Joel Edgerton - Hollywood's newest prized fighter A ringside seat with a Hollywood fighter

He had to struggle for the A-list attention after a starring role in Animal Kingdom. Now he has been cast in The Great Gatsby. Matt Mueller hears how setbacks made him stronger

Such are the fickle vagaries of the acting profession that, before the writer-director Gavin O'Connor came calling with the offer to play one of two estranged brothers who compete against each other for a mixed martial arts (MMA) championship in Warrior, Joel Edgerton was in a deep funk, wondering if his Hollywood career was over for good.

Not that he had much of one to speak of really, supporting parts in King Arthur, Kinky Boots and Smokin' Aces failing to propel him anywhere near the A-list. But he admits he never grasped how to seize momentum when he had it. "I never understood that I should dig in in America and make it happen," says Edgerton, slouching down in a sofa at the Soho Hotel dressed in a snug grey T-shirt and dark blue jeans. "I just always wanted to go home."

Home being Sydney, Edgerton disappeared Down Under after finishing each job, only to learn that waiting for Hollywood can be a lonely, soul-sapping business. "I remember my brother Nash had just directed me in The Square [in 2008], and I was sitting in Australia going: 'No one's called me about working for ages. I don't know if I'm ever going to get another job,'" discloses the 37-year-old.

Out of the blue came O'Connor. "He was looking for two actors with no baggage who he could turn into fighters," he says. "You could almost erase the rest of my career and I still believe that Gavin would have met me on that day and given me that job."

Now, Edgerton can count himself a fully fledged member of the new wave of Australian actors finding favour in Hollywood, a list that includes Sam Worthington, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Rhys Wakefield and Xavier Samuel. Edgerton was born and raised in Sydney's western outskirts, on the border of a national park that allowed him to indulge his imagination by dressing up as cowboys, Indians and soldiers. Although into sports (swimming, surfing, karate), his segue into performance was, says Edgerton, an attention-seeking ploy with his father, a hard-working lawyer trying to "turn his working-class family into a middle-class family".

For Edgerton, turning youthful fantasies into a career was made easier when his older brother dropped out of university to become a stuntman. "My mum was devastated," admits Joel, but it took the heat off him when he told his parents he wanted to go to drama school. After graduation, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, the brothers Edgerton set up their own production company to promote their work in short films. Blue-Tongue Films has since blossomed into a thriving independent film factory, yielding well-received features such as The Square, Animal Kingdom and Hesher. And those early shorts did crack open doors. Both brothers cropped up in George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Nash as Ewan McGregor's stunt double and Joel as the young Owen Lars (he reprised the role in Revenge of the Sith).

Warrior pairs Edgerton with Tom Hardy as Brendan and Tommy Conlon, two brothers at loggerheads over a traumatic youth with their abusive, alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte), which lead Tommy to flee and unable to forgive Brendan for remaining behind. When the siblings enter the same MMA competition and Tommy recruits Paddy as his coach, the murky family dynamics become even darker. Needless to say, the physical preparation required to convince as a champion MMA fighter was intense. Edgerton squeezed in his role in Animal Kingdom just before heading to America for months of gruelling training. But all that prep work didn't prevent him from tearing a ligament in his knee right at the start of the shoot, forcing him into six weeks of rehabilitation (after which he had to shoot all his fight sequences). He's convinced too that the head reactions he was required to do in the ring have left him with long-term neck and disc problems.

"There's about 50 times in the movie where I get hit in the head and I had to do each one of those about 10 times," he grimaces. "But look, it was pleasurable pain. I'm hardly digging trenches for a living. I'm getting to tap into my boyhood fantasies of being a larger-than-life character. There's probably a pile of women out there that could beat the shit out of me, but on screen I get to be one of the greatest fighters in the world and that's awesome. The pain aspect was there for sure. Just forcing that much food down your throat is unbearable, and lifting that much weight is a fucking task and it really upset me when I tore my MCL ligament. But I'd never exchange the experience."

Brimming with raw emotion and testosterone-fuelled brutality (O'Connor has previous form with his 2008 dirty-cop drama Pride and Glory), Warrior is so authentically immersed in the MMA universe that it feels more credible than its boxing counterpart The Fighter. But while Edgerton remains grateful to O'Connor for offering him his shot at a redemptive comeback, he does confide that if the producers beckon him back for a sequel, he'd "have to take a very deep breath" before agreeing. "Maybe I can get a doctor's note," he laughs. "'Joel's not able to do head reactions today. He's hurt his neck.'"

His performance in the inspirational pugilist drama, twinned with the fact that Animal Kingdom ended up garnering so much acclaim, means that Edgerton now has much more to look forward to than pain-filled sequels. He narrowly lost out to Jeremy Renner when it came to replacing Matt Damon in Tony Gilroy's franchise reboot The Bourne Legacy, but Renner's Hurt Locker director, Kathryn Bigelow, promptly hired him for her black-ops thriller about the death of Osama bin Laden.

And he has stepped into the wingtips Ben Affleck was meant to be filling as alpha-male millionaire Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Director Baz Luhrmann has packed his 3D adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's American classic with stars – Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Isla Fisher as Tom's mistress Myrtle – so convincing his flamboyant fellow Aussie that he was the man to replace Affleck (who left to focus on his next directorial outing, Argo) as a polo-playing aristo is a major coup for Edgerton.

"Ben left this lovely gaping hole for me to step into," grins Edgerton, "but I still had to fight for it. Baz definitely put me through my paces. But at least when I'm on set, I'll know that I earned my stripes... It was funny, going into the process I wasn't even convinced myself that I was going to be right for the job. Then I saw a photo of the guy Fitzgerald supposedly used as the template for Tom Buchanan [a collegiate football star from a moneyed East Coast clan] and I was like, 'That looks a hell of a lot like me.'"

Edgerton is sure Luhrmann will do "a magical job" with Gatsby. He's even convinced by the contentious decision to shoot in 3D. "He's doing it for the sake of submersion rather than spectacle," says the actor. "Whereas Avatar and other movies get shocks out of their three-dimensionality, Gatsby is going to be about inviting the audience into this larger-than-life drama, letting them almost be inside the room rather than looking at it through the window. I think it will really work. I'm worried about people having to look at me three-dimensionally though. You poor things..."

Before Gatsby arrives in late 2012, we'll get to see Edgerton in two dimensions in a couple of other roles that he credits to "this sudden gust of wind Warrior and Animal Kingdom gave me". The first is a remake of The Thing, which is unlikely to trouble John Carpenter's 1982 version for the status of horror classic but should give Edgerton a bit of genre cred. That will be followed by the family-friendly Disney fable, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, in which he co-stars with Jennifer Garner as a childless couple who end up with a peculiar boy to raise. Both nice enough additions to the CV, not to mention healthy paydays. But it's the Bigelow and Luhrmann projects that Edgerton knows will make the difference between whether he stays where he is or rises to the top of the Hollywood tree.

"I was reading this article in The Economist the other day about the importance of failure, how sometimes the real key to success is having some sort of failure along the way," he says. "The sum total of all my stop-starts have made me less concerned about the future. I'm just aware now that I'll always land on my feet somehow." Spoken like a true star.

'Warrior' opens on 23 September

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee