The Boys in the Boat is the latest directorial effort from George Clooney. I recently had a chance to speak to star Joel Edgerton about the project…
Matt: The Boys in the Boat is an incredible story. Did you know about it all before being approached for the project?
Joel: I didn’t know a single thing until they came to me. I then read the book and script in quick succession. I do remember thinking it was an incredible true story that was perfectly built for a movie. If you’re an American rower you might know it but it makes you wonder how many great sports stories there are you’ve never heard about until a book or movie comes along.
Matt: I got a bit of Seabiscuit vibe from the film in that it was part of the Great Depression. What is it about the power of the sport that has a way of uniting so many people and lifting their spirits?
Joel: I think you’ve nailed it. Sport is a great unifier and it puts our brains in a different headspace. We are able to dissolve differences. We’re brought together in the common support of a local, state, or national team and it’s something we felt potently recently with the Matildas. The whole country was in a fervor and it’s a good reminder that our natural spirit is to galvanise and be together.
Matt: Your character has a mix of toughness, compassion, and vulnerability. How did you settle on the right way to play him?
Joel: There were a couple of clues in the script about Al Ulbrickson being somebody who rarely smiled. That drew my attention to the sort of coach who looks really stressed about what they do and seems to derive very little joy from the job. They care so much and they’re so determined to win that it looks like they’re being driven to an early grave.
I then started thinking about coaches as fathers. It’s how I used to think about older male figures who were coaches when I played sport. They’re like a quasi-dad in that you’re wanting to please them and work harder so they’re proud of you. While those coaches seem tough and impenetrable, there is a warmth and a love underneath.
Matt: The rowers would have gone through physical training but was there stuff you had to learn about the sport to help prep for the part as coach?
Joel: I’d do a little bit of single skull rowing but I just liked watching the guys training the boys. I saw how observant the coaches were. They were looking at this “floating centipede” on the water but they could see someone’s wrist was in the wrong position or someone’s posture was throwing out the rhythm of the boat. It showed how incredibly sharp and focused the coaches needed to make things work better.
Matt: Callum Turner is great in the lead but I like some of the interplay you have with Luke Slattery’s character in getting him to helm the boat. How did you see the relationship between your character and his?
Joel: I love the idea of the cox being someone who can undermine the coach because he’s the one in the boat calling the shots. I think Luke is extraordinary. The moment he arrives in the film, he breathes new life into it as a cocky, self-assured kid. I also liked the antagonism there.
It was a challenge for those involved to condense this story and capture the lives of all these people in the space of one movie. This could also be a great TV series where you’ve got time to get under the skin of all the boys but we’re mainly focusing on watching this story through the eyes of Joe Rantz and while some of the guys have only a little moment, they’re all incredible.
Matt: You’re working alongside another actor-turned-director in George Clooney. Was there anything in particular you learned from his directorial approach?
Joel: I liked how selfless he was in the process. He would be the most high-profile person on his set and he’s put aside a year of his life to make this movie when he could be off making a lot of money acting in a couple of big movies. Something about this story captured his imagination to put aside the time and stand behind the camera to get it made.
He did his research and homework very well, and was organized in terms of how to shoot the film. All the while, he kept a fun set and light atmosphere which made it so enjoyable. When you’re away from home and putting in long hours, you hope you can have a good experience along the way. We were able to do that thanks to him.
Matt: It feels like you’re wearing a three-piece suit for almost the entire film. How did you find the costuming of that era?
Joel: Jenny Eagan designed the costumes and collaborates with George Clooney a lot. She’s excellent. All the elements of this film fit together well – the cinematography, production design, and costume design are all exquisite.
I felt like I was stepping into the shoes of one of my grandfathers. When I first saw a photo of Al Ulbrickson, he looks uncannily like my Dutch grandfather. I sound like I’m talking to a fashion magazine but I love this era for the fashion and clothes of it. It was very cool and I felt comfortable.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
Joel: I’m just coming out of the strike where I haven’t worked for 7-8 months. I’ve been putting my head down and planning for the future. I was involved as a producer on Boy Swallows Universe which comes out in January, and I have a documentary I helped produced called Daughters which is going to Sundance. It’s about a dance with daughters and their fathers in a prison in Washington DC.
I’m hoping to direct something in late 2024 which I’ve written and I’m very excited to get back into the director’s chair. I’ve got twins who are going be 3 years old soon and once they’re at school, I’ll feel safer going to direct a movie. I just haven’t had the brain space, time or capacity until now. I’ve really embraced the silver lining of the strike by being with family.