“It’s a hopeful but harrowing story”
Joel Edgerton explains why gay conversion drama Boy Erased is as frightening as any horror movie
After years in front of the camera, acting in films like Loving and The Great Gatsby, Joel edgerton made a storming debut behind the camera in 2015 with The Gift,
a Hitchcockian horror that made its modest budget back more than ten times at the box office. His second directorial effort, the real-life drama Boy Erased, is more earnest, more virtuous, and — if the bookies are to be believed — more awards-y. But as edgerton explains, it’s just as much of a horror movie as his last film.
“i think Boy Erased has more scary moments than The Gift,” edgerton asserts. “The Gift is designed to make an audience jump and jitter. Boy Erased
is a true story that gets under your skin and makes you uncomfortable in other ways.” Here, the threat is more sinister because it’s real. And it spoke to edgerton’s own deep-seated childhood terrors. “i happened to have a childhood deep fear of being separated from my parents, and being institutionalised in any fashion,” he recalls. As a child, edgerton once burst into tears after his dad joked about sending him to the other side of Australia.
those fears sparked edgerton’s interest in Boy Erased: A Memoir
by Garrard Conley, which he read voraciously in early 2017. Like many people, edgerton knew only the basics about the controversial practice of gay conversion therapy, the pseudoscience offered by some right wing religious organisations that claim to change people’s sexuality. “i literally heard that it existed,” he says. “i had the same are-you-kidding-me reaction that a lot of people had.”
Understandably, he expected to find horror in Conley’s experiences, which saw the teenage Christian presented with an ultimatum from his conservative parents: undergo conversion therapy, or be disowned. But edgerton was surprised by the nuance of the story. “i think i was just looking for madness in the pages: diabolical people and mad ideas and backward thinking and viciousness and blood on the pages. i got some of those things, but what i also got out of it was a hopeful story, albeit very harrowing. it was more complicated and less blackand-white, i thought.”
Central to the movie is a profound sense of empathy. edgerton kept returning to the protagonist’s parents (played in the film by nicole Kidman and russell Crowe), realising that though their choices around their son were clearly wrong, they came from a good place. “there’s no need to vilify any of these people. i couldn’t deny, when i kept examining it, that the action [of sending their son to conversion therapy] was born out of love, albeit based on the misinformation of a belief system.” in the real world, the only way to beat horror is empathy.
Boy Erased is in cinemas from 8 february
Joel Edgerton spoke to Empire on the phone from San Francisco on 6 November. From top:Reeling ’em off, director Edgerton; He also plays therapist Victor Sykes; Jon (Xavier Dolan) with Jared (Lucas Hedges) on the controversial conversion programme.