‘Boy Erased’ author Garrard Conley on his story’s long road to the screen
It’s been a long journey for Garrard Conley — from escaping gay conversion therapy as a young man in Arkansas, to the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film adaptation of his memoir, “Boy Erased,” just screened. Boston was an important stop along that journey for Conley. Last year, he led the Memoir Incubator program at GrubStreet, Boston’s independent creative writing center.
“I knew of GrubStreet from [artistic director] Chris Castellani, who I love. We met at Bread Loaf [writers’ conference],” said Conley at TIFF.
Every Monday for months, Conley traveled by bus from New York City, where he lives with his husband, to Boston to teach the course.
“I’d love to return. It is a dream teaching job. I wish I lived in Boston. The mission of GrubStreet is something I truly believe in,” he said.
Conley’s memoir, from Riverhead Books, came out in 2016. It recounts how, as a teenager wrestling with his sexuality, Conley was pressured by his father, a fundamentalist pastor, to undergo gay conversion therapy at a program called Love in Action. The film rights were quickly snapped up with actor Joel Edgerton adapting the book and directing. Focus Features will release “Boy Erased” in November.
Lucas Hedges stars as Conley’s character, called Jared in the film; Russell Crowe plays his father; and Nicole Kidman plays his mother, who eventually rejects the idea of gay conversion and supports her son’s coming out. Edgerton cast himself as the evangelical zealot who runs the center with questionable tactics.
Conley was wary about a big screen depiction of his story. “I was like, ‘This straight man is interested in this story, let’s make sure he gets it right,’ ” he said. “To Joel’s immense credit, he sat with so many survivors of conversion therapy. He did so much research and listened to every one of my comments. My worry dissipated quickly.”
Conley also praised Hedges, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck.
“Lucas and I had such a close connection. He told me about his own journey when we first met. He was so open; he had every page of my book marked up,” said Conley, referring to a New York magazine story in which Hedges said he was: “Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.”
Hedges is preparing for a new Broadway staging this fall of Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery” so he wasn’t at TIFF. But Kidman walked the red carpet along with Conley, Edgerton, and other members of the cast.
Conley, 33, considers the film one piece, albeit the most high profile one, of an ongoing effort to combat the disproven practice that attempts to “convert” LGBTQ individuals. Conley and the “Boy Erased” team have joined the creators of Radiolab to produce a four-part podcast called “UnErased” about the history of gay conversion “therapy” in the United States and abroad. It debuts in the fall.
Edgerton said his desire to bring “Boy Erased” to the screen grew from the 2016 film “Loving,” in which he and Ruth Negga played the real-life Mildred and Richard Loving. The couple in the 1960s successfully challenged state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
“ ‘Loving,’” said Edgerton, “planted a seed in me telling stories of injustice. So when I read Garrard’s book, I had that same blood boil aspect but there was a lot of love in it, too.”
The Australian actor has his own personal connection to Boston. He played John Connolly in “Black Mass” (2015) and is widely credited for the feat of delivering a believable Southie accent. But even Edgerton was filled with doubt that he could pull it off.
Edgerton recalled “going through customs in the Boston airport and a guy recognized me. I told him I was there [to shoot] ‘Black Mass.’ He literally said to me as I got my passport, ‘I’m from Southie. Don’t [mess] it up.’ ”