Joel Edgerton on mixed martial arts, Nick Nolte and Pittsburgh
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Joel Edgerton has starred opposite Cate Blanchett onstage in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and owns a piece of "Star Wars" history as Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen, so the triple play of fighter, teacher and family man didn't faze him when he read the script for "Warrior."
The mixed martial arts movie about estranged brothers (Mr. Edgerton and Tom Hardy) and their repentant father (Nick Nolte) filmed in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2009 reaches theaters today.
"I loved it, man. It was great," Mr. Edgerton said of his time filming here and staying in the Strip District. He was particularly impressed with the now-defunct Right By Nature market and "sports-proud" Pittsburghers.
"Pittsburgh felt like the perfect size of a city to me. There's enough to do, but it's not like living in a circus. I also really loved how sports-enthusiastic Pittsburgh people are; how proud of their sports they are. Unfortunately I never got to see a football game because I was there at the wrong time of year, but I went to a baseball game, and you guys were just winning the [Stanley Cup], and that was kind of mental."
He said one advantage to being in a sports-crazy town is having access to doctors familiar with sports-related injuries. That came in handy for the cast during cage-fight scenes with the likes of home-grown pro wrestler Kurt Angle. When Mr. Edgerton tore a ligament in his knee, he said he got excellent medical care and was back to work quickly.
"We were all shipped off to the hospital for one injury or another," he said. "I kicked Kurt Angle in the arm, and he suspected he might have dislocated his elbow, which was worrisome to me because if you're going to break Kurt Angle's arm, you want to break both of them. If he's got one good arm, he's going to come at you."
He laughed at that, then described a fight scene filmed at Oakland's Petersen Events Center in terms that fans of Hines "Twinkle Toes" Ward might understand.
After Mr. Edgerton and Mr. Angle each rehearsed the fight with stuntmen, "they brought us together like we were doing 'Dancing With the Stars.' And I say that because Kurt and I had a very delicately choreographed fight. Kurt has such a strong background in wrestling with the WWE, which I would say is performance-based, and it makes him a great partner."
Of the three men in the Conlon family, Mr. Edgerton portrays the older brother Brendan, who has some moments of contentment in his home life and in a classroom, where he has found another home with students and colleagues who care about him.
So, of all the parts he had to play -- underdog fighter, sensitive family man, popular physics teacher -- which was toughest? If you thought the cage matches, well ...
"I felt completely comfortable in the cage. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have felt comfortable if one of the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] guys decided to fight me for real. You would have heard me cry, 'Mummy.' But they trained us so hard to fight and to feel strong and capable and ready to do that," Mr. Edgerton said.
"But because of the amount of training that went into the fighting, I hadn't really paid much attention to Brendan, the teacher. I just really had this sudden respect for what it must be like to be a teacher, because it's you versus this wonderful group of young, different-generation people you have to connect with and relate to and then impart knowledge to, and I really hadn't done a lot of thinking about that. So strangely enough, Brendan, the teacher, felt more uncomfortable to me than Brendan, the fighter."
The 37-year-old actor was speaking by phone on a Friday last month; he was leaving the following Monday to return to his native Australia to start shooting "The Great Gatsby." He will play Tom Buchanan to Leonardo DiCaprio's title character. Other upcoming releases include the remake of "The Thing" next month and with Jennifer Garner as parents of a mysterious child in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," due next summer.
As "Warrior's" Brendan Conlon, he's a man thrust back into the mixed-martial arts arena to keep his house from foreclosure. He sets his sights on a big payday at a worldwide tournament of big-name fighters.
Thrown into the mix are the return of his younger brother, Tommy, a talented fighter who left years earlier with their now deceased mother to escape an abusive, alcoholic father. Brendan remained in Pittsburgh for the woman he loved and eventually married and moved to Philadelphia.
"Brendan is an open-hearted, confused kind of guy, and I think we all know what that feels like, in middle America and middle Australia as well. ... Everyone is feeling like life is pretty tough financially, and the pressure with Brendan, he's just trying to do the best thing for his family and he's doing it the best way he knows how."
When resentful Tommy returns to shake things up, the brothers find little common ground -- except in their disdain for their father, Paddy Conlon. Neither son is in a forgiving mood, leading to a poignant scene in which Mr. Nolte's Paddy has driven from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to reconnect with Brendan.
In their first scene together, Mr. Edgerton has to reject Paddy again and again.
"It was tough, what I call the baptism of fire," he said. "My first dialogue scene with Nick was 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., all through the night, tearing his heart apart. I was so excited to get to work with Nick -- he's a legend. ... On the one hand I had this great privilege and opportunity to work with him, and then at the same time I was trying to push out any feelings that would get in the way."
In the end, "he was great, so heartbreaking in this movie," Mr. Edgerton said.
Mr. Nolte's arrival from Pittsburgh on his son's lawn in Philadelphia might seem a bit too easy a ride from here to there for Pennsylvanians watching the film. And then there's North Hills High School, where Brendan teaches -- in Philadelphia.
Mr. Edgerton understands how it might be disconcerting for moviegoers to see Western Pennsylvania standing in for Philadelphia.
The interview had run over the allotted time, but Mr. Edgerton interrupted goodbyes to ask a favor for himself and co-star Tom Hardy, who was back in Pittsburgh recently to portray Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises." He wanted to make sure that extras who filled the Petersen Events Center to act as fans knew how much their patience was appreciated.
"Give a shout out to Pittsburgh for me because more than anything you hope the people from a city are really proud of the movie that was shot there. Also, Tommy and I said it at the time, but tell everyone who filled that stadium for us from 6 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, every day, they all deserve as much accolades as the movie can get. The smallest ingredient to a movie is as big as the biggest ... so I have to thank them again."
First Published September 9, 2011 12:00 am