As a straight man, director Joel Edgerton says he was initially reluctant to lead a film telling a gay man’s story.
Boy Erased is based on the real-life teenage experiences of writer Garrard Conley, who, while growing up in Bible Belt America, was sent by his God-fearing parents to undergo “conversion therapy” to “cure” his homosexuality.
After reading Conley’s memoir, Edgerton says he became “obsessed” – knowing the story could reach a different audience and make a real impact on the big screen. He just wasn’t sure he was qualified for the job.
Diversity in Hollywood is in the spotlight like never before. Edgerton was worried he wouldn’t fully be able to do Conley’s story justice, without having those shared experiences to draw from.
But at the same time, as he tells Sky News, he couldn’t let it go.
Edgerton explained: “There’s beautifully and wonderfully currently a really hot microscope of sorts on representation, behind the camera as well as in front.
“Mainly in front of the camera – you see time and time again studios making mistakes in the way in which they represent identity and culture and sexuality and religion and colour of skin on screen.
“Behind the camera is a really interesting conversation too and I wasn’t aware of it as much as… I started to feel that way once I’d read the book.”
Edgerton said he started to look at it from a different angle: “Just because it’s an LGBTQ movie doesn’t mean it should be called LGBTQ as if it’s a genre. This is a drama, it’s a family drama.”
Referencing two other 2018 films with gay central characters – compelled to hide their sexuality from the world – Edgerton says: “The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a drama and perhaps a romance. Love, Simon is a romantic comedy. They’re not LGBTQ movies. They should be part that, but they should also have their own identity within a genre.
“I just felt like I wasn’t the right guy to make it because should a straight guy make a movie that is so much about a young gay man’s experience? But my obsession with it and my passion for it, alongside my acceptance from Garrard to be a part of it…
“I think he started to think I was a bit crazy. I was so intrusive in his life, asking questions and researching stuff. In the end I gave up my reticence to do it and just embraced it.”
Boy Erased stars Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, who is sent to conversion therapy after being forced to come out to his mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe). Edgerton also stars in the film, playing conversion therapist Victor Sykes.
Edgerton says reading Conley’s story had a profound effect on him, and he finished the book feeling very differently to how he expected when he picked it up.
He said: “I read this [book] because I have a big fascination with institutions. I love prison stories, I love asylums – I don’t love ’em, I’m curious about them – and they were a big part of my fears growing up; I was scared of being sent to a place where someone would lock the key and throw it away and take me away from my parents.
“So I went into the book with that fascination, which was sort of just a morbid curiosity. What I came out of it with was this… I felt like I got to know a family, who loved each other so much and yet all of their paths of communication and understanding were so criss-crossed, that so much pain and chaos had been created.
“It was a story that felt very familiar even though it was very different from my own experience.
“I just became somehow, for whatever reason, daily obsessed with it, as in I was thinking about it, I’d wake up thinking about it, throughout the day I was thinking about it, and I knew I had to be involved in some way.”
Edgerton said there were many reasons the film was worth making: “It wasn’t just because of a boy’s harrowing experience, it wasn’t just to put a spotlight on conversion therapy. It was to show that some people can change their minds and acknowledge that they make mistakes.”
:: Boy Erased is out in cinemas on Friday