Joel Edgerton on ‘Black Mass’ and Getting into the Mindset of His Characters

Joel Edgerton in Black Mass

“If I’m playing a villain I love looking for the virtues, and if I’m playing a hero I like looking for the mistakes” – Joel Edgerton


Australian actor Joel Edgerton has appeared in over three dozen films, and although he has been in hits like 2011’s Warrior he has yet to really land a role that has put him on the map with general audiences. In the meantime, he’s also turned to writing and directing, with this summer’s thriller The Gift, which Edgerton wrote, directed, and stars in. However, he appears alongside Johnny Depp in a major role in Black Mass playing John Connolly, an FBI agent who handled Boston gangster Whitey Bulger who was convicted of helping Bulger evade capture and later for providing Bulger with information that led to one of Bulger’s murders. He spoke to the Wall Street Journal about portraying Connolly in Black Mass and how he gets into the mindset of villainous characters.

Edgerton reveals that even if he could have met Connolly, he knew that Connolly’s take on the events surrounding his arrest would differ from the presentation of the events in the film because Connolly sticks by his innocence. He explains, “I felt like even if there was a possibility of me going to see John, something would have felt slightly unfair—the idea of me strutting into prison to learn from John, knowing that he has one version of events and the film has a different version.”

Instead, Edgerton based his performance as Connolly on research. He explains, “There’s footage of him on talk shows defending himself, and footage of him losing his cool in the courtroom, so I could look at him move and listen to him talk. And everybody who knew him had a different story about him. But they generally all lined up that he was a real peacock–he had a sort of swagger and supreme confidence and charisma.” He also had access to people who knew Connolly, including the man who put him in jail. Edgerton continues, “I talked to a number of FBI agents who worked with him during the ’70s and ’80s. And Fred Wyshak [the federal prosecutor played by Corey Stoll] was on the set later in the filming and told me lots of things. Fred is largely the reason why John is now in prison. I had a weird reaction to him. I’d been spending so much time playing John, then to have the guy walk on the set who essentially put him behind bars—I was civil to Fred but my hackles were up the first day.

Edgerton relates that feeling of his “hackles” being up because of how he explores his characters as both an actor and a writer/director. He says, “If I’m playing a villain I love looking for the virtues, and if I’m playing a hero I like looking for the mistakes. And only then can you enrich a character whether you’re writing or directing or playing the character.”

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