In the new drama Felony, star/writer Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty) takes an unflinching look at morality within the ranks of detectives working in Sydney, Australia after his character Malcolm accidentally runs over a child while driving under the influence. Tom Wilkinson plays Carl, a veteran detective who attempts to sweep the whole thing under the rug for the sake of Malcolm’s family and the department, but his partner Jim (played by A Good Day to Die Hard star Jai Courtney) grows suspicious.
Edgerton and Courtney both came up through the ranks of the Sydney theater scene, yet they had never met prior to working on Felony.
“I met Joel on Skype,” Edgerton admits. “He was in the middle of shooting ‘Die Hard’ in Bulgaria or wherever he was and he came across our radar and talked to us about getting involved. He was perfect for the role, but I wasn’t aware of him yet. I’d heard about him being out and about doing good things.”
“Joel’s a lovely guy and we didn’t know each other before going to work together,” Courtney confirms, “but I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for him as an actor. Moving into these other creative forays it’s great to see him blossoming. I was very excited at the possibility of working with him just based on the script I read that he’d written. Through the film itself we didnt have a lot to do with each other, so there wasn’t a ton. We just got on like a house on fire and we’ve become good mates since. We hope to do something together again soon.”
There’s an interesting dichotomy that exists between the two characters, since Jim sees Malcolm as an adversary, while Malcolm sees Jim only as a reminder of his own misdeeds.
“He sees him as another aspect of the conscience,” Edgerton elaborates. “I spent a fair amount of time with certain detectives in the area of Sydney where I’d set the movie, and we talked about the old guard vs. the new guard, these younger detectives coming up more through the collegiate ranks who are really sticking to the rulebook. The older guys had matured into what they called more ‘flexible policing’ or ‘fluid policing.’ Creative policing. Not about corruption, but getting the job done in a way that sometimes the rules don’t allow you to. The end justifies the means.”
“Tom’s character definitely has a bit of creative policing, striving for a virtuous result,” continues Edgerton. “Jai represents that really young machine, so our relationship is almost prickly, like we were never built to be friends. Cut to three or so days or weeks or months after this film ends there’s potential that the relationship has shifted.”
Courtney has so far built his name on roles that require a physicality (i.e. action flicks like Divergent or the upcoming Terminator Genisys), but Jim’s modus operandi is internal to the point that most of the things going on inside him aren’t even verbalized.
“It was refreshing,” Courtney says of the part. “When you get a script that’s this well written the clues are all there, you have this wonderful blueprint. You pull it off the page and wonder what you’re going to do with that. Sometimes it’s about, ‘What if this changed and we introduced that? We gave him a son ’ Sometimes there’s room for that, but with the script Joel constructed it was attractive to me to go in and play this semi-naïve young cop who has a real clear sense of right and wrong. It’s kind of an idealistic approach. He has a very clear moral compass where if you’ve done something wrong you must suffer the consequences of it. The exploration is around the question of whether that’s actually possible. It was really dense territory.”
Like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgerton’s Malcolm finds himself tearing apart under the weight of his own guilt, and as the condition of the injured child worsens he feels more and more compelled to confess despite the protests of Carl or even his own wife, played by Melissa George.
“I really believe guilt finds its way out of a person,” says Edgerton. “Tom’s character kind of nails it when he says, ‘Prison is for pricks who don’t have their punishment here [points to head].’ Where does guilt and punishment lie, and are we not more expressive over remorse or guilt when other people see the badness in us? When people become aware of our guilt we then have to show them that we have contrition and repentance because someone else knows I’ve done a bad thing, whereas if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it do you just let time and the world swallow up evidence?”
“We all have very different opinions of circumstance,” Courtney explains. “Jim’s not connected to Malcolm in any way other than the fact that they’ve met each other a few times and work the same branch of this detective squad. He’s drawn the conclusion in his head that this guy’s done something terrible, lied about it, and is trying to keep the secret under the rug and get on with his happy life. Obviously that’s not the case. The punishment Joel is giving himself, that twisted knot building in his stomach, probably makes the outcome inevitable. It’s less about Jim trying to put him behind bars.”
While Jim’s presence charges those pangs of guilt, Malcolm remains deeply conflicted over the ripple effect his admission would have on everyone he cares about.
Edgerton speculates, “What effect does that different pathway have? If he goes to prison for awhile what effect does that have on his kids, yet if he doesn’t go to prison his nature and personality changes while trying to be a father. How does that effect the children? The movie’s not necessarily about Malcolm as much as it’s about the whole tapestry of people who are affected by one incident. The child and the mother, my wife and children, Jai, and you could create a great story that spills further and wider than that.”
While Courtney enjoyed the process of getting to spread his wings as an actor, he found humor in Jim’s relentless pursuit of justice.
Courtney says, “I used to joke with Matthew Saville, our director, about how many thousands of yards that I had to stare in this movie because it feels like that’s all I do. Looking at Joel being suspicious. It was funny! It felt like there was a lot of that. Obviously when it comes together as a film it’s about a lot more. It was great to play something that was a lot more internalized. The fleshing out of his character wasn’t hanging on witty quips or lines thrown in amongst action pieces. If I get to do stunts and drive cars and crash things and shoot things in other movies people assume that’s the most fun stuff, and it can be. It’s good to hang around with those toys and do that, but for me as an actor that’s not where I’m most fulfilled, it’s when you can really explore the drama of something.”
Working at the top of event movie machinery is something Courtney fell into rather quickly in his career, whereas it’s taken many years for Edgerton to finally get a taste of true stardom by co-starring with Christian Bale in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Bible epic Exodus: Gods and Kings.
“It’s been kind of a slow stepping stone thing for me over the years, which has been great,” Edgerton admits. “‘Gatsby’ was a big thing for me, but I was just one of the components of that machine. Doing Ridley’s movie was like another step up altogether, and going toe-to-toe with one of my favorite actors under the guidance of a director I’ve been gagging to work with for f*cking years. Made it all the more great when ten years ago he made ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and I was in ‘King Arthur’ over in Ireland, and I sent him an audition tape. I remember hearing a rumor that there was a photo of me on his wall in the production office that he was maybe thinking of putting me in the mix somewhere. There was a feeling at the time that I came close to working with the guy, so to have him call me up ten years later and ask me to take a major part in his movie was really awesome.”
“I’d be lying to say that I haven’t cast myself in that [movie star] role through my life,” he continued, “as in would I ever get to the top of those lists or however you want to express it. I always wanted the challenges of it. I’m 40 years old now and I’ve watched a lot of people I’ve known, acquaintances and even close friends become really famous and see their lives effected or shut down by it. People react in different ways. I’ve also, thorough my twenty years as an actor, seen the massive growth of the internet and chatter of the TMZ generation, and its become a field of landmines. One wrong move and you destroy your career. The work’s great, so it is kind of like doing a deal with the devil but you pay for all the benefits. Life is exciting.”
Felony opens in limited release on Friday.