As film fans, we’re lucky enough to live in a time when writer-director Jeff Nichols (TAKE SHELTER, MUD) has released two films in a single year, both starring Joel Edgerton (and Michael Shannon, if we’re being totally accurate). Earlier this year, Edgerton was in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, and when I interviewed Nichols for that film about Edgerton’s performance in their upcoming collaboration LOVING, he said, “That guy deserves an Oscar,” as he pointed to the actor sitting in the same room with us, who just happened to be in Chicago shooting his brother Nash’s still untitled 2017 release. (To be fair, when I asked him about Ruth Negga, Edgerton’s co-star in LOVING, Nichols responded: “She REALLY deserves an Oscar.”) And now that I’ve seen the film twice, I whole-heartedly agree.
LOVING is the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in Virginia, who are sentenced to prison for getting married. And that’s all in the first 30 minutes of the film, which tracks their long and often heartbreaking struggle to dismantle the anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia through the court system, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Edgerton’s portrayal of Richard Loving is an exercise in pure understatement, so much so that you have to listen extra carefully to him when he speaks in his quiet, sometimes mumbled, way to catch his meaning. And he and Negga are damn-near perfect together in terms of chemistry and complimenting each other’s adopted personalities.
I had a chance to chat with Edgerton recently via phoner, a little over a year since I spoke to him about his directing debut THE GIFT. He’s got a great handle on the complexities of the Lovings and their ordeal, as well as his approach to playing Richard and forming a bond with Negga. Please enjoy my talk with Joel Edgerton…
Capone: Hey Joel. How are you?
Joel Edgerton: Good. How are you?
Capone: Good. Nice to talk to you again.
JE: It’s funny, I’ve been doing interviews with people and I’m like “I know exactly what this person looks like.” I’ve been coming around and speaking to people so many times in the last year or so. But anyway, nice to talk to you again.
Capone: This story happened more than 50 years ago. Why do you think it’s important for people today to know this story, and why do you think it’s important for you and Jeff and everybody to tell this story?
JE: Human beings are always going to just keep bumping into the same stuff and making the same mistakes. Equality, as Jeff aptly points out, is not a problem that can be solved, and we don’t one day solve the problem and then move on. It’s about opinion and governing opinion or shaping and educating opinion. Or even more so, avoiding layering people’s opinions by adding value charge to otherness. This film says so much about that in a simple way by just inviting people into an empathetic experience of walking in the shoes of two people who happened to struggle against judgement. By inviting you into their home and watching them be domestic and care for children and mow lawns and wash clothes and prepare food, you can identify with them, and on a revolutionary scale, you can identify with them as people placed into a position of becoming poster children for change rather than the actual speech-giving revolutionary.
I think it says a lot for people to watch a gentle-experience movie like this. It’s actually about something very psychologically heavy, and then come out and hopefully have a think about their own levels of judgement or corners of judgement, and examine why they feel certain things, or where they learn to think a certain way. So the movie’s a period movie, but it’s so today. It’s so wrapped up in racial equality, in marriage equality in terms of same-sex marriage, whatever your opinion is. It speaks very loudly, this movie, even though it feels very quiet.
Capone: There are no big speeches in this movie. It’s all just a series of fairly small gatherings of people who have a lot at stake here. The whole movie is so understated. There are only a couple of times in the film where it addresses the bigger picture, but this is really just about these people, and by telling it that way, you make it about the bigger picture. Was that one of the reasons you thought it was great that Jeff approached it this way?
JE: I do. I think it’s really great that the center of the movie is two people that are taught by injustice that it’s better that they just shut their mouth and are forced into inactivity. I think that says a lot about people who are intimidated by the politicians of the world or the law men of the world and are not allowed to fight, and not allowed to argue, and that silence says a lot about what injustice sadly does to people in boxing them in in their lives. It’s a different movie to something like SELMA, which was beautiful in that it showed us the other version of people at the center of change who are actually willing to stand in the firing line and know that they’re standing in the firing line and make the loud speeches anyway.
Capone: I wrote in my notes that the Lovings were “reluctant Civil Rights warriors.” Although it did seem like Mildred grew to enjoy the publicity to a certain degree, again understanding that there might be other people out there in a similar circumstance who could be helped by their story.
JE: I think you’re right. I think she started to gather a little strength in that one letter that she wrote and was returned with a chance of hope, and “hope” was a big word for her. The hopefulness of change started to gather a little momentum in her that strengthened her spirit and allowed her to see a light at the end of the tunnel that they were in, and a way over the fence that had been built around them. I see them as very pure, honest, and good people, and it wasn’t like she was going, “This is cool, I get to see myself on TV.” I think she was genuinely, wholeheartedly thinking bout the other people, as you point out, that whatever was going to happen to them, whatever struggle they were going through it was definitely also going to help other people, and she’s right. That’s definitely come through.
We had so many children who were the product of interracial couples and other people saying to me the other night, “My marriage wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the two of them,” or, “This is my parents’ story.” I think they opened the doors of change that really did help a lot of people and give people an easier life than they had.
Capone: That first courtroom scene where it’s just the two of them having to plead guilty, and you can’t help but ask “What are they pleading guilty to?” And it’s just for falling in love and getting married, and that scene just crushed me, partly because of the look on your face. It is just a man who can’t understand why he’s in this circumstance. Tell me about that scene.
JE: Yeah. Pleading guilty and then the beautiful choice of Jeff’s to show that little scene afterwards where, not only did they plead guilty and get told that they were, and I’m paraphrasing, scarring the reputation of the state of Virginia. Mind you, they’re doing something private that no one really had to see. This is the absurdity of the movie and scenario of judging marriage equality. But that beautiful scene afterwards where, not only did they have to endure standing in front of everyone saying they were guilty for something that they shouldn’t have been guilty for, but also Richard then had to pay the court costs. He had to pay for it! And it was like $36 for him and $36 for Mildred. Seemingly like a charge for bothering the institution.
Capone: At least they let him pay for both of them.
JE: He was “impotent,” and I mean that word in terms of him being powerless. And that says a lot about Richard’s character too, and feeds into Mildred, because Richard wasn’t allowed to protect his family. Jeff underlines that in the movie with the whole dialogue about “I can take care of you.” Mildred gifted him his masculinity back because he was very emasculated—unable to protect and provide, which I think is such a big engine for a lot of men. They want to feel like they can take care of business.
Richard was checkmated by the law, checkmated by the wrong kind of law that in his gut he felt, again it’s underlined it in the film, that something wasn’t right. Richard may not have been very articulate, but his intuition was spot on. It must have been a weird feeling for them, to think that feeling something so true and right in your stomach, yet the law seemingly looks made of steel or granite. How does one small couple topple a massive institution? That’s how epic this movie is. With the help of two attorneys, they managed to topple what seemed like an impenetrable thing and turned around a law that should never have existed in the first place.
Capone: You mentioned his articulation. He’s a fairly quiet man, but when he speaks he mumbles, and I feel like you maybe did something with your teeth to accentuate that. I don’t know if you had access to what he sounded like, but tell me about capturing his physicality and his literal voice.
JE: I’m sure you could find them online too, but we had access to Nancy Buirski’s documentary [THE LOVING STORY] and also the extra archival footage that didn’t make its way into the documentary to really get a sense of how these people moved and spoke and interacted with each other, and Richard’s posture, weighed down by his job as a brick mason, which said a lot also about the different postures that he and Mildred had. Richard was very much crushed by his emasculating situation, and Mildred was growing and growing into a straight spine as she became the strength of the couple.
But we had the direct road map to create Richard and Mildred, and that’s what Jeff wanted us to do. I think that’s also why he cast us in the roles, because he knew that we were enough like these two people, and we were energetically going to be able to bring it out of ourselves to create that picture and then hopefully create the energy that existed between the two of them, that that would translate.
Capone: One of the things I also wrote in my notes was how wonderfully affectionate they were, openly affectionate with their body language, touching each other a lot. Did you all talk about that aspect of the performance as well? There’s so much physicality to it.
JE: That was in the documentary too and the clues you get from different photographs we have of them. At the race meet when I have my arm around her, there’s this great photo of Richard—he’s got her so much in a hug that he’s almost got her in a headlock. That comfortability with each other, that they fit together—they found the little pockets where they fit perfectly into each other, and there’s that affection, but also that intuitive togetherness between touches of just understanding and support and knowing when to defer to each other and to agree to follow each other. They have to stick together. It’s like going though a fog—you need to hold hands and find your way out together, and there’s something so beautiful about the two of them.
And Ruth and I as actors really liked each other. I love Ruth. I think she’s amazing, and I love spending time with her, and she makes me laugh. But as a task that we were given, it was such a special thing we were given to do together that it wasn’t lost on us that we were very lucky and privileged and had a responsibility, and it was joyful. We were sharing so much just in being given the job to do this thing that was so wonderful that there was this chemistry together in us in just the day-to-day moving forward that we very much were moving through a nice fog together anyway.
Capone: There are a lot of shots of Richard on the job, not just brick laying, but mostly brick laying. We also see Mildred doing a lot of baking. I like that day-to-day aspect of the film. We feel like we’re spying on them going through a normal day so often.
JE: Yeah, I think Jeff invited the audience just to come and be a part of their lives. That’s part of the joy of the film. Part of it is like, come and be a part of these two lives, and then try and judge who they are. Then try and judge why they shouldn’t have been allowed to do this thing. On the brick masonry front, it really has carved and shaped what Richard’s posture and body were like, but on a different level, on a story level, this guy literally plotted a piece of land and declared to build a house for his wife, and then wasn’t really able to do that for a whole nine years. That says a lot about the timeline of the movie and marks that physically really well. Also for Jeff, part of the strategy that got them there in the end was this slow building block situation, and the brick laying felt like a nice physical reminder of that piece-by-piece struggle they were dealing with, the building blocks of that.
Capone: Joel, thank you so much. Good to talk to you again, and best of luck with this.