Joel Edgerton returns to the big screen this month with Boy Erased, a powerful deep dive into the murky world of gay conversion therapy starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.
Set The Tape‘s Nicholas Lay sat down with the writer, director and co-star in Vancouver to get to the heart of what was an emotional and enlightening project…
NICHOLAS LAY: Boy Erased was developed from Garrard Conley’s memoir and personal experiences of gay conversion therapy in small town America. What drew you to his story?
JOEL EDGERTON: Since I was little, I’ve had this inbuilt curiosity about institutions and the fear of being locked up, whether it was prison, the military or a cult. I knew gay conversion therapy existed and it sounded almost unbelievable, but when this kid’s first hand experiences were put in front of me, I had to find out what he had to say. I picked up the book with an outsider’s curiosity and soon found myself spat out the other end with an emotional connection to this family who clearly loved each other, but whose conflicted feelings had led to an immense amount of drama, damage and pain. None of it needed to happen, but even now in 2018 this sort of thing is still going on daily across North America.
NL: Your character, Victor Sykes – the clinic’s head therapist – could so easily have been portrayed as this generation’s Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he’s not. What influenced you to resist utilising a core human villain?
JE: To approach the character with an empathetic eye was certainly a risk. Victor is incredibly complicated, and it would have been easy to turn him into Nurse Ratchet or the typical antagonistic warden, as that makes good and evil black and white. However, that would not have been seen as truthful by those who know this story from the other side. John Smid, the head therapist at Love in Action whom Victor is based on, is not a bad person, but he did believe in bad ideas; bad ideas he pushed and sold to families, despite knowing deep down that they did not work. He is a damaged human standing on the wrong side of history, and though I play him with a moustache he is anything but a moustache twirler. The only real human “villain” in the film is Joe Alwyn’s character, Henry (whom Jared meets at university), and beneath his selfishness he is still conflicted, which speaks to the damage of suppressing sexuality.
NL: It sounds as though the opaque nature of gay conversion therapy made the issue of who or what to vilify all the more complex?
JE: The corporate sheen and genuine palatability offered by Love in Action – that idea that they really were there to help a family restore itself – is far more insidious, dark and dangerous than any one man. If there were bodies piled up at the back of every clinic they wouldn’t exist anymore, but there isn’t, so the parents still don’t know what’s going on in there. The primary causes of damage I wanted to convey are less tangible. My parents are my heroes. If they told me as a teenager that I was misshapen or broken, when I wasn’t, that would have seriously disrupted and unsettled me. Then there’s being told that every part of who you are is a choice that you’ve made. If those choices are deemed to be wrong, there are people who can fix you. I haven’t been a practising Catholic for many years, but even now I still experience guilt associated with what I was taught. That seed being planted is physiological sabotage, because shaking that guilt can sometimes seem impossible.
NL: Much of the material is brought to life by Lucas Hedges’ powerful portrayal of Jared Eamons, the lead figure based on Garrard Conley. Which point during the shoot defined his embodiment of Jared? (Please note: this answer contains spoilers)
JE: There is one moment I share with him onscreen. It’s when he turns his back on Victor; turns his back on the therapy and leaves the room during an intense confrontation, which leads to his struggle to escape the clinic. It was an amazing moment on set as, until that point, this central character had been the sponge silently soaking up the negative influences, the opinions, the preaching, and he remains silent even when choosing to reject all of that. Like Garrard, like me, like so many others, he’s slow to stand on his two feet, particularly in the face of what his parents tell him. Throughout the film Jared is dealt this bad hand time and again, causing him to be dishonest for the purpose of self-preservation. To see Lucas first reshuffle the deck and then throw Jared’s cards in the air was an exhilarating moment. We shot it very wide, which allowed Lucas and I to just play it out and let it happen. In that moment Jared realises there isn’t something wrong with him, he doesn’t hate his father, and it’s everyone else who is crazy.
NL: This is your second feature as writer-director. What’s your process? How do you feel now compared to how you felt upon completion of The Gift (2015)?
JE: Every day of my life has been about this movie. I dove in like a mad scientist who’ll stop at nothing and from there it all happened very quickly. I didn’t come up for air until after we premiered in Toronto. The Gift was the same; I became so obsessed with the material that it practically split my personality and dragged me along. When it was over, I emerged with two mission statements: the first was that I love working with actors and creating drama, and the second was that I wanted to put something positive into the world, and I didn’t know what that would be until Boy Erased came along. I’m ashamed to say I don’t read many books as I usually focus on screenplays to find my next project, but because this was about gay conversion therapy I was sold immediately. Now that I’m done it feels weird because I’m already curious as to which project will drag me back into the insane job of directing. I know I’d like to pivot again. I’m a fan of the Coen brothers and, like them, I don’t want to limit myself. That’s the approach I take as an actor and I feel the same way as a filmmaker.
NL: Boy Erased brings the realities of gay conversion therapy to a wide audience. Do you have high hopes for the level of impact it can have?
JE: I hope it has a huge impact. Initially I was not cognisant of the idea that we might save lives, but while reading the subject matter I became aware in the back of my mind that we had a chance to start a conversation; to shape it and raise awareness. The film can help parents by presenting a roadmap of how not to tackle this issue, and it tells young people they’re not alone. That to me is mighty importance stance to take, and it caused a reaction because people came to us; they wanted to be involved and came willingly. That created a powerful spirit that I hope audiences will identify with, regardless of whether therapy has had a direct impact on them. It’s about love, understanding, and seeing things in a different light.
Boy Erased is out now in the US and will be released across Canada on November 9. It is slated for release in the UK early next year.