The movie Joel Edgerton wishes he didn't have to make
BOY Erased is a film Joel Edgerton passionately threw his weight behind as writer, director and actor. But he wishes he didn't have to make it.
Based on Garrard Conley's 2016 memoir of the same name, the film tells the story of the son of a Baptist preacher forced into a church-supported gay conversion program.
It's a practice that still exists, for both adults and minors, in the US and Australia.
"After the screening (in Sydney) I met two young men who had been through gay conversion therapy in Australia,” he says.
"It was a very emotional experience and I was very illuminated. I was at once happy to meet them and then sad at the fact that I had to meet them in the first place. In the same way, it's so weird I put a year and a half into this movie and have quite openly said I wish the movie didn't have to exist.”
Edgerton plays Victor Sykes, the head therapist at the Love In Action program, and he was able to meet John, the person the character is based on, in Texas.
"He has an entirely new life now that turns its back on conversion therapy,” he says. "He was very transparent and open about his previous points of view and the therapy he administered to people. He acknowledged the guilt he felt about the people his practices had affected, both the people in the program and the families.
"The biggest thing is it affects not only the dynamic of families but imagine trying to then form healthy relationships (as a gay person), but constantly being plagued by this niggling past fear that you were always told those relationships were wrong or sinful.”
The meeting with John reinforced Edgerton's sensitive and considered approach to the story, which points out the flaws in the practice rather than vilifying any of the people involved.
"I realised I wasn't trying to do an impersonation of him,” he says.
"One thing that did land for me was how charismatic and affable and interesting he was as a person, and separating him from his ideas. I've met politicians I disagree with but I'm almost annoyed at how interesting or intelligent they are to converse with. John was one of those guys; it was hard not to like him. I can see why he was a charismatic leader of something like that, and I realised the way to portray him on screen wasn't as this edgy, dark, malevolent demon against homosexuality. It was the opposite. He was like a welcome mat that was the way forward.
"We're not throwing religion under the bus. We're not demonising anybody. We're talking about the practice of conversion therapy, which is the agenda of human beings.”
Even though they've been friends for decades, this is the first time Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe have appeared in a film together. That wasn't what motivated Edgerton to cast them, but he's happy to take advantage of the attention their star power brings to the project.
"They were literally the faces that were staring back at me when I looked at the photo album of Garrard's family,” he says.
"I couldn't shake the fact that his father reminded me of Russell, and that Nicole resembled - in her pale, translucent skin and slight frame - his mother.
"There's something else going on behind the choice. In my mind it needed to have a real high-profile nature in terms of casting in order that we send a message out there; so that it's not some tiny movie about a tiny subject that can be forgotten. The higher profile the cast, the tougher it would be for people to ignore the impact.”
Boy Erased opens in cinemas on Thursday.
STARS: Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Lucas Hedges, Joel Edgerton.
DIRECTOR: Joel Edgerton
RATING: MA 15+
REVIEWER'S LAST WORD: Director-writer-star Joel Edgerton proves drama can be subtle yet powerful, creating a powerful family drama about how even parents - and people in general, for that matter - with the best intentions can make mistakes.