Boy Erased may deal with the American epidemic of conversion therapy, but the film is full of Australian talent, including Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Troye Sivan. And that makes sense when you realize that Australian actor, writer, and director Joel Edgerton adapted the story for the screen, was at the helm, and stars as the film’s main protagonist, Victor Sykes.
INTO sat down with Edgerton at TIFF to chat about working with Lucas Hedges, his fascination with religious extremism and why everybody in the conversion therapy camp is such a latent homosexual.
I read Boy Erased and then saw your film and was thinking about how you borrowed some of its structure in terms of present time and flashbacks. What did you borrow from the book, and how did you make it your own when writing the script?
Well, it was tough to know what to leave out. I would say the genogram exercise has a nice thread in the book because Garrett then starts to reminisce about stories he’s heard of his parent’s courtship. So that was one time frame I felt I had to leave out given there were two other time frames in the movie. I loved the structure, I was very taken when I entered the book, feeling like I was being checked into a prison. It very much felt like I wanted to start the movie there, with this giving over of possessions and this questioning of what’s on his phone, the curiosity of what that place might be. But I also felt like there were certain things I had to invent in terms of fleshing out those characters at Love in Action.
The biggest liberty I took was to create the character of Cameron, because remember there’s one page in the memoir where Garrard [Connelly, author of Boy Erased] talks about in previous years, in previous groups they had fake funerals for people who had “fallen down” in their minds. I thought long and hard about it and knowing we had one shot to make a movie about conversion therapy and that suicide is a big result, or attempted suicide or thoughts of suicide, I thought it imperative to include that in the film. So I created this character and I wanted to depict this funeral. Every step of the way I would approach Garrard and say, “What do you think about this?” and I asked John Smid, who is the basis of my character and I said, “Just so you know, I’m going to be playing you,” and “I’m going to depict one of the fake funerals and I need you to know that,” because people are going to see the film and people are going to connect the film to him. Yes, he did what he did and he’s trying to atone for it in many ways. Garrard has empathy for everyone involved, although my biggest empathy goes to Garrard.
I’m just confused about how there were a bunch of people who actually believed that they were doing somebody a service or helping them get back to their community and closer to God.
I want to ask about that empathy and compassion. Why do you think it’s ultimately important as a filmmaker and writer for us to see Jared reconcile with his father?
Well, it was a tricky balance. I know for a fact a lot of people in the LGBTQ community who have read his memoir are like, “Why don’t you just cut him off?!” And there are a lot of people that would. And one of the things about Garrard is, talking biblically, he doesn’t see things as “an eye for an eye.” He takes this high road, which I think he will eventually win, which is that his representation of just standing his ground and being open-minded is going to invite his father closer and closer into that space. Almost like feeding a wild animal. His dad is taking those baby steps toward deeper and deeper acceptance. Because Garrard stands this empathetic example. It’s amazing in the book that he didn’t demonize Sykes as much as he could have, or John Smid, so that was just me being true to his book.
I think it’s more terrifying for a child to walk into a place like that and to meet a guy who’s not like “Roar! Get in line and I’m going to hit you with a stick!” and to meet a guy who’s like, “Hey guys, it’s going to be tough, but we’re going to have a wonderful time as we step closer and closer to God.” If someone truly believes that, that to me is fucking terrifying. It’s also the reason why these places still exist. It’s because there’s a certain corporate safety that allows parents to be like, “I’m happy to drop my kid off here and hopefully in two weeks time or a year’s time, I can pick him up and everything’s going to be fine.” There’s something subtly insidious that I wanted to stay true to from Garrard’s rendering in the book.
Lucas Hedges is in every frame of the movie, and it’s a huge role to undertake. So much happens to his character, Jared, throughout the film. How do you as a director work with your lead actor to prepare him for the range of emotions he has to portray?
Well, the great actors are incredible at interpreting moments, scenes and on a macro level, the entire journey of the film. And the really great actors don’t just turn up and ask where they’re supposed to stand and say the words in order. The really good actors go deep and for Lucas, that meant really really becoming tight with Garrard, really asking him, spending a lot of time with him, having a real sensitivity to each moment.
I’m really there as a sounding board. As an actor, I’ve always had this belief that at some point early in the production, you become a better keeper of the character than the director does. Or at least you should know them as well as the director does. Lucas was certainly that. And it’s great when you watch that moment of departure, where you see creative moments happen, certain things or reactions where you say, “You know what he’s doing now and I can let him show me what needs to happen.” Lucas is a very special kid.
There’s a moment in the film when Nicole Kidman says she had to “fall in line” with her husband. And I read an interview where you said you were very interested in religious extremism and cults, so I wanted to ask you about the idea of “falling in line” or not even thinking for yourself because this is what you’re being told.
I really love when people with small voices or people who are sheep or people who blindly accept doctrine or within the context of a marriage or a relationship, just kind of take second place. They just live in the shadow of someone else. I’m really interested in the moment when they gather enough information to realize something should shift. A person with a small voice, when they roar, it’s so beautifully shocking to be around.
And when you meet Martha Connell, Garrard’s real mother, she’s so fragile. And you would easily kinda write her off as this Southern Baptist’s wife, this effervescent, friendly woman. And she’s very much like my mother; my mother just wants to please everybody. But if you cross her, if you push her too far — and in this case, it’s threatening the safety and well-being of her son — it’s amazing how strong someone can get. And you don’t have to be big and muscular and looming to cast your own big shadow. Some people interpret it as a feminist moment and, yes, it is that, too. A lot of women feel like they fall in line with the men in their life, and yet it’s also reflective of that “Behind every powerful man is an even more powerful woman. Because she really is the crux of that family now. She’s the glue.
You assembled a cast that has a lot of big queer names — Lucas Hedges, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan. Why did you think it was important to reflect the community in the casting?
It was absolutely important and it was also like, on a selfish level, it was going to help me understand and make sure I was doing the right thing by the community for the film to help educate myself in areas where obviously I needed guidance and help. My assistant and co-producer David Craig — I have so many people behind the camera, my costume designer, my first AD, who I worked with on The Gift, and so many people from the LGBTQ community. And sometimes, that was just by chance of the people that I love working with, sometimes that was an active choice, sometimes that was people coming to me and saying, “I’ve heard of this story and I want to be involved.”
But you know the best story is that the group of LGBTQ — not all of them, but it’s also interesting when you go into casting rooms, it’s not like, “Tell us what you do in the bedroom!” But casting agents were putting feelers out because I wanted the room to represent the right cross-section of people and I was using some of my own intuition with that and having lots of conversation. And we found this wonderful group of people. Garrard would do interviews with them during the shoot, as I say not all of them are of the community but the ones that were, it’s amazing how some people are out in certain ways. There’s one guy in the group who is out, but he’s out to himself and to his mother and nobody else. His story is very moving.
For me, it was important as I built the group to not only find the right people but those right people really wanted to be involved in the movie because they were gonna bring something special because it meant something so special to them.
Obviously, Troye and Sarah and Cameron have the biggest voices in that group. But even the silent ones, it was like, OK, we need to have a narrative. Why are you here? Were you sent here? Did you come here of your own volition? How do you evolve through the therapy? And a lot of those narratives that we built, me and David, with the actor. I know for a fact, even in the aftermath, I know how reflective some of the real-life moments or feelings or motivations are from their own lives.
For example, young Cameron, he was very sensitive to it in the beginning. He was like, “I don’t even know if I’m allowed to be in this movie. I don’t identify as gay,” he said. “But I’ve had so much bad treatment in my life because of how big I am and my size, and because he’s so softly spoken.” So I feel that his relationship with certain people in his life, the film really spoke to him in that sense. He was a really tricky character to find because it’s a bit of a tip of the hat to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this gentle giant character, you know. Casting that group was sort of like one of the most wonderful things about it.
I never would cast actors just because they’re famous or icons, but I love Xavier as an actor. And [casting director] Carmen Cuba, brought Troye to me. She was like, “Have you seen Troye Sivan?” I was like, “He’s a singer, I know he’s Australian.” And she goes, “Have a look at this tape!” And he was fucking great. And it just was like, “That’s perfect.” Troye is such a wonderful spokesperson, such a beautiful energy to have around. And that he was a good actor meant that I could put him in the movie! And his songs were also divine.
They were such a great addition to the film.
Yeah and Jonsi [of Sigur Ros] and Troye co-wrote that song. It was actually Jonsi who wrote the music and then he said to me, “I really like Troye — do you think he could write lyrics for this?” So that’s just a beautiful collaboration, too.
I saw the film two days ago with a friend of mine who is also gay. We were talking about how you, as an actor in the film, and then several people at Love in Action, there was definitely the sense that they were all latently gay. What were some notes that you gave to people? And what went into the casting of the people there?
In the book, it’s very clear that the kid checking everybody’s stuff in, who David plays, the character Michael, is drawn as this very kind of ex-gay, stringent like Hitler Youth-type who is there to remind himself to stay on the right path. And once I read it, I was like, “Oh, that’s got to be David.” It’s got to be my assistant because it’s so perfect. And he was in The Gift, as well. All the research I’ve done — you watch this great Vice documentary that probes into this other place that’s like a camp where you do male rituals, and a “Jack and the Beanstalk” play and it’s like, “Oh, it makes sense!” Who would work at a gay conversion therapy camp? It’s like, they appropriated the Alcoholics Anonymous program and people go through the program and then they go, “Stay in the program! Be buddies to somebody!” And it’s a way to kind of stay on the sober path.
When you take that Love in Action had misappropriated the 12-step program, it’s like, these guys were trying to stay in the program. They could be quasi-staff, they would go and do a job and that job would pay for their long stay. But so many of the staff were ex-gay. John, who had been at the program since its inception, since the American Psychiatric Association had decided that homosexuality wasn’t an illness, he was there at the inception of Love in Action at Exodus International in San Francisco. They sent him out to start a new place. And he just thought, “If I can get to the top, it’ll prove to me that I’m on the right path.” For 25, 30 years, he was pushing it down.
It was important to me that the staff had that reflection, mainly David. But also, it was supposed to be something to discover when Flea, when he outs everybody. When he says, “Something your staff has overcome” and Lucas goes — he looks around going, “Oh, we’re all gay here!” So that was, it’s a curiosity for people coming to the film. If this is a film about conversion, why does everybody — why is the staff — what’s going on here? It’s a discombobulation that permeates the whole thing. And that includes the misspellings in the manual. Everything is a clue to the fact that this is just a house of cards.
Boy Erased hits theaters November 2.