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How Joel Edgerton, a Former Bully, Became the Director of Boy Erased

How Joel Edgerton, a Former Bully, Became the Director of Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton

The straight actor and filmmaker discusses his evolution into an ally who's helping lead the crusade against conversion therapy.

Joel Edgerton, an actor known for films like The Great Gatsby and Loving, is the director and screenwriter of Boy Erased. The new drama film is about the horrors of "conversion therapy," inspired by the real-life experience of gay activist Garrard Conley.

Edgerton -- who also plays the film's villain, chief therapist Victor Sykes -- is straight. But the Australian native told The Advocate he felt compelled to adapt Conley's story for the big screen from a place of empathy -- as well as a sense of horror at how a loving family can make such a disastrous and harmful decision for one of its members.

"Family's so important to me. I've got a family that have proven themselves to protect me no matter what," said Edgerton at a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "I can't put myself in a place of trying to imagine what it would be like if the two people that I identify as my great protectors in life ... told me there was something wrong with me, how that might affect me, because I've had the opposite experience. Even when they had every reason to say that something was wrong with me, [they supported me]."

Edgerton, 44, recounted how he struggled with substance abuse in his youth and was often "on the edge of doing bad things." Through it all, his parents were "my lifeline, and because of their love and interest in my well-being, they did everything they could for me."

In Boy Erased, Marshall and Nancy Eamons (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) send their 19-year-old son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), to conversion therapy, after he is raped by another man on his college campus. (The incident leads Jared to confess to his parents that he desires men.) Jared's father, a Baptist pastor, does so at the advice of other members of their religious community. Both parents make this decision out of a place of wanting to help their son.

After Edgerton read this story in Conley's memoir, also titled Boy Erased, he found it difficult to judge the parents for their actions. "The conundrum was that his parents were doing what they did out of love, and the therapy was built out of a need or an interest to help and care," Edgerton said. "The conundrum was, Garrett didn't need any help. And the care he needed was acceptance," said Edgerton.

"It's like a horror story," he reflected on the scenario of parents sending their child into harm's way out of a place of love.

Indeed, there are many horrific moments in the film, which reviews the mental and physical anguish inflicted on those subjected to conversion therapy. In one scene, a youth is forced to confront his own coffin and is beaten with a Bible by members of his own family. Suicide is also addressed.

Edgerton is impressed that Conley "is OK and has beautiful agency in life" despite his experience with conversion therapy. However, he noted that "trauma and pain, it never goes away. Thankfully, he's one of the people who have managed to turn it into something proactive."

Sadly, this discredited and harmful practice is not a relic from the past. At least 700,000 people have undergone conversion therapy in the United States, where only 14 states have banned it among minors. The film, in addition to being a piece of entertainment, is also a form of activism, which hopes to shine a spotlight on this issue. To this end, Boy Erased has partnered with a number of LGBTQ organizations, including Born Perfect, a campaign to end conversion therapy nationwide.

Of course, homophobia is not unique to the U.S. Edgerton was struck by the similarities between the small Arkansas town where Conley grew up and his own hometown of Blacktown, a suburb of Sydney, where "a culture of homophobia" meant that not a single LGBTQ person was out in his high school. Edgerton -- who acknowledged he grew up with the privilege of being a white, upper-middle-class male -- said he himself was part of this culture.

"I've been a bully and I've been bullied," Edgerton admitted. "And to sit here and to look you in the eyes and say I've never said words that are fucking homosexual slurs would be a complete lie, because that's part of bullying. That's part of that culture of bullying at school."

Edgerton described the climate he grew up in as the "subtle middle ground of bigotry," where people may not be marching in the street as white supremacists, but they do harbor unacknowledged biases about historically marginalized communities, such as queer people and people of color.

In particular, Edgerton found that, growing up, he unfairly treated those who suffered from drug addiction, even though it afflicted members of his family. "I always judged anybody who was an addict as if it was choice," he said. It was only through his own "experiences with self destruction, coming out the other side of that," which allowed him to see the error of his ways. "As soon as you walk in somebody else's shoes for a moment, it's very hard to judge them," he said.

Bullying is a subject matter that Edgerton has explored before. In his directorial debut, The Gift (2015), Edgerton portrays a character who takes his revenge on one of his former bullies. The bully, in his youth, spread rumors about his victim that he had been molested by a man, which in turn led him to be subjected to antigay harassment by his peers and even his own father.

But Edgerton's path to becoming an ally and therefore addressing LGBTQ themes in his work did not happen overnight. It was a "slower process," said Edgerton, which began when he enrolled at the Nepean Drama School at the University of Western Sydney and first met out queer people as classmates. It was an eye-opening experience that "demystified" all of his previous misconceptions.

"From within one year I went from living in what seemed like the straightest neighborhood in the world... [to] sitting in class with people who openly identify as LGBTQ and going to [the Sydney Gay and Lesbian] Mardi Gras, and going, Right. Okay. So what's the problem?"

Edgerton said his assistant, David Joseph Craig, who is also a coproducer and actor in Boy Erased, also helped him evolve in his understanding of LGBTQ issues. Craig married his partner soon after the 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court case, which gave Edgerton a personal connection to those involved in the marriage equality movement.

What also expanded this understanding was Edgerton's role in Loving (2016), in which he portrayed Richard Loving, one of the real-life plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down America's laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The parallels to the modern marriage equality movement, and the interviews and discussions surrounding Loving's historical ties to Obergefell during the film's promotion, led Edgerton to connect with LGBTQ groups like GLAAD and The Trevor Project. It was with this background that he first read the 2016 memoir Boy Erased. Edgerton credits this perfect storm of factors into his decision to make the film adaptation.

It was Conley that ultimately gave the greenlight for Edgerton to adapt his story. "I'd written a screenplay and out of nowhere handed it to him. He knew that I cared enough to want to do it. And he was like, 'All right... I've got to give this guy a chance because he cares so much,'" Edgerton recounted. Conley also served as an advisor during the production and promotion of Boy Erased. In this capacity, he sent Edgerton emails stressing the importance of representation in casting, as well as educating him on the right terms to use when referring to LGBTQ people and issues.

As a straight man, Edgerton himself knew he needed members of the LGBTQ community around him in creating an authentic portrait of a conversion therapy survivor. And from the onset, Edgerton was cognizant that Boy Erased was no ordinary film production. "The film is a community," said Edgerton, who, at Conley's behest, stocked the cast as well as the production with queer people and allies. In addition to Craig, singer Troye Sivan, Canadian director Xavier Dolan, and Cherry Jones (Transparent) are among the out actors who appear in the film. Additionally, star Lucas Hedges, while identifying as straight, has acknowledged in interviews that he is attracted to men.

And what did Edgerton learn from working with and creating a project about LGBTQ people? "The idea that parents [of queer people] have to come out. It was a revelation to me," said Edgerton, who realized the impact of the different reactions family members can have to a person's coming-out -- be it indifference, acceptance, or intolerance.

"I learned a lot about the really complicated nature with which parents receive information, and the need for better information, better education for parents," said Edgerton. "In many ways, what kept evolving as we made the movie, is that it's really not so much about conversion therapy as is it about family and the ability for families to really examine their choices. And this is an example of a family who did one thing and then have reexamined and rethought how they feel about what they did."

Edgerton's wish is that Boy Erased helps deliver this better information to parents. And rather than preaching to the choir among the liberal-minded, Boy Erased can reach families like Jared's, who may not realize the damage that conversion therapy can wreak.

"If they are of a converted mind, they can actually become an advocate," said Edgerton. "So that's our hope."

Boy Erased is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer below.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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