Joel Edgerton interview: training for Warrior, and fighting Tom Hardy

With the mixed martial arts drama Warrior out this Friday, we caught up with co-star Joel Edgerton to chat about his part in the film…

In the raw-knuckled drama, Warrior, Joel Edgerton plays the gentle yin to Tom Hardy’s hunched, rampaging yang. Playing the part of a gentle family man and teacher who’s forced back into the violent sport of mixed martial arts by economic circumstance, Edgerton serves as the movie’s emotional hub, as well as the focal point for a series of spectacular fight sequences.

Ahead of Warrior’s theatrical release in the UK, we caught up with Edgerton to talk about his training and preparation for the film, and working with Tom Hardy…

Blimey, Warrior’s a bit intense, isn’t it?

Oh yeah.

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What did you think the first time you saw the finished cut?

Well, the answer is, I was really proud of it. This movie dances a real fine line with its subject matter and stories, in that it’s very ambitious. These two brothers on a collision course in a tournament – that’s a really difficult to get write. The balance of that. And I think they absolutely nailed it. It’s believable and rich.

It’s kind of heightened in a sense. There’s a dash of Hollywood in there, but it’s treated with such reverence for reality that it’s earned its place in the movie. I love it. It’s very rare that I open heartedly embrace a movie I’m in, and say, “Fuck. I love this. It’s awesome that I’m in this, and I’m always going to be proud of it.”

I feel like all the hard work I put into it is showing on the screen. I love it. I think it’s great. I know that, if people get to the cinema, will love it. I just hope that they’ll come.

I think it’s certainly a film that’ll have great word of mouth. It treads a line between being quite feel-good, and at the same time not playing into the usual hero-and-villain setup. My assumption before I went in was that Tom Hardy would be the villain and you’d be the hero. But it constantly plays with your expectations.

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Yeah. Tom dances the fine line between being the hero and villain with his selfishness. His character’s self-centeredness, I guess. At the same time, even that’s not necessarily true…

You could understand why he behaved the way he did.

Yeah. You could understand both brothers. They’ve constructed this film that, by the time they get to where they get to, you don’t know which brother is going to win. And you don’t really know who you want to win. You’ve got to search yourself – you kind of want both to win, but you can’t have a draw in mixed martial arts. It’s cool that Gavin [O’Connor], the director, achieved that.

Did you have an interest in MMA or wrestling before this movie?No. I would say I had an awareness of it, but I wasn’t a fan or seeking it out. It’s sort of shifted now, because if there was a UFC tonight in London or two hours out, I’d be going there to check it out, because I’m really into it now.

You mentioned the hard work you put in for this. What was the training process like?

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It was probably the most intense work experience I’ve had on a physical and mental level. We got to Pittsburgh two months before [shooting began]. And literally from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon it was fighting all morning, eat a massive meal with the stunt guys and then come back to lift massive weights.

I think at some point I was training seven days a week when I should really have been resting occasionally. But there’s a need to get fit, get big, and learn the skills. Because at some point Tom and I knew we had to get our shirts off, stand in a cage, put our feet there and look like we belonged there.

The fights were astonishing. What was the process of shooting them like? I should imagine it took more than one take to do each fight sequence. Were they heavily choreographed?

Heavily choreographed, but it was almost like the way people describe learning their lines in stage acting. You learn your lines, but you learn them so well that you forget them, you know? So you learn the choreography, but you try to forget that it’s choreography, so between each move, you’re trying to mess it up, so it looks like two guys vying for dominance.

So Gavin wanted them to be as real and as scrappy as possible. Now, we shot them with four cameras, and we would shoot them in four sizes, usually, so, two sizes outside the canvas, and two sizes inside, and do about three to five takes for each piece. And each piece was about five moves. You do the maths – we shot for weeks.

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In comparison, I heard that in The Fighter, they shot three days of fighting. We shot for two or three weeks. I got injured during the first block, and then we had to reset a shoot for another three or four weeks in the end. So about 20 to 30 days of full-on fighting.

You’ll see in the movie, like, the amount of fights. I do four fights ranging from a one round to a five-round fight. There’s even more fighting that isn’t in the finished movie.

That’ll end up on the Blu-ray or something, perhaps!

I hope so, because we bled for it!

In a way, you got the raw end of the deal, didn’t you, because Tom Hardy’s character quite often walks into the ring, knocks someone out, and walks out again…

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Yeah, his are over in about 15 seconds!

Whereas yours are quite protracted…

Yeah, yeah. In the script, it said that my character was this guy who had such a big heart, but not as much skill. But he could take a beating and stay in the game, and catch the right break, see the right opportunity, and capitalise on it at the right time. It’s quite funny, watching some of the fights, because I get so messed about by the other guys.

You mentioned injuries. I assume there must have been quite a few.

Not as many as you might think. I had an injury where I tore my medial collateral ligament, so I was out for six weeks. I wasn’t allowed to throw a punch for six weeks, and that really worried me. I didn’t know what the ramifications of that would be, but I got through it all right. I learned to suck it up, in a way. That’s what we did. 

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But I remember kicking Kurt Angle in the elbow, and he’d go off and get an X-Ray, so I realised that one of the nerve-wracking things was… I thought going into it that I was going to get hurt by the fighters, but I later learned to worry about hurting them instead. Not because I was a big tough guy or any of that. I was worried, because fighting’s their livelihood, and if, in this make-believe world of Warrior, which was make-believe slash real in its execution, that if I broke Kurt Angle’s arm, or popped Anthony Rumble Johnson’s shoulder out, then their next fight or next paycheque is in jeopardy. I was fucking worried about that, so that made me a little hesitant.

I was reading that your brother’s a stuntman. Did he have any advice for you on this film?

Well, yeah. But he’s not really in the fighting game. He’s an all-round stuntman who’ll leap off things and set himself on fire and all that stuff. He’s not as big into the fighting world, but he’s got great advice for that stuff. Unfortunately, he was working on other stuff when we were shooting, but I know he’ll love this movie.

Joel Edgerton, thank you very much.