In our continuing set visit coverage from “The Great Gatsby”, we talk to Joel Edgerton who plays Tom Buchanan.
For our earlier chats with Baz Luhrmann and Tobey Maguire click here.
MH: So tell us about your character of Tom Buchanan.
JOEL: Well, I play Tom Buchanan, who is supposed to be a villain – but I don’t se him as a villain. More like the hero of a different story. He’s described as a brute and a fractious and arrogant Long Islander, one of the wealthiest from inherited money. He’s in a relationship – marriage – with Daisy that possibly is a little loveless. But a well-educated, albeit not very intelligent man of the wealthiest echelons of society. And definitely a brute.
MH: And what captivated you about this era of the 20s where The Great Gatsby is set?
JOEL: There’s a lot about that era of Roaring 20s that I love – I really love the contradictions. You know, that while people judged gangsters, they participated in the alcoholism of the era. A law that was intended to abolish alcohol created a nation of alcoholics, but there was supposed to be incredible, wild freedom. And within this story, I’m fascinated by the limitations of love. While it’s still an era of repression, people are still bound by the chains of society when it comes to love. Even the most wealthy characters like Tom, he’s still bound to a certain social etiquette. Bad behaviour or naughty behaviour is condoned but still very underground. It’s a very drunk and loud era, and as we all know too, it’s right on the edge of a major collapse in the most exciting city in the world. And all of that is so fantastic, yet it’s such a small story of a handful of people and their demolition of each other. That’s what I love about it, it’s so grand on the backdrop and so loud, yet so quiet and relatable and human.
MH: And how does Nick fit into all of that?
JOEL: What’s genius about it is that Nick is such an observer. He arrives in the place as one person, but he’s spat out, disillusioned at the end. And he’s changed, and yet it’s like this image of quicksand. All this demolition happens and yet through Tom, they have the ability to let it sink into quicksand and let the surface even out again and they can move on. But Nick can’t. And I think all the characters have an edge to them that’s quite deplorable, and we could all judge them as morally incorrect – but Nick is silent. He witnesses a lot of infidelity and possibly a murder but doesn’t say anything.
MH: What’s the challenge of making a movie that’s already such famous story?
JOEL: It’s great taking about a movie when you don’t have to worry about spoilers! It’s a different thing to embark on. It’s not about what the story is, it’s how you’re going to tell the story that’s a property of all the readers. The people in America, the people outside America who love it. It’s a tough thing.
MH: Did you make a conscious effort to read the book?
JOEL: The book I had read before but only vaguely remembered from school. I didn’t see it as an important book. But I went back and read it. After my meeting with Baz in New York, he gave me a copy of the book with a nice little message in it, that he would like me to join them. I was very excited about the proposition of working on the movie, although I don’t show that excitement very much. And then I got the book and I was very excited but you’ve got to understand I’ve never been a big reader – so i don’t hold books as precious. So I took the book and threw it into my bag – and then forgot about it. And then I went uptown to meet a friend and said he had given me a copy of the book. And it was a very special copy of the book – it was a first edition and in mint condition. And I felt terrible because I thought it must have been a show of such ignorance and arrogance that I didn’t care about it!
MH: What do you do as an actor to get in the feel of the setting and the 20s period and the wealth?
JOEL: If you go into my trailer, it’s literally wallpapered with pictures of Long Island and Buchanan-esqe type images of excess and wealth – these mansions and men playing polo, etc. Baz provides a lot of extra information too – he’s basically like a Wikipedia – he provides you a wealth of knowledge on another world, from etiquette to language to design and everything else. But for me, the real exploration of a character goes beyond facts and into a more elusive realm, which is meditation on the character for me. But Tom in particularly for me is a stretch compared to a lot of other characters to the ones I’ve played. I mean, his socio-economic status is very different to mine. Although I do plan on one day being as rich as Tom!
MH: Were you always sure about playing this character?
JOEL: In the beginning, I wouldn’t have bet money on myself getting the job in this movie. And even as I was flying to New York, I didn’t see myself as blue-blooded enough to play Tom. And I know the arrogance lives inside of me somewhere – I know all those traits live inside of us somewhere. But it wasn’t about personality as much as how I presented it, and I’m very aware from being on the other side of the camera that the way you present is out of your control. But Baz was willing to place the wager on me, and that was enough for me.
JOEL: Now’s the time to place the little thank you for Ben Affleck for being too busy to play Tom Buchanan. He was originally set to play him, but thankfully he was doing “Argo” so he unfortunately couldn’t do the movie – very fortunately for me! Leaving a gaping hole that I was fortunate to jump into.
MH: What do you like about your character?
JOEL: What I like is searching for the reasons to like him. I think everybody has a purpose and a mission and a set of goals in life and if you care to listen to the people you liked the least, they have just as much justification for doing the things you don’t like as the things you think are likeable. And if you’re in opposition to someone you’re going to judge them as stupid, arrogant or cruel – but if you are in the spirit of empathy or stepping into their shoes then you see it differently. But yes, Tom is arrogant and doesn’t do many things that are nice – but he’s also very human. He’s got a very practical approach to marriage, he has a right to protect that marriage, he’s very honest. He admits to his affairs. He loves Myrtle, but he can’t be with her, and he grieves for that.
MH: Is it fun being the bad guy?
JOEL: There’s got to be a relish in doing the despicable things. There’s something to relish as an actor that you’re always pulling a trick on the audience. I’m being someone else, or doing something to make you cry. We’re trying to draw an emotion out of you, or a feeling, or anything by just pretending things. And whether you’re pretending a tragedy or a comedy, there’s a relish in manipulating the audience like that. So I think there’s a relish in playing characters like Tom, because you don’t have to be too morally straight. Because that’s one of the most boring things as an actor to do.
MH: What about these incredible costumes that we’ve seen, does that help you capture the moment?
JOEL: The costumes were an incredible part of the character. The designs generated from Catherine and Baz’s minds create such a sense of the characters. The photos they showed me, the way they saw Tom as a young Republican, or a slightly different generation from Gatsby, and that Republican edge is reflected in the clothing. So tight and strict, part of the navy and well designed and fitted. The detail you see to that – the research that goes into it, it inspires you to do your own careful thinking. Catherine lined my costumes with a skull and crossbones – because he was part of a secret society in Yale. So she created an insignia in all of his suits.
JOEL: And you may never see it, you probably will never see it. And that really helps with the character. I describe it as a bit of club they’ve created and they welcome you into this universe. And every detail of the clubhouse is filled with information that helps you create your world, which then fills their world as well. And it makes it really rich and means people can access all four corners of it.
MH: What’s it like working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire?
JOEL: Fantastic. The better the collection of actors you work with makes you better, and it raises the whole bar of the film. And then it helps beyond that, I mean Leo and Tobey and Carey and Elizabeth, they’re very well suited for the parts they’re playing. In fact, I don’t know who else you would cast in it if you didn’t have Leonardo. And that’s rare to think of a part where you only have one person in mind. For him it’s very specific. If you didn’t have Leo, it wouldn’t be worth making.
MH: And Tobey?
JOEL: Tobey is very observant and analytical, and as that character of Nick it’s ideal. And Carey is so exciting as a young actress – and the same as Elizabeth – she’s come out of the box as a young actor but you will see her in many, many more movies. And it helps that they’re really great people. You hear horror stories about egos on set – but I’ve never seen that! I wish I had a story about someone… but I can’t. They’re just good folk and we have fun together and all get along. We have fun. And Baz gets along with everyone, and film-making is hard work. If you didn’t get along with everyone, it would be really tough.
“The Great Gatsby” hits cinemas in the USA on May 10, 2013 and in Australia on May 30, 2013.