By Edward Douglas
For many years, Australian actor Joel Edgerton has been solidifying his reputation as an actor – appearing in films like “Warrior,” Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” At the same time, he’s been quietly establishing himself behind the camera, first as a writer (working with brother Nash Edgerton), then as a director with 2015’s thriller “The Gift.”
Edgerton’s second film as a director, “Boy Erased,” is a very different beast, an adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name that recounts his time being put through religious conversion therapy to quell his homosexual desires.
In Edgerton’s film, the renamed Jared is played by Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By The Sea”) who finds himself being put into conversion therapy under the tutelage of the charismatic Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton himself) and how that ends up doing more damage than good.
To raise the caliber and pedigree of his film even further, Edgerton cast fellow Australians Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as Jared’s religious parents – his father being a preacher who feels conversion therapy is the only solution. Not only that, but he also got fellow filmmaker Xavier Dolan to play a role. The results are astounding – a powerful and emotional drama that shows off that Hedges’ Oscar nomination was no fluke, and who knows? Maybe he and Kidman will be back in the Oscar race again this year for their performances. (Even having not read Conley’s book, I was equally impressed with Edgerton’s adaptation.) It’s an important film that should be seen by anyone that is part of or supports the LGBTQ+ community.
NextBestPicture.com had a chance to speak with Edgerton recently, and ironically, we spoke to him the day after the current government administration announced that they would be trying to cut back transgenders’ rights to deciding their own gender. The movie ends up being an ominous reminder that the current government could see conversion therapy as a way to further deny LGBTQ+ rights, something Edgerton realized as well.
How did you first find Garrard’s book? Had it already been published or did you get an early copy of it?
Joel Edgerton: It was a book given to me by Kerry Roberts, who is one of the producers of the film or the main producer of the film. She’s from Anonymous Content, works with Steve Dolan, and she had read the book, strangely as a bit of holiday reading, as a non-work thing. She was feeling like reading stuff that would charge her up about how things were in the country, politically. She came off across Garrard’s book and handed it to me, and I, unbeknownst to her, had grown up with this really weird fascination with institutions. It was the basis of all my fears, the idea of being locked up and shipped off to some facility. That’s why I read the book, and I very quickly became obsessed with it.
The book came out in 2016, so that’s a fairly fast turnaround to get a book turned into a movie. That’s pretty amazing, considering how many books that take a decade or more to get adapted, etc. Once you came on board, did you go into it right away or were there other things you had to work out?
Every step of the process just seemed to roll into the next quite smoothly. For example, because everybody was so passionate about the subject, people read the script and very quickly got involved. My casting process happened, and it was like a dream process. I was pinching myself in how quickly Nicole and Russell and Lucas all responded and said, “Yes,” and then I realized that with a script plus them, we had a chance of getting financed. The finances came very quickly, and then everyone happened to be available at the same time. Every step of the way, it felt like there was nothing getting in our way.
I think I read that you and Lucas visited Garrard as research, so had you thought of Lucas for the role even before you started writing the script?
I was thinking about him while I was writing the script. I was fresh off watching “Manchester By The Sea,” and I kind of felt like as I was reading the tail-end of the book and subsequently started writing the screenplay weeks later, I was imagining the movie or the scenes or the scenarios with Lucas in my head, but after I read the book, I met Garrard. Nicole and Russell really resembled the parents, that’s why I picked them or why I wanted to pursue them. Lucas doesn’t so much resemble Garrard, but there’s something energetically that resembles him, which was more important. It was the fact that he was a boy becoming a man, and there was something kind of ordinary and a lovely regularness about Lucas and a sensitivity. All that stuff, and then energetically, I felt he was the perfect person.
Since I’ve known you since “The Square” and “Animal Kingdom,” this might seem like a departure for you, just because “The Gift” and other screenplays you’ve written have had at least one foot in genre. Did you have any concerns about adapting a memoir like this, especially knowing Garrard was still around? Or was it helpful to have him available?
In many ways, drama is a genre – not an obvious one, but it’s a genre with a broader scope. Telling someone’s true story… I guess I had a bit of experience with true story drama in front of the camera. I’m talking about “Black Mass” and “Loving,” and particularly “Loving,” Jeff [Nichols] had an intention and was determined to tell that true story truthfully. I really liked that he didn’t try and amplify or sensationalize or annex too many kinds of falsehoods in order to pander to a broader Hollywood audience. That film ultimately will stand the test of time. It didn’t light the box office on fire, but I was so proud of that movie and so impressed by how Jeff handled it.
When I met Garrard and became obsessed with his book and felt compelled to make it into a film, it just seemed like there was no choice but to do it in any other way, but to be honest and to be empathetic to each character within it and just use the movie as a document of something that really happened, and let the audience stand back objectively in a position to judge how they feel about the material, how they feel about the choices of characters within it.
I had Garrard every step along the way with me, and I think, in many ways, because I was talking to him regularly and looking him in the eye quite often in the same room, I don’t know if I felt good taking his book and running off into the clouds with it, you know?
But you did change the character’s name, so had Garrard already done that in the book?
It’s interesting. Garrard changed a number of names, and he never really refers to his own name in the book, because it’s written in the first person. He refers to his mother and father as “Mom” and “Dad” or “Mother” and “Father,” and he changes everybody else’s names, some of them for legal reasons, like the boy who abused him at college. Strangely, the only person he names perfectly and doesn’t deviate from is John Schmidt. John Schmidt is the person that my character is based on, and I sort of felt that I’d just change everybody’s names just to have a one-step-removed process from it. I’ve read about and heard about situations in the past where people used real names and end up with all sorts of legal ramifications, and I just didn’t want anything to stop us from being able to show this film at the cinema. The other reason why is because when I first wrote the screenplay, what I did is that I read the book three times, and then I just put the book in a drawer, and I wrote the first draft just based on what I could remember with the intention and the feeling that whatever was important would have stuck to me. Of course, I went back and read the book, but some of the names changed or I got the names wrong simply because my memory of events were better than my memory of names like it is in life. I read it three times, and then I just sort of refused to look at it until I’d done my messy first draft, and then I read the book many, many times while as I was reworking the script.
I know when you’re in a writer mode, you can’t write for specific actors, because you don’t know who will be available but was there a character you were thinking of yourself to play as you’re writing? Is that also part of your writing process?
I was starting to [realize] as I was writing that it was the kind of role that I could play. I was sort of fascinated by that role for a number of reasons that conflict, and also because when I met John – I went to Texas to meet him – and I saw a lot of video footage of him, and I was thinking (again, energetically) that I wasn’t presuming to try to look like or be a doppelganger to him. John’s a very different type of man, but energetically, he’s incredibly well-spoken, charismatic, warm and friendly. It’s very easy to come under his spell, and you can imagine in the scenario of him being a religious guide and a quasi-therapist that people were hanging off his every word and looking up to him and hoping that he was their salvation. He definitely did give off an air that he was that person, and I was interested that when I made the movie that the audience would meet him as the kids do, as a really wonderful, warm and friendly welcome mat to what was otherwise in their minds going to be a potentially terrifying experience that instead of meeting some evil prison warden or Nurse Ratched [from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”] – well, Nurse Ratched was quite lovely in the beginning – that you meet someone who is like, “Hey, guys! I’m your friend, and I’m your pal, and I’m really going to help you and we’re going to do this thing together.”
I’m amazed that John Schmidt would be willing to meet with you and help with your research. It seems like such an odd thing that he’d want to be involved, so was he still in touch with Garrard or vice versa?
He’s come out the other end of his experience as somebody who has a very different lifestyle, as seen in the film, and he still feels a lot of responsibility and guilt because of the damage he’s caused. Knowing that this therapy doesn’t work and yet, he was the one pushing it and creating it for 25 years. He feels bad, I think. I think he wants to be on the right side of history now in order to make amends for being on the wrong side of history then. But he was very helpful, and he was willing to be open about his experiences and share what he could about queries I had. I think he’s in New York and will be at the premiere.
For better or worse, this movie and Garrard’s story is more topical now then maybe it was when his book was published. America is kind of a mess right now with the news that the current administration is trying to deny the entire LGBTQ+ community their rights as Americans. It’s scary that something like conversion therapy could become wider-scale again because of that. Did you realize that while you were making this movie that there was that potential?
Yeah, a little bit. It’s weird. When we made “Loving,” Jeff was just interested in making “Loving” because he loved the story, and then it just so happened as the movie progressed, things were getting worse and worse, and the rights and freedoms of people were under scrutiny. Marriage equality was such a bit topic and so the film became more relevant, and the same thing has happened to us. I mean, reading yesterday that the government might walk back the rights of transgender people and refuse to acknowledge a fluidity of gender and definitions of gender and force people to be identified and segregated by what’s written on their birth certificate is a real bold (in a bad way) show of bigotry and ignorance. You make a change. You think you’ve gained grounds for human rights, and then a new government can walk back rights. It’s something that I became very aware of during “Loving” as well. You always think that gaining ground is like a solid and lasting thing, but the idea that you can gain ground and lose ground is so terrifying, especially if you are part of a minority that is a known risk of being persecuted. So yeah, the film is very timely. I was in Australia last week and the day I showed the film for the first time in Australia, a report had been released on conversion therapy in Australia, so yeah, it’s very timely.
“Boy Erased” opens in select cities on Friday, November 2 through Focus Features and will expand more in the weeks to come. Check out the trailer below.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW