With Barry Jenkins’s excellent new limited series, The Underground Railroad (premiering on Amazon Prime this week), Joel Edgerton had a difficult choice. On one hand, he very much wanted to work with Barry Jenkins, going as far to approach Jenkins at an film festival industry event and tell Jenkins just that. Then he saw the character Jenkins had in mind for him, a reprehensible man named Ridgeway who makes a living hunting escaped slaves. And while Edgerton is someone who likes playing the villain, but wasn’t so sure he wanted to dig into the mind of someone as evil as Ridgeway.
The series, based on the book by Colson Whitehead, follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), who has escaped the horrors of a Georgia plantation, and makes her way through different stops in different states on a fictionalized version of the Underground Railroad that, here, is not a network of escape routes, but instead an actual railroad that runs underground. Ridgeway and his partner, a young man named Homer, who is Black (played by Chase W. Dillon, who is terrific), track Cora through stop after stop and become her never-ending nightmare at the prospect of being sent back. Edgerton says it was Jenkins who gave him the fortitude to even attempt a role like this.
Also, Edgerton is set to return to the Star Wars universe as Owen Lars, who he played in Attack of the Clones and, briefly, in Revenge of the Sith. Ahead, Edgerton tells the story about how he met the original Uncle Owen, Phil Brown. And obviously he can’t get too much into the plot of the series or what his role will be, but he makes it clear that whatever screen-time he gets, he’s going to make the most of it.
I’ve spent the last three days watching The Underground Railroad. What was your experience watching it? Because it really is quite an emotional journey.
It’s not just a big, grim, serious, depressive event. Yes, it’s that. But it’s also, suddenly you’re in an episode where Cora’s exploring herself as a person falling in love. And then old Ridgeway comes back into the picture and drags her back to hell, but she keeps escaping the clutches and finding different communities and joy and striving towards freedom. It’s an epic journey. And then we tug at these little side routes to get inside into her mother and my character as a young person. So there’s a lot to discover and there’s a lot to digest.
Look, I get it, “acting.” But when deciding if you want to play this reprehensible guy, do you have second thoughts like, “Do I want to get in the mind of someone who does stuff like this?”
And where you’re having to say things and words you obviously would never say in real life.
Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how many times Ridgeway says the N-word in various forms in the show, but I’m just realizing, that’s going to come out of my mouth in the context of playing this character. I’ve been for years, running around, going, “I love playing villains, and I’d rather play villains.” But this one did make me take a step back and go, yeah, but be careful what you wished for. Is this really what you want? But, because of Barry, I was willing to. And because of the nature of this wonderfully large, epic, heroic story, I realized that by playing the villain, I could participate in the heroic nature of the whole thing. So I was willing.
How is it presented to you? Because I’m wondering if there’s even a fleet moment when you first hear about think, well, maybe there’s redemption. And it’s not that type of character.
What happened with me was I’m friends with Dede Gardner of Plan B. And she tipped me off and said, “Barry’s got this thing, and there’s a role in there, and he’s sort of the villain of the thing.” And without having read the book yet, I really want to line up to work with Barry. I actually tapped him on the shoulder at an event, we were on a press tour for different films, and said, “Hey, Dede tipped me off about this. I’m really interested to work with you.”
When he was promoting Beale Street?
And I was on a tour for Boy Erased. And we initially bounced into each other a lot while he was on the tour for Moonlight and I was on the tour for Loving. So, we just kept bouncing into each other. We’d become familiar, and there I was in Toronto at an event, tapping him on the shoulder going, “Hey, I’m one of those actors that’s saying I’d love to work with you, and I’ve heard about this thing.” And then later I started reading the material and that’s when it was like, “Oh, do I really want to do that?”
When was the last time you had to do that? Basically cold approach a director? I just assume you get to do what you want to do at this point.
No, look, also, as you would know, or you could understand, an actor is only as good as a script that they’re working on, plus the director that’s guiding them. And so we’re always at the mercy of what the project is and hoping that we get to say yes, or get included in projects of a good quality. And that can allow us to continue working on good quality stuff. So that hussle in me has never really died, but it’s not often that I’m chasing someone down like I chased Barry.
Okay, so you two speak at this event, then you read it and have to take a step back when you learn some of the stuff you had to do in this. You said it was Barry that helped you feel at least okay about it. What does he have to say to you for you to feel that way?
Well, when I got sent the scripts, the thing that really hinged it for me was the second Tennessee episode, where you really get a window into what makes Ridgeway tick. I was fascinated by the relationship he has with Homer. But then when you learn about the depth of the complexity with his relationship with his father, and the flashback episode to Ridgeway as a young man. Then I was like, all right, this interests me. Because we get to ask, what makes the workings of a mind like Ridgeway? Who are these people with all these bigoted points of view? And where did they get their ideas from? Because they had to learn them from somewhere.
You mentioned Homer, played by Chase Dillon. Yeah, he’s amazing.
I’ll tell you something fascinating. I worked with a lot of kids. I’ve played a lot of fathers and I’ve worked with a lot of really special kids. But I’ve never really worked with a child in an environment where I’ve seen them understand just how dramatically their character is different from themselves. Because Chase is a real cheeky, fun, sassy kind of kid. And when I saw Barry say to him, one day, “You know, Chase, there are times in the show where you’re not even allowed to look someone in the eye, let alone talk out loud in a room. And you certainly can’t razz anybody. Because you would get punished for that.” And watching him, as a young man, understand how to adjust. The moment he put his costume on, he wasn’t Chase anymore, he was playing Homer. It was fascinating. And I learned a lot from him by spending time with him.
So with Kenobi, you’re returning as Uncle Owen. I believe you willed this into existence. You have been talking about coming back and playing this character for years. I think you did this through sheer willpower. That’s my statement.
[Laughs] I wish. Part of me wishes you were right.
I think I am right.
I don’t know that I hold that much power in the universe. I’m a humble, moisture farmer.
Back when you did Attack of the Clones, Phil Brown, who played Owen in Star Wars, was still around. Did you ever meet him?
Oh, you did?
I met him at an event for a 25-year celebration of Star Wars that was held, I think in Indiana?
Yeah, that’s right. Indianapolis.
Indianapolis. And soon after that, he passed away. And his wife told me a funny story, actually. She said, “We were at one of these events and Phil had a little nap behind his table where he’d been signing autographs. He had a nap and he woke up to two ambulance guys thinking that there was something wrong with him, trying to revive him.” And his wife’s like, “No! he’s just having a nap!”
Well, I guess don’t do that. There’s a lesson in there.
It was a real pleasure to meet him then. It was a real pleasure to get to meet him. And I mean, the whole thing was a real honor to be a part of, back then. So I’m excited that they’re doing more.
You know how in Rogue One, when Jimmy Smits shows up as Bail Organa? And he dramatically steps out of the shadows, like he’s telling the audience, “It’s me! I’m back!” Do you get anything like that? Do you get to step into frame and get a two-second, “Look who it is! Look who’s back!” moment?
Well, if they give me two seconds, I’m going to turn it into four. That’s all I’m going to say.
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