PC: Joel Edgerton stars in Boy Erased as head therapist, Victor Sykes
Until June 6, 2018, gay conversion therapy was still legal in Vancouver. While many may think gay conversion therapy couldn’t possibly still exist, shake their heads at the concept, and exclaim, “It’s 2018!”, it remains a reality for people in Canada and America.
In Joel Edgerton’s new film, Boy Erased, Edgerton does not pull back on helping expose the brutal horrors, pain, and sorrow that befell a 19-year-old Jared Eamons. The Peak sat down with Joel Edgerton, and talked to him about his movie, his process in filmmaking, gay conversion therapy, and more.
PART I: The film’s origins
Boy Erased centres around the protagonist, Jared (played by Lucas Hedges), a young gay man who was outed, to the dismay of his religious parents, Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Determined to “help” him, Jared is enrolled into a gay conversion therapy program entitled, Love In Action, prepared to “rehabilitate” him through group therapy, exercises and more.
“LIA had places throughout America,” Edgerton explains, “it was under the banner of a place called Exodus International.” As noted by the Huffington Post, Exodus International was one of the most widespread gay conversion therapy programs in the 70s, and both American and Canadian churches helped fund it.
While the names are slightly altered in the film adaptation, the film is based off of Garrard Conley’s memoirs of the same title. Edgerton spoke of how the memoirs dealt primarily with Garrard’s therapy, but as the story unfolds, themes centering on a conflicted family are revealed.
“I found it was drenched in irony,” Edgerton said, “And yet also drenched in empathy. Irony, because none of it should even exist in my liberal opinion, and yet it does.”
But one of the most chilling aspects of the film, Edgerton reasoned, was not one of the obvious suspects, like the therapy or the pain Jarred endured.
“I think the most terrifying subtle thing about this film is that everybody was trying to help Garrard,” he said. “And Garrard didn’t need any help.”
PART II: Edgerton before Boy Erased
While Joel Edgerton both directed and helped write the screenplay for the film, he is most well known for his acting career.
When it comes to acting, and especially for choosing a role for himself such as Victor Sykes, head therapist of LIA in Boy Erased, Edgerton looks for something either relatable or complicated in a character.
“On a macro scale, I hope that the film has some kind of nutritional value, that it’s not just flimsy or silly . . . I always want something to be taken away,” he said.
And with a contentious topic such as gay conversion therapy, Edgerton was fascinated with Garrard Conley’s story since he read it.
“It just felt like someone needed to make a movie of Garrard’s book, and I became so obsessed with it, I ended up putting my hand up to do that,” he explained, “and I’m very happy that I did.”
Edgerton believes this film is a great opportunity to provide exposure to such a painful topic, since he considers gay conversion therapy “all a mirage.”
“And yet a lot of people don’t know it exists and there’s so much pain. It’s like this fertile ground for a lot of damage and pain that doesn’t need to exist either,” he said.
“So I became obsessed with the family aspect of it, like: how would you feel if you were a child, and your parent told you there was something wrong with you when there wasn’t?”
Despite not being LGBTQ+ himself, similar to the protagonist, Edgerton also grew up.
“Nobody at high school ever came out — I remember, ever came out — and yet the slurs of bigotry around homosexuality were everywhere,” he explained.
PART III: The film’s production
Edgerton emphasized the importance of collaborating with the memoirs author, Garrard Conley.
“First of all, everything was filtered through Garrard,” Edgerton said.
“It was very important for me telling his story, whether I was telling his story about playing Little League as a kid, or the very painful experience he went through in Boy Erased.”
Edgerton also travelled to Arkansas to have dinner with Conley’s family, and even met the real-life Victor Sykes. Edgerton, along with the rest of the actors, made sure to develop a relationship with the real person their character was based off of, even if their initial meeting was unexpected.
“Very funny story about Russell,” Edgerton laughed, “the real father is called Herschel, and he has this congregation in Arkansas, and Russell just turned up one Sunday, five minutes into the congregation, [and] sat at the back.”
Another notable fact about the film was a scene where clients of the gay conversion therapy program were required to read out a “moral inventory” of all the homosexual activity they partook in. As actor Troye Sivan mentioned in an interview with MTV, Edgerton allowed those actors to write their own speeches. As a director, by allowing the actors to speak from their own experience, Edgerton saw it as “the path of least resistance.”
“They all had their own individual reasons to be at therapy — why they were there, whether they were dragged kicking and screaming, whether they volunteered — so that each one of them, even if [they weren’t] acting with dialogue, [had] something interesting about them going on on every single day,” Edgerton explained.
Edgerton recalls speaking to a young LGBTQ+ fan at the very first showing of the film in the Telluride Film Festival about the importance of Boy Erased.
“He was a volunteer, he would have been your age, and he was like, ‘If only this film existed when I was 15 years old,’” Edgerton said.
“The idea that you could watch something that is a fictional movie based on truth, where you can go, fuck, I’m not the only person . . . it’s amazing people how some people live certain experiences and don’t realize there’s a community out there of people that can help them.”
With the film set to be released in more international countries in November, Edgerton hopes that a different kind of audience walks into the theatre.
“The people I hope to walk into it are people who are not the obvious people to go buy ticket to Boy Erased,” he said. He elaborated that he hopes religious parents wrestling with an LGBTQ+ child see it, or that any scared teen sees it as well. As for what Edgerton hopes audiences walk out the theatre feeling or thinking, Edgerton had this to say:
“I hope that maybe that people walk out, and if they feel that they know somebody who wouldn’t go see this movie, to let them know it’s okay to, and that it’s almost necessary in some cases.”
Boy Erased will be available in Vancouver theatres on November 9.