Arts

Joel Edgerton: 'I knew Boy Erased needed to be seen by as many people as possible'

Boy Erased depicts the true story of a young gay man pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme. Director and star Joel Edgerton tells Georgia Humphreys about bringing the memoir to life

Writer-director Joel Edgerton as Victor Sykes in Boy Erased

JOEL Edgerton was nervous to meet the man who inspired his role in Boy Erased. The emotive drama, which Edgerton also wrote and directed, concerns Victor Sykes, the head therapist at a conversion therapy programme in the US.

The 44-year-old Australian actor knew that to make the film – which is based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith and Family – it was important to do his research.

He spoke to John Smid, the former head of Love in Action (LIA), the programme Conley attended, about what he hoped to depict on screen.

"It wasn't so much about asking his permission but I also didn't want him to be in opposition to us," says the star, who discovered Mr Smid is now married to a man and has turned his back on conversion therapy altogether.

"I didn't want him to be an obstacle to us making the movie. And I wanted to treat him with respect. It's what Garrard had done with the book."

The character at the centre of Boy Erased is Jared Eamons (played by Lucas Hedges), the son of a Baptist pastor in a ruralAmerican town who is viciously outed to his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) at age 19.

Fearing a loss of family, friends and church, Jared is pressured into attending a conversion therapy programme. While there, he comes into conflict with Sykes. But he also starts to find his own voice and accept his true self.

"It would have been very easy for Garrard to paint his parents in a bad light and vilify the camp counsellors and the organisational infrastructure – the bosses, the managers and organisers," says Edgerton.

"He didn't do that. He could see that what people were doing was based on misinformation, based on beliefs that led them to believe certain things that were in opposition to good human nature and love and acceptance.

"What's really up for judgment in his memoir, and in our film, is just the pure practice itself."

The people running the camps "need to be vilified a little bit" in the film, reasons Edgerton, but he was just wary of how much he did this.

He says: "The wrong thing for me to do would have been to dress them all in black and have them twirling their moustaches because they're human beings, too. They just got, I think, the wrong point of view, and the wrong information."

Edgerton says Mr Smid is "trying his best to make amends" and was happy to discuss what he remembers about the programme and how his opinions have changed.

"It's also important to note that the big boss – the guy that ran the parent company to the place we depicted in the movie, a company called Exodus International and a man called Alan Chambers – he himself acknowledges publicly that conversion therapy does not work," he adds.

Since making Boy Erased, Edgerton has been amazed by how people have shared their experiences with him.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, highly rejected LGBTQ youths are eight times more likely to have tried to end their own lives. The American Psychiatric Association states the potential risks of the sort of programme Conley attended are great, including depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behaviour.

Boy Erased isn't the first film to try to raise awareness of the issue, however, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post released last year.

It was directed by Desiree Akhavan and starred Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenage girl forced into a gay conversion therapy centre. When doing press for the film, they suggested it was easier to get a distributor for Boy Erased because it's a film about a male, and has a male director. Does he agree?

"No," he responds, before hesitating and quickly adding: "I mean, maybe. Who knows?"

He explains that, from the very beginning, his plan was simple: "I knew that Boy Erased needed to be seen by as many people as possible.

"There's many, many different ways to build what I call the house of cards, because it can collapse at any moment.

"I wrote the screenplay and I got my cast together first, and I specifically went after people of the calibre of Nicole and Russell.

"I figured if I could get big movie stars in there, with their gold statues in the cupboards – right for the role mind you, I'm not just saying I picked them because they had a trophy cabinet – that's going to make people want to open their cheque books to finance the movie.

"Other times I've taken a script, got a company interested and they've said, 'If you can get this actor and that actor, we'll finance the movie'.

"I did it the other way around because I just knew these movies can end up small."

Calling The Miseducation of Cameron Post "beautiful", he attests it can only be a good thing that there is more than one film about conversion therapy out there.

"I think there's space in the world for two conversion therapy movies, what that says to me is it's just a one-two punch. And a one-two punch, you have a better chance of taking someone down."

:: Boy Erased is in cinemas from today.

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