipment.
Almost accidentally, it would win awards and be their calling card and the genesis of what would become Blue-Tongue Films, a collective of filmmakers who work together and support each other and have now produced a series of weighty, commercially successful films.
“Between the eight of us, there’s, I think we’ve made like 13 films now and there are about 20-something short films and a bunch of other work,” Edgerton says.
Although he worked in the theatre, Edgerton always had his eye on the movies. But it would be a long, slow burn for him.
There was a dark period in his 20s where he succumbed, he admits, to “just frivolous partying”. His family closed ranks around him and “just wouldn’t let me fall apart all by myself”.
The biggest wake-up call came when he was drinking whisky on a beach in Thailand, did a backflip and landed on his head. “For six months, I was unable to use my left arm.”
At 26, the success of The Secret Life of Us had made him famous in Australia but it would be another nine years before he became internationally recognised at 35.
There were times, auditioning in Los Angeles, where he would be running out of money and would have to weigh up whether to stay in the hope of getting a role or use what he had left for a ticket home. “You are really gambling on the next two weeks,” he says.
In 2005, Edgerton thought his big break had come with the lead role in Kinky Boots.
“I was being shown a window to this world of riches, a seat at the table.” After filming, he went on a carefree three-month holiday in Europe.
“I was thinking, this is the calm before the storm. Like, this is me going on a holiday before things really kick off.”
But the film didn’t do well at the box office. Instead, there was a resounding silence and he was back to the “misery of being at the mercy of casting directors”. There were no more meetings with Woody Allen.
“I remember walking in to have an audition at a place in LA and I sat in a room and there were eight guys that could have easily have been me all hustling for the same job.”
He had been on the cusp of realising the elusive Hollywood dream granted to so few. In frustration at the powerlessness of it all, he realised that if, “no one was letting me” do the kind of movies he wanted to do, he would just have to write and make his own.
He was not going to sit around wondering if he would ever work again. He would take control.
“I wasn’t coming home and being a misery guts about anything, I was writing, writing, writing,” Edgerton says. That period produced The Square, written by Joel and directed by Nash.
He was so absorbed in working on The Square that he barely noticed that Hollywood had stopped calling.
And then in 2010 came Animal Kingdom, the game changer, written and directed by David Michôd. It was an international hit, received 36 awards including an Oscar nomination for Jackie Weaver, and launched the Hollywood careers of everyone involved.
“Joel was one of those people who championed the script that I’d written,” Michôd says. “I didn’t know him that well, but I remember he read the script and just called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to make this thing’.”
“I hadn’t yet made any shorts [that would help get the finance], and so he helped me make a short called Crossbow.
“He really wanted to help me get it made. I’ll be forever grateful to Joel for that.”
A ‘renaissance man’ in lockdown
Today, Edgerton is an unstoppable creative force.
In addition to the being a character actor in big Hollywood movies, he has written, produced and starred in Felony (2013) and had his directorial debut in The Gift (2015), which he also wrote and starred in.
“He works at a rate that is extraordinary,” Michôd says.
“His engine is a complex mix of a thirst for life and also a kind of mechanism for keeping demons at bay.”
Edgerton agrees. “My brother is like this, too. We definitely have to remind ourselves to stop working at some point because I’ll work through the night if I have the energy.”
Now, at age 46, Edgerton knows better ways to deal with stress; he does yoga every morning and surfing helps him mentally, except presumably when the paparazzi are around.
“He’s totally trying to better himself and calm down the obsessive thinking and anxiety,” Ruffino says.
He has also, after a peripatetic life which made relationships difficult, found love with Christine Centenera — an Australian fashion stylist, Vogue fashion editor and designer who he has been with for two years.
He had known her for 20 years before they got together.
She is, he says, “a divine and very special person”.
“I think he’s been looking for a long time,” Ruffino says.
“She’s not looking to gain anything from whatever notoriety or celebrity he has because she’s super successful in her own right.
“So I think in that way they’re a really good match of equals.”
The COVID-19 lockdown with his “cellmate” Christine has brought a period of intense creativity — learning carpentry, writing screenplays, painting, “I wouldn’t say it is any good, but it keeps me occupied”, learning the ukulele, “I’m also terrible at the guitar”, mentoring young filmmakers and exercising at the beach.
“I’ve decided I want to be a renaissance man by the end of this whole situation,” Edgerton says.
“I am also aware that I’m very lucky and I do have gratitude for it, because I sit around here and I feel guilty now that I’m having a great old time.
“I don’t have to dress up, don’t have to go anywhere. Don’t have to impress any people. I don’t go into crowded rooms and I feel incredible.”
Balancing the equilibrium of a ‘selfish life’
On the eye camps in Nepal, when the bandages are taken off after cataract surgery, people can see for the first time often in years.
They can become productive and useful in their community again, their lives can be prolonged.
“There’s no doubt that as an actor I often used to think, ‘What use am I to the world?’,” Edgerton says.
“Over the years, I have matched myself up in my head to people who are really trying to do good things in the world.”
Edgerton admits that being focused solely on himself creates a great deal of anxiety.
“But being involved in The Fred Hollows Foundation definitely makes me feel like I have balanced up the equilibrium of a selfish life,” he says.
“It allows me to go, ‘Alright, I’m doing something useful or helpful, or, you know, I’m giving something back’.”
And as to opening himself up to the dreaded public scrutiny on Australian Story, he says he was “a little bit guarded” at first but came to wonder, “What am I so afraid of? Like, why am I so afraid of anybody getting to know me a little bit better?
“And I think that’s a bit of a theme in my life as well.”
Australian Story’s two-part story The Long Game starts 8:00pm (AEST), on ABCTV, iview and ABC News In-Depth Youtube. Continues Monday August 17.