The Boys in the Boat: Joel Edgerton on George Clooney’s “timeless” sporting drama

09 Jan 2024|By Adam Davidson

The Australian actor on bringing the story of the 1936 US rowing team’s Olympic triumph to the big screen

For most actors, the greatest fear lies in being typecast. After all, who wants to spend the best years of their career playing out the same romantic comedy, spy thriller or action adventure again and again? For Australian actor Joel Edgerton, however, this isn’t a problem likely to present itself anytime soon.

Since breaking onto the world stage as Owen Lars in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Edgerton’s filmography has seen him transform into a medieval knight (King Arthur), an MMA fighter (Warrior), an old money social elite (The Great Gatsby) and even an Egyptian pharaoh (Exodus: Gods and Kings). The acclaimed actor loves the challenge of receiving a “history lesson” through his roles or, as he describes it, embarking on a “holiday apprenticeship” which allows him to enter new spaces and become a completely different person.

Edgerton’s next lesson comes from American rower and coach Al Ulbrickson Sr., who Edgerton portrays in The Boys in the Boat – a new George Clooney-directed movie recounting the story of the ​​University of Washington rowing team’s quest to win gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Based on Daniel James Brown’s non-fiction book of the same name, The Boys in the Boat offers an inspirational true story about underdogs overcoming the odds at the height of the Great Depression. Think Cool Runnings with oars and West Coast accents.

“It feels old school as a movie but the themes reach out to everyone,” says Edgerton of the film’s timeless commentary on class and wealth divides. “Generally, it’s about access – having a chance to participate. But then within yourself, what are your own limitations, obstacles and what’s holding you back? The whole movie feels like a rowing race, it has a rhythm that builds. I like that [Clooney] has done that rather than allowed it to be heavy and important.”

The cast, including Callum Turner (Fantastic Beasts) and Jack Mulhern (Mare of Easttown), trained for eight weeks under former Team GB Olympic rowing coach Terry O’Neil before shooting. According to Edgerton, this intense regime had a “double benefit”, bringing both authenticity to the scenes and allowing Edgerton to draw on the three-month MMA boot camp he underwent with Tom Hardy ahead of Warrior to build bonds with his cast mates.

“Having been through Warrior, I really enjoyed watching these guys go through the physical paces,” he explains. “The intention is the authenticity but the extra benefit is these guys started having a bond and really got to know each other.

“The onscreen chemistry was built through a two-month process of training. They understood what it was like to get upset with each other, for example, if one of them wasn’t pulling their weight in the boat and it meant they had to train for an extra hour… it pisses you off. So they understand a lot of things in reality that they then have to portray on the screen.”

Pulling on filmmaking threads spanning biopics, historical dramas and archetypal sports movies, Edgerton says the fascination of The Boys in the Boat is not necessarily in the film’s outcome but in the way the story is told, with the actor offering a comparison to Shakespearean tragedies.

“You know at the end of Hamlet there is going to be a pile of dead bodies but you want to go and see how it plays out,” he explains. “With sports movies, they wouldn’t have spent all this money to make a movie if the team got to Germany and lost. The triumph for the movie is that people go along for the ride knowing the outcome and enjoy watching those obstacles get pushed aside.”

And, while the glory understandably goes to the athletes, for Edgerton it is the figure of the coach, brooding and berating his team while dedicating every moment of his life to their success, that now intrigues most.

“Why do coaches seem like they get no pleasure out of the career that they’ve chosen?” he asks. “I realised that the answer was right there. The unhappiness of the coach is a sign that they really care so much about the sport and they really want to f**king win, so the stress is there. The only time you see a coach really celebrate is when they win a cup… but then five minutes later they look like they’re having a heart attack because they’re thinking about next season.”

Of course, being set against a backdrop of the 1936 Berlin Games, The Boys in the Boat is more than just a sport story – it is also one about bureaucracy, classism and the rise of the Nazis. Having previously touched on the subject in 2022’s Master Gardener, in which Edgerton plays a former neo-Nazi in America’s Deep South, the actor was interested in pinpointing when exactly our modern understanding of Hitler started to take shape – and why those ideas are beginning to appeal to some sections of society once again.

“When you watch footage of the [1936] Olympics, all of the iconography associated with the cataclysmic things that he did were there, but it was something different. It was moving towards that but it wasn’t already that because people wouldn’t have participated in those Olympics,” says Edgerton.

“In Master Gardener, Paul [Schrader] wanted to explore the resurfacing of those ideas in America because of a certain political climate that allowed people to feel okay about expressing things that they thought they weren’t allowed to. It’s a really dangerous culture that is emerging.”

The Boys in the Boat is released in UK cinemas on 12 January 2024.

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