Joel Edgerton directed and co-starred in the new film “Boy Erased,” based on the real-life story of Garrard Conley, whose parents sent him to conversion therapy after coming out as gay. The film stars Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons (based on Conley), Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents, and Edgerton as chief therapist of the conversion camp Victor Sykes. This is Edgerton’s second directorial effort following 2015’s thriller “The Gift.”
Edgerton sat down with Gold Derby contributing writer Charles Bright at the Middleburg Film Festival for a chat about why he became interested in “Boy Erased,” how the film draws on elements of horror, and what it will take to get religious people who believe in such practices to see the film. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: So Joel, here at Middleburg you’re promoting “Boy Erased,” your second directorial effort. So I’m wondering, how did this book come onto your radar?
Joel Edgerton: It was sort of the tectonic plates of people in my world, agents and managers and whatever. My agent had left and went to Anonymous Content, and I had been a big fan of Anonymous Content for a long time. They were the first people to take an interest in a screenplay that I had written, talking like 2005 or 6, something that never ended up getting made. Anonymous, Steve Golin, he gets good material, he options books and they produce what I think are really interesting movies. When my agent went there, the first thing that they did at Anonymous was hand me “Boy Erased,” and normally, I have to admit, I don’t read things very quickly. Things sit there for a while. I find it very hard to multitask because I’m working on a movie or whatever, but they were unaware of the fact that I grew up with a deep fear of institutions and a fascination as I got older and an interest in movies as a watcher and a maker, or an actor, with prison movies and anything to do with institutions, I was like, “Gay conversion therapy, I’ve heard a little bit about this.”
So my morbid curiosity led me to read it, and then I became obsessed after putting the book down, with the idea that someone had to make a movie about it and I maybe could help produce it and I started making moves every day towards doing something about it, meeting with other survivors of conversion therapy. The first thing, I met Garrard in a cafe and talked about it, and then I just found myself being dragged along by it. I can say with complete honesty I’ve never had a project pick me like this project picked me. I’ve tried getting into other people’s projects. I’ve tried to pick projects. This thing felt like it picked me up and dragged me along.
GD: One of the most interesting things about the movie, and I think you kind of touched on this with how you were talking about the fear of institutionalization, there are certain points in that movie, especially the scenes with the character of Cameron, your character abusing him, and also when Lucas Hedges flips out and tries to get his mother in there, it felt like a horror movie at those points. Was that an intentional motif that you tried to play that in?
JE: Having made “The Gift” and being such a fan of suspense movies and horror movies, I felt like in many ways, while “Boy Erased” wasn’t gonna have the jump scares or the horror, suspense tropes that “The Gift” had, that in many ways “Boy Erased” was gonna be a scarier movie than “The Gift,” for not everybody but for many people, because it was a real-life fear-based situation. It’s an experience that so many people really have, and for that reason, even as if it’s more subtle in its rendering, there is something deeply fearful about a lot of the sequences and scenes in that movie. The potential, for example, in the bathroom scene with Flea and Lucas Hedges that some deeper abuse might happen. And of course, there was some scenes in there, at least one of the scenes with Joe Alwyn and Lucas, maybe the hardest scene I’ve ever had to shoot. It may always be the hardest scene I’ll ever have to shoot. Definitely part of my receptors were always thinking about the horror elements of experiencing what Garrard went through.
GD: I find it very interesting that Nicole Kidman is in this movie, because she’s very public about the fact that she is a Catholic but she’s also a very progressive person, and this movie seemed right up her alley to play this kind of character and I was wondering, did any of the cast bring their own experiences with faith into their performances, or do you know of any, at least?
JE: Definitely. I mean, I did. I was raised Catholic and I had my own fear-based relationship with God and I could really draw on that. Definitely Nicole I remember an early conversation and I never really probed any further but I think, she has a Catholic base but also in her first marriage, she was involved at least in some way by association with a different kind of religion, and talking about choices of extracting oneself or redesigning one’s opinion and faith structure. There’s perhaps something in Nicole’s past in that sense that drew her to this material. As I said, I never probed any further. I feel like that’s her choice and that’s her private stuff. But yeah, I think a lot of people, whether it was faith-based or just opinion-based on a humanitarian level, were motivated very quickly to get involved in this project. And I’m talking not just in front of the camera but behind the camera in terms of representation and support we had from the LGBTQ community, practitioners at the highest level of costume designers and our first AD and all these wonderful people who were just like, “I wanna help tell this story.”
GD: Is that how cast members like Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan ended up in this?
JE: Yeah, and Cherry Jones. Great advocates and heroes in their own way. It’s interesting that acting is considered an art form or part of the artistic community, actors are, and yet there’s still great — great as in big — culture of suppression of sexuality, fear of coming out because of the fear of being judged by an audience and limiting your audience. You find not a lot of actors out there are out, and yet, people like Troye and Xavier in their artistic expression are very much heroes and advocates, and knowing that I loved Xavier’s performances in his own movies, and having met him when he was considering me maybe as an actor for a project of his, I thought, “I wonder if I could drag him to work for me.” Carmen Cuba threw the idea of Troye Sivan in front of me and I was like, “Oh!” I knew of him as an Australian burgeoning pop star, and then his audition tape that they sent me, I was like, “Wow, this guy needs to be in this movie, too.” Just purely on a representational and advocate front, it was just an added bonus that I had those people in the film.
GD: I’m curious going back to when you were first reading the book, and it may not be something that actually made it into the movie but what part or aspect of reparative therapy, other than the core concepts, did you personally find the most appalling or disturbing?
JE: What was interesting in my research, I met with a number of survivors of other therapies, and recently after making the film I met with some survivors in Australia, ‘cause I wanted to acknowledge it’s going on in my country as well. I kept asking people, “What did you find the most upsetting or damaging thing?” ‘Cause I had my opinions about how absurd things were or how cruel things were, and there was something that Lucas’ character avoided, that Garrard avoided, because he broke out, he busted out, the moral inventory of having to get up and talk out loud about your indiscretions, same-sex indiscretions or actions as if it was like alcoholics anonymous, like, “I drank a bottle of whiskey and I beat my wife.” It’s like, same-sex, as they called them, indiscretions, were sins, having to get up and say those things out loud. I’ve never had to stand up and say, “Oh, in the bedroom I did this.” It’s my private world and it should be their private world. That they would do that as a public forum at the end of the program with parents in the room and encourage the parents to stand up and shame the children. I couldn’t put it in the movie because Lucas’ character luckily escaped before that happened. The other thing, and we do put it in the movie, is the creation of the safe space to share your experiences, like, “We’re all here, we’re all of the same mind. Let’s all create a safe space and we can talk about these things out loud.” And then the use of that information as shaming device in another therapy is abhorrent. For all the physical torture that exists in other places and even the exorcism that we portray in the film and the practice of a fake funeral, which I think is just fucking diabolical, the ideas that are fed to people, the false hope that is fed to people, I think is like a seed that sometimes grows into a weed of sorts that leads to very dark things, and the darkest of which I think is clearly suicide, and many who have been to conversion therapy and Love In Action now aren’t walking on the Earth because of those ideas.
GD: One last thing I wanted to ask you about. What I thought was so interesting about your point of view that you approached the movie and obviously Garrard’s book is it doesn’t look down on people of faith. It’s very easy for projects like this that deal with these types of issues to just be dismissive or caricature them. This feels like a movie that is also meant to speak to everyone but really speak to people of faith who might have these preconceived notions of homosexuality and things like that. I’m wondering, how do you believe that you could convince… because of course right now everybody is so entrenched in their own belief system in terms of what they believe and they usually get their information from sources that only validate their own viewpoint. How do you see being able to convince people to see a film that might challenge them like this?
JE: It’s tough. If anyone can work out the ingredients to solve that problem, how to navigate that issue, it would be so fantastic, the idea that you could get people to watch movies that they don’t wanna watch. No doubt there’s an audience willing and waiting and desperate for this movie to come out, but those people already are convinced, like me, that conversion therapy is a sham and needs to be stopped. How do you get the other people to watch it? I only watch Fox News if there are clips that I know are gonna throw wood on the fire and my feelings about their backwards politics and point of view of promoting stupidity. People watch their news channels, like you say. I watch different things, some Red State people go lap up “Fox and Friends” and all that nonsense. What if I could go on shows like that? What if it’s part of a promotion? I could find myself on the right kind of wrong TV stations or in that right kind of wrong newspapers and magazines. That could be some way, even if it made people curious enough to go, “What does this stupid Australian guy think he knows and what’s he gonna say about religion?” If I could even trick people in some ways to make them curious enough to come into the cinema, maybe, just maybe, they’ll see that we’re not throwing God under the bus. We’re not attacking religion. We’re just trying to shine a light on a practice that I think is backwards.
The other option is it’s really a film for parents, as a roadmap to see how one family dealt with a situation and maybe see a way forward in the future, if they’re ever gonna have to deal with it, they feel like that subject is looming in their house, it’s come down already in their house, or lo and behold, currently have a child that’s going through some kind of program akin to what Garrard went through. What if they can identify with Nicole and Russell’s characters and go, “Maybe I’m gonna reexamine this. Maybe I’m gonna reexamine my point of view and do some more research.” That’s cool. So there’s a number of ways that the film can help, and then simply purely as an identifier for young people who need movies like this when they’re 14, 15, 16, if they’re going through the concept of coming out or dealing with persecution based on something they have no control over and being judged for it.
GD: Well, Joel, thank you so much for talking with us and we wish you all the best during this award season. A fantastic movie and I really hope that you pick up some good hardware for this.
JE: Thank you, appreciate it.