In one of their few public showings of solidarity, Vancouver City Councillors voted unanimously this past June to ban the practice of gay conversion therapy making them the first city in Canada to do so. For anyone still having doubts on whether this was overreach, a certain title screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) this year gave the public a front row seat to how oppressive and degrading the practice truly is.
Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley, Boy Erased the story of a young man (Lucas Hedges) recently outed to his devout parents (Nicole Kidman and Russel Crowe). Struggling to reconcile the love of their son with their religious convictions, Jared is sent to “Love in Action”, a gay conversion facility where he is promptly stripped of privacy, dignity and self-worth.
I sat down at VIFF with writer, producer, director Joel Edgerton who also plays the pious head therapist Victor Sykes, to discuss the genesis and message of this important film.
How did you come to be involved with this project?
Someone handed me the book and I’m very slow at reading books But the subject of this, it was so interesting to me. I’d heard about gay conversion therapy before, but I didn’t know much. So here I was with a book with a bird’s eye view, like a person’s first-hand account and it was too interesting not to dive into. That’s what started it and it was like I’d been given some kind of hook you know? Just really kinda got under my skin and dragged me along with it. From the moment I’d finished reading the book to literally the other month in Toronto and Telluride, I hadn’t spent a single day without working on this project.
How closely did you work with the film’s true-life inspiration, Garrard Conley?
It was pretty close. For a start, his book kind of became my bible, excuse the pun, this is kind of a film that touches on religion and religious beliefs. Often when you make a true story as an actor, the person I’m playing is dead with even their extended family long gone. This was a case where on any given day I could text or phone Garrard or even text or phone his (parents) and have access to them.
I went to Arkansas and spent time with his mom and dad. I had dinner, went to church with them. I went to Texas and met the guy that I’m playing (Victor Sykes). Garrard would be on set quite often. He was always available. I would give him every draft of the script and he would give me feedback. It was sort of crucial for me that if I was telling his story that I would tell it truthfully and he would be ever-approving of everything we did.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features
What were you looking for when you cast the lead role of Jared Eamons (Garrard’s screen counterpart)?
I was looking for a certain energy and a certain presence, a number of aspects. Whoever was going to play (Jared), unfortunately as a boy going through those years in his life, he was really cast in the wind of everyone else’s agenda. So in the film I needed someone who could be spoken to, preached at, screamed at, pushed around, be silent and yet still absorb a lot of information and be expressive and interesting. Lucas to me, as an actor is that.
I needed somebody where you could still see hints of the boy and enough of the essence of the man. If you’ve read the book and when you see the film: Garrard was somebody who, given his sexuality was a secret for so long, and he wasn’t outed until he was in college, he could kind of pass as straight. In many ways, I kind of wanted to capture a certain essence in Garrard I found, a certain sensitivity. He’s not some bloke, he’s not some jock. He played sports but he wasn’t like some brute. He had a sort of a gentleness to him. So he was just sort of like an average kid. I wanted Lucas to portray him in that sense. For many reasons he just felt like the right person.
As a director, how do you decide when and where to cast yourself in a role?
It’s really just about the story and whether a character speaks to me. And there seems to be another rule, at least for the moment, is that I’m not yet comfortable or confident enough to want to cast myself in a lead role in a film that I’m directing.
I enjoy the process of directing so much that it’s almost like the worst days are the ones where you have to pull double duty because the enjoyment is sitting back and watching the whole menagerie take shape. To move the parts around, to watch the actors solve problems. When you’re in the midst of the whole show, in front of the camera, it’s hard to have as much enjoyment. So one rule is making sure I limiting the amount of days I’m in front of the camera.
But I’m only doing it too because I really find something complicated, complex and interesting in the characters. The Gift; I wrote that script before I was planning on directing it, to play this misunderstood, stalky, damaged guy. This (Boy Erased) was different. I read the book and I met the real Victor Sykes, the real character behind him. It was like this interesting person who at the core doesn’t believe or feel the things that they’re teaching and yet is so determined to drive home these ideas for other people in order to prove to himself that he’s doing the right thing by his own transformation. It was so interesting as a human that I just felt compelled to try and be the guy to do that.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
It became very evident to me when we were putting it all together and the enthusiasm behind gathering the team, that we were doing something very important, you know? On one hand we were making a film, putting a movie out into the world and that’s entertainment. But at the same time, there’s this opportunity for us to do something kind of mini-revolutionary which is just to help evolve things, help make change, help start conversations and help change minds.
We were shining a light on a very little-known practice that is very much still very real in the United States and in various parts of Canada. To be part of a push of raising awareness to make that change, to shut these places down, to help young people who are struggling in certain towns across the world with their sexuality and the impact that has on family and community, to (help them) understand they’re not alone, and to give them something to identify with through Garrard’s story and to help parents really examine their own actions when it comes to being put in that position of being confronted by their child’s inherent nature.
So I think we have a chance of helping people by raising awareness and I think that feels like in many ways like a nice responsibility alongside of telling the story. It had to be a part of the DNA of this movie.
Boy Erased will screen in theatres across Canada and the US starting Nov 9