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

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