MAN OF THE YEAR
If you were making an argument for Australia’s dominance in Hollywood, it would be easy to point to the likes of Chris Hemsworth. The man has gone from Summer Bay to the silver screen in a way that few people could have imagined. From fronting one of the biggest Marvel franchises of all time, to leading indie releases to boxoffice glory, Hemsworth is a lesson in what it looks like to be a movie star. He made $90m this year alone, for goodness sake. But there’s another figure who epitomises the depth of Aussie talent in Hollywood. He is proof that we can be movie stars, of course, but we can also do a lot more than that. We can be directors, actors and writers. Or, in the case of Joel Edgerton, we can sometimes be all three at once. A little over three years ago, Edgerton made his big-screen directorial debut with The Gift, a gritty psychological drama that he wrote, directed and starred in alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. It was the sleeper hit of 2015, earning not just praise from the likes of Variety and the New York Times, but box-office dollars, with more than a tenfold return on its $7m budget. Impressive stuff. Just over a year after The Gift was released, Joel Edgerton picked up a book by US author Garrard Conley. “You know the feeling of not wanting to put something down?” he says, when we meet in Sydney, “I just felt this incredible mix of feelings, of complete shock and awe and amazement and then sadness. And when I put it down, I felt like, ‘OK, this is my next movie’.” The book was called Boy Erased: A Memoir, Conley’s account of growing up as the child of a Baptist pastor, only to be outed in college and sent to a gay conversion therapy program. It is a brutal, moving depiction of the harm – both physical and psychological – that he and his fellow ‘students’ underwent while enrolled in the program. At first, Edgerton didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with the story – only that he knew he had to be involved. “I called the producer who gave me the book and I said, ‘Just get the rights if you can because someone needs to do it.’” But Edgerton wasn’t alone in his passion for the project that would become the film Boy Erased. When Lucas Hedges was confirmed for the lead – as well as Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, who Edgerton says were make-or-break additions to the cast – the news launched a fierce bidding war among distributors. Netflix, Amazon Studios, newcomer Annapurna Pictures and Focus Features were all keen to get the rights – with Focus Features eventually winning out. A little less than a year after principal photography started in Atlanta, Boy Erased premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. The response was immediately overwhelmingly positive, with critics highlighting the strong performances and storytelling, and Vanity Fair praising it as a “smart, emphatic, direct piece of writing”. Edgerton is looking forward to people seeing his film but he’s not one to pore over reviews. “Look, you put something out there – a piece of art is a labour of love – and then people have a position where they get to criticise it or praise it,” he says. “It’s a necessary part of the process. Obviously everybody would rather a pat on the back than a slap across the face, but it’s always nerve-racking putting something out there.” It doesn’t hurt that Edgerton has assembled a truly stellar cast. Beyond Hedges, Crowe and Kidman, the film also features Aussie acting and singing sensation Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan and Joe Alwyn. Flea (yes, he of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) also makes an appearance. The result is a powerful, emotional journey, one that is not only confronting at times, but that raises issues that are still more than relevant today. Between Queer Eye making a comeback and films like this year’s Love, Simon winning awards, it would be easy to assume that LGBTQI rights are a settled issue, that the fight for acceptance is over. But only last month, some Australian politicians spoke out against implementing protections that would prevent religious schools from expelling gay students or firing gay staff. While in the US, a leaked memo revealed the Trump administration was considering narrowing the definition of gender, a move that would effectively define transgender people out of existence. Boy Erased is a reminder that when it comes to civil rights – and even simple acceptance of others – the conversations are rarely ever finished, the struggles never truly won. “I have said – and I honestly mean it – that it would be great if this film didn’t have to exist,” says Edgerton. “As a filmmaker, every time you make something, you hope this lasts forever and people watch it for years to come. “But this feels like a different kind of movie for me. It feels like something that actually does have a level of importance to it and, sadly, has a relevance to it,” he adds. “It’s important to get those defining moments for minorities on film, to record them and to show that these things happened.” Edgerton may never be the biggest star in the world. But he’s something else, something genuine that reminds us that movies can be fun, frivolous entertainment, but they can also be meaningful and significant, and powerful. Edgerton’s work as a filmmaker is important not because telling stories like Boy Erased is easy – easy to make; easy to watch – but because it is hard. His talent is that it’s impossible to look away.
“It’s important to get those defining moments for minorities on film, to record them and to show that these things happened.”