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Interview: Joel Edgerton, actor/writer/director of ‘Boy Erased’

Joel Edgerton on the set of Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED, a Focus Features release. Credit: Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Joel Edgerton built a solid career in his native Australia in television shows like Water Rats and The Secret Lives of Us but had his first international break came from when he played Uncle Owen Lars in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This wider audience visibility brought him roles in Animal Kingdom (2010), the remakes of The Thing (2011) and The Great Gatsby (2013) as well as Black Mass (2015) and Loving (2016), for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama. 

In 2015, after his directing, writing and producing a handful of shorts early in his career (and a couple of low-budget features), he wrote, co-produced, co-starred and directed 2015’s The Gift, starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. The thriller was produced on a very modest $5m budget and earned $58M worldwide. Edgerton was nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in 2016 for his effort.

He’ll tell you he wasn’t looking for his next project and that Boy Erased came to him. Building on the success of the The Gift and the goodwill of his Golden Globe recognition, he was sent the book of Boy Erased, the best-selling memoir by Garrard Conley about his experiences in a gay conversion therapy camp, and Edgerton was hooked. He had to make this is next film. 

I sat down with Edgerton recently to discuss why he needed to make the film, why he felt he was the right person to make it and how he managed to do what no one else could: get Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe in a film together. 

Why was Boy Erased your choice to follow up The Gift?

It’s really interesting. It literally chose me because I was in a kind of wilderness. I’d written some other things; I was being sent stuff. I feel like to direct a movie you have to love it like 11 out of 10 because it’s a long period of dedicated time. As an actor that figure might only be eight out of 10. You could think, it’s enough; good team, good script, good character. It’s going to be a fun location and there’s a couple of little problems with it but hey I’ll pretend I don’t see it. But for directing a movie you have to be so obsessed with it and this book really got under my skin. Anyone who knows me will know just how I kind of like disappeared for a few weeks in a hotel room [while filming Red Sparrow in Budapest] and kind of without anybody knowing I was writing the script and just handed it to everybody.

Interview: Garrard Conley, author of ‘Boy Erased’

Thankfully, because Garrard had laid the foundation by being so honest about his experience, I didn’t have to create a character or create a world I was just being a kind of a passenger to his. It had elements that The Gift had given me, which I was that I loved working with actors so much. I wanted to do something more in the drama world and I wanted to send something out into the world that wasn’t sinister in its entirety and that it had some emotional positivity to it. What’s interesting is the tunnel you go through to find the light in this movie is quite sinister and harrowing. But reading his book, it was so filled with love, albeit with misguided intentions and collisions of agenda, but this potential through one family’s experience who made a wrong choice and then we’re willing to evolve, mom and dad to different degrees. It was a good conversation starter and a good roadmap of sorts, good and bad for other families. And it’s as much for parents as it is for young people to identify with feel like they’re not alone.

I feel like if this was a fictional story it would be really easy to just villainize the parents. But because Conley loves his parents, it’s a very different type of story in a different way to tell this story.

I was always, I was very struck by his depth of empathy because he said to me, ‘There are people who said you should cut off your dad, you should cut him off.’ And it’s like he’s sitting there patiently waiting for his dad to step closer and closer and I can guarantee, in the kind of tortoise and the hare analogy of it all, that he will win because love always wins. Acceptance always wins. It’s just the path of least resistance to open your heart and go, ‘You might not accept me, but I accept that you don’t accept me.’ And that’s baffling for somebody who’s still building walls between you. That’s what I love. I love him for that and you’re right, if it was a fictional movie and be like Nurse Ratched. When we sit in the cinema I think we have a much clearer moral compass. I wanted to put people in that zone and much like The Gift it’s challenging stereotypes. You can also be loving parent and make their own choices, you know, you can be on the wrong side of opinion but actually have full conviction about that, which my character [Love in Action leader John Smid, named Victor Sykes in the film]. So it’s not an easy, it’s like a more complicated way of making the movie, but it just felt like I was being more true to the book.

You said earlier that you have to be an 11 out of 10 to direct, maybe eight out of 10 for acting. Do you approach directing differently than acting? What are the biggest differences for you there?

Being an actor is simply being able to be a child, like I could literally turn up to work with nothing. I could be in pajamas as long as I know what I need to do. I can use my imagination and play because I don’t have the same responsibility. And being a director is like running a household; it’s like being the parent. There’s a lot of intellectualizing involved in directing, a lot of making choices, a lot of being responsible and holding all things together and acting comes hopefully for more of a gut place, I think. So you have to learn how to flick the glottal switch between the two. I don’t know, I wonder if sometimes performance might suffer because you’re also directing. Remind me to show a photo later.

But then sometimes it benefits because once the lights are set up and you’re ready to go you just have to go, ‘Oh, I didn’t even have time to think about this.’ Which means you’re stepping off the cliff into an abyss and just seeing what happens. And that would often happen when I’d run the therapy scenes.

Let’s talk a bit about the casting of the film. Why was Lucas Hedges was right for this part?

I felt like I was thinking about him in all the time when I was reading the book. I met him when he was 12 and I knew there were a few components I needed in whoever was going to play Garrard [renamed Jared in the film]. One was I needed him to be someone who could ‘pass’ until college. Not be a jock, not be too effeminate in any way and sort of having every person quality about them and didn’t stand out in any crazy way. I needed him to be an actor who could sort of essentially be a blank canvas. As people are talking, preaching and yelling at him and pushing him around he’s like a sponge. I needed an actor who could hold that space of silence and stillness and observance of things around you and be compelling.

So there was a number of components to it and I just think that he, oh, and that he was not a boy, but he wasn’t a man, and Lucas was right in that pocket. I just couldn’t really shake the idea of him and so I built the family around him.

Interview: Martha Conley, mother of ‘Boy Erased’ author Garrard Conley (Exclusive)

But for Russell and Nicole it wasn’t you know, let’s make this part Australia. I was more reticent to do it. But I was compelled to do it because I thought they reminded me of the real parents and I spent time with her [Martha Conley, Garrard’s mother]. Martha and I sorted though photo albums, family photo albums. It was like it has to be Russell and she reminded me of Nicole. I could imagine her with the makeup and the bangles and all that.

It’s wild that 30 years of Hollywood could not get Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman together, but you did.

I was shocked!

It could have really come across as stunt casting because they’re such big names, but they are so good.

There are a lot of decisions I made in this movie, which it felt like…a different thing. It didn’t feel like a piece of entertainment. I felt like I was aware that we were doing something important, that we could affect change. And I also was like, ‘Alright, how do we get as many people as possible to see this movie?’ So let’s make it feel bigger. So let’s cast people that people are going to go home and say ‘I love her, I love him. I’m going to go see this.’ And if they stand behind this movie then putting a bit of star power was like having some kind of endorsement.

But ultimately, they were right for the role. So it wasn’t like, hopefully not distracting to that degree.

You also have some really great queer icons like Cherry Jones, Troye Sivan and Xavier Dolan, who I think are really crucial components. There’s a lot conversation about who gets to make certain stories and I think that gives the film a lot of street credit.

I was an early phase where I read the book and I’d met with Garrard and I said, ‘Look, I love the book but I don’t know if I’m the right person and make it.’ I kept saying to myself, ‘Well it’s a very straight world. It’s sort of like an Alice in Wonderland kind of thing. Like a gay guy, young man, stuck in a super straight world. And I thought maybe that makes me qualified!

But no one had optioned a book for years and no one seemed to be like knocking his door down and I was like ‘Fuck, I’m waking up plagued by this every day, imagining bringing this thing to life.’ So secretly in my hotel room in Budapest I wrote his coming out scene and his abuse in college scene and then in some blind kind of possession thing I filled in the gaps and I had a first draft.  And by the time I had that I said ‘It feels like I need to make this. I can’t just give this script to somebody else.’ I sent it to Garrard and I wanted his approval and I’m like, ‘I think I would like to make it.’

It’s the fastest, and I hate to say this because I don’t want to make it seem like we rushed it, but I read the book, wrote the script and six months later we were in pre-production.

That’s amazing for a story like this.

Yeah. But the foundation was there; the characters of his parents were there. So I did a lot of research and just dove in. It was like every day of my life was about, you know, it was almost like I had one foot in my life and one foot in Garrard’s for a whole year up until like two weeks ago, I had holiday in Costa Rica and it was like ‘Oh, I get my life back now!’

At that point Edgerton remembers the photo he wanted to show me.

“I want to show you that photo,” he says. It’s the side room where he does his speeches and therapy in the film. “That’s one minute before we’re ready to shoot.” It’s a photo of a pantless Edgerton hurriedly putting on his costume. “And someone said ‘you’re not in your costume!’ And I was like, ‘Oh. fuck.’ So I just ran into the side room, did my makeup on set. I did my costume. And that was me rushing to get ready. I mean, everybody else was ready and I’m like, why aren’t we shooting it when you’re still wearing your fucking tracksuit?”

It just sums up the movie to me, that kickball and scramble.

77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. For more information, please visit http://stoperasing.com , and  spread awareness.

Boy Erased will be released in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco from Focus Features on November 2nd and expand nationwide on November 16th.

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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