In Boy Erased, Lucas Hedges portrays Jared, a teenager who is outed to his Baptist parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) and is sent to conversion therapy. Directed by Joel Edgerton, the film, out Friday, is based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, a gay Arkansas native who himself endured this harmful practice at the behest of loved ones.
Hedges, 21, was not raised in a red state. In his youth, he lived in New York City, where he attended a prestigious arts-centered private institution, Saint Ann's School. Yet even in this liberal bastion, Hedges recognized a "hidden" stigma working its influence on his peers.
"I grew up in New York and there wasn't a single out kid in my school — and at a very liberal art progressive school. So there's tons of … hidden … homophobia that exists that's being internalized by everyone," Hedges attested to The Advocate at a recent press event for the film.
That said, Hedges acknowledged that homophobia is "10 times stronger in a community in which it's overtly being preached," like in Boy Erased, where the protagonist's father is an antigay pastor. "It’s like living in a totalitarian government," he said of conservative religious communities. "There’s a sense of there being a ruler, God, watching over you, waiting to send you to heaven or hell."
"It’s a really important story for today," added Hedges, who noted that the hatred endured by Jared is ongoing. "It's for today's America and — it’s sort of like cliché to be, like, for ‘Trump America,’ but it’s really true."
To date, an estimated 700,000 people have been subjected to conversion therapy in the United States, according to a report from the Williams Institute; only 15 states have bans. Boy Erased hopes to shine a light on the corrosive — and, at times, fatal — consequences of allowing this discredited practice to continue. This artistic activism was established the first day of filming, Hedges recounted, when the author and activist Conley told the cast and crew, "It's my dream for this movie that it can be a part of putting an end to conversion therapy."
For Hedges, the activism that was involved with portraying Jared was part of the role's draw. "I try to find ways to be of service in my own life, and it was the first project that had a ... greater purpose to it other than just an artistic endeavor," said Hedges, who has appeared in acclaimed films like Lady Bird, Moonrise Kingdom, and Manchester by the Sea, which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. "There was a historical and cultural significance to it that made it easier for me to put my ego [as an actor] aside."
And Hedges was determined to do his homework; he researched and watched documentaries on the Stonewall riots and other milestones in LGBTQ history, in order to understand his character's place in "the chorus of voices that have spoken up over the course of time." What did he learn about queer people in the process? "It’s up to them to create their own utopia," Hedges said. "They're not going to wait for the world to do that for them, because it won't."
And in an era of entertainment where authentic lived experiences of being LGBTQ are being given more weight in the casting process, Conley himself endorsed the choice of Hedges for the central part in his story, because "he felt deep down I was a weirdo," Hedges said. "He really didn't want somebody, like, normal playing the part."
Hedges is no stranger to feeling like an outsider, attesting, "I feel that there are a lot of parts of me that, when I've expressed them in like [my] community as a kid, have led to me being denied in a way that felt like, You're this kind of person. So we're just discrediting you." In middle school and high school, for example, Hedges said his identity as a "weirdo" made him experience a "social exile ... certainly not even remotely to the degree of this character, but that forms the roots of my understanding of how I can play the character."
There were other factors involved in his "social exile." In September, Hedges made headlines when he said he was "not totally straight" to Vulture and that "in the early stages of my life, some of the people I was most infatuated with were my closest male friends." He added, "I felt ashamed that I wasn’t 100 percent [straight], because it was clear that one side of sexuality presents issues, and the other doesn’t as much. I recognize myself as existing on that spectrum: Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual."
When asked by The Advocate if he identifies as an ally or as part of the LGBTQ community, Hedges defined himself "as falling within the umbrella of being an ally." However, his understanding of the issue is still evolving. "It's so interesting because the more I speak to young activists and people who are really at the next wave of activists, the less boundaries they seem to be putting up between [straight and LGBTQ]," he said. "I really see it as not a black-and-white thing at all. I don't know, it's such a fluid experience and I experience it more so as being attracted to people than..."
"Gender, like in a binary way?," this reporter asked.
"Exactly," Hedges responded. "But I'm hesitant at the same time to suddenly lump myself in with ... [the LGBTQ] community because ... I don't feel as though I've been challenged in the same ways that members of the LGBTQ community have been in their lives."
Yet portraying Jared – and Danny, a closeted Catholic teen in Lady Bird – has also awakened Hedges to the otherness he himself felt growing up. Those characters both "perceive some part of themselves as being other, as being separate, as existing in a world of its own outside of the rest of the world," said Hedges, reflecting on shared characteristics of the queer roles he has brought to the big screen. "The similar ingredient of that shame pops up for both of them."
Hedges revealed that he had friends of his own in middle school and high school who "would not have wanted to know that I'm not only attracted to women, that I have attraction to men, and that that's something I would have kept from them."
But that period of his life is over. "I'm not gonna have those people in my life anymore. It’s not worth it for me. When those people are of a certain closed-mindedness … I'm actually not interested in spending time with [them] anyway," said Hedges, who realized that those living "vital, elaborate, interesting lives," who he would want to associate with, are "open and accepting of people's sexuality."
And Boy Erased, in its chronicle of a young man who endures hell in order to finally live his truth, also gave its lead actor a path to being open about his own sexuality.
“If I'm being given the gift to play these parts, I don't have the right to be in hiding in my own life," Hedges concluded. "That’s just not fair."
Boy Erased is out Friday in select theaters. Watch the trailer below.