Interview: Joel Edgerton and Garrard Conley on Adapting and Casting Boy Erased To Reach the Biggest Audience Possible

Following his critically acclaimed directorial debut The Gift, writer/director/star Joel Edgerton was searching for a story that was far removed from his own experience when he was given a copy of Boy Erased, a memoir by Garrard Conley. The story follows Conley (played in the film by Lucas Hedges), the son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and his wife (Nicole Kidman), as he comes to the realization that he is gay and does what any god-fearing young man of his faith would do: he agrees to enter a church-supported, gay-conversion program, run by a sadistic leader (Edgerton).

Boy Erased

Image courtesy of Chicago Film Festival

The film documents both the subtle and overt ways conversion therapy chips away at a person’s identity, self-worth and piles on so much guilt and self-hatred that some who attend attempt suicide. But it also is the story of a loving family that has to decide whether it’s worth self-destruction just to make a point about how loyal they are to the church. Boy Erased is a searing drama with a powerful lead performance by Hedges, who’s in the midst of a hell of year between his supporting role in Mid90s and his upcoming portrayal of a drug addict in Ben is Back, opposite Julia Roberts.

I sat down recently with Edgerton and author/subject Conley when they were in town for the Chicago International Film Festival and went through the process of getting the film adapted and made, and why Conley wholeheartedly approved of Edgerton’s work on the movie. Please enjoy…

I know people think that this film is much different than what you did with The Gift, but I think they’re both reality-based horror movies. Did you see the similarities?

Joel Edgerton: I think I make the same movie over and over again when it comes to writing—the stuff I’ve written on my own. The stuff I’ve written with other people, I tended to jump onto other people’s leads a bit. I’m fascinated by this idea, and it really stands for the parents in this: it’s not what you do that matters, but what you do next. You can make mistake, but what really is a true show of character is if you’re willing to make a stronger choice in the aftermath. In that case, it’s the differing levels that the parents are willing to acknowledge a wrong choice, and that’s really what Jason [Bateman’s] character represents in The Gift—his inability to do that.

There is a knee-jerk reaction that the parents in this film have when Lucas’ character comes out, and then they slowly start to realize what they’ve done and ask “What is going on in this place that we’ve sent our son?”

JE: And one is a faith-based, negative reaction. The second one seems to me, in both cases, to be an instinct, primal family, love-based decision.

How did you get ahold of this book, and what did you connect with about it?

JE: Kerry Kohansky-Roberts is the producer of the film, and she read the book. She was looking for wood to throw on the fire of her feelings about this backward-sliding position in America. So that was her light reading [laughs], and she passed the book onto me, and it just so happened that I was represented by someone who’d moved over to that company, Anonymous Content, and they were unaware of my absolute fascination and curiosity about institutions, growing up and as a moviegoer. I read the book faster than I would read things normally. But what was a morbid curiosity going into the book turned into me wanting to make a movie because I saw so much more fiber and depth and richness in the family story, and it felt like this fertile ground to tell a story because there was optimism in a backend of it.

Garrard, how did you find out he was interested in making this movie, and at what point did you realize he was the right person to tell your story?

Garrard Conley: A couple of weeks before I was contacted about Joel, I turned down another offer from my agent. There was only one other offer, and my agent said, “You’re going to be really embarrassed if you do this other offer.” I didn’t know who it was from, but I didn’t want to be sitting in a theater and thinking “Well, you made money, but it’s depressing.”

JE: Michael Bay wanted to make it?

[Everyone laughs]

JE: No, I mean, it would have been cool, but if Michael Bay had done it, at the end, he would have blown up Love in Action [the name of the conversion center]. That would have been great. You walk away with your mom, and it blows up and you’re so cool, you don’t look back at the explosion.

GC: Then I heard about Joel was interested and that Joel wanted to meet with other survivors of conversion therapy, and I’d seen him promoting Loving and talking about marriage equality. So those factors made me feel more receptive to what he was interested in. Joel made me an offer to write the script at one point, and I was like “I don’t even know how to do that. I don’t want to write my own rape sequence.”

JE: “I’ve already written a book; I don’t want to write the screenplay as well.” [laughs]

GC: At the time, I felt I had dealt with this material too much, and Joel was caught in the grip of the story, almost possessed by it. He would call me pretty frantic, writing intense scenes, asking “What do you think about this?” And I’m like “Do it! It sounds good.”

JE: I started writing the screenplay, still at a point where I felt unqualified purely because of my sexuality, and that I might be criticized for doing it. But because I became so obsessed, as in waking up every day imagining the film—I couldn’t get it out of my head—and one way I can get things out of my head is by writing them down. Garrard told me that part of writing the book was about expelling thoughts. And I just started writing down a couple of scenes of the screenplay, and I literally—“possession” is a good word—and a couple weeks later I said, “Can I send you a draft of the screenplay?”

GC: My dad’s church probably think you’re possessed by a demon.

JE: By your demon?

GC: You’ve got the same demon; you caught it. It’s the gay demon.

JE: And I was in the middle of Budapest, thankfully I was away from home, and the schedule was a little bit light. I found out I was number 2 on the call sheet; there was this chick called Jennifer Lawrence who was working every day, and I was working here and there.

Ah, this was your Red Sparrow experience. Got it.

JE: Yeah. But it gave me enough time to be alone thinking about it.

I’m sure I’m not going to get this question out right, and I tried to write it down several ways to get it right: You seem stronger than a lot of people are who go through this process. Even though you had doubts and I’m sure you would have loved to have not gone through any of this, are you glad that you were able to take what happened to you and turn it into something that I’m sure has helped many, many people who have read this book or will see this movie. Are you glad it was you and not someone who might have killed themselves, that you could absorb the blows where other might not have?

GC: Yeah, for sure. Two things: I was the right witness for this. I think that I went in there wanting to be a writer. I never would have guessed that I would have written this story at all. They took my notebook away; I wasn’t exactly taking notes every day. But it sears into your memory, an experience like that. When my publisher first got my book, they were like “I cannot believe that you were going to be a writer, and you recorded all of this. It’s like a gift to the community and I lived to tell about it.” Now, I do think it’s a harmful narrative to say “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but I do think a lot of life is turning sour grapes into something more interesting.

I think we’re all about to survive a very difficult time in all of our lives, and we’re all going to have to be witnesses. I keep that in mind as we move forward politically and socially. It’s never going to be a straight line toward progress; there are always going be some setbacks; but in those moments where we’re fighting for our lives, we’re always going to have to be witnesses and remember that we are here on this earth to do that.

Joel, was one of your stipulations in agreeing to make this movie that you could front-load it with fellow Australian actors?

JE: We all just sat around mocking American actors [laughs]. I was very aware of the concern that if I cast too many Australians with me, Russell and Nicole, but there was this struggle going on with me. And by the way, it’s not because I knew them very well. I knew them enough to shake their hand and wave to them at a gathering, but they weren’t my buddies. Quite simply, that when I saw photos of Garrard’s family…

GC: You’ve seen the photo of my parents, right?

The one at the end of the film? Yes, and at that exact moment I got why you cast them. Russell especially bears an uncanny resemblance to your father.

JE: The hurdle there was their Australian-ness, but not enough to not cast them. It almost couldn’t have been anybody else but Russell, and with Nicole, the only thing that would have kept me from casting her is if I’d met Martha before I’d reached out to Nicole and realized she is super short compared to Nicole. But I’m so happy I did because not only are they excellent actors, obviously, but they have a high profile, and I need as many people as possible to see this movie. I don’t want it to feel small, and one way to get it to feel big is to get movie stars in there. So there was a little bit of a business angle to it.

GC: But also an advocacy angle, because if you’re going to try and reach the people that need to see it the most, you’ve got to have stars in it.

JE: And for them to stand behind this material and answer the call so quickly is huge.

GC: And to have somebody like Russell Crowe supporting LGBTQ, that’s not a small thing.

JE: A man identified with machismo, identifiable…

One of the first films I every say him in was The Sum of Us, where he played a gay young man coming out to his father.

GC: But he definitely doesn’t have that reputation. He’s a tough, manly guy.

As much as you do not demonize religion or even all the people who work in this institution, what is the most insidious about places that do this?

JE: I’ll tell you my very quick answer because I haven’t experienced it, so Garrard would be the best to talk about it. One of the most insidious things about it, and again I have empathy for it, it’s so ironic and dark, it’s that the majority of the people who run the show, day by day know it isn’t even working for themselves.

For your character especially. Did you get to meet the real guy?

JE: Yeah, and he’s been more of a more-in-the-distance supporter of the community now.

Is he part of the solution now?

JE: He’s trying to be. He’s made moves to apologize to people in his own way. And in many ways, he says that he was a victim first because he was a client to start. But he was also responsible for the evolution of the different therapies. He may have been a victim in the beginning but he very quickly was lied to enough that he started to lie to himself. It’s complicated. But that’s one of the darkest things to me. And the other thing is that the people you hope will protect you the most are your parents, and they’re the ones usually sending their kids to conversion therapy. That is an irreconcilable conflict that would really hurt if it were me.

GC: Using love against someone. “We’re called Love in Action and we’re going to cure you through this Christ-love therapy.” To use that as a weapon against you, thereby creating a loss of faith, so you’ve lost that. You’ve probably lost your family in the process in some way. All of that twisting of what the idea of love is, so when you exit a place like that—assuming to get to exit a place like that without killing yourself or going off the deep end—you have no idea what love is.

JE: And you might ruin someone else’s life, if you leave there and get married and have kids.

GC: There is definitely a lot of collateral damage.

JE: And you’re the one who ends up being the least happy.

GC: The irony is that these people think there’s a gay agenda or that you can catch gay in some way, but the truth is, you catch bigotry. That’s the thing that’s really terrifying and that’s the thing you need to be converted from.

Thank you so much for sharing. It must be crazy to have gone through this and now see your life re-created.

GC: It’s actually pretty cool.

JE: If you want to do some research, you can go there yourself. They’re all still open.

No thanks. Thanks a lot.

JE: All the best. Thanks again.

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