“Boy Erased”: Why Joel Edgerton Couldn’t Put This Story in Anyone Else’s Hands

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joel edgerton

Joel Edgerton has been seen in roles ranging from Star Wars to A Streetcar Named Desire. He’s now the writer, director and one of the stars of Boy Erased, the buzzworthy new film that follows evangelical parents who place their son in conversion therapy. He spoke at length about why its story captured him  — and why his cast is full of fellow Australians.

METROSOURCE: What was it about the source material, Garrard Conley’s book, Boy Erased, that drew you?

Joel Edgerton: I’m still trying to work that out. Sometimes we all try to work ourselves out through our art. I’ll think, “Oh, there’s a common theme here. I do know that I was fascinated by institutions as a kid — like deeply fearful that I was going to be taken away from my parents. Ironically, Garrard Conley’s story describes an institution where he wasn’t taken away from his parents; his parents allowed him to be taken away. I felt so obsessed with it from the moment I read the book, about this family story, in a way where I got kind of dragged along by it. Every day I was thinking about it, that I could do something about it, that it was worth making a movie about. The thing that I really love exploring in my work — in the hindsight point of view I have on it — is to keep writing about humans who make mistakes, and the interesting things I find in the choices they make in the aftermath of those mistakes. It’s almost like it’s not what you do that matters, it’s what you do next that counts.

The best stories are always about its characters. But you went into Boy Erased to make a movie about conversion therapy, right?

I went into it thinking that’s what I was doing. I went into the book thinking that this is me, peeking through the window of a crazy institution, because of my hardwired fear as a child. That’s what made me pick up the book. And then, as I was making the film — as I was writing it, as I was shooting it and particularly as I was editing it, it was very clear that the most interesting aspect of it was the family story. It’s no doubt what all of us can all relate to: we’ve all had a family, we all either love or hate our family or some combination of all those elements; we miss our family because we don’t have them anymore. Whatever. Here, conversion therapy is the obstacle to the rebuilding or the education of two parents and the solidifying of agency of a young man.

As to who the intended audience might be for Boy Erased, Edgerton agrees: that’s a tough one. For many, it might seem like preaching to the … well, converted. Here he is, wrestling with that question:

Is there something about your own upbringing you’re trying to resolve by immersing yourself so deeply in this story?

In some ways it is. My family dynamic I couldn’t speak highly enough about. But my Mom and my Dad actually have a very similar family dynamic to Garrard’s parents, Hershel and Martha. My father is the leader of the family and the loudest voice, and my mother, in her own way, is really the carer, the one who does the nurturing. So my mantra with Russell [Crowe] and Nicole [Kidman] was always like, “Let’s view your opinion and the therapists’ opinions of people like Garrard like they have a drug addiction — that it’s something they’ve chosen, and it’s something that can be corrected, that they can be rehabilitated.” Because the subtlety of the rendering of all those people in the film is that I didn’t want to twirl mustaches. I didn’t want to paint people as villains. Because they truly held beliefs that allowed them to think they were there to help somebody who needed fixing. The perfect irony for the drama being that he didn’t need help. He didn’t need fixing — and that’s when the collision of the ideas comes in. In my own life I’ve been in that place where I did need help, and the people who didn’t judge me in that moment and offered their help to me were my parents. And they became my heroes. I got the feeling they were willing to completely drop everything in their life in order to make sure I steered the right course. So yeah, I can relate.

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For such a uniquely American, and specifically Southern story, there sure are a lot of Aussies on the screen. You couldn’t turn sideways on that set without bumping into one.

Ha! The Australian-ness of the film was an accident that I was sort of concerned about myself. I wasn’t casting Nicole and Russell because they were buddies.  The reason I wanted them — and they were my first choices — was because when I met Garrard, I asked to see his family photos. And when you see those pictures at the end of the film, you’ll see it. It’s like, “Oh, my God. This needs to be Russell.” Sturdy guy, ran a cotton gin for 30 years, he’s built cars from the ground up. He’s no bookish preacher, Hershel; he’s a tough guy, And he used to be a brawler. He told me about the day he had to acknowledge he had to give up the punching and give his love to God. And the sort of fragility that I saw in Martha and her translucent pale skin led me to casting Nicole too, and I thought, “Damn, now it’s gonna feel like an Aussie movie.” And then Troye Sivan got put in front of me by Carmen Cuba, my wonderful casting director. Oh, my God. But I wouldn’t have put any of them in the movie if they weren’t great and great for their roles. With Troye, I needed an angel in that role, and he was that guy.

You wear a lot of hats in Boy Erased. Was there a moment when you thought, “I’d rather just direct and act” or vice versa?

Both times I’ve made movies, I’ve had that feeling, “Maybe I could get that guy; see if he’d do the movie.” But both times, I let that thought oscillate in my head too long, and we got close to shooting the movie, and I thought, “It’s too late now to draw up somebody else’s contract or negotiate another minute. And I think secretly? I wanted to do both.           

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Last modified: December 12, 2018