“When you feel like you’re a failure in your father’s eyes, failure is not an option,” accentuates Joel Edgerton with respect to his character Arnold Ridgeway on “The Underground Railroad.” Based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name and directed by Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins, the 10-episode limited series chronicles protagonist Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey out of slave-holding Georgia in 19th-century United States. In our exclusive video interview (watch the entire chat above), Edgerton discusses the value of exploring Ridgeway’s backstory, the incredibly complex relationship between Ridgeway and his father, and the role that failure plays in Ridgeway’s life.
In the first three episodes of this series, viewers meet Ridgeway as the slave catcher who is fixated on tracking down Cora after she and her companion Caesar (Aaron Pierre) escape the Randall plantation at the end of the premiere. His character, however, gains much-needed dimension in the fourth episode, titled “The Great Spirit,” which flashes back to when Ridgeway (played by Fred Hechinger) was in his adolescence and highlights his complicated relationship with his father, Ridgeway Sr. (Peter Mullan). Even though Edgerton did not get to play the younger version of his character in this installment, he reveals that that inclusion of Ridgeway’s backstory was one of deciding factors when considering whether to get involved in this project. He underlines the importance of exploring how someone like his character, essentially a White extremist, “came to be who they are” and ended up being “so filled with hate.”
Ridgeway’s father is a blacksmith, who detests slavery and tries to “teach his son that all men should be created equal,” so Edgerton. Ridgeway, however, desires a career in which he is respected, so he eventually turns to the slave-catching business, which, unlike his father’s blacksmithing work, offers him the perfect environment in which to flourish and succeed. In this regard, Edgerton explains that Ridgeway goes down this dark path primarily “out of spite toward his father” and his father’s “disregard and feelings of shame toward him.” The actor considers this father-son dynamic and the ensuing trajectory of former unique, as similar narratives typically see “a son growing up under a bigoted father and choosing to go a better road, a more humanistic road.” The trajectory that “The Underground Railroad,” however, presents is one in which the well-intentioned father tries to get his son on the right track but the son, seduced by the trappings of wealth and success, rebels against him.
Much of Ridgeway’s life is defined by the thought of his father being ashamed of him and seeing him as a failure. “As a narcissist, the idea of failure would destroy his entire universe,” expounds Edgerton about Ridgeway, who failed to capture Cora’s mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), after she, at least to everyone’s knowledge, escaped the Randall a few years back. The fact that Cora goes missing becomes a “projection for him,” the actor adds, highlighting that Ridgeway is looking to salve the wound of Mabel having “outsmarted him.” To this end, having Cora, “the second generation,” then “outsmart” Ridgeway as well would completely destroy him.
“When the monster dies, when the monster disappears, the monster doesn’t necessarily disappear,” Edgerton says, emphasizing that even after his passing, Ridgeway’s father continues to be a “motivating factor” in Ridgeway’s life. The actor divulges that his character ultimately does not get the answer he really wants, namely that the ideal his father presented to him, of everyone being interconnected, is a myth. On the contrary, he subconsciously knows that it isn’t, which he sees in his relationship with Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a 10-year-old former slave whom Ridgeway set free but who remains by his side. Taking this Black boy under his wing and having him engage “in the industry that is slavery” is, for Ridgeway, “some correction of his past and some attempt to identify with the Great Spirit that his father preached to him,” Edgerton concludes.
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