Flying Air Canada to the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival where Joel Edgerton’s second directorial effort Boy Erased was screening, two of the Australian actor/filmmaker’s movies were available to view on the airline’s entertainment system. If last year’s thriller Red Sparrow represents the more mainstream facet of his Hollywood career, 2005’s Kinky Boots, in which lives are changed when drag queen Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and her designs come to the rescue of Charlie’s (Edgerton) failing Northampton shoe factory, reflects more the impulse that led Edgerton to Boy Erased.
“It funny, I was asked by Steve Pateman, the real Kinky Boots guy, he’s written a book and asked me to write a quote for it,” Edgerton says. “I thought about it and I ended up talking about how beautiful that film is, how it’s such a mad, extravagant collision of separate worlds, which we have in Boy Erased, too, straight and gay, Southern and New York, and just a general contradiction of ideas. Kinky Boots, really, at its core, is about people accepting other people. It’s not about the madness of drag shows. It’s not about industry. Those are all sub-themes. The big macro is, ‘You’re different from me. I’m different from you. So, what?’”
Boy Erased, which Edgerton adapted from Garrard Conley’s memoir, stars Lucas Hedges as Jared, an Arkansas college student sent to gay conversion therapy by his Baptist preacher father, Marshall (Russell Crowe), and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), after he’s outed to them. It was 2016’s Loving, in which Edgerton played one half of the couple at the heart of the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage, that set him on the path to Boy Erased.
“Loving is definitely why I got involved with this film,” he says. “I think it plucked the same nerves in me. It agitated the same feeling that Loving did in terms of people or a person unable to live a normal life like everybody else, because there is some quality of difference or minority difference that means they get treated differently.
“Garrard’s memoir is not just about the madness of an institution,” he adds. “The book is about the chaos and madness of a family dealing with something that shouldn’t necessarily need to create any drama and yet all this stuff happened, all this energy was output and all of this pain was created.”
Edgerton, 44, grew up in Dural, a small suburb of Sydney, and doesn’t remember any of the kids his age coming out as gay while they lived under their parents’ roofs. The kind of attitudes that lead people to seek gay conversion therapy is strong, he feels, all over the planet. But to get to the heart of Jared’s story, he relied on Conley to act as his guide into an unfamiliar world.
“Garrard was my porthole to everything that he experienced,” Edgerton says. “He was my access to other survivors of conversion therapy. He was my access to his mother and father, Herschel and Martha, who were gracious to invite me to dine at their house, to attend church. He was my porthole to John Schmidt [the head of the therapy center], who I play in the movie, on whom I based my character. I felt more a passenger of Garrard’s story as I was making the movie. He was my navigator. It was really about that. And getting access to that Baptist world was about literally going to Herschel’s church and doing a lot of research. I did a lot of research about ideas – I think during the production I had six different Bibles dotted throughout my apartment.”
Edgerton wanted to paint as detailed a picture of the world he was depicted as possible without judgment. He didn’t want a movie with obvious heroes and villains. Jared’s parents, the church elders his father goes to for advice, the people at the center, they mean well—and that’s what’s so chilling.
“I think there’s something more insidious and terrifying about being in a situation where everybody is, ‘We’re just here to help,’” Edgerton says. “That’s hard to sidestep and also because you don’t have all the information and you’re naïve going in, like Garrard was. If somebody told you there was a 84% success rate and that your sexuality, which was plaguing you during your waking hours and threatening your freedom within your community, if somebody told you that could all just be turned around, wouldn’t you sign on the dotted line, too? Who would want that if living in your community could become terrifying, and hell, you could be beaten and ostracized?
“And you’d have to go somewhere else,” he adds. “There are a lot of young people in the world who find the agency to say, ‘I do not accept that you will not accept me, and therefore, I will go and do something else, even if that means cutting family away.’ But Garrard represents, to me, the majority, because I’m like him, as in I didn’t have an agency that would have powered this rebellious, renegade, forge-my-own-path mentality. I was very much under the spell of my parents. I think most of us are rule keepers.”
On the surface, Boy Erased is a different kind of project for Edgerton. A prolific screenwriter, most of his work, including the script for his brother Nash’s 2008 thriller, The Square, and his own directing debut, 2015’s psychological thriller, The Gift, has been genre-based. For this, Edgerton had to step outside that comfort zone, but as he worked on his screenplay, he discovered that even in adapting a memoir, certain genre rules still applied.
“It was sort of just about applying it to a more dramatic scenario without the hand holds of genre,” says Edgerton. “Yet, I wanted it to have a pinch of genre feeling of suspense and the potential for danger and the tension that comes out of real life. You don’t know what’s around the corner for Jared when the men gather in the kitchen to decide his fate. What’s going to happen to him? The sense of suspense in moments like that.
“On this film, when I wrote it, I became a little possessed. I just felt, once I started writing, it came pouring out of me. Thankfully, Garrard had laid the foundation, because he lived the life and he was brave enough to talk about it. Then I felt the privilege of just being able to really just take his clay and reshape it into something else, turn it from words on page onto other worlds on a page that would allow it to become a visual thing. It felt like it wrote itself pretty easily.” –Pam Grady
To read more about Boy Erased, check out my interview with Lucas Hedges in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Joel Edgerton will be at San Francisco Embarcadero Center Cinema on Sunday, Nov. 4, to take part in Q&As after the 2 and 2:30pm screenings of Boy Erased.