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The Thing (2011) – Actor Joel Edgerton, on being different from Kurt Russell

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The Thing - Joel Edgerton
Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) © 2011 Universal Studios

Let’s face it, when Joel Edgerton took on the role of Carter, the no-nonsense pilot in Universal’s big-screen prequel The Thing, it was inevitable that his character would be compared to Kurt Russell’s MacReady in the 1982 John Carpenter film. But while Carter and MacReady may be cut from the same cloth, it’s an awfully big tapestry to share. During a visit to the Toronto set, Edgerton talked about his role in the new SF/thriller, which essentially ends where the 1982 film begins…

So you’re playing the dashing helicopter in the prequel?

The Thing - Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton
Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) are ready for battle © 2011 Universal Studios

In this story, myself and the characters of Jameson and Griggs, the three of us run a helicopter supply service out to all the outer bases. That’s how we end up getting involved with this motley crew of scientists who are on their way to this mysterious find. And when the shit hits the fan and chaos ensues, the military background that Jameson and I have puts us in a slightly more heroic mold than some of the other characters. We break out the flamethrowers and all the things that are going to excite the fans of the original movie.

One of the super-cool things about this film is we’ve been given a set of rules, particularly by the Carpenter film, which is the template and the partner piece for this film. We were given a great set of rules about what alien is and the environment we’re cloistered in and we’ve worked creatively within those rules to make a film that’s complementary to the Carpenter film. But it’s also a film that stands alone on its own two feet and I think Matthijs [van Heijningen, the director] achieved that in an extraordinary way.

How did you make Carter different from Kurt Russell’s character in the eighties film?

I think the script distinguishes Carter as his own character. He’s definitely cut from the heroic mold in the sense that when things go down, he acts in a relatively selfless way. I don’t really know what defines a hero except maybe a sense of selflessness.

Carter’s character definitely has an affinity or a protectiveness for Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, not in a romantic sense, so there’s none of that bullshit, ‘Let’s build a romance into what isn’t a romance movie,’ but there’s definitely a protective quality.

I think he recognizes a real sense of something in her at the beginning that she is sort of a lion in her own way. She’s a great thinker and an interesting young woman and kind of put upon by the older scientist who sets himself intellectually over her and puts her in her place and Carter probably supports any kind of underdog and that kind of quality.

I think that’s what really draws him to her in the beginning.

Was there a lot of discussion about the ‘rules’ of the film; what the creature can and can’t do, or if the characters are even aware that they’re becoming a creature?

I will say there are definite arguments about certain rules of the story, but I think it’s great for audiences to ask about certain aspects of a movie, so let’s not answer every question.

For example, I know from doing a bit of research that Kurt Russell was having big arguments with somebody on set [for the Carpenter film] that if you are the alien, do you know you are the alien, or are you unaware of it?

It’s a great question and a really difficult one when you’re trying to approach the moment where you might have to suddenly go from human to becoming the alien. How aware are you of these things?

At the end of the Carpenter film, there’s that question: are either of those guys okay, and when will they know? I love the mystery it’s left with. I’m a massive movie buff, so I know you have to establish a set of rules and adhere to them.

You were involved in another well-known genre prequel. How would you compare that experience to this one?

The Thing - Joel Edgerton and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) and Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) do battle with a flame-thrower © 2011 Universal Studios

When I did the Star Wars prequel [Revenge of the Sith], I can’t tell you how filled with excitement I was to drive out into the desert of Tunisia and see the moisture towers exactly where they were back when they were originally set there. That was like a childhood dream come true.

And in another way, this was like a parallel experience, because The Thing was a favorite movie of mine when I was a teenager. It’s so weird to realize that the cycle of your life takes you on a journey to become an actor where you play a part in a movie that inspired you to become involved in movies in the first place. I don’t even try to compute that anymore.

How does it feel, working on a film in which you already know that most of the characters won’t survive?

It’s an interesting world that we live in today with spoilers and the Internet and all that stuff. How much do we want to know, and how much do we want to keep a secret? Sometimes what lures me to see a production of Hamlet, when I know that everybody dies in the end, is not so much what happens in the story but how the story is told.

There’s a certain element of that with this film. You may know that the majority of people are going to die, but you haven’t met these people yet. You don’t really know who they are or what they are.

A few of the things you already know from the original film, like the man who appears to have committed suicide, the axe in the door or the morphed alien-human figure; how does that all happen? Who are these people? I think we’re telling a really great story, about a mixture of grunt workers and scientists who all get caught up in this terrible mess.

You’ll get to see the creature, you’ll get to see the axe in the door, you’ll get to see the suicide; this film crosses a lot of Ts and dots a lot of Is from that first half hour section of Carpenter’s movie.

The great thing is, I think it’s the most alien horror movie you could have, because it’s alien versus human. And because of the paranoia element, it’s also human versus human.

Anybody could be the alien, and the alien could not only be any one of us, but it can also take on any shape that it wants so there’s a sense of villainy around every corner and in every person. I think that’s really exciting subject matter.

The Thing opens in theaters October 14, 2011.