Director Joel Edgerton on the making of ‘Boy Erased’

Moving from his daring directorial debut, 'The Gift', the actor turned director-writer has tackled the painful reality of gay conversion therapy in current Christian America, and done so with integrity, strength and deep thoughtfulness.

After reading Garrad Conley’s harrowing memoir, Joel Edgerton dedicated himself to the story. Following the frightening fiction of The Gift, the actor turned writer-director delved into the frightening reality of Boy Erased, and sought to raise awareness of the activist cause of stopping gay conversion therapy for good. As he recently declared, Edgerton wished for the film he cautiously made to one day become “redundant”, in the sense of the topic itself one day becoming an absurd thought, and no longer a disturbing truth in many peoples lives. Still legal in 41 American states, the concept is an actuality for far too many LGBTQ+ individuals, who – like Garrad – suffer due to others lack of awareness and understanding. Ever an ally to the LGBTQ+ movement – as an activist, philanthropist, actor and filmmaker – Joel Edgerton has told the true story with a compassion and sensitivity as intimate as Garrad Conley’s own. Working with fast-rising actor Lucas Hedges in the lead role, and Nicole Kidman and Russel Crowe as his conservative Christians parents, the film tackles the issues with an understanding of both the situation’s complexity, and the characters’ complicity. We spoke to the writer-director and star to find out how the project found him and where it hopes it will lead him next…

From your feature debut The Gift’s frightening fiction, you moved to the frightening reality of Boy Erased, how did that transition feel as a director?

It felt good, it was interesting I’ve done the same thing now that I did when I finished The Gift which was earmark ideas I’d also love to do. I love working with actors – I mean I am one – so I think some of the best days on set were the less technical days: just a few actors as bodies in a room tearing strips off each other. I love that it’s like buying a front row seat to a great performance, just watching Jason [Bateman] and Rebecca [Hall] do their thing. So I think seeing that made me think that next time I make a movie I’m going to make a drama. Also, although there was a positive message than underpinned The Gift – about examining the way we treat each other and re-examining the way we’ve treated each other in the past – it was still a sinister package. I thought that next time I want to put some positive into the world. Although Boy Erased is sinister and is harrowing, I think ultimately Nicole Kidman’s character re-examines her choices and Lucas Hedges’ discovery of his own truth and his own agency, are both very hopeful concepts. Someone once said to me you can look back on the work of people and start to see what it is they’re trying to work out in their own life. There are themes and ideas that repeat themselves: a director might make a rom-com and a horror movie, but there’s a commonality to them. For me this happened when I wrote my brothers first film, The Square, I’ve always been fascinated by characters who make mistakes and have a long road back to correcting the balance. The idea that it’s ok the make a mistake, but it’s what you do after that matters. For Jason’s character in The Gift, he’s someone who’s unwilling to make a better second choice, in The Square he’s digging a deeper hole for himself. In Boy Erased I really related to Nicole’s character because she’s someone who heroically reevaluated the complicity she had in letting her son walk into this damage.

Boy Erased’s portrayal of these individuals was so empathetic, and you’ve said that you didn’t want to make a film about hate. How did you find tackling these difficult issues with the right tone?

 I had to find a solid conviction for every character, for the parents it’s a common conviction to adhere to the scripture in a Baptist faith. I question the blurry line between faith and taste; I think that religion is often used as an excuse for personal distaste and hate. In the case of the therapist, the conviction being self-evaluation and the need for self proof, even though later in the film we discover the character’s truth. The conviction for them is, let’s get your path with God back on track. It’s hard for someone like me who’s had a very religious period in my life, and now that’s changed but God is such a massive presence in so many people’s lives. The idea that being separated from God and being on the list for hell, that’s such a massive part in the choices these people make. That conviction to want to help, perceived out of love, was the surprise for me reading the book. I did just think this was one pool of hatred swirling around, and it made me realise what do you do if there is this one conundrum in one household. The conundrum is that the innate nature of an individual is not acknowledged because of an age-old belief system. Father pitted against son, a mother stuck in the middle: how do you solve a family conundrum like that. They sadly still haven’t found a resolution for that, as they seek to not live in the murky zone.

How familiar were you with the concept of conversion therapy before this project?

I’d heard glimpses, as an ex-Catholic. I used to kneel next to my bed and pray about a couple things, that I wouldn’t go to war, that I wouldn’t be taken away from my parents, that I wouldn’t go to prison – all of them even as a child were very real to me. I read the book, Boy Erased, originally because of my fear of institutions: cults, prisons… Movies to do with breakouts are always what interest me like Midnight Express and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest were all concepts I love when I got into proper movies. I had never imagine that both of my major fears could’ve been folded together – being taken from your parents and being forced into an institution. The idea that my parents would not be able to look me in the eyes, and call me broken, for something out of my control, I don’t think I would recover from that as a young person. I could empathise with Garrad: I have a lot of relatable aspects like that in my own life, how I feel about family etc, which was enough to draw the line between myself and him. But I just kept thinking how that must feel, to put his shoes on and think “fuck, what would I do if my dad wouldn’t accept me”.

How did it feel to make a film so poignant to the current situation in America?

As filmmakers, as storytellers, as a writer, actor even, you can choose all sorts of things: entertainment, farce, or choose to get involved in something that has some sort of – as I like to say – nutritional value. I like to think I choose jobs for all sorts of reason, I’ve been guilty of choosing jobs just for works sake, or because I need money to do the other smaller things I want to do, or to keep my profile high enough to do the things that I want to do that don’t keep your profile high (laughs). But, there’s an obligation in the backend to talk about stuff: as much as I don’t want to just be political, because I’ve been so political since the change of government in the US and wanted to know how the system worked there. Out of the fear that I’ll trip over my own words, I don’t always like talking politically – I’d hate to sound misinformed or stupid – but on the backend of movies like Loving and definitely for Boy Erased, I feel like you’ve got to be politically charged. We made this in the hope we can lend our voice to a conversation, for the ending of conversion therapy – that power and belief is not lost on us, it’s more than just a movie. It’s important along the way to treat it like a movie, to not be constantly aware of the context and think we’re saving the world, but if you tell the story right we hope to help change peoples opinion, to raise awareness, to make something for people to identify with. On a macro level, it is worth stating that as a team we would love to be one of the hands trying to push down conversion therapy so it can’t stand up anymore.

You’ve always been an advocate and activist for LGBTQ+ rights, how do you feel this film has moved you forward in that and in your own awareness?

Since my research into American politics and my work for this movie, I’m now well aware of the prevalence of conversion therapy, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made Boy Erased. Lifting up the rocks on that has been a major part of my experience, but on a level of connectivity with the LGBTQ+ community, it’s made me hyperaware of the representation in front of and behind the camera. I’m constantly aware of the traction that change has: Jeff Nicholls said something interesting during Loving which has stayed with me, he said that “the progress that you can make politically for a culture or a minority is not permanent, things may take a couple steps forward and then take a couple steps back”, and that’s what I’ve become hyperaware of in the States at the movement. If I look at the paper, I can say as a white, straight male, that the social events don’t affect me in my life, so to think of the people who pick up a newspaper and think that their rights and freedoms have been changed, that they’d see that in a headline, it’s very significant to me. I feel for the people whose lives are in flux because of the world’s politics. Through my awareness and this project I have become even more sensitive to a community that I adore. and the individuals that I’ve met from GLAD, The Trevor Project and the Boy Erased team, have trusted in me to tell this story, I feel so grateful.

Boy Erased is in cinemas now.

15 February 2019