Joel Edgerton: “I owe so much to George Lucas and Star Wars – it opened all the doors to Hollywood”

The Australian actor-director breaks down his prolific run of cinematic form, the complexity of his new film 'Master Gardener' and returning to a galaxy far, far away...

Joel Edgerton is riding the crest of a cinematic wave right now. The past 12 months have seen the Australian actor-director feature in the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi, assume the role of an undercover cop in the Netflix true crime sensation The Stranger and play a real-life heroic doctor in Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives.

He now takes the lead in Master Gardener, the new film from legendary Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader. “It’s another one of those years where people think I’m really prolific,” Edgerton tells NME as we settle down for a chat at the Venice Film Festival. “But I’ve actually been balancing my time really well lately.”

Edgerton’s work-life balance has likely been out of whack for the past two decades, ever since he starred in the Aussie comedy-drama series The Secret Life of Us. He’s frequently been in demand with big-name directors – think Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby), Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings) and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) – and he’s notched a few cult films, too: take the MMA movie Warrior with Tom Hardy, Aussie crime yarn Animal Kingdom and David Lowery’s medieval trip-fest The Green Knight. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also directed two features: the horror tale The Gift and the equally acclaimed Boy Erased, the 2018 film about a Baptist preacher involved in a gay conversion programme.

So far, so busy. Yet Master Gardener offers something different again: a rare American leading role for Edgerton in arguably the most incendiary film he’s ever been involved in. He plays Narvel Roth, the head gardener for a wealthy estate owner, Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who instructs him to take care of her troubled great-niece Maya (Black Adam star Quintessa Swindell). But buried deep in Narvel’s past is a dark secret: he is a former neo-Nazi. The reveal comes early in the film, when he removes his shirt to show that seared onto his flesh are tattoos of hate from his former life.

Was Edgerton concerned by having to take on a character like Narvel? He shakes his head: “I’ve done things on screen that I don’t agree with as a person, but it’s [always] in the context of playing a character.” The 48-year-old’s main concern was Narvel’s struggles with the violence within him while seeking forgiveness from the world. But the film takes a twisted turn when Narvel begins a romance with Maya: something that Edgerton immediately “grilled” Schrader about. “I said, ‘Do you see this relationship as something you want the audience to be thrilled by in a way that’s titillating or pleasurable?’ And he said, ‘No, I want people to be confronted by it.’”

While this explanation somewhat placated Edgerton’s initial worries, particularly given the 23-year age gap between himself and Swindell, he was right to be concerned. He tells NME an anecdote about once watching a movie – he refuses to name it – featuring an older actor. Having missed the beginning of the film, Edgerton arrived just as said actor was seen in a bar chatting with a younger woman.

“I’m trying to work out what I’ve missed in the film,” he continues. “And then he leans in to kiss her, and I’m like, ‘No!’ It was the age difference! I had assumed it was a father-daughter relationship. But this actor had cast a girl as his love interest, and I was straightaway really angry about it. So I was very cautious about this relationship in [Master Gardener].”

Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell in 'Master Gardener'
Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell in ‘Master Gardener’ (Picture: Press)

Cautious he may have been, but Edgerton was still thrilled to be asked by Schrader to take the lead in one of his movies. “There’s been a couple of moments in my life where certain things I’ve dreamed of have come to fruition,” he says. “Not to say that I was specifically in my mind casting a net into the future, trying to manifest working with Paul Schrader. But to be brought into the fold of his work, knowing that he was a major player in that early spark of me wanting to be an actor [was special].”

Schrader, who scripted Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (which gave key roles to Robert De Niro), was a huge influence on Edgerton. “He created those dysfunctional characters; characters with a complicated moral line that made for dynamic cinema.”

Master Gardener’s horticultural element also spirited Edgerton back to his roots growing up in Blacktown, New South Wales, where his father worked as a solicitor and property developer. “I grew up in nature; a rural environment. I didn’t live in a city until I was 17,” he says. His early years were spent living close to the Australian bush. “I knew what food on my table related to which animal… I’d seen chickens be killed, and I used to go fishing and watch tadpoles turn into frogs.”

“There’s been a couple of moments in my life where certain things I’ve dreamed of have come to fruition”

He only left his country upbringing to go and study acting at the Nepean Drama School at Western Sydney University. “It feels good to me when I go back to nature, but I live in cities predominantly [now],” he adds. “I think that causes some of my anxiety.”

Edgerton’s anxiety somewhat surprisingly comes to the fore during our interview, when NME circles back to what a busy year he’s been having. Work wasn’t the only thing on his mind: his partner Christine Centenera, Vogue Australia’s editor-in-chief, gave birth to twins during the pandemic while he was still shooting Thirteen Lives. “They came kicking and screaming seven weeks early. We had premature twins, like, really premature,” he recalls. “I hadn’t wrapped Ron’s film yet, and it really affected the way I related to…” He stops, as tears well up in his eyes.

It takes a second for Edgerton to compose himself. “It affected the way I related to… the discussion around the care of children. Because I hadn’t finished shooting yet, and I was…[my children] are fine. I’m not upset for any other reason. I think there’s just stuff I was feeling at that time that comes up in the film.”

Howard’s movie, which tells the remarkable real life story of the 2018 rescue of a boys’ football team from flooded caves in northern Thailand, clearly dug deep into Edgerton’s psyche. Once his twins were born, he stayed home. “I didn’t work for mostly the first six months [after] they were born.”

Joel Edgerton
Joel Edgerton poses before a screening of ‘Master Gardener’ during the 60th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on October 1, 2022 (Picture: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for FLC)

Needless to say, Edgerton’s priorities are now very much in order. “I’ve been more about family in the last year and a half… I think because there’s been anticipation for me for years: I’m 48 now, [and] I always saw myself in the role of a father. I’ve played so many fathers and had so many children on-screen, but I’ve never fulfilled that part of my [actual] life: partly because I was so obsessed with work. And then, all of a sudden, the pandemic came along. I know it was a mix of good and bad in different components for all people, but there was one blessing for me – that it made me unable to work.”

Just like everyone else, Edgerton was suddenly forced to stop in March 2020. “I was happy. It was like someone had to take the brushes out of my hand for me to stop painting. I like working: it’s an escape for me, and a way to avoid some of the things that I don’t want to deal with. But it was positive in that regard, because I could really enjoy my relationship and then have a family.” It wasn’t until recently, when he went and shot The Boys In The Boat for George Clooney (an upcoming drama set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics), that he started “working solidly” again.

Family, understandably, is hugely important to Edgerton. In the 2018 comedy-thriller Gringo he was directed by his older brother Nash, who has made a successful transition from being an acclaimed stuntman to filmmaking. “My brother has put his life on the line for the sake of money and the movies, which is a stupid thing if you really break it down,” he laughs. “He’s done all sorts of crazy challenges in his life… pretty much every time I walk onto a set in Australia, and quite often in America, a lot of people that are on those crews know my brother – he conducts himself very well on movie sets.”

“I like working: it’s an escape for me”

Last year saw Edgerton return to the Star Wars universe two decades after he first played Owen Lars, Luke Skywalker’s uncle, in 2002’s Attack of the Clones, reprising the character in Obi-Wan Kenobi. So how was it to be back? “To be honest, I was a little bit… not snobbish, but reticent in regards to going, ‘I’ve done this before’. I’ve always joked that Uncle Owen is the most boring character in Star Wars history because he’s a moisture farmer and he doesn’t get to wield a lightsaber. And I’m always cheeky about the way I talk about Uncle Owen!”

While Attack of the Clones was critically derided – yes, it was that episode where Anakin and Padmé got married by a lake – Edgerton knows what it gave him personally. At the time, he was barely known outside of Australia. “I owe so much in my career to George [Lucas, Star Wars’ creator] giving me that job: it opened all the doors to Hollywood. It allowed everyone in L.A. to kind of welcome me and go, ‘Oh, he’s in Star Wars. Let’s give him an audition for other things’. So I put aside any of my reticence [about returning] and I saw it as a way to complete a circle of some kind.”

Joel Edgerton as Owen Lars in 'Obi-Wan Kenobi'
Joel Edgerton as Owen Lars in ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ (Picture: Disney+ / Lucasfilm Ltd)

Nevertheless, Edgerton felt the need to fine-tune Owen in Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Everybody thinks that Uncle Owen is a grumbly, cantankerous ‘say no’ dude. I was like, ‘This is my opportunity to put a bit more context on that, and have people maybe like him a little bit more’. And I think we did that. Also, my one caveat to them was, ‘I know what you’re planning with the story and how it unfolds, and I’m not asking for more screen time, I just want to do something cool. Can I at least have one fight? Can I at least throw my hessian sleeves up and get into one brawl?’”

That said brawl ended up being with Reva Sevander – played by the brilliant Moses Ingram – made it even more special. “I was like, ‘I have never had a fight with a woman before on screen’. And I sort of – spoilers aside – get to lose. How cool is that?”

Our time is at an end, and Edgerton stands up before apologising, unnecessarily, for the earlier tears. “Sorry to drag you into my emotional [life]… that was very unexpected stuff I haven’t dealt with, obviously.” On the contrary: it just shows what a sensitive and empathetic person he really is. Let’s hope Joel Edgerton keeps that work-life balance in perfect equilibrium from now on.

‘Master Gardener’ is in cinemas from May 26

More Stories: