Joel Edgerton was at the Middleburg Film Festival introducing a sold-out screening of his film Boy Erased. After the film, he talked about how he had grown up with a morbid curiosity about correctional institutions. When Garrard Conley’s memoirs about gay conversion therapy came his way, he thought he’d be reading about horrific violence, instead, he read something far more complicated.
Boy Erased stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his deeply religious parents who send their teenage son to gay conversion therapy hoping to convert their son to a different sexual orientation. Edgerton not only stars in the film as Victor Skyes, the head therapist at Love In Action, he also wrote and directed the film.
I caught up with Edgerton in Beverly Hills to talk about adapting the story and the conversation he hopes the film will start.
In Boy Erased, I was shocked by the facts and figures you show. That only 14 states in 2018 protect LGBT youth against gay conversion therapy leaving 36 states with no laws to protect the LGBT youth. So, this was an eye opener, especially with this administration and the way we are rolling backward.
I think so. The potential for all of that to roll back is very much in your face right now. It’s also sad to think that it’s going on in Australia. I went back there two weeks ago and on the front page of the news, there was leaked information about the government having backroom discussions about the right for schools to fire openly gay teachers and to expel openly gay students for no other reason than the fact of their sexuality. There was also another report released about gay Conversion therapy.
You mentioned at the Middleburg Film Festival that you had a morbid curiosity about institutions. What was going through your head as you’re reading Garrard’s memoirs?
I went into the book with a morbid curiosity where I was expecting some kind of prison experiences like Midnight Express or No Way Out with such a hard edge or viciousness to it. What I wanted to hate about this facility would all be coming true. What was really going through my head was how surprisingly empathetic Garrard was about his prison wardens and his parents and where their decisions, their motivations, and their ideas had come from. I realized how complicated the situation was because nobody was actually trying to hurt anybody else. Even in the scenario of a group of people holding a fake funeral for somebody. That strangely Christian paganistic ritual was intended and designed as a life vest for a young boy who they thought was lost at sea and that to me was wow. I hadn’t understood the actual detailed complicated nature of conversion therapy.
The fact it still exists is because of that complication. If it was just a bunch of cut-up bodies at the back of a church somewhere. Homosexuality is a sin, there’s no coming back, chop. We wouldn’t be talking about it anymore. The fact that there is that relative safety to it, is part of the reason it still exists. I guess that’s the thing that lingered the most with me.
The fact that these decisions were born out of love and the fact that his parents, in the aftermath realized that the result of that love was damage and were willing to re-examine their actions, that’s when I thought it was hopeful enough story to make into a movie. Rather than make a torture extravaganza that the idea of making a story that had a redemptive space in it made it worth doing.
That’s what I loved about it, there were no bad guys in this film. Not even Sykes your own character. How did you strike that balance?
I approach rendering characters as if I was acting each one of them. If I were to play a character like Skyes under the direction of someone else, I would be arguing, after researching him that he shouldn’t be demonized. I would always be looking to find out why they do the things they do. I think it’s too easy and too ham-fisted as an actor to just say, “I’m going to pull mean faces and twirl my mustache” and do the acting version of it. It’s too easy a way out. I do acknowledge that that’s what some moviegoers want to see. They want to check into a movie to check out. The way they check out is to sit in the cinema seat and allow yourself to have a very black and white moral schematic point of view and say, “that’s the goodie and that’s the baddie.” You cheer for the hero and boo at the baddie. I like movie experiences where those roles are challenged.
It’s one of the whole motivations of writing The Gift. I wanted to re-examine the way we view those triangle thrillers. What if the hero and villain weren’t who we thought they were? People in life get away with being a hero for a long time until they’re exposed by a different belief system. That could be said of Victor Skyes.
He was a hero in the church community. He was a hero in the circles he moved in. He left the church because he was exposed to the rest of the world through a young boy who published the rules of Love In Action on MySpace. And that became the beginning of the end for him. You’re only a hero in the environment you’re living in. Any war that a country is in, it’s righteous when you’re listening to the news of that country. As soon as you go and live on the other side, it’s another story. Your heroes and villains flip.
Your eyes are opened.
But Garrard is a hero out and out in this story to me. I don’t see a bad bone in his body. His only flaw, in the beginning, was lack of information and it wasn’t his fault.
You spoke to Garrard, but did you go out and speak to people who run those Gay Conversion Therapy groups to get both sides of the story?
I watched a lot of videos on people who had run facilities. I watched footage of John Schmidt while he was still in the program. I went to Texas to meet him before we went into pre-production. I was meeting him at a different point in his life. He was married to a man. He’s back out of the closet. He’s in a place where he realizes gay conversation therapy doesn’t work. I spent time with the parents. I went to church. I went to meet with the doctor who Cherry Jones plays just so I could understand her part in the whole being stuck in the middle aspect of being a religious person and a medical practitioner, not knowing how to really bend the family’s beliefs given her position as a doctor. I tried to get a very broad and fair understanding of the whole landscape because I did feel like that’s how Garrard laid pages on his book.
I was so impressed by how he didn’t throw everybody under a bus. There was nothing spiteful about how he looked back. I found that open-heartedness very interesting. A lot of people said that Garrard should reject anybody that rejects him. I believe that is also a valid point of view. I love that he stands there and says, “I am who I am.”
He’s bold and stubborn. He’ll go to his dad’s church in Arkansas and have the confidence to sit there. His dad welcomes him. He sits there. I guess he’s challenging people to have a voice because a lot of people have an opinion but they don’t voice it. It seems like it’s a long empathetic game to him, as in he’s in it for the long haul. I think he’ll win eventually.
Was Lucas always someone you had in mind to play Jared?
He was someone I had in mind when I was writing the screenplay and I guess Manchester by the Sea had a lot to do with it. It was in my mind and by the time I had seen it a second time, I was writing scenes from the book. I started writing scenes because I was curious to see if I could do anything worthwhile with the book. I had never adapted a book before. So, I started writing the abuse scene and the scene where he comes out to his dad. I got really obsessed with it and just kept on writing.
You have Nicole and Russell too, it’s taken so long to have the three of you together.
Particularly them. They’ve been friends for ages. You’d think someone would have put them together. I wasn’t trying to do that. I wasn’t trying to make anything Australian about it. It was purely the resemblance they bore to the parents that made me want to cast them.
I feel this is the film you could show to those who run these groups.
I do too.
You’re not making them villains or baddies, so it’s going to arouse interest for sure.
It might take a while for the word to filter through. I think there are two ways to get somebody to watch a film who feels like they could be a villain to the film. One is to really really vilify them. The other way is to be gentle and honest about it. Maybe word will filter through and they’ll feel it’s a safe enough film for them to watch and realize that it’s really just about humanity and love. It’s not about putting religious beliefs on a dartboard for everyone to have a go at.
You starred in the film, directed it, wrote it, and produced it. Do you enjoy wearing all those hats?
To produce it, it was about getting the energy of putting the screenplay together and collecting the actors and getting the team together. Then it becomes Kerry Roberts’ job. The writing part is good because it happens in relative isolation. The tricky part is acting and directing at the same time. I’ve never done what Bradley Cooper or what Ben Affleck has done which is act and star in the film. I’ve always been a third of the shoot and that feels manageable. I do feel some of those days when you’re acting and directing in it does take some of the joy out of it. I just felt such a connection to the characters that I’ve played and directed. I’m really interested in complicated men. Like we talked about, the people on one hand who seem villainous but are not necessarily so. Maybe I have too much empathy for them. I am toying with the idea of making a movie where it’s really cut and dry for the sake of a really fun piece of entertainment.