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Joel Edgerton and Garrard Conley Talk About Writing a New Chapter for Representation in Film

7 min read

For 10 minutes on a bright sunny October Friday, I had the opportunity to sit and talk to Garrard Conley and Joel Edgerton, the writer of the memoir Boy Erased and the writer, director, producer and star of the upcoming movie of the same name. Boy Erased,in theaters now, tells the haunting story of Conley’s time in a gay conversion therapy camp.  We talked about how Joel got involved in the project, the importance of representation, finding LGBTQ individuals and allies to star in the film, and the right way to portray difficult subject matter. 

Cortland Jacoby: Garred, Boy Erased is based on your memoir of going to a gay conversation therapy institution. Joel, how did you hear about the book and how did you get involved?

Joel Edgeton: Karry Roberts, the producer gave it to me. She was feeling very politicized, I guess, and I’m interested to throw wood on the fire on the feeling about America’s, uh, the fear at the time, a couple years ago and now of things sliding backwards in terms of change. You know change is something we keep doing, you know two steps forward, three steps backwards.  And that was my “holiday” reading! She gave it to me because she was so inflamed and interested to turn it into a movie, as I became later on, obsessed to do so. 

CJ: So what was your input Garrard, in terms of crafting the script and Lucas Hedges’s performance?

Garrard Conley: Yeah, Joel invited me to write the script first, I didn’t want to for a number of reasons.

CJ: It’s a completely different medium.

GC: Totally different! I think I could do a script now because I know what the industry’s more like, but at the time it was just too close to me.  And then the other thing was that I could just tell Joel was in grip of the story and as an artist, I could see that another artist was, it almost felt like there had been a baton that was passed, like I didn’t even have a choice. It was just there and I relied a lot on my intuition, I just knew that he had some sort of vision for it. That is was gonna be right. And he involved me in every draft and basically showed me each draft and I would give a few notes and usually incorporated those notes, almost every single note was incorporated into the script. So it was an incredibly generous and collaborative process. At no point, you know, after I got to know Joel, did I ever doubt that he had the best intentions.

CJ: I was gonna ask a little bit later about representation, but this seems like a really good time to jump in with that. 

GC: I forgot to talk about Lucas but in terms of representation, Joel was very much interested in getting as many you know very good but also big named actors to be involved in this process of filmmaking so that the movie itself could reach a larger audience. And I on the back end, I was, Joel was already conscious of this issue, but I was like giving him five page documents on queer representation. (Laughs) Here’s how we do it! Luckily I was working with someone who was a true ally.

CJ: That’s one thing I feel like a lot of films now are struggling with. We are seeing this with LGBT representation, but race representation, and fat representation and things like that. 

JE:  Yeah!

CJ: So what is it like to be an ally especially when you are making a film that doesn’t necessarily echo your experience?

JE: Look, I’ve had experience before as an actor, that’s my day job and I don’t mean to put it down, I love it and it’s brought me to be sitting here today, and I know I’ve been in situations where I’ve been criticized for representation as an actor. With full respect to that, I think there’s an evolving conversation that seems to be getting better. Studios keep having the luster and excitement of releasing a film, kinda of taking from gloss to matte sheen because they made mistakes, you know and I think they’ve learned from that and I’ve helped consult people on that front as well. Coming from it as a director, it was a different perspective. I was like, “alright, I’m not qualified to do this LGBTQ story, or what I saw as a gay man trapped in a straight world, which felt like to me almost twilight zone. 

Cj: (laughs) Yeah

JE: But even still, I was like, “who am I to make this story?” I became so obsessed with it and I felt because I thankfully had a living breathing human (gestures to Garrard) who had experienced this, giving me the respect and the space to take hold. But then it was a case of “how do we represent it on screen.” And of course we look at people like Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan and Cherry Jones and at least a large percentage of what we called the clients of [the facility], and they’re all bringing their own experiences to the screen and two the narrative that we created together. And that was important on a business level though. Sadly, I’ve been around long enough to know the business side of the film business, and that having Nicole (Kidman) and Russel (Crowe) there as allies, as well, as [playing] the parents helps. And having Lucas there. To be very honest at the time, I had an instinct towards Lucas as the actor, being the right person to portray Garrard. I had no sense for things he said publically in the press recently that meant he was perhaps somewhere on, what I think is the next generational strength of declaring themselves free to be who they are,  a spectrum, to redefine themselves with no clear pigeon holding. I was unaware of it, I was just interested in him and the right energy to play the role.  But I think representation is very important for these stories, for particularly trans stories, as well. And as a director, I felt safe knowing that I had Garrard. 

GC: One of the cool things is, at the beginning, we wanted to use this as a jumping off point for people to tell their own stories. My story is not the most typical of the conversion therapy stories, like a lot of people stay for a very long time. So we are doing a podcast called Unerased, the book and the film, I feel like we are giving a lot of windows and opportunities to jump off of that and tell their own stories. It’s just a really cool experience, I’ve been connected with so many survivors now, some are coming to screenings, it feels like now’s the moment to move past even my story and into other stories. 

JE: To speak to that, I recently went back to Australia to do press for Boy Erased

CJ: There’s a lot going on over there with LGBT rights.

JE: Yeah, when I first showed the movie, there was a document released about conversion therapy there and interviews with survivors and one of them went to place like ten minutes down the road from where I grew up. 

Cortland: Wow.

JE: It’s very real.

CJ: I hate to end on a downer…

JE: (Laughs) I love ending on downers. My life’s gonna end on a downer… its called death!

CJ: It is called death! I hate to end on a downer. The film depicts sexual assault, it depicts rape, as a director, how did you go about that? I noticed with that scene there’s not a lot of music, no fancy camera work, its very raw. So how do you go about filming something that’s so difficult. 

JE: I mean there’s a couple of edits in that scene, but our original intention was to not, and actually to be very honest, the reason why it isn’t the way it is, because I actually wanted it to be more brutal than the duration of the original scene was shot. I was, I hate to say fan, but a great supporter of a documentary called The Hunting Ground. I think that in the Me Too movement, not only do individuals need to be held to account, but colleges under title IX need to be held accountable for their lack of reporting and lack of care when it comes to victims. For that reason, I have felt that it very important to depict, not only the assault but the lack of reporting of that assault. Most importantly, its part of Garrard’s story, an integral part of why he was outed. It was not his choice to find his own way to come out to his family. Some people out themselves, some find an easy way to find that space for their parents. Some people don’t have a choice. Its unflinching and I think it’s very important and it’s sadly what so many people go through and not to generalize or pick sides about gender, but one of the things that struck about The Hunting Ground was the inevitable surprise that when young men would report sexual assault in college quite often the result was “Well you’re a guy. Why didn’t you fight them off? Why didn’t you do anything about it? And I think people need to have a great empathy of imagining and putting themselves in a position of other people. So for many reasons.

C: Thank you guys so much for sitting down I really appreciate it. 

GC and JE: Thank you.

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