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Joel Edgerton wrote, directed, produced and co-starred in The Gift, which deals with the sort of twisty moral dilemma that he’s known for. The film opens in select cities on Friday.Matt Kennedy/The Associated Press

It's a delicious premise for a movie: Where do bullies go when they grow up? Do they mature out of their cruelty, or just learn to hide it? If you've done bad things, can you be a good person? The new indie thriller The Gift, which opens in select cities on Friday, wraps those serious questions in a nail-biter plot.

Jason Bateman, freed from his professional-nice-guy routine, shows fresh colours as the former bully, Simon; Rebecca Hall plays his pregnant wife, Robyn, who doesn't know about his past; and Joel Edgerton plays Gordo, whom Simon dubbed "Gordo the Weirdo" (and, we find out, did much worse) when they were in school. After they meet again 20 years later, Gordo insinuates himself into Simon's life, but keeps us guessing whether he wants reconciliation or revenge.

Edgerton, who was born in New South Wales, doesn't only co-star in The Gift – he wrote and produced it, and it's his directorial debut. Moreover, it's not his first script about a twisty moral dilemma: It's his third. In his first, the 2008 Australian film The Square, an extramarital affair goes horribly wrong; in his second, 2013's Felony, a hero cop commits an accidental crime, then compounds it by covering it up.

When I meet Edgerton over coffee in a Toronto hotel bar, I have to ask: Why is he so drawn to moral crossroads?

It's not as if the guy has nothing else to do – at 41, Edgerton is enjoying a nice acting career. He made waves with Animal Kingdom and Warrior; played Stanley to Cate Blanchett's Blanche in an acclaimed Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire; co-starred as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby; and gave Christian Bale a hard time in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

In person, Edgerton is energetic, friendly; he looks like Chris Pratt's more devilish brother, with a boxer's chest and shoulders. (When he clasps his hands behind his head, his biceps strain his shirt.) A serial dater, he has never been married. He wears a Nepalese trinket on a cord around his neck, a gift from a doctor in the Fred Hollows Foundation, a charity he has long supported that works to restore sight to impoverished people. On screen, his face tilts from handsome to plain, depending on what's happening with his hair and beard. In The Gift, he sports a wounded stare and a coif that calls to mind Conan O'Brien.

He dives eagerly into my morality-murk question. Edgerton was raised Catholic, "so guilt is deeply ingrained in my system," he says, though he doesn't go to church any more. He knows "what it's like to cause damage to other people, and it ain't always cut and dried." He believes that as life unspools, one shifts "from being very clear, almost to an annoying point, about the rules of society and ethics, where life is black and white, to landing someplace where you see there's a lot of grey."

At a significant moment, Edgerton's father, a solicitor, asked him a particular question (he won't go into specifics), "and it was like I saw two windows: I could lie to him, get away with it, and not be held accountable. Or I could tell the truth, which was fucking hard at the time, and go through a rocky patch." He chose the truth. "I remember the weight of that moment," he goes on. "I remember this real pull to do the opposite. It was a massive part of my evolution."

His favourite people are those who are "deeply honest, even if it's shocking at first. They probably have fewer friends." He laughs. "But there are no hidden doors or shadows with them."

Why Edgerton keeps returning to the grey areas – "telling the same story," he says, "asking the same questions in slightly different ways" – is his belief that most people don't go into them maliciously. "I think it boils down to the desperate need a lot of us have – I know I have it – to be seen as a good person," he says. "So when you do a bad thing, even if it's an accident, you're terrified that straightaway everybody will think you're a bad person. You tell the lie so that you can maintain the façade while you work out the damage."

So he writes movies that he hopes will make people stand in the lobby afterward, debating what the characters should have done, and what they did or didn't deserve.

As an actor, the murk is where Edgerton likes to play. "I think it's easy for me to be cast as a nice guy," he says. "But I'm always trying to drag them closer to that moral line. And when I'm playing a bad guy, I'm looking for reasons to bring him closer to good. I always want lighter shades in the darker characters, and darker shades in the lighter ones."

Edgerton welcomes grey areas off-screen too. He says he is having "the time of my life," and that he has always wanted "to be invited to do good things with good people." Then, in the same breath, he wonders "if I'm doing the thing I'm doing [acting] because it was a dream I had a long time ago." (Trust me, that's an insightful thing for an actor to wonder about himself.)

On a set, he is either working hard, or killing time "drinking tea, eating biscuits and being asked, 'Are you comfortable?' There's a lot of boredom and a lot of waiting around and a lot of weird nothingness going on," he says. "I'd love to know if other actors agree with me on this, but sometimes it's just five minutes – one scene, or even one take – that will make a whole day worth it. Or a whole week." That's why he loves writing and directing "even slightly more" than acting: "That brain space is occupied all the time."

For the moment, Edgerton has landed in a place where he is "happy, content and really satisfied with so many things," he says. "But I do keep checking in with the past, going, 'What haven't I achieved so far, in personal relationships and in life in general, as a human on the Earth? Have I wasted time?'" He's fascinated by the idea that an ethical crisis "shunts you off your timeline," and that it knocks your loved ones off theirs too (witness Robyn's reactions in The Gift). "If you handle these situations with integrity, eventually you will be allowed to rejoin that timeline," he posits. "Maybe."

That eternal maybe. Here's hoping that it takes Edgerton many more movies to figure it out.

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