Some kids are scared of clowns, others of big, snarling dogs. But for writer, director, actor and producer Joel Edgerton, it was the spectre of prison that terrified him.
“I used to be so fearful of being locked up,” the down-to-earth star says, laughing, over the phone from Sydney while on a return trip to Australia to promote his second directorial feature, Boy Erased.
Not that he was a very bad boy. Growing up in Blacktown, halfway between Sydney’s CBD and the Blue Mountains, he just got it in his head imprisonment was on the cards if he and big brother Nash, the stuntman turned Mr Inbetween creator, didn’t behave themselves.
Now based in Los Angeles, 44-year-old Edgerton has picked up none of Tinseltown’s airs and graces, but his early obsession stuck. “I’m hardwired to be curious about stories involving institutions and prisons,” he told The New Daily.
One look at his crime-filled acting career proves that. After playing outlaw Aaron Sherritt to Heath Ledger’s gang leader in Ned Kelly (2003), his big breakthrough came as bad boy Baz in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010). He even played a creepy stalker in his directorial debut, psychological thriller The Gift (2015).
It’s also there in the queer conversion camp setting of Boy Erased. Adapted by Edgerton from American author Garrard Conley’s devastating memoir, it stars Manchester by the Sea’s remarkable Lucas Hedges, surrendered by his Baptist parents, played by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman in a turn already attracting Oscar buzz.
Edgerton also had a religious upbringing but nothing like what Conley experienced. “Something about the injustice of his story that felt like it was a project that chose me, rather than me choosing it,” he said.
The book was handed to him while filming 2018 spy thriller Red Sparrow with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in Budapest and the institutional setting hooked him in.
“I’m not an avid reader, but this was so shocking and unbelievable,” he said.
“From that day forward it was like Garrard’s story put its talons in me and dragged me along with it in a way I find very hard to explain.”
Meeting the author and his family only deepened Edgerton’s interest in the story’s complexities.
“Garrard was not a jock, not effeminate,” he said. “In his own words, he was able to ‘pass’ until he got to college, so there was a sort of ordinariness, a boy-next-door quality to him.
“He hid in plain sight.”
Hedges, who in September told Vulture he is “not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual,” shares these qualities, Edgerton argues.
Gay Australian singer Troye Sivan, who sings the film’s aching theme song Revelation, also appears briefly as one of Garrard’s conversion camp confidantes.
“He was a real champion,” Edgerton said of Sivan, who played the younger version of the title character in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
“He also supplied music for us, which was wonderful.”
When Edgerton spoke to The New Daily in September, the religious freedom debate had just heated up in Australia, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that gay conversion practices are “not an issue for me”.
Boy Erased’s timing is uncanny, but Edgerton says the free publicity is a double-edged sword: “On one hand it’s really relevant and at the same time you wish it wasn’t so. You wish it was absurd fiction.”
Far from the bad boy fears of his youth, the Star Wars star took time out of his promotional duties to meet two young men who endured the gay conversion practice in Australia.
“They still have faith,” he said.
“You don’t have to choose one or the other. The film isn’t about throwing God under a bus.
“Men and women interpret the Bible, which means they’re defining religion for themselves, so why can’t that evolve in order to accept and lean on love, rather than rejection?”
Boy Erased opens in cinemas across Australia on Thursday.