No Easy Villains

Writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton’s new film Boy Erased, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley about his painful experience with Christian conversion therapy, is a story rendered even more tragic by its absence of obvious bad guys.

©2018 Focus Features
Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe, and Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased.
November 2, 2018 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features Joel Edgerton

Human beings make mistakes all the time, and I don’t think it matters what you do in life, it matters what you do when you make a mistake.

Hearing acclaimed New York-based memoirist Garrard Conley speak, it’s hard to imagine that not very long ago, he was a terrified 19-year-old from a small town in Arkansas committing himself to a gay conversion therapy center under threat of disownment by his family. Boy Erased, his memoir about that experience, is the basis for the new film from writer, director, and most famously actor, Joel Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty, The Gift).

Conley’s story was typical in many ways. He was raised in the South in a fundamentalist Christian house and, at the time of his “enrollment” in Love In Action—a now infamous gay conversion center since been renamed “Restoration Path”—his father was a car salesman well on his way to becoming a full-fledged Baptist pastor. While there is ample cause in America’s current divisive climate to vilify Conley’s parents and the fundamentalist religious beliefs that drove them to abhor their son’s sexuality, Boy Erased is a tale of grace with no easy villains. True to Conley’s recounting, the film doesn’t depict his father (Russell Crowe) as a frothing, homophobic monster, but as a man who loves his son, but because of religious doctrine believes his homosexuality is a curable evil. This makes the story more tragic and gripping, not less. The bittersweet irony that hangs over the entire tale is that the real conversion here is delivered by the gay son unto his parents, not the other way around.

Edgerton spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about what drew him to Boy Erased, how his own understanding of the story changed during the writing of the script, and why, more than anything, he wishes the people least likely to see this film would.

Tell me why it was important to you to not make anyone out to be a villain here.

I had a feeling I was going to make Garrard’s memoir into a movie. I was going to do it in the most honest fashion that I could, that bears true to what I’ve read. What really struck me about him was that, for all the turmoil that he was put through by his parents and therapists, once he had that seat of power that a writer can hold, he never really rendered them as bad people for choosing to do bad things to him. He was willing to acknowledge that [they had] this true belief based on the foundation of their Baptist belief system that they [thought] were helping to fix him because they believed it was possible for him to be “fixed.” I knew it was a more difficult prospect to make a movie where you don’t have an easily identifiable evil father and an evil therapist—kind of a Nurse Ratched—but I felt I would go for the same empathetic stance that he took.

So you were in a way trying to show fidelity to his grace about the way that he characterized these people?

Yeah, and there's something about Garrard, that he lived in this space where he obviously didn’t have great agency as a young man, which the majority of us can relate to. It could have been a short film about a boy whose parents don’t accept his sexuality, and he gives them the bird and moves to New York City. But he was like a lot of us under [our parents’] spell, they’re our heroes, they’re our source of information and belief. I also think that on the flip side, Garrard, unlike some people who read his memoir—LGBTQ or not—who were like, “Why don’t you just cut him off? Why wouldn't you just cut off your dad?” And here’s this beautiful guy who stands on his own two feet, very planted on the ground now, very self-possessed, and it’s like he’s standing there saying, “I want you to accept me, and I accept that you don’t fully accept me, but I’m right here, and if you want to get closer, that’s up to you.” That’s such a strength that I also wanted that to be part of the film. In the final scene with Russell, he becomes a parent. He becomes a mature force and he flips the roles almost.

From a narrative standpoint, in honoring that graceful depiction of these people making these decisions based on their belief system and not vilifying them, did you find that really augmented the power of the narrative?

It did. It makes it richer as in, it makes it murkier and therefore perhaps and potentially—or hopefully—it’s easier for us to relate to the “clients,” and when I say the “clients,” the people who were subjected to the therapy were called “clients.” The “clients” were fed information that they could believe, and it was fed to them as a kind of rhetoric of hope. To sort of paraphrase, “Look, it’s going to be a tough week, but God, we’re gonna get a lot of benefit out of this and we’re all in this together, and it’s going to be special.” This enthusiasm for a change that was never going to come and these ideas that homosexuality is a choice as a behavior and that once that choice is reversed, you'll no longer be that thing, that’s such a false sense of hope. That’s more frightening, when somebody comes at you with such conviction and yet deep down, you know that their conviction and beliefs are not sticking to the walls the way that you would hope.

In real life, Garrard’s father said, “You either go to conversion therapy or you don’t see the family again, you don't go to college.” This is brutal stuff. Did you worry as you were writing it, that you were being too understanding?

Well, my answer to that in a way is, some people would say, “How terrible is the institution if you could just pick up the phone and call your mom, and she’ll come and pick you up?” I purposely made a decision not to make locking sounds on doors and have padlocks on doors and to make it feel like an actually locked institution because the locks were the psychological connectivity to Jesus and the fear of failing in the opinion of your parents. [Those] were the psychological bars, windows, and locks of Love In Action. As far as the ultimatum goes, that’s how it went down with Garrard. He spent a whole evening denying the accusation of his accuser, that he had been behaving in a flagrantly homosexual way at college. [Garrard] finally found the power to go and declare that it was true, that he thought about men. I just kept thinking, the idea that your parents—and in my world, my parents were everything, they were my information, they were my superheroes, their opinion was right and they were righteous, and if they told me that I was no longer welcome to live in their house unless I stopped doing a certain thing, I would absolutely tow that line—I just think that’s such a devastating emotional situation to face. In a way, it's more upsetting than if Russell's character dragged him upstairs and beat the skin off him. I loved, for example, American Beauty and the great complicated character of Chris Cooper’s [Colonel Fitts]. There was such a violence bottled away under the surface of that character, it was very exhilarating. And yet in Garrard’s story, there’s this world and this available space for redemption. I was very pleased the way that Russell interpreted the character [of the father], that the news of homosexuality in his son caused him great pain, [but] that he immediately went into a compassionate place of needing to help him, almost like he had found out that his son was addicted to heroin. That compassion exists in that family. It was important that I didn’t paint anybody with the wrong brush.

Right. It makes it all more agonizing, really.

Yeah. It’s very squirmy because it’s like, I could see you love this guy, but your beliefs mean that there’s a direct conflict of opposite ideas. On one hand, the inherent feeling that inside you, you know you’re not going to change or that you have these very strong feelings. And then to be told that means that God won’t love you and that with the prayer and the right vigilant thinking you can actually erase those thoughts from [yourself]. You know, it’s such a perfect catch-22 for a family dynamic.

What for you, personally, resonated most about this story?

I went into this with a real interest in the madness of the institution and what I realized was that the greater force within this movie was the family story. What really resonates with me is the concept of conversion of opinion that underpins this movie. What’s amazing is that the force going in is this idea of converting one’s sexuality and what actually comes out of it is the force and power and the heroic strength in examining your own opinion and converting those thoughts. As Garrard said to his father at the end, “There’s no changing me, you’re the one that is going to have to change.” That resonates with me very strongly. I said to the audience at Mill Valley last night, “I’m obsessed as a writer.” It happened with Felony and The Square and other things I’ve written. Human beings make mistakes all the time, and I don’t think it matters what you do in life, it matters what you do when you make a mistake. So you could be judged for a mistake, but you can actually be judged more positively if you’re willing to correct the balance. I’m interested in how people act after damage.

How cognizant of the political environment in America were you as you were writing?

More than ever in my life, [I’ve] become political since Donald Trump got elected. For the first time in my life, I actually really understood, through daily reading of news, how the American political system works. And along the way you realize where the limitations of freedoms are for certain members of community. And in specific terms for the LGBTQ community, the fear of limited freedoms when it comes to marriage or just simple things like being served in a store. I had the conversation with myself, was I ready to get behind something like this, knowing that it might turn people against me, or that we might get backlash? But the more I kept putting the microscope on the material, I realized that this is not a story that demonizes religion. It’s not throwing God under a bus. It’s about people, and it’s really about the interpretation—in this case the interpretation of the Bible—to serve a certain agenda…I didn't really fear going into this process that I was becoming political. It’s a story, but it is a political story. I’m sure you agree that certain movies we make in Hollywood on this small scale that are about important subjects or relevant subjects, they are always going to be seen by the already converted. Well, that's probably the wrong way of putting it, considering the word in the movie...

Right but you’re point is understood, you’ve said you want people who believe in conversion therapy to see this. That’s who you want to see this film. Right?

Absolutely. Politicians need to see it. Christian groups that are behind conversion therapy or have access to conversion therapy within their church groups, it would be great for them to see it. Any parent who is connected to a coming out story or who feels they have a son or a daughter who is about to potentially pass that news on to them [needs to see it]. Anybody who has a brother or sister, or has a niece or nephew, anybody connected to this concept of making decisions about the future of a person who’s young really needs to see it. And no doubt it will help young people who are struggling with this kind of situation. It gives a chance for people to know that they’re not alone and for parents to question their own choices. I love that people who feel the movie speaks to them are going to see the film, but really the people who need to see it are those who probably look at the poster or the trailer and go, “I don't want to see that.” It’d be really wonderful if we could crack that nut. Not how do you trick people into seeing it, but how do you get the right rhetoric around it so that people decide, despite their initial instinct, they’re going to watch this movie.

That's the rub, isn't it?

Yeah. I remember watching Three Kings and being amazed at the movie, but I felt somewhat tricked by the marketing campaign. Because I was a young guy, I was like, “Ah, cool, blown-up war movie.” And it was like they fed me a story that I wasn’t expecting in a different capsule, and the capsule was the marketing campaign. It got me there. I felt like I got so much more than I was expecting.


But that’s good. Marketing is good trickery. This is a different thing. I don’t know how we do it. But we’re really, really vigilantly thinking about how we can.

Well, I think the conscientious approach also feeds into that, the fairness with which you treat the subjects here.

Yeah, definitely.

© 2018 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: Barry Jenkins on why Moonlight struck a deep emotional chord with audiences and what it means to write with “active empathy.”