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Interview: Joel Edgerton on Grappling with Disturbing Content and Paternal Influences in ‘The Underground Railroad’

Barry Jenkins’ new Amazon Prime Video limited series The Underground Railroad sets its story in a world where conductors operate a network of actual trains and stations. Among the key players is a character intent on finding and destroying the railroad since it negatively impacts his business: slavecatcher Arnold Ridgeway, who travels from state to state in the company of a young Black boy named Homer (Chase W. Dillon). Actor Joel Edgerton, who previously explored hateful views on race as an actor in Loving and the dangerous effects of conversion therapy as writer and director of Boy Erased, delivers a formidable and captivating performance as Ridgeway.

Awards Radar had the chance to participate in a discussion with Edgerton about keeping track of mental health during filming, exploring his character’s motivations, and working with the talented young Dillon.

Q: What attracted you to this project and specifically to this role?

A: A couple things. I had heard a lot of great things about Barry from people in front of and behind the camera who had collaborated with him, and I was very curious about that opportunity, especially when I heard about Underground Railroad, but the character kind of enticed me as much as terrified me. It was Barry that really tipped the balance in terms of me being willing to go to that head space. And in some ways visit the opposite territory that I visited in Loving, dealing with the aspects of race and the quantum physics of my feeling about the white humans who view each other. Ridgeway had a very different paradigm to the one that I entered into with Richard Loving. The character was not just a villain, not just an out-and-out antagonist in a very plain way. Barry and Mr. Whitehead, in their rendering of him, had given us an insight into the workings of one person’s brain and how they might get to a place where their worldview is of a nature that is not great, in a way that didn’t ask the audience or allow the audience to necessary sympathize with him or to allow him to be redeemed, but simply just to say, here’s one man and how his journey might have led him to a place. We know that, well, I presume that, anyone’s journey to a place of bigotry or a sense of supremacy over anyone else comes from their journey in the world, the people that they meet, the people that educate, the social environments they move through. Ridgeway was a particularly complicated man, in his relationship with his father and his fascinating relationship he has with young Homer that made it very interesting to me as an actor, but on a day-to-day level was very uncomfortable to enter into. And particularly I would speak to the physical and psychological violence that was asked of everybody to participate in in the show. I know there’s a lot of love and joy in the show, which is why I loved that Barry was telling the story because he wasn’t just looking for the horror. He was also looking to elicit the beauty and the joy of Cora’s journey. For my part, I was entering into the violence, and that was uncomfortable. But I’m aware of how important the story is, and how it felt to me. And to be a part of that, even if it was on the darker side of that, felt very important.

Q: Ridgeway is such a complex character. There are so many sides to him, and one thing that stands out is him speaking about the Great Spirit. Ridgeway had so many spirits that haunt him. How did you feel about that part of your character and how you wanted to portray that?

A: I have always been aware that I’m possessed of an aid to impress my father. And I can’t imagine what life would be like to be disconnected from the sense of pride and respect both ways, from my father. But when you experience one side of things, I think it’s easy to start to imagine what that might do to a person. I think that as much as the show looks at the subject of pre-Civil War and the horrible subject of slavery, the engines for both my character and particularly Cora are the missing aspects of our relationships with our parents and how, when I view people’s opinions about other cultures, other religions and other races, often times wish I could, as I said by our environment, and often that’s by our parents and our relationships, our formative relationships. Barry, when he talks about his show, often talks about Cora’s relationship with her mother, and Ridgeway’s relationship with his father. I think it’s important to look at the human aspects of these characters. I find that there’s a despicableness to Ridgeway, but when we look at everyone, if we can just look at the child in all of us, and what we’re missing, what I saw most in Ridgeway was the pain. And the scary thing is that when you look at a damaged person and then imagine that person in a position of power or authority, that becomes incredibly dangerous. And that was part of what was harnessed in the character Ridgeway, is damaged plus power, and that equals a dangerous equation, I think.

Q: What were the most challenging and fulfilling moment of this long journey?

A: I’ll start with a fulfilling thing. I mean, everything was fulfilling. One thing that I would pick out is my on-set relationship with Chase W. Dillon. The pleasure of being reminded not to underestimate the power of the imagination and intelligence of a young person. His performance is so wonderful and the relationship is so unorthodox that I learned a lot from that experience. The biggest challenge was finding that space between rendering violence and the physical end of psychological violence in a way that could be really felt to the audience as real while looking after each others’ performance. You want to make that feel and seem so rich and visceral and yet you can’t disregard the safety and psychological well-being of each other. And that’s not just to say my feelings of wanting to make sure Thuso was okay or that Chase was okay, witnessing some of the things, but also just for myself, making sure that I was taking care of myself, because I like to think that I’m tough and I can handle everything, but there were definitely times that I felt affected by it, and affected by watching Thuso and wondering whether I’d pushed things too far, and then realizing that she was fine but was giving me the impression that she wasn’t fine, which is just the fact that she’s a wonderful actress. The real challenge was that space between doing it right but playing it safe.

Q: Did you do any historical research or any type of preparation before taking the part?

A: Yes. My first point of contact with any project is the source material, and we have both the book and Barry’s expanding on the book, with expanding the characters within the screenplay. I’d done a lot of research for Loving in terms of American modern history in regards to race relations. When I was coming up to doing Underground, I revisited – I had been there once before – the African-American History Museum and had a very different walk through that museum than I did when I was doing Loving and paid particular attention to different sections of that museum. And then from that, started to really explore some of the stories I had learned from in there. It’s not obviously a happy subject to explore, but I will say, given the short amount of time we have, one of the things that really became illuminated for me because of Ridgeway was the economical aspect of the beginnings of slavery, and how economics was driving that. In my opinion looking at it from the outside, I had always just seen the bigotry, just seen the subjugation, just seen the torture. It was really interesting to see how economics played such a huge role in creating a situation where human beings were willing to subjugate each other. And that was one of the most fascinating things in my research, because Ridgeway is in an industry, he’s in a career on one hand, and that I found very fascinating.

Q: What do you think Ridgeway was looking for?

A: On one hand, I think Ridgeway is looking for affirmation from his father. I think Ridgeway is looking to be justified in being right, even though he knows he’s wrong. And I think even more than that, I always felt like Ridgeway was looking for a way to take back time and to maybe, and this is maybe just me projecting my own feelings, that maybe he was hoping he could undo some of the things that he done in his life. Particularly starting with the mistreatment of his childhood friend Mac, because that was driven not by a hatred toward Mac or I don’t even think the color of his skin. I think it was driven by jealousy that Ridgeway’s father respected this young African-American boy, and, out of spite, committed an act, and felt he had to commit to that track in his life. I often looked at Ridgeway and thought, I feel like this man wants to go back to being a boy and see what it’s like to go down a different road. I say I’m projecting that because I like to think that I wish that for anyone who has chosen the wrong path in life, whether it’s about subjective of race or anything that swells around in this show. I think that we all make mistakes and we all have opinions along the way that maybe aren’t fully formed. Maybe with some hindsight or perspective, we wish that we could have done a different thing.

All ten episodes of The Underground Railroad will premiere on Friday, May 14th on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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