A film adaptation of Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir Boy Erased might initially seem like an unlikely fit for Joel Edgerton, coming as it does after the Australian actor-director’s taut genre thriller The Gift. The film draws from Conley’s fundamentalist Southern Christian upbringing, specifically his time at the gay conversion therapy camp Love In Action (LIA), now known as Restoration Path. But with much of its runtime playing like something out of a prison thriller, Boy Erased actually manages to accommodate Edgerton’s directorial interests, while also maintaining a commendable fidelity to the source material—which Conley’s vocal support of the project (including a post on its queer representation) seems to bear out.
When the teenage Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges) is introduced to the audience, he’s already on his way to the camp—his journey preceded by an ironic close-up of an Arkansas license plate. “Land of Opportunity” indeed. Playing opposite Hedges in the film’s heated scenes at Love In Action is Edgerton himself as Victor Sykes, the head therapist of the conversion therapy facility’s Memphis chapter and something of the film’s nominal villain. Boy Erased also stars Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s Southern Baptist parents, and Australian pop sensation Troye Sivan, who collaborated with Sigur Rós’s Jónsi on the original soundtrack song “Revelation.”
Before the film’s screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I sat down with Edgerton to discuss adapting Conley’s memoir, the value to telling this particular story, and re-teaming with cinematographer Eduard Grau.
How did you first come into contact with Garrard Conley’s memoir?
The film’s producer, Kerry Roberts, works at Anonymous Content. I had just started working with them when they sent me the book. She actually came across it because she wanted to find other stories about the political climate in America that fueled her fire regarding the need for change. Word was that Vice President Mike Pence didn’t [condemn] conversion therapy, that he was in support of this stuff. Roberts read a blurb about Garrard’s memoir and, like me, she got so interested the weird irony of it all, the unjust existence of these places. She was like, “We need to do something about it.” I felt exactly the same way. That’s how it all started, which was almost two years ago now.
How do you see Boy Erased alongside films like Love, Simon and The Miseducation of Cameron Post?
It’s interesting to see something like Love, Simon and Call Me by Your Name, which deal with more positive role models for young LGBTQ folk and more positive coming-out stories. At the same time, there’s also a necessity to acknowledge the unhappy stories. Someone responded to our film and Cameron Post by essentially saying, “Enough with the negative coming-out stories. Aren’t we over this already?” I understand that, but at the same time we aren’t over this. Because gay conversion therapy camps are still open for business and until they’re closed, I think it’s worth telling these stories.
The Gift was a thriller. And the first section of this film, before we go into the flashbacks, feels very much like a prison drama. Did you want to approach it that way? Do you just have an interest in these kinds of stories?
I wanted Boy Erased to be a drama that still carried a certain element of mystery and danger. Conley’s memoir is very similarly structured, and perhaps jumps around more frenetically than we allow ourselves to do in the film. But reading the part of the book about Love In Action, I was very struck by Conley having to give up up his possessions and being interrogated about the contents of his phone. For me, it really summed up that going to conversion therapy is essentially like going to some institutional prison—a religious-based one. So, I was very interested in starting the film like that.
How was it working with Eduard Grau, your cinematographer?
As an actor, I feel safe going back to work with the same people. I’ve worked with Jeff Nichols a couple of times. Those relationships always build on each other. So, behind the camera I was trying to do as much of that as possible.
Did you have specific films that you took inspiration from?
I was definitely looking a lot at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There was also a choice—taken from looking at old films of the ‘70s—to make the format 1.85 instead of 2.35 to give it less of a “cinematic” feel and more of an immediacy. We wanted to infuse a little more vibrancy and color to the flashbacks in high school and emphasize a very muted feeling in Love In Action, to draw out the difference between the bright, oppressive sunlight of morning therapy versus the fatigue that sets in when a seminar drags on into the afternoon. Eduard and I had a great relationship working together a second time, making choices like whose face had light and whose was in silhouette. We shot mainly on an Alexa Mini, but daytime exteriors were shot on film so we could get the color and scope out of the bright sunlight, more than we could if we had used the digital outside. The Alexa Mini, because we were often working in small environments—
—gave you much more mobility.
—and also gave us more scope and color in the darker scenes.
I was curious about your choice to take on the role of Victor Sykes. Did you ever have another actor in mind or did you always want to take on that role?
In The Gift, I’d written Gordo as a character I wanted to play before I’d decided to direct the film, so that [role] was a bit hard to separate myself from. With this, the challenge was directing while being in scenes with 12-plus people every time, which is more of a challenge than working with just one other actor. But I’d read the memoir and I was so interested in the conflict of Victor as a character—or the real guy John Smid, who was gay and had first used Love In Action as a client, to suppress his own sexuality, and then worked his way up to the highest echelons of power there. In fact, he started the Memphis chapter. The concept of a man like that going to work every day knowing that deep in his core he was lying to himself, using his own therapy—he created the different therapies that evolved over the years—I found that so interesting. I said, “I really wanna play this guy.” And I met the real guy. This is obviously a spoiler, but I had lunch with him and his husband in Texas. I’m loath to tell people that because we save the reveal [of Sykes’s husband] for the end of the film. In fact, there’s a scene that existed of me and Lucas [Hedges] where I tell him that. We took it out of the film because I wanted to focus the film on the family and not make it Victor’s story.
That makes sense—to leave that information as a title card.
It sort of slaps an ironic full stop on the whole thing.
There’s a lot of specificity in the southern white Christian milieu portrayed in the film. A lot of the language and the euphemisms are very specific, which I assume is mostly in the memoir. Was it challenging for you to adapt that?
It’s always interesting. The first time I ever wrote a draft of an American script quite a few people ended up laughing at me and went, “You realize we don’t say that,” or, “That’s an Australianism.” I get less and less of that feedback now, which is part of the terrifying realization that I’ve become more and more Americanized in my understanding and sensibilities. I seem to have spent so much time in America, but I hadn’t really spent much time in the South. So, much of the challenge was really just finessing the script with Garrard’s help. He read every draft. He was always on call for me if I needed to talk about things, or expand on specific aspects of the therapy. That just allowed me to fill in the gaps that weren’t even in the book and also understand where it was okay to let certain parts of the book not be in the movie, because I couldn’t put it all in there.
What were you most reluctant to leave out?
It was very easy to leave out certain sections that went into how his parents’ courtship developed. I already had two time frames and to add a third would’ve been very tricky. There’s one thing I was reluctant to leave out, but I think I ultimately made the right choice. There was a character in Garrard’s time at therapy whom he describes as a teacher who had been fired for the indiscretion of sleeping with or having sexual contact with his students. That really raised alarm bells for me regarding the safety of the therapy—if [Love In Action] would put teenage children in the same class as, essentially, a criminal and pedophile, depending on how young the student was that he was having sex with. It just summed up again the point of view regarding homosexuality under the banner of LIA: “You’re all the same.”
The idea that homosexuality is abuse, rape, AIDS, and that everybody’s associated with horrible shit is strong—and we keep that the film. But I just thought it would open a can of worms to create the storyline of a pedophilic member of the group, when I really wanted to focus on Garrard. When I think about that [storyline], I think there’s also a short series that could’ve been made in which you do explore the other characters in the therapy. For this film, I had to just render each character—Troye Sivan’s, Xavier Dolan’s—with a glimpse of something to hold onto, so you can imagine what the life in those other families is like. But the family in question is really Lucas’s character’s.
Apart from Hedges, you have Dolan, Sivan, and even Theodore Pellerin, who has played characters struggling with their sexuality in a number of notable Canadian films. How did you go about casting those supporting roles?
Xavier and I had actually met regarding me potentially working as an actor for him. Later on, he just popped into my mind as somebody I’d like to put in front of the camera, because I love his work as an actor as well. I loved him in Tom at the Farm, which I thought was an incredible reference point for this. Theodore was this beautiful gift given to me by Carmen Cuba, our casting agent. I was looking for an angel, someone who could gracefully glide into Lucas’s character’s life and who accepted his sexuality, was willing to live in a way that they felt free and acknowledged their own sense of self who was elegant and graceful in that. When I saw Theodore, I thought he had to be this guy. He’s like a gift from another planet. I think he’ll have a great future if he doesn’t already. I hope that more and more people in America put him in movies. Troye was also put in front of me by my casting agent. I knew he was an Australian musician and he turned out to be a beautiful actor as well. A lot of it was the casting director. Casting directors are the good ones.