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Joel Edgerton – Rewriting Boy Erased

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Joel Edgerton

Rewriting Boy Erased

By Jay S. Jacobs

This seems to be a fertile time for actors to take a more hands-on approach to filmmaking and write and direct their own films.

Take Joel Edgerton. The Australian-born actor has been slowly-but-surely building a big name in the States with roles in such films as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Bright, It Comes at Night and Red Sparrow.

In 2015, he also directed his first film, the psychological thriller The Gift. While The Gift was a very enjoyable genre film, Edgerton has taken a big step forward with his second movie.

Edgerton was in Budapest filming the action film Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence when the Garrard Conley memoir Boy Erased – about the author’s brief experience in a gay conversion therapy program – crossed Edgerton’s path.

“My producer Kerry Roberts gave me the book,” Edgerton told me on the red carpet of the film’s screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival. “I don’t normally read things very quickly. But I read this one because I had a real childhood obsession, or fear more like it, of institutions…. Cults, prisons, boarding schools, anything where I’d be locked up… This was an institution of sorts, a religious institution that I’d heard bits and pieces about. So, I read the book with this morbid curiosity about that.”

However, that morbid curiosity quickly morphed into a real interest in making this book into a movie. At that point though, he wasn’t quite committed to writing the movie or directing it. He was thinking of whether he could produce it perhaps. When he flew home to New York during a break in filming for Red Sparrow, he asked Roberts to investigate whether or not the rights to the film were available. They were.

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

“The reason I wanted to make the movie is because what I came out of it with was a more emotional experience than I thought I’d get out of it,” Edgerton continued. “I just felt connected to Garrard’s story. It was his family actually… it was less cut and dried and less black and white than I thought.”

Edgerton met with Conley to discuss the project. They got along well, so Edgerton asked if he could meet his parents, since they play such a big part in the film narrative.

“Then I went back to Budapest and was really wrestling with whether I was the right person to make the movie or not…,” Edgerton said. “I started writing scenes. Very quickly I’d written a first draft. It was like driving me on, so I very quickly polished it up and sent it to people. I was like; I guess I’m making the movie.”

Of course, he recognized right away that he was taking on a very touchy subject. Gay conversion therapy has obviously been very controversial for years. Also, the practice is still much more widespread than most people realized. Not just in the bible belt, either. Edgerton was surprised to find out while working on the film in New York that there were two conversion centers in Manhattan, within 20 blocks of where they were working. They also were widely located in his native Australia, which also came as a bit of a shock.

Still, the last thing Edgerton wanted to do was make a hatchet piece. He wasn’t going to play the blame game and instead felt it was more interesting to let the audience come up with their own opinions, just by seeing what goes on in the program.

“There are worse conversion therapy places than the one that Garrard went to,” Edgerton explained to me. “His story opened up this space for a good conversation to how things could change, because his parents have in their own different ways come around.”

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

In a world where the cultural and political divide is currently so massive, Edgerton did not want to give half of the audience an excuse to ignore what he was saying with his film. Nor did he want them to ignore what happened to Conley. Edgerton wants all sides to take part in this conversation.

“I think the quickest way for people to pass this film off is just some sort of liberal bashing,” Edgerton continued. “The other side was to be dishonest about Garrard’s story. His story was full of people who in their own way – despite what you might believe – thought they were trying to help him. In my opinion, though, he didn’t need any help. A lot of chaos and pain and drama was created out of something that I think didn’t need to happen.”

The first thing he had to do was to find a sympathetic young actor to pay Garrard Conley – well the character was named Jared Eamons, but he was based on Conley. It did not take long to come up with the name of Lucas Hedges, who has been making quite a name for himself in buzz-worthy films like Manchester by the Sea, which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Hedges was also in last years’ acclaimed films Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In fact, Hedges was the star of two films in this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, not only Boy Erased but also playing a young addict in Ben is Back with Julia Roberts.

“He’s incredible,” Edgerton told me enthusiastically. “I mean, there is a reason why you’re seeing a lot of Lucas Hedges at the moment. Ben is Back is here. Mid90s has just been released. He’s got a couple of other amazing movies coming down the pike. He is a very sensitive actor who really is that child, in terms of his ability to get in touch with his instinct and his imagination. I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’s a beautiful kid. He’s going to be around for a long time, and that’s a good thing.”

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

As far as playing Conley’s parents (or the fictional versions of them), Edgerton quickly thought of his fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. (This made Conley’s mother happy, as Kidman is her favorite actress.) However, despite their shared heritage, Edgerton was not sure he’d get them to come on board.

“[The parents looked like] Russell and Nicole,” Edgerton said. “I thought, oh, I’ve got to get to them. Even though we’re all Australian, we’re not neighbors. I had to go through the proper channels. Luckily everyone involved read the script very quickly and were as passionate about the subject as I was.”

By now, he had pretty much decided that he would direct Boy Erased as well, the second time he stepped behind the camera as a feature film director, after the 2015 psychological thriller The Gift with himself, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in the lead roles. (He had also directed a few shorts and written and produced other feature films.) Unlike The Gift, in this film his character, though very important to the plot as the head of the conversion program, was more of a supporting role.

As just stated, this is not the first time he worked as both an actor and as a director in a film. Honestly, he still finds it a little strange wearing both of those caps – trying to be one of the team as an actor, but also somewhat running things as a director.

“It’s very tricky, actually,” Edgerton admitted. “To be honest, the most joyless… well, not joyless… the days that were the trickiest took a bit of the freedom of the joy of directing out of it, having to be in front of the camera, and behind it. Being a director is like being a parent, and being an actor is like being a child, I say. A child gets to play and have an imagination. A parent has to run a household, and a director is that.”

It’s a balancing act, but he juggled the roles well.

“Flipping between the two is the trickiest thing,” Edgerton continued. “But it also gives you a chance to set everything up, and then enter the frame in kind of a free fall way that does something that I’ve been good at. [Something] good actors allow themselves to do, which is not premeditate too much. You just go in there and go, all right, whatever happens, happens.”

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

It was just the continuation of a fascination with the technical aspects of filmmaking that has been going for over a decade now. Even though Edgerton spends most of his time acting, the actual creation of films has gotten into his blood.

“I was trying to remember the last time that I was here – not at the Festival, but in Philly,” Edgerton told the crowd when he introduced the film. “I’ve been through to promote various films, but somebody reminded me that my brother and I had brought out our first film here in like 2007, a movie called The Square. It was the first time that I had tried to write a movie under coercion by my brother. I’m happy I did, because I fell in love with being behind the camera, perhaps more than being in front of it.”

Now, for his second film as a director, Edgerton wanted to raise the bar even further after the popcorn fun of The Gift.

“I wanted to tell a story that was more of a drama than a genre experience,” Edgerton said. “The Gift was an amazing experience, and it was a real-life creation – creating characters that were there to reflect real life and bullying. This was a bullying of a different kind, and a very real-life situation. I just had a lot more respect in my mind to the rendering of characters…. I was aware that I was handling something precious because I was dealing with somebody’s real life.”

Those real lives were not limited to Conley and his father. Edgerton wanted to respect all the characters in the film – even the conversion therapy leader who Edgerton plays, Victor Sykes, who had a share of contradictions which also intrigued him. The man the character was based upon (all of the major characters had fictional names) was gay himself, though he had had been fighting this natural inclination for years.

“He went back into the closet for 25 years,” Edgerton explained from the stage during the Q&A after the screening. “He was a client [of the conversion therapy], and then he became a leader, because he felt that was a way to remind himself how far his relationship was, through the therapy of the 12-step program. He was in the program reminding himself. I find it sad. In a way he knew it wasn’t working for himself, and yet he was doing this to kids and parents. Then he came out [as gay] in the end.”

Joel Edgerton at the screening of “Boy Erased” at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Edgerton enjoyed playing such a layered, multi-dimensional character as much as he enjoyed writing for him.

“I just felt like there was something really interesting in that for me to do,” Edgerton continued. “I enjoyed that. It was really tricky to not try to paint him, or anyone else in the movie, as a villain. I truly believe a lot of whatever he thought, he tried to help. The irony was Garrard didn’t need any help.”

In fact, the thing that is most amazing about the whole story is the fact that Garrard’s parents – who were loving and smart – just took the word of the local bishops that the conversion center was legitimate. They didn’t even Google the place, they just took it on faith (sorry, pun not intended) that because they were doing the religious thing, they must be doing the right thing.

Garrard’s father, as a local pastor, felt he needed to nip this in the bud because it went against what he preached, so when the local religious leaders suggested the Love in Action program was a good thing. His mother had an even harder road to walk, allowing the men to talk her into this instead of standing up for her son. Edgerton felt that this was a fascinating character conflict.

“The question is how parents send their kids to a place like this without full investigation and research…,” Edgerton said. “Parents are the people who make decisions for us. I know my parents were everything to me. They were my guards, my heroes, my protectors. Imagine your protectors and heroes and guards telling you there is something wrong with you. Not protecting you when they are the ones who sent you to a place that you felt unsafe. I don’t know how I would have coped with that.”

However, again, Edgerton feels that is just comes down to simple human fallibility.

“I always thought adults knew everything,” Edgerton explained. “As we realize when we get older, we’re still children. We don’t know everything…. We take advice from other people…. Love in Action were very corporate. They had bright, shiny books and a great foyer and grounds that were lovely and well-kept. The furniture was nice. It wasn’t a rusty barbed-wire prison.”

Therefore, he hopes the film will be a spotlight for some parents who find themselves in the same situation as the Conleys.

“I think the film should definitely be an example to parents who are in this situation,” Edgerton stated.

In fact, he feels that it may not even be as much of a surprise as the parents think, if they stop closing their eyes and denying the signs.

“I think parents who have a son or daughter who are gay before the coming out are aware of something.”

However, just like Edgerton does not want the film to blame the counselors, he is also not looking to place the blame on the parents. In fact, in getting to know the Conleys well throughout the process, he recognizes that they have learned from the experience – though she has made a more complete, quicker turn-around than he has on the subject.

“What happened after when she was driving away, she was ‘How do we know them?’ She said, ‘What are your actual qualifications?’ Above everything, she was so shameful for herself that she didn’t do her research.”

In fact, Edgerton feels that Garrard’s mother’s change of heart was vital to the story he was telling. The fact that the experience had led her to reexamine all her beliefs and decide that her son was more important than and doctrine may be. It was a story of family, and understanding, and most of all love.

“It wasn’t just a story that would be sensational, but it would be hopeful because of her change.”

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2018.

Photos #1-4 by Bonnie Paul © 2018. All rights reserved.

Photos #5-6 by Jay S. Jacobs ©2018. All rights reserved.

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