In 2004, a 19-year-old aspiring writer from Arkansas named Garrard Conley found himself in an uncomfortable situation. Inadvertently outed to his Baptist parents after being sexually assaulted by a male student while at college, he was sent to a gay-conversion facility in Memphis with an ironic name: Love in Action.
Unsurprisingly, the “cure” didn’t take.
Years later, Conley wrote a book about that experience. Titled “Boy Erased,” Conley’s 2016 memoir has now been adapted as a film starring Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) as the fictionalized Jared and Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as Jared’s parents. Now 33, Conley spoke with us by phone about the film and his related advocacy work. We also checked in with Joel Edgerton, 44, the film’s writer and director, who plays a character based on the former director of the Love in Action ministry.
(This interview has been condensed from two conversations.)
Q: Joel, your directorial debut, "The Gift," is a psychological thriller — also coincidentally about someone who was mistreated by his father, who assumed, wrongly in that case, that his son was gay. Were there any thriller-ish elements that drew you to Garrard's story?
Edgerton: Funnily enough, yes. The reason I opened the book in the first place was my childhood fear of institutions, of being locked up, of being taken away from my family. I remember kneeling by my bed as a child and praying that I would never ever have to go to prison. If I misbehaved, my father would sometimes joke that he could always exchange me with another kid, and that made me so upset. As for gay conversion, I had this morbid curiosity about it as this very different sort of prison. Imagine that the people who sent you to prison — the ones who are telling you that you’re broken — are your own family.
Q: Is that when you realized that the story is as much about family as it is about gay conversion?
Edgerton: Absolutely. The family story just seemed to take over. It’s why I decided to make it into a movie. Jared’s parents are the ones who have to undergo their own conversion.
Q: Garrard, what is your relationship like with your parents today?
Conley: What they did put a strain on all of us. My dad and I still argue. He’s a Baptist minister. He still has a church. It was only a couple of weeks ago that my dad finally said to my mom, “I don’t think any of that therapy worked.” Ya think?
There can be pervasive bigotry in small towns. Although I’m the one who came out, my mother also had a coming out, in a sense. After all, she’s the one who ultimately saved me. She’s a member of this secret Facebook group, the Mama Bears: It’s largely Christian mothers who can’t be open about their support for their gay kids but who try to come up with strategies to change the church from the inside out.
It was also just a couple of weeks ago that my dad’s church held a vote to see if my dad should be kicked out — all because my mom was joining me on the promotional tour for the movie. In the end, they didn’t kick him out, but I think that they would be happy if he were to divorce my mom.
Q: Is your mother — or Nicole Kidman's character — the real hero of this story?
Conley: While Joel and I were still going back and forth about the script, I was very firm about the fact that whatever ending he wrote, it has to be on Jared’s terms. The conversion has to be the parents’, not Jared’s.
Before I wrote the second half of the book, I sat down with my mom and recorded four hours of interviews. She was married at 16, always super smart, but she gave up part of herself to raise a family. Now she’s getting standing ovations at the Toronto Film Festival. She’s spoken at the Clinton Center. The audience was riveted. This is who she is meant to be. She’s now getting to live this second life.
Q: Joel, your character is based on John Smid, the former director of the Love in Action ministry who eventually left that gay-conversion program and who now lives as an out gay man. Did you meet him?
Edgerton: Yes, I visited him in Texas. But I also watched a lot of footage from when he still believed he was right, from back in 2005. He’s very charismatic, very beguiling, like a politician. That made me realize how dangerous his casual rhetoric was. Even though, on the surface, he’s like a big brother, he would use information that he coaxed out of young men and women to shame them.
We could make much more money with this film if we did the “heroes and villains” version of Garrard’s story, if we made Love in Action out to be this torture chamber. But that is not the truth. Garrard calls the book a “document” of something that will soon be in the past. The irony is that people like Garrard don’t need help; it’s the others who need converting.
Q: It takes a while for Jared to come around to seeing the pernicious effects of Love in Action, which he initially seems to embrace, if only halfheartedly. Why is that part of his journey important?
Edgerton: It’s important for kids, especially kids from conservative Christian families like Jared’s, to be able to identify with him. These kids are just eating the meal that they’re fed.
Q: What, if anything, was changed from the book?
Conley: Anytime you adapt a book, there’s a loss. I wrote it with a slightly campy voice — very Southern Gothic. But film, even a piece of advocacy, needs to be more objective.
Before now — and before this year’s other gay-conversion drama, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which I was a consultant on — every other portrayal of conversion therapy treated such programs as a joke, as in the satirical 1999 film “But I’m a Cheerleader.” We’ve all seen that story before. I wanted this to be a form of advocacy, for people both inside and outside the LGBTQ community.
Q: What's your hope for the film, which has been earning accolades?
Conley: The accolades are great, because they serve to keep the conversation going. My eye is very much on making the topic of conversion therapy — and the bigotry that creates it — a household topic. People are always incredulous when I say that there are 700,000 Americans who have undergone conversion therapy. I want that shock to be something that I never have to encounter again.
Q: If the film is a form of advocacy, how do you reach the audience who most needs to see it, and who is that audience?
Edgerton: That’s the frustrating dilemma. We have this conversation all the time. I talked to one young man who saw it at the Telluride Film Festival. He said, “I wish this film had existed when I was 15 years old.” But how do you not just preach to the converted, so to speak? We don’t want to throw God under the bus.
One hope I have is that once the film finds its way to a streaming platform, there will be people who will watch — one half of a couple who are parents of a gay child, maybe — who are too scared to see it in the cinema. If there is someone who has figured out how to get the right “wrong” people to see this film, I would love to speak to them.
Q: Do you consider yourself a role model, Garrard?
Conley: I definitely didn’t choose to be that. I only ever wanted to be a writer, not in the public eye. I find it taxing. But every once in a while, I find emails in my inbox that are cries of terror from people who are reaching out in pain. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of responsibility. I actually got an email from a man the other day who said he was contemplating suicide, and then he saw the “Boy Erased” trailer, and it made him want to keep going.
Boy Erased (R, 114 minutes). At area theaters.