Australian actor Joel Edgerton has played an Irish-American cage fighter (“Warrior”), an Egyptian pharaoh (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”) and an Old West gunslinger (“Jane Got a Gun”).
He has become a master of American accents.
But to portray real-life Richard Loving in “Loving,” which opened on Wednesday, he mostly had to concentrate on communicating without saying much of anything.
“Richard was a quiet hero,” Edgerton says. “And sometimes quiet dignity speaks louder than the typical movie hero who’s all too eager to fight.”
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Richard Loving was a taciturn Virginia bricklayer who would have led an utterly unremarkable life except for one thing: In 1958 he married Mildred Jeter, a neighbor of mixed black and Native American descent.
For violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws, this simple husband and wife found themselves key players in a case that would rewrite civil rights laws.
“There were so many challenges here,” Edgerton said of the role. “The accent. The importance of the story itself, not to treat it with kid gloves but to maintain a reverence for the truth, for the responsibility we felt toward these real people.
“And conveying so much with so few words was one of the biggest challenges.”
Richard Loving was, by all accounts, extremely shy. He was a frustrating interview subject who hated the spotlight and who volunteered little. He was, according to one of the ACLU lawyers who argued the Lovings’ case before the Supreme Court, “a redneck.”
Writer/director Jeff Nichols had worked with Edgerton in his last film, the sci-fi effort “Midnight Special,” and saw “this amazing facility he had for accents. I figured if Joel could lose a lot of weight and we give him a blond dye job and false teeth, he could be Richard.”
The hardest part of bringing Richard to the screen, Edgerton and Nichols agreed, was the question of where he fell on the intellectual spectrum. Richard was not well educated or naturally gifted (Mildred was more of the driving force in their cause), and he may not have understood the case’s complexities or its social ramifications.
If Richard were portrayed as merely stupid, that would alienate audiences. The director and actor held endless conversations about just how much Richard understood of his situation.
“Jeff thankfully decided that he was telling a true story and the best way was to tell it truthfully,” Edgerton said. “And that meant he couldn’t go putting speeches in Richard’s mouth. He had to stay true to the man you see in the news footage — an awkward, soft-spoken man stuck in the middle of a crisis.”
Lacking lots of explanatory dialogue, Edgerton would have to build a tremendously detailed physical performance.
“It wasn’t until I spent a few days laying brick that I understood Richard’s posture. Suddenly it made sense because of the mechanics of his work, the grind of the job he did every day. Here was a man who looked awkward in his own body because he was so used to conserving energy. A man who slumped because he spent his days hunched over a pile of bricks.”
One reason audiences respond to Richard, Edgerton said, is that he is being emasculated by an unfair law. He’s being told that the love of his life is dirty and unacceptable, and he hasn’t the intellectual wherewithal to fight back with words.
“He was told by the authorities that if he had his marriage annulled, all these problems would go away,” Edgerton said. “But he would rather put up with humiliation than give up Mildred.”
Asked by the couple’s attorneys whether he had anything he wanted to say to the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, Richard gave a simple, heart-wrenching answer:
“Tell them I love my wife.”
“One of the great things about the Lovings’ personal dynamic is that while Richard was a physically sturdy fellow, the real strength came from Mildred,” Edgerton said. “She was more aware of the situation, more aware what to do and when to do it.
“With Richard there’s this feeling that if he could, he would have closed his eyes and plugged his ears. He would have been happy if the whole legal situation had just disappeared.
“Mildred was the one who realized there was more at stake than just one marriage, that you couldn’t let an injustice rest.”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
Where’s the review?
“Loving” opened on Wednesday. If you missed the ☆☆☆☆ review (along with reviews of “Moana,” “Allied,” “Bad Santa 2” and “Rules Don’t Apply”), find them all on KansasCity.com/entertainment.