Boy Erased, Boy Embraced: Joel Edgerton directs searing drama about gay conversion therapy

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Joel Edgerton’s acting career has been on a steady rise since he appeared as Luke Skywalker’s uncle in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He was the shoe factory heir in Kinky Boots, one of the Melbourne criminals in the acclaimed Animal Kingdom, Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Ramses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, tainted FBI agent John Connolly in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Richard Loving of the groundbreaking interracial couple in Loving, and Jennifer Lawrence’s CIA mark in this year’s Red Sparrow.

Quite a resume, but the ambitious New South Wales native is also on a notable parallel track as a filmmaker. His feature directing debut, The Gift (2015), was a box-office hit—a chilling suspense tale he wrote and in which he co-starred as a mysterious figure from Jason Bateman’s high-school past. His second feature, Focus Features’ Boy Erased, which recently debuted at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, is chilling in a different way. Edgerton’s screenplay is based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley, who recounted his experience of being sent to the Memphis gay-conversion facility “Love in Action” after coming out to his Baptist parents at age 19. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) plays the boy, here named Jared Eamons, opposite Australian Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his anguished parents.

Interviewed at the Toronto Fest, the very genial Edgerton says there’s a direct line between his role in Loving (for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination) and his involvement with Boy Erased. “Loving made me realize how much I get taken by stories of injustice,” he confides. “When I was a kid, I was terrified of things that were limitations of freedom, like being abducted or going to prison or going to war. When I was in my young religious Catholic phase, these were things I would pray about and have nightmares about. As I grew up and became a film actor and filmmaker, I loved breaking-out-of-prison stories. I read the book because of what I’d heard about conversion therapy. I went in there with a little bit of salaciousness, and what I found was something much deeper and rich and more upsetting—this question of how would you feel and what would you do if the people you love the most and hold the most stock in, your parents, told you there was something wrong with you and withdrew their love from you, which is what his father [a preacher] does in many ways.”

Edgerton himself appears in the film as Victor Sykes, director and head therapist at the gay-conversion “refuge,” based on John Smid, who eventually resigned, publicly apologized for the harm he caused and is now married to a man. ‘I’ve met John Smid,” Edgerton says, “and reading Garrard’s book it struck me that (a) Garrard wasn’t demonizing anybody. He really depicted this sense that everybody was there to try to help. I started to create a parallel analogy to drug addiction. Imagine if your beliefs, apart from the fear-of-God aspect, meant that when you found out that your son or your daughter was gay, you’d been told by the church it was a choice…that their behaviors were out of control based on deficiencies in them—imagine that a parent looked at that as something it was necessary to correct, a problem to be solved. That’s sort of similar to a parent going, ‘I have a son who’s addicted to heroin and I’m going to send him to rehab and cross my fingers that it works. I’m helping them.’ And Sykes, the therapist—they’re in the position of wonderful responsibility to hold kids’ hands and bring them closer back to God. That to me is terrifying, because if those people have the conviction of belief that it’s possible to change your sexuality, and deep inside yourself you’re going, ‘I’m not feeling any different,’ it makes you feel worse and worse and worse. And to have your parents tell you or agree with someone else that you’re misshapen or broken, I think that would be the most unsettling thing in the world. What’s less unsettling to me, even though it’s diabolical, is a facility that would take parents’ money, wave them off at the gate, and then go inside and start hooking them up to electric shocks. There are those places, by the way—it’s just that Garrard’s story wasn’t that story. The ‘We’re here to help’ thing has a weird Stepford Wives kind of unsettling nature to it.”

Edgerton notes that the release of his film will be accompanied by a podcast, and he’s happy that this year has brought another successful film about conversion therapy, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. “All of these things are going to be good information for young kids to remind them, ‘Hey, listen, the rest of the world knows you’re not broken, and all these smart people are making projects that are letting you know we stand on the other side of things. We say that you’re OK, we say that you’re born the way you are and you should embrace it, and everybody else should fucking embrace you too.’ A kid came up to me at Telluride, a volunteer, and he said, ‘If only this film had been around when I was 15 years old.’ That’s one thing. The other thing is just opening the minds of parents. If they can come and watch Russell and Nicole depict two real people who went from A to B, A being devastated and shocked and threatened by the sexuality of their son, to realizing the damage that they’ve caused and the misinformation they had, and in their own different ways evolved to a place of acceptance…

“The father’s still on his way, he’s on that journey. The mother will be in Toronto today, she’s all behind the movie, she’s a champion to her son and she’s a role model to other mothers who are about to be or in the middle of or have gone through a similar situation… The thing about parents I discovered in this movie that I hadn’t really thought about, but now it makes perfect sense, is that if you have a gay son or gay daughter, a queer son or daughter of anything that’s outside the sense that a kid should grow up to be straight, the parents have to come out too, or they feel like the children are a reflection of them. My mom, anytime I did anything silly or dumb or weird or dressed weird, she’d get so upset. And my father would say, ‘Marianne, if he wants to do what he does, it has nothing to do with you. You’re just his parent.’ It’s a massive thing that parents attach their identity to their children’s identity and their sexuality.”

Edgerton reflects on the evolution of Garrard Conley’s mother Martha, played so movingly by Kidman. “It’s a mouse that ends up with a lion’s roar. She is under the thumb, she is a quiet participant in everyone else’s agenda. But a mother’s intuition is so deep and strong that when you go against the grain of that, it’s quite evident for people. Martha just went: I’m not going to stand for this, I’m not going to be a silent participant in my son’s demise. And now she’s got such strength to her, in such a small frame—she’s such a fragile-looking woman. It’s cool. And that’s a better strength to me—it’s like someone with skinny arms winning at arm-wrestling.

“I’m not sure when Garrard’s father will see the film, but he knows about it. Rightfully so, he’s nervous about his representation. I sat opposite him in Arkansas and I’d written a couple of drafts, and he urged me: I want you to paint me honestly—meaning, he doesn’t want to be painted as a hero in the movie, because that would be dishonest. Because he’s still on that journey. Also, he has his congregation to think about. He’s kind of in the middle between his son and this congregation he’s running. He said, ‘I just want you to paint me how I am,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to paint you as somebody who’s trying, but not yet succeeding.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s about right.’ He’s a tough guy, like Russell—that’s why I cast Russell. You see a photo of him and you go: OK, I know why Russell is in this. He sat opposite me and we were talking about all sorts of stuff, and I wanted to steer the conversation towards the story of the film, and he just burst into tears. He was pointing at Garrard, who was sifting through family photos with my assistant Michael, and he said, ‘This whole thing has got me licked.’ And this hulking man is just sobbing at the table. And you don’t do that if there’s not a lot of love there. He’s trying to compute and put it all together, and I think it’s a wrestle for him. I don’t expect him to come to the movie easily, and I know that finding out that Russell was going to play him made him a little more scared than if it was some little independent film that would come and go and disappear. Nicole and Russell’s involvement I think made him take a step back and go: Oof! OK. But he never once tried to talk Garrard out of it. He embraced me, he wishes me well, he invited me to his church. I heard his point of view, and so did Russell. My kind of quiet agenda for the film is that he will see it and it will push him closer to his son. And not further away from his congregation, but closer to his congregation in bending further so that he can also bend other minds. People put a lot of stock in a preacher—in certain communities they’re kind of a rock star.”

At the center of Boy Erased, of course, is rising star Lucas Hedges, who delivers a subtle and powerful performance. “Peter Hedges [Lucas’ father] directed me in 2011 in Atlanta in The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” Edgerton recalls. “Lucas was like 14 and we would play basketball and hang out. He just landed at the end of that shoot his first acting job, in Moonrise Kingdom. I’d written him a little congratulatory note with a P.S.: ‘Whatever you do, don’t grow up and start stealing my jobs.’ So it was kind of cool to read this book and go: Wow, I think he would be really great for this. There’s a stillness, a sensitivity, he’s super-intelligent. There’s a certain everyman quality to him, a beautiful ordinary nature. Audiences really can identify with someone like him.

“I think he beautifully handled his discussion about his sexuality in an article recently. It was never really a conversation I had with him—it was a conversation Garrard and he had, because they spent a lot of time together. But there was definitely a question for me about who do I cast in that role and how do I represent right—there was something that felt right about him and I’m very proud of him.”

When we spoke in Toronto, Edgerton had just recently wrapped shooting on Netflix’s The King, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V he wrote with director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and in which he plays Falstaff opposite Ben Mendelsohn and Timothée Chalamet as the two Henrys.

“It went incredibly well, very smooth shoot,” Edgerton (also a producer) reports. “Adam Arkapaw shot it, just some epic stuff. The fact that David and I sat in Lombok mapping out the Battle of Agincourt in the sand like two grownup kids, and six years later we’re in a field in Budapest and in castles in London with all these extras and people in armor and eighty horses…we were kind of pinching ourselves, because getting to play on that scale thanks to Netflix was awesome.”

Edgerton plans to continue splitting his time between acting and directing. “I’d really love to keep directing movies. But I gotta be in love with something completely before I embark on it, which is what happened with Boy Erased. I’m just waiting for the next thing to really get under my skin. And I want to pivot—I’d love to do something different, maybe a comedy or something outside the box. Definitely love suspense, though, so one day I‘ll go back to doing something to really unnerve an audience.”