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May 21, 2018 at 02:38 PM EDT

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Joel Edgerton has always been fascinated by prisons, cults, and religious extremism, he tells EW. But what compelled the Australian actor and director most into adapting Boy Erased — writer Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir about his time in gay-conversion therapy — was the opportunity to explore the author’s relationship with his devoutly Christian parents.

“The film satisfies the dramatic and salacious stuff that interested me, but it also had an emotional resonance to it that I felt didn’t just make it a dark and nihilistic story,” Edgerton says. “Garrard’s story is so full of redemption.” 

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Boy Erased follows Conley’s experience at Love in Action, a California-based Christian ex-gay program where his Baptist parents sent him after he was outed during his first year at college. Edgerton not only co-wrote and directed the film, he also costars as Victor Sykes, the head of Love in Action, a role based on former director John Smid.

To play the outed college student (renamed Jared Eamons), Edgerton tapped Lucas Hedges, who received an Oscar nomination last year for his supporting role in Manchester by the Sea and earned more critically acclaim for his supporting roles in the award-winning films Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird.

“I find Lucas just to be a really beautiful blank canvas. There’s a sensitivity to him in his observation in the world. There’s a certain quiet nature that he can convey on screen,” the filmmaker says of the 21-year-old actor. 

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Edgerton recruited two fellow Aussies, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, to portray Jared’s mom and dad, Nancy and Marshall Eamons, on this tumultuous journey (it also marks the first time the two Oscar-winning actors have costarred). Kidman and Crowe spent time with their real-life Conley counterparts to understand the nuances of their relationship with their gay son, whom they raised in Arkansas. 

Kidman wanted to bring love rather than maliciousness to the role of Nancy. “The way in which she and her husband feel about putting [Jared] into conversion therapy, I wanted that to come from a place of a mother thinking it’s the right thing to do. Nothing that she did was vindictive, which is probably why they have such a strong relationship now.” Forming a bond with Hedges came easily, Kidman says, describing how quickly they connected: “Obviously he’s pale-skinned and slightly redheaded, so that definitely warms me to him,” she says with a laugh.

Throughout his memoir, Conley often tries to understand why his parents made the decisions that they did. “He has a deep compassion for other people’s point of views,” Edgerton says. Conley details the close bond to his mother and his deep respect for his father, a car salesman who was about to be ordained as a Baptist minister when he discovered that his son is gay. 

Marshall urged the filmmaker to present him on screen “in an honest way…. He was happy for me to show his inability to fully grasp his son,” Edgerton says.

There are some adjustments Edgerton makes to Conley’s story for the big screen: He fleshes out the characters of some of the other boys in the program with Jared, including ones played by Canadian actor-filmmaker Xavier Dolan and singer Troye Sivan. 

Edgerton says he hopes he’s conveyed each person in the film the way he says Conley did on the page, “with a lot of empathy and compassion.” 

“My approach and treatment of this story was that there were no villains, that everyone thought they were doing the right thing.”

Boy Erased is in theaters Sept. 28.

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