Author Garrard Conley ruminated and waited nearly a decade to write his memoir Boy Erased, which chronicled the details of his experiences in gay conversion therapy. Now, his story is the basis of a Focus Feature feature film directed and written by Joel Edgerton and starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. The film has already gained traction in the awards season race and for Conley, it was less about the Hollywood of it all and more about the opportunity to tell his story — a story that no one was paying attention to at first until Edgerton came along.
Conley’s memoir was released in 2016 by Riverhead Publishing and he said that it wasn’t “huge”, but he appreciated the publishing company’s openness to diverse stories. He said they were “taking a bit risk.” It didn’t make the bestseller list, but it still told his stirring story. Still, there wasn’t a line of people knocking at his door to make it into a movie.
“There was apparently this anonymous author [who was interested] two weeks before Joel asked me, but my agent said that they were being iffy and weird about it…so she just backed out of it,” Conley tells Deadline.
“I’ve been going around and talking about [gay conversion therapy] for a while,” he continued. “Even before I wrote the book, I’ve been writing articles about it and trying to get the word out there through various means. It just felt like I was stuck behind this metal door, and it was just not going to open up. I always said if I ever got that door to open up a little bit, I would just immediately push it all the way.”
While working with Edgerton to adapt his real-life story into this Hollywood film, Conley said that he listened to him throughout the whole process and was championing bringing awareness to the impact of gay conversion therapy. “[Edgerton] basically said, ‘Let’s end this together. Let’s try to make this a conversation that every household is having,'” said Conley.
“I think that’s really an amazing gift to have, when we get to actually, by our words, begin to save lives,” he added.
Boy Erased follows Jared (Hedges), who, after being outed, is sent to gay conversion therapy program by his pastor father (Crowe) concerned and caring mother (Kidman). The film details his time at the program where he comes into conflict with its leader (Edgerton) while flashing back to key moments in his life. With the book, Conley said that it took him a while to be comfortable enough to write a single word of his experience at the program. It wasn’t until he was in a nonfiction class at a creative writing workshop that the words started to come out.
“I had no idea what nonfiction really was…or I just had never dabbled in it,” admitted Conley. “I was always wanting to be a fiction writer. I remember I wrote this chapter that later turned out to be the chapter about my dad. I said to the class, ‘What did you think about my dad?’ They all said, ‘I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t.’ That’s when I knew I could write the book.”
“The harder, more interesting truths are the ones that live in contradiction and sort of complexity,” he said. As seen in the film, Conley’s story is an emotional story to watch — and an even more difficult one for Conley to tell. He said that he found a window into it so that it could be fun to write. He didn’t just want it to be about “torture”. Instead, it became almost a detective story about why these people did what they did. He pointed out, “Now that I have enough distance to not be angry or constantly terrified, can I look at them as almost novelistic characters.”
Conley watched the film the first time at a small screening with his husband, a couple of close friends and Edgerton. One would think that seeing your life translated to the big screen — especially a very trying moment in your life — would be a difficult moment and emotional, but Conley had a different experience. In fact, he had three different experiences each time he watched it with different people from his life.
“I had no idea what I witnessed… I think I actually kind of blacked out. I just couldn’t see it,” admitted Conley. “I saw my husband being kind of emotional about it, but I wasn’t at all. I was really cold, and I was like, ‘Oh, I think that might have been terrible.'”
After seeing it a second time by himself, it sunk in with Conley and he loved it. But when he saw the final cut at Telluride, his nerves began to surface. “I think I displaced a lot of my fear onto Nicole Kidman, because she was also seeing it for the first time,” he said. “Definitely a different level of nerves, but you know, I was delusional at the time. So we sat down, and I was right in front of her at the screening. During the really intense parts, she actually gave me a little bit of a back rub. It was so surreal and sweet that I think it made me be able to sort of see the film a bit more.”
When he saw it with his mother at the Toronto International Film Festival, she was seeing it for the first time with a crowd of 1,700 people. He said that it was stressful for them and remembered that she was surprised to see that so many people interested in seeing their story. He points out: “Because where she’s from, this wouldn’t be a story. This would just be normal life.”
As for Conley’s father, he hasn’t seen the film yet and he doesn’t know if he will Once you see Crowe’s portrayal of his father, you’ll understand why. “I think that it’s fraught for him because he’s still the pastor of a Baptist church,” he said. “He says that he loves LGBTQ people, but he doesn’t go beyond that. He’s still in the sort of process of evolution in his reconciling his faith and who I am. You know, that’s messy and we get in arguments and all that.”
After a beat, Conley continues, “There were so many times when I tried to hate him, but I don’t think you get to choose who you love. The minute that I tried to, I see him doing this soup kitchen for homeless people in that town. Then he’s going off and sitting beside people who are dying, not because he just wants to save their souls, but because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. It’s hard to completely demonize a person who does so much good, especially when I wouldn’t do that. I know I wouldn’t do any of that. It’s just too much.”
Despite that, Conley said that his father and Crowe shared an intense connection. They exchanged texts for a month (which Conley admits was a strange month) and his father gave Crowe a pen that he writes his sermons with — a detail in the film that has strong significance. “I think that there are a lot of different ways that dad is maybe opening up, but I don’t think he’s there yet.”
Like his father, Conley shared a connection with his on-screen self. He was excited to have Hedges play Jared after seeing him in Manchester of the Sea. After meeting him in Brooklyn and hitting it off, Hedges told him “I feel like you’ve just opened up your entire life to me. Let me take you back to my apartment where my family lives, and you can see my childhood bedroom and everything.”
Conley met his Hedges’ father Peter Hedges, who he was a fan of and said that his family was so welcoming, warm and…normal. “I’m suddenly thrust into this Hollywood world, but these people are so normal in the best way possible.” He also mentioned that he saw Hedges had a copy of his book and it was marked up on every page. With that, Hedges’ ability to convey sensitivity and after opening up in the New York Magazine article about his own shame and struggle with his own sexuality, Conley knew that he was right for the part. “That’s all I needed,” he said.
In a landscape of the need for proper and authentic LGBTQ representation in film, Conley was aware that there was a straight man directing and writing his story but points out he’s not the only one involved in the film. Conley said, “I actually sent Joel a four-page document that was kind of insane on LGBTQ representation.”
As Edgerton’s second time in the director’s chair, he listened to Conley, filling the movie with LGBTQ actors such as Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, and Cherry Jones. LGBTQ representation was also present behind the camera with co-producer David Craig.
He admits that they struggled to tell his story when it comes to diverse storytelling because of its specificity of the region. “The institution of conversion therapy, the kind that I went to is incredibly white,” said Conely. “It’s like the whitest thing in the world. It’s like Trump voter country.”
He said it was tricky because they wanted to tell the story truthfully and questioned if they wanted to change any of it to make it less white. They didn’t want to tokenize people and put them in the movie and say that other non-white people were in conversion therapy when they weren’t, because that feels weird, too.
Conley said that there is a “ways to go” when it comes to diverse LGBTQ stories and he realizes Boy Erased isn’t the end all to queer experiences that fall into a similar narrative. He gives nods to the Chloe Grace Moretz film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which was directed by Desiree Akhavan, who identifies as bisexual. He also recognizes the cult classic and tonally different But I’m A Cheerleader directed by Jamie Babbit, who is also a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I think it’s because we’re operating from a place of scarcity,” he explains. “When we’re operating from that place of scarcity, of course, there are also very real truths and very frustrating truths, the fact that most gay stories are white [cisgender] gays. That’s what’s happening. It’s right to call it out and to question it, I think. It’s also weird for me, personally, because Lucas’s part is that he’s being turned more cis that he might even want to be, you know? Conversion therapy is aimed at making people seem straighter. It’s an interesting thing whenever reality butts up against representation.”
In addition to Boy Erased, Conley will continue to tell LGBTQ narratives and bring awareness to gay conversion therapy with his new Radiolab podcast “UnErased. The four-part series will tell the history of gay conversion and the “pray the gay away” movement in the country. Conley serves as a producer along with Boy Erased co-producer David Craig. Conley is also writing a novel about being queer in the 18th Century during the Great Awakening.
Ultimately, with Boy Erased, Conley says the memoir is “very interior by nature” and is “all about what’s going on in your mind.” For that, he considers it a “very queer text.”
“From my perspective, it functions as a great piece of not only art but advocacy,” he said. “Joel took a bit more of an objective view of the situation, sort of looking down at this family as they go through this. So it’s just really interesting to watch it from this new perspective and to think parents can watch this and maybe think about doing the right thing.”