Joel Edgerton isn’t actually a creep, but if your impression of him is formed by his work on The Gift–or the film’s ultra-creepy marketing campaign–you can be forgiven for thinking so. Not only does the Australian actor (who is perhaps best known for playing Luke Skywalker’s future uncle, Owen Lars, in Star Wars Episodes II and III) star in the new thriller as Gordo, a former high school classmate of handsome, successful Simon (Jason Bateman) who delivers increasingly personal and inappropriate gifts after reconnecting in a chance encounter–he also wrote, directed, and produced the film (in theaters August 7). In other words, Edgerton isn’t just the guy who plays the creepy stalker, he’s also the guy who imagined the creepy stalker from whole cloth.
“Basically, the germ of the idea was that I thought how potentially terrifying it was to be like 20 years out from high school and have that tap on the shoulder from someone who said, ‘Do you remember me? We went to high school together,’ and how potentially dramatic that premise was, especially if you hadn’t been such a great person when you were in high school,” Edgerton says. And from there, the idea developed into something much weirder, and much darker.
Edgerton’s a handsome guy. He’s an actor in Hollywood, anyway, and the sort who can play a lead in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Black Mass, or inhabit Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But in The Gift, Edgerton wears a bad haircut and a worse goatee, playing high school pariah Gordo as a socially inept weirdo with a propensity for overstepping boundaries. And he always conceived The Gift as a project through which he could shape himself into that character.
“I started writing it with the idea of simply playing an overbearing, misunderstood character, which became Gordo,” he says. But as he started developing the character, he realized that Gordo was more than just a horror villain. “It was sort of in my wheelhouse of interest of suspense thrillers in the sort of Hitchcock vein, rather than the slasher vein. As an idea that was very suspenseful, and that had a potential for a real dangerous sort of atmosphere, but which also was very resonant and had a social context to it.”
The Gift is full of twists, and one of them involves quickly defying audience expectations developed from seeing enough stalker-thrillers before to make assumptions who these characters are going to be. Edgerton is very careful about blowing any of the film’s surprises, but he found Gordo in part by considering the twist in the relationship between his character and Simon and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall).
“We want to think that this is a well-meaning couple, and that Gordo is kind of the creepy, weird dude that’s going to besiege them,” Edgerton says. “And then, of course, those roles become not exactly what they seem to be. Things kind of shift. Jason’s character takes a turn in a different direction. My character can be seen in a different way than you expect.”
One of the things that Edgerton was able to achieve once he got the script into Bateman’s hands was that he was able to trade on some of our ideas about who Jason Bateman is when he’s on screen. Few characters capture “likable everyman in a world that doesn’t make sense” more than Michael Bluth, and his turns in everything from the Horrible Bosses films to Mike Judge’s Extract play off of that meta-awareness of who Bateman is–that persona allows for the skipping of steps in building trust between movie and audience. For Edgerton, that was an opportunity to invert expectations very economically.
“I wanted to use two sides of Jason,” Edgerton says. “I was very familiar with one–the very likable guy that we’re all used to watching and liking, where he’s the guy we can trust. And that’s the way we enter the film with Simon. I wanted the entry character to be that Jason, that people know and like. And then I also needed tones in the movie because, of course, there’s this shift where we can also not like him. So he felt like the right person–the Bateman-isms, or whatever you refer to them as, being that sort of easy ability he has to make us laugh by his sort of acerbic wit and asides and what have you. We wanted to capitalize on a bit of that.”
The big question of The Gift–and one that the film is very interested in asking, but much less interested in answering, is “who’s the real monster: Gordo or Simon?” But in the process of asking that question, there’s another character who emerges: Rebecca Hall’s Robyn. Hall plays Robyn as a curious woman who realizes that she’s married someone who isn’t who she thought he was, and begins to realize that the consequences of that extend well beyond the mystery and the situation that she found herself in when Gordo entered her life. (It also might be fair to say that the film’s interest in exploring the question of whether Gordo or Simon is the bigger monster gives short-shrift to Robyn’s own situation.)
In asking that question, Robyn ultimately becomes a sort of collateral damage character in the struggle between the two male leads. And Edgerton cites a classic thriller of the ’90s as an inspiration for that tension. “The great movie with the character who probably typifies collateral damage in the most massive possible way is Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Seven. She’s set up to be this sweet, honest, loving mother-to-be, and what you have is then completely thrown under the bus in the most shocking way,” he says. Those entering The Gift expecting Rebecca Hall’s character to meet the same fate that Paltrow meets in Seven are in for a surprise, but the stakes are definitely similar. “I wanted to create a sense of the bad blood between the two men being played out, and the witness to that is the character we love and trust and believe to be the most honest, which is Rebecca’s character.”
The fact that most stories about Edgerton invoke a lengthy filmography of on-screen roles, rather than his behind-the-scenes work as a screenwriter (he wrote the screenplay for the 2013 Australian crime thriller Felony, as well as the story for last year’s post-apocalyptic drama The Rover), is understandable right now–but it’s something that he hopes to change as he evolves his career creatively.
“Being an actor, and definitely with the great opportunities that I’ve had in the last handful of years, is sort of like your film school: You’re constantly reading screenplays that are of a standard. Whether you love the content of the story or the genre, the screenplays are of a standard that is exceptional, and there’s a lot to learn from that,” Edgerton says of developing as a writer. “That’s what teaches me a lot about writing–and writing itself teaches me a lot about acting and other things. The other film school you get as an actor is you’re on set with directors and watching them work. Every few months you move from one set to another, and you get to learn from different people, and I think that a lot of directors will never get that luxury of being able to hang out on another’s person set and learn, good or bad, the qualities of another director. It’s been a real blessing for me to have that information filling me up as I’ve sort of gotten closer and closer to wanting to direct a movie. It also broke down the elements of fear that were stopping me from doing it sooner.”
Taking his experience as an actor behind the camera is something Edgerton was prepared for, in other words–but one aspect of directing a film that it didn’t prepare him for was the process of actually working with other actors. “Funnily enough, it was nerve-wracking,” he laughs. “It’s almost like everything I should know as an actor just sort of disappeared from my brain when it came to dealing with actors. For example–just approaching actors to read scripts. I forgot that I’m actually very flattered when people send me things, especially when there’s an offer attached. It was almost like I approached the whole situation like I was begging or something–but I was also very cognizant of the fact that in this world, especially as an artist, you’re not really allowed to do more than one thing in everybody’s minds. You’re a model and you decide to have a singing career, everybody’s just waiting for you to fucking fail. Similarly, I think there’s a little bit of that when you go, ‘Oh, he’s an actor and he’s decided to go and direct a movie. Good luck.’ So I was very cognizant of the fact that I’m sure people were like, ‘I’ll read his script,’ but in the back of their mind, they expected it to not be very good.”