This year feels stacked with actors turned directors. However, “Boy Erased” is not Joel Edgerton’s first time directing. The first was “The Gift,” a 2015 horror film which became a sleeper summer hit. This year, Edgerton writes, directs, produces and stars in the moving drama “Boy Erased,” based on the Garrard Conley memoir of the same name.
The film follows Jared (Lucas Hedges), a young man sent to conversion therapy by his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) to reverse his homosexuality. Love in Action, the church conducting the therapy, is led by Victor Sykes (Edgerton), who uses a variety of tactics to rid the kids in the program (called “clients”) of their same-sex attraction. Jared comes into conflict with Victor as he fights for his autonomy and dignity.
When we sat down with Edgerton, he was excited to discuss what he learned while making the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Chris James/Awards Circuit: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found Garrard Conley’s memoir [“Boy Erased”] and what drew you to the project?
Joel Edgerton: It was given to me by Kerry Roberts, the producer. I had just recently come to Anonymous Content from an agent. I’ve been aware of the interesting movies that Anonymous has put out into the world. And the first thing that happened when one of my reps went over there was they gave me “Boy Erased.” I don’t know why, but coming out of their staff meetings, Kerry had become inflamed and excited and interested in the memoir. [We] realized no one had the rights to it for the year that it was on the shelf. They knew that I had an empty space after making “The Gift” [Edgerton’s 2015 directorial debut]. I said to them, “I’d love to do a drama. I’d love to look at true stories and I want to put something positive out there in the world.”
As harrowing as Garrard’s life experience was, I think the reason it was worth turning into a movie is because there’s ultimately a positive message in there. Given what he’s gone through, he found his own agency. It’s kinda a breakout story in some ways. But also, his parent’s evolution says something about the open-mindedness of someone you would consider narrow-minded.
CJ: Absolutely, I think… one of the best parts about the film was the parents weren’t fully vilified. It was about the war between their beliefs and love for their kid. When you were both writing and directing the film, what steps did you take to make sure that shone through and they were given respect and depth?
JE: It’s really tricky because I, like many people [when they] picked up Garrard’s book, was not wanting, but expecting a more hardened, vicious experience. I think my morbid curiosity was [thinking], “Whoa, these f**king crazy conversion therapy places. What did this poor guy go through? How much blood is on these pages?” What I was most startled by was that, in my prejudgment I [thought], “Anyone who sends their kid to these places is a hateful person. Anyone who works at these places is a hateful, profiteering person.” And the reason he was sent there and the reason the people worked there was something very different. They weren’t trying to hurt him. They were trying to help him… I [thought], “Wow. He is being very empathetic about everybody that put him through this experience.” Because it leads to a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, a lot of pain. Sometimes there’s a lot of people who aren’t alive anymore because of the ideas that are sold at conversion therapy.
The willingness of [parents and children] to buy those ideas is because this deep fear of losing their connection with God and their connection with community. The atmosphere surrounding [conversion therapy] wasn’t hateful. It was fearful… How do you reconcile that? It’s a conundrum. For all the helping people are trying to do… there’s nothing to be helped. The true conversion that needs to happen is the conversion of understanding, education and opinion. All of that conundrum and confusion and complication to me made it worth the endeavor to make a movie about. As much I was hoping for something more shocking, I realized the real fearful challenge for me was that I had to appreciate, be empathetic and understand everyone’s opinion in order that this become a document of something truly internally shocking rather than something salacious [or] a horror show. Mind you, there are still conversion practices still going on today that are that horror show.
CJ: Speaking of that conundrum, how did you then bring that to the character that you play, Victor Sykes [the head therapist of the conversion therapy program in the film]? Were you involved with the real-life person while making the film? Did you visit other active conversion therapy camps?
JE: I never visited any active ones. I did a lot of research. There were documentaries where [these programs] were willing to invite documentary crews in. I saw an undercover documentary crew had gone into certain places. So I got a broad spectrum of understanding from that.
I also had footage of John Schmidt, the real guy I play, when he was in the middle of still practicing at Love in Action. He gave certain set of talks. He was part of a public press conference when one of the soon-to-be clients had published the rule book on MySpace… John had to come out from under his rock and face the press. What struck me about John then and the John I met over lunch in Texas a few months before we shot the film was how interesting he was as a person. John wasn’t just some villain. He was open, even back then, to other people’s points of view. He was a good listener [and] had a very warm and charismatic personality. That’s another thing I wasn’t expecting. I was expecting some whip-cracking, war camp general.
But there was something really safe about him and I thought that’s how I need to play him. I need to unsettle an audience by almost giving them the opposite of what they’re expecting – this guy who [says], “Come on, look. I’m going to put my arm around you and we’re going to walk down this difficult road together and we’re going to get closer to God and it’s going to be tough.” There’s a warmth in an invitation to that and a mentorship in his demeanor… The problem was what he was selling he couldn’t actually deliver.
CJ: A lot of the performances, both yours and the rest of the cast, deals in that unexpectedness and preconceived notions. Did you feel that being an actor as well as a director helped you direct the other actors? How do you think your experience in the film industry helped you step into the director’s seat again?
JE: All those different aspects of storytelling all fall under the same banner. They’re just different angles on the approach. An actor is one part of the puzzle. The writer is the person that lays the foundation and designs the game. The director is the ringleader of all things. To be the writer and the director is an interesting thing…
I definitely was able to direct, in some ways, a lot easier, within character, [particularly] in Love & Action [the conversion therapy camp] because the “clients” in the white shirts were meant to revere, fear and hang off my every word. Certainly, there were a couple of moments towards the end of a day where we were under a time crunch. I was in character, in costume, and I needed someone to move from A to B and get people to hustle. I would just start barking out orders as Victor Skyes, [because] I can’t bark as Joel…
There was a moment too where, in a big, long, single take, I needed to get a message through to all my young actors. I had an issue with actors re-examining their work by watching the monitors… So in the next take, when I was delivering a speech, as Victor,… [the camera] goes over the faces of the kids. As my character, I told them that I was very disappointed they were watching the monitor…. In all the takes we did of that shot, there was never such a sense of them hanging off every word because they felt like were in trouble. But I can only do that in character. If I had my way, my favorite thing about being a director on set is being the director and not trying to wear both hats on the same day. It does become a difficult day. Exhilarating but difficult.
CJ: So what was the experience like directing the home scenes where you weren’t [acting] and you were working with Russell, Nicole and Lucas?
JE: That was wonderful! … I was working with Nicole, Russell and Lucas within a family environment. It was really nice to turn up as Joel and sit there and crack those puzzles of each scene with the actors without having to do double duty. We went through very nice phases in this film. The first phase was Love & Action. Then it was Nicole & Lucas in the hotel together. Then it was the family stuff. It really was like we went through these different chapters and each chapter had its own flavor to it. It was nice to move through those different things. Also, front-loading it with my character work on screen allowed me then after week two to go, whew. I’m somewhat free. I’ve left pretty much nothing undone for my character. I had one scene left to do. But I could just relax.
CJ: You talk about the writer as the person who sets the stage and the interesting structure of the movie… Was that structure always in mind when you were writing the script?
JE: It was in the book. The book jumps around a lot. In fact, the book jumps around even more to stories of his father and mother’s courtship and various scenes. He uses the therapy to launch into other thoughts. I kinda knew I couldn’t be as frenetic as the book. But, yeah, it was there.
I settled on this structure as we anticipate fearfully like Jared does, the day when he is going to have to stand up and account for his supposed sexual sins under this guise of the 12 steps program appropriated moral inventory. As we anticipate him having to do that task fearfully, we’re learning, in hindsight, what his moral inventory consists of. While he also discovers enough of an agency to realize that the one big sexual act in his life was not his choice. In actual fact, his sexual world accounts for almost nothing; yet, he’s going to be judged as sinful for whatever that is…
And then this chapter, which really is about trying to harness, reduce and simplify years of tension and pain and destruction and regrowth within his family harnessed within a few scenes. I hate to reduce an entire family story in the way it does. But then, reducing something to a two-hour film that’s such a personal experience is such a challenge in and of itself … It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile film.