(Warning: This post, which was first published May 16, contains spoilers through Episode 9 of “The Underground Railroad.”)
“The Underground Railroad” is a 10-episode limited series that tells the story of escaped Georgia slave Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) attempts to outrun slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a man who is hellbent on bringing her back to the plantation, as he was unable to catch her runaway mother, Mabel, many years ago. In the ninth episode of the show, their game of cat and mouse ends with Cora shooting Ridgeway point-blank at the bottom of a deep cavern that is one of the entrances to the show’s literal interpretation of the Underground Railroad.
Cora kills the man who has been in vicious pursuit of her from the start of the Barry Jenkins-created series — based on the book of the same name by Colson Whitehead — in front of Homer (Chase Dillon), a young Black boy who was freed by Ridgeway but remains loyal to his bounty hunter “boss” until his dying breath.
Here, TheWrap talks with Edgerton about Ridgeway’s journey and getting the exact ending he thought the character deserved.
TheWrap: Did you have any apprehension about taking on the role of Ridgeway, a slave catcher who is relentless in his violent pursuit of “The Underground Railroad’s” protagonist, Cora?
Joel Edgerton: There was a reticence from me, for sure. I’ve been dancing around the world for ages just going, ‘Yeah, villains are always more interesting to play.’ And then along comes Ridgeway as a proposition. I was like, can I service it — and do I want to service it? I really, really had to think hard about it because, you know, it’s sort of occupying that part of the show where every time I’m there, I’m trying to drag Cora backwards. The joy of the show is her moving forward, and I’m trying to drag her back, and dragging her back is going to mean a lot of bad things. And that journey is very bad and dark. You know, one of the things that made it worthwhile for me was the script and the book; the extra kind of avenues that Barry opened up with the character were about understanding what shaped Ridgeway into a man. One of my favorite lines is the line between my father and I. My father says to me, ‘I wish I’d done more to shape the boy into the man.’ I think that line alone created an engine for me that it was all worthwhile, which is, how do we raise the citizens of the world? How do parents help guide their children to a right or wrong path? And how are all of our ideas and opinions formed by being in the world and in society and being around people that we love? How does that cause cataclysm around the rest of the world? Because my bad opinion may affect you and how my father raised me may actually adversely affect you. I thought that thematically, that was worth exploring
TheWrap: How would you best describe the relationship between Ridgeway and Homer, a young Black boy who he purchased and set free, but who decided to remain with Ridgeway and work at his side catching slaves?
I think Homer’s loyalty to Ridgeway speaks to the purity of a child; that a child at certain points is unencumbered by judgment. If all he knows is that I protect him and that I feed him and that I educate him and that I look after him, then he will be in service to me and won’t judge what I’m asking him to do. I feel like the relationship itself, in many ways, I always interpreted as a sign that Ridgeway actually still had a heart and a humanity, and that maybe even deeper than that was, through his relationship with Homer, trying to rewrite or redirect his past. He damaged Mac, the young son of an ex-slave on his father’s farm. And that was the core of his father feeling ashamed, which means that in some way, Homer became a new incarnation of Mac. And if he could treat Homer with kindness and with a fatherly aspect, somehow, while he’s not able to turn back the clock, he can do things differently in his present life — despite all the other horrible things he’s doing. I found Ridgeway so complicated in a way that I stopped trying to overanalyze him and just allow the writing to work without trying to layer too much on top of it. But definitely, Homer, I think, is a subconscious heart showing itself out of Ridgeway.
TheWrap: In terms of the logistics of shooting together, what was it like for you and Chase to do such heavy scenes together?
I remember a couple of times, I turned to Chase and said, ‘Look, you know what I’m saying is not my opinion and this is me playing a character.’ He was like, ‘I get it. I get it.’ And I knew he got it because if you get the pleasure of interviewing Chase or meeting him, you’ll understand that he’s not that character. Chase can’t sit still, he’s always looking to make you laugh, he’s singing songs to you, he wants to dance, he wants to hang out and play pranks on you. He’s razzing you all the time. I saw Barry early in rehearsal say to him, ‘Chase, I know in your life you were raised to be able to look an adult person in the eye and be able to have a conversation with them with your own free will. But that’s not the same case for Homer. Homer would be punished for making fun of a grown-up person, or for even looking them in the eye or speaking out of turn.’ So watching Chase put on his little costume and his hat and carry his notebook around and realize that he knew he was slipping into a character that wasn’t him was kind of cool to see a young person wrap their head around. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, but I’ve never really seen that transformation take place in such a clear and defined way. I was very impressed with him and I really enjoyed spending time with him and his family.
TheWrap: What is it that drives Ridgeway’s undying obsession with catching Cora?
Failure is not an option and that’s a dangerous thing. You’ve got a guy who is damaged, who feels like a failure in his father’s eyes and now, as an adult, applies that feeling of being a failure to his grown-up world. And so he cannot fail at anything. I’ve failed bringing Cora’s mother home and now he’s projecting all of that determination into bringing Cora back. If he could bring Cora back, it won’t correct the fact that he failed in bringing her mother back, but it may correct some of that balance. And I think when you find a damaged person in a position of power, those two ingredients make for a very dangerous force. I thought that that was well-handled in the writing and the rendering of the show with this guy. It’s like, why is he so determined? I asked Barry at some point when I’d read four of the episodes, I said, ‘Please don’t tell me that when we get to the end of this series that this man is going to be redeemed in some way?’ As much as it would be wish fulfillment for him to turn over a new leaf and say, ‘I’m not going to take you back to the plantation,’ I was pleased to know that Barry assured me there was no evolution or redeemed sort of moment for Ridgeway, because I don’t think he deserved it.
TheWrap: Why do you think Ridgeway refuses to back down in the final moments before Cora kills him, when he already is injured, knows he’s beaten and is still telling her he’ll always find her and try to bring her back to the plantation?
I think a narcissist — and I think we’re dealing with narcissism in Ridgeway — has this unwillingness to accept failure. It’s this sense that they are important in a way that buries the true depth of knowledge, that they’re really not that important and they’re actually quite insignificant. And this idea that you double down on your mistakes. Ridgeway has a worldview that allows him to feel entitled as a white man, but beyond that, to feel entitled to do the things that he’s done. I think that true narcissism makes people double down and be unflinching. I saw it a lot in the news last year with politicians, you know, being called out for being wrong. There was clear proof that they were wrong, that they lied and that they can’t acknowledge the lie and failure. And in fact, they doubled down and claimed to be part of a grand plan that’s going to make the world a better place. So I think when people like that are on a sinking ship, they’re holding on to their mission statement as if they’re going to be held up in the annals of history as someone really important, when really they’re just a kid who f—ing messed up.
“The Underground Railroad” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.