Metro Weekly

Chloë Grace Moretz: Conversion therapy is “a silent epidemic in this country”

In "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," the 21-year-old plays a lesbian teen who endures conversion therapy. The role provided Moretz the biggest teaching moment of her career so far.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post chronicles a young woman summoning the strength of mind to stay true to herself, despite overwhelming pressure to change. It’s a role that’s embodied naturally by actress Chloë Grace Moretz, who was determined to see the indie film get made once she signed on for the title role. Based on Emily Danforth’s acclaimed 2012 novel, the film, the second for director Desiree Akhavan, finds itself smack in the middle of the zeitgeist, with its tale of a lesbian teen shipped off to a remote, rural camp for gay conversion therapy. According to Moretz, however, the film’s path to production didn’t always seem so well-timed.

“There was a moment when we were in pre-production going like, ‘Well, I wonder if this will be societally impactful?'” she says. “I’m like, ‘People will want to hear it.’ And halfway through [shooting] the film, Trump was elected. The harrowing reality [is] that our vice president, and this administration which was about to come into fruition, supports and advocates for conversion therapy and is openly against LGBT rights. In that moment, this movie became the most societally impactful thing that we could be doing, and all of a sudden the activism and the art melded into one, which was really scary and beautiful at the same time.”

A veteran of nearly 50 films, including Hugo, Carrie, and the two Kick-Ass movies, 21-year-old Moretz felt a unique connection to Cameron Post‘s story of overcoming repression.

“I think that there’s a lot I related to with this character,” she says. “One was just the natural depiction of what it meant to be a young woman in a society that doesn’t understand you, much less a gay young woman in a society that doesn’t know how to place you and what to do with you. I think that was something that was really interesting to depict. I connected to it as a young woman growing up in a society where other people project their ideas of who they think I am on me.”

Prior to The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Moretz had taken a brief hiatus from back-to-back filming to refocus on the next phase of her transition from child actor to leading lady. She’s also planning to produce and direct.

“It’s been hard to navigate who I am versus who people think I am,” she says, “and so that was something that I could universally connect to [with Cameron], which I think is a testament to Desi and her handling this as a coming-of-age story, but through a clear lens, which was invigorating.”

Akhavan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cecilia Frugiuele, took great care to keep the film’s ’90s coming-of-age rhythms fresh. A bisexual woman whose first feature, Appropriate Behavior, also explored queer female sexuality, Akhavan points to authenticity more than identity as her main concern behind the camera. “I think authenticity is important, and that there’s so little of it in Hollywood,” says the filmmaker.

In order to craft the film’s confessional, confrontational group therapy scenes, Akhavan drew on her own therapy experiences of “being in a room full of people who are just blindly chasing getting better. And putting their faith in the professionals that they’ve hired to make them better.”

She and Moretz also consulted with conversion therapy survivor Mathew Shurka, a leading global advocate for ending gay conversion therapy. Shurka’s parents, intent on stamping out his same-sex attractions, subjected him to various conversion therapy practices “on and off for five years total, in multiple states.”

Shurka draws on his own journey in his advocacy mission to pass legislation nationwide that would ban the sort of abuse he experienced. He emphasizes that activists don’t want conversion therapy to become a partisan issue, “but it is, or tends to be.” Despite that, at least four states with Republican governors have approved conversion therapy bans. “We know there’s support from both sides,” Shurka says. “We want people to know this is not a partisan issue. It’s a human rights issue. It’s a child issue.”

For her part, Moretz was inspired by her work on the film to add her voice to the ongoing campaign to eliminate conversion therapy. Set to co-direct a docu-series about the subject with one of her four older brothers, the young artist radiates sincerity asserting her mission.

“I think it’s important right now at least to have a platform and be using it,” Moretz says. “I just want to be making stories that can help change the construct of people’s minds and make them feel a certain way that they might not have felt before.”

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METRO WEEKLY: Given the controversial subject matter of the film, did anyone ever try and convince you not to take the role of Cameron?

CHLOË GRACE MORETZ: Yeah, of course. My agents were like, “Don’t do it.” First of all, the whole movie was made for a little under a million dollars. We shot it in 23 days, and it was unknown in the sense that people didn’t know how to place it. I connected to it. And you’ve got to remember, when we signed onto this film, it was in the Obama era, so it was a different temperature in America for LGBT rights. It was important to me because I’ve always been a very big activist and advocate for LGBT rights, and so it was inherently important to me to tell the story. There were a lot of people that tried to deter me, but I couldn’t be deterred from this project. It was something that I couldn’t not do.

MW: It’s amazing that in just two years so much has changed around the topic. You were recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and he seemed not to have heard of conversion therapy before. Have you encountered a lot of people who were just unaware?

MORETZ: A lot of people. Most people, they’re like, “That’s not real.” And I’m like, “Yeah. It’s not just real, but it’s everywhere.” It’s in every major city. It’s a couple miles from your front door, and it’s being hidden under the guise of family therapy or Christian schooling for troubled children. It’s a quiet epidemic. It’s a silent epidemic in this country.

MW: That’s really scary. What posed the greatest challenge for you in taking on the part?

MORETZ: Adequately depicting conversion therapy in a naturalistic way, and not focusing on what people would expect to see, which is shock therapy or reversion therapy. But focusing on the intricate, manipulative psychotherapy tools that they do. And so for me it was really talking to survivors and making sure that I get those scenes correct, while also balancing that with the budding interpersonal relationships of being a gay person meeting other gay people for the very first time and realizing you’re not alone. So, kind of balancing that and just feeling into projecting my interpretations of how the character should react in certain situations. That was something that I had to actively make sure to not overthink it and to just be and exist.

MW: You talked about meeting survivors. Did you meet anybody who is not a survivor, but who claims that conversion therapy it worked for them?

MORETZ: I didn’t find it important to meet people like that because it wasn’t helpful, but I’ll be exploring that in a docu-series that I’m going to be taking on, which I just sold to a major network, which I can’t say the name of yet. The Conversion States of America is what it’s called. I’ll be going in and talking to ex-gays — that’s what they call themselves — as well as survivors, and opening up that line of communication, and talking about the truths of conversion therapy in America.

I was wondering whether or not they’d taken it seriously from the get-go. I was like, “Did you just show up and go ‘This is bullshit’?” Across the board, it was a unanimous no, they tried their hardest. They wanted to be welcomed back into their home. They wanted their family to not ostracize them. They wanted to feel normal again. So of course they tried.

That was something I really wanted to depict in the film. That moment — that shift — where [my character Cameron Post] gives in and self-doubt creeps in. And once that doubt’s in there, it starts to seep through. I really wanted to get that in the movie, and I think we did. We captured that.

MW: There’s definitely a moment where she clearly has the thought of, “Maybe these people have a point.”

MORETZ: Yeah. “Maybe they’re correct.” And then she’s like, “Nope, definitely not.”

MW: If someone claims that they were able to pray away the gay, why shouldn’t we believe them?

MORETZ: I think that that’s… I mean, that’s oppression.

MW: Or, that’s our opinion.

MORETZ: Everything is an opinion, but it’s scientifically backed that conversion therapy is not only not able to actually change someone, it’s statistically proven that it ups the rates of suicide. It ups the rates of HIV contraction, and it ups the rates of alcohol and drug abuse, so not only is it unhelpful, it’s actually detrimental. I would go, not based on my opinion then, based on fact — it takes people and turns them into self-abusing people, and I think that speaks for itself. The statistics prove it.

MW: In the film, the cast creates a confessional space that feels authentic to a therapy group. What did you do to work on that?

MORETZ: If you’ve ever been into group therapy — I don’t know if you have, but I’ve done group therapy before, Desi’s done group therapy before — you know how strange group therapy is. There’s moments where you giggle, and you’re like, “This is strange.” It’s a weird line to tow, and I think we just wanted it to land where it is. And when Cameron laughs [in therapy], that’s a moment where I would have been in real life, like, “Oh my god, we’re talking about masturbation now, like, openly.” So, we just wanted those moments to be natural. I think that speaks for the entire comedy latent throughout the script, and the story is that you laugh to relieve tension, and tension is born from your fear in a lot of subjects, and you laugh in order not to cry, to lift the lid a little bit on that combustible energy inside you. Especially when you’re being oppressed by someone.

MW: That’s exactly how that scene feels, that she needs to laugh. And it’s so sad that there isn’t anybody in there that can give her the reinforcement of, “It’s okay that you laughed.”

MORETZ: Yes.

MW: What is the hardest part about making the transition from being a child actor who, as you said, people project all these things on, to making adult, mature movies and making decisions yourself about what you’re putting on screen?

MORETZ: I think it’s just being taken seriously. I think a lot of people want to place you. I think that’s a problem. A lot of people want to place women in general. They want to tell us who we are, and what we should be doing, and what we shouldn’t be doing. For me, I like to kind of be a little bit of an anarchist and flip the script and do roles that contradict each other. I think that contradiction and that versatility is the key to showing them that there is no one character that a woman should play.

I think that goes for every marginalized group. I think any marginalized group of people that are finally being depicted on screen correctly, what we’re doing is shaking the construct, and going, “We’re not our stereotypes.” And by doing that, I think you need to choose perspectives that will view us correctly, which is directors that have been marginalized and haven’t had their voices at the forefront. What we should be doing now is choosing filmmakers that are at the forefront of discussion, so that modern issues are being depicted.

MW: That gets us to a statement you made to the L.A. Times, about the straight male director of another gay conversion therapy movie, Boy Erased. You said, “Queer movies should be told through a queer lens and created by queer people.” As an actor, a storyteller, don’t you feel free and qualified to tell whatever story you want, whether or not it’s been your personal experience?

MORETZ: I felt it was important to me coming to this movie that Desi has a story to tell, because I think it’s filmmakers who really need to have their perspectives told. I as an actor can tell my character’s story, but a perspective, and the entire pace of a movie, and the lens of a movie is a different thing. I felt completely confident in Desi to be able to take this story on and handle these characters perfectly, and I think that really shows in the diversity of our cast. She showed that there was no one face of conversion therapy and there was no one face of being gay, which I think speaks to her diversity. She’s a bisexual Iranian woman, so I trusted her explicitly.

MW: Have you thought about directing?

MORETZ: Yeah, definitely. I would love to. My brother and I are actually going to be co-directing later this year, a short film.

MW: The iceberg analogy that the therapists in the film use to get the kids to name underlying causes of their homosexuality is meant to be cheesy, and it is cheesy, but it’s also actually thought-provoking. Did you contemplate your own iceberg?

MORETZ: Yeah. It’s so interesting that especially in this form of therapy — if you can even call it that — what they obviously try and do is they find your chink in your armor, and they want to exploit it, and everything comes down to gender construct. I think it’s so interesting when people try to delineate who you are through your gender construct, and your relationship to your parents is the be-all, end-all. Which, yes, of course that is a large amount of your growth as a human, but it isn’t who you are. I don’t know, I think the use of gender construct is very interesting in that form. But yeah, I definitely contemplated my iceberg, definitely. I think you couldn’t not contemplate your iceberg.

MW: The film was well-received at Sundance, where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Drama. Where have you shown the movie since then?

MORETZ: At Tribeca [Film Festival]. It just came out in New York on the 3rd. It’s coming out in DC, in Chicago, and Texas, and a bunch of other places, in LA, on August 10th. Our numbers are big. In our small, little opening, our average was $26,500 [per theater], which is shocking. So, we’re overperforming even beyond our greatest dreams. I think that speaks to the fact that this movie hits in a space where it excites people, because they’re being entertained by something that they can inherently connect to. But what they’re watching and what they’re seeing is different than anything they’ve seen before.

MW: Particularly for the people who hadn’t even thought that this existed. Do you know of survivors who’ve seen the movie?

MORETZ: There’s a lot of people that have actually reached out to us. The way Mathew Shurka puts it, who was a consultant on the movie, when he first saw it at Sundance said, “Even someone that doesn’t know anything about conversion therapy, after they watch this movie, they’ll see what the insidious psycho manipulation looks like and how simple the manipulation is.” And that’s how they indoctrinate you, and that’s how they get you to doubt yourself and who you are, which I think is Desi. That’s all Desi.

MW: It’s a recognizable tactic of religious fundamentalists, to get into what you think is wrong with you, or what you might think is wrong with you, and use that as a means to sort of keep you.

MORETZ: [They] weaponize it.

MW: Have you ever experienced anything like that?

MORETZ: Yeah. I was born into a Christian Baptist community and family. My mother was always very progressive, and she still is, but our community and my father were not. It was the typical rhetoric in the way that they misinterpret and weaponize the Bible, and in turn completely are hypocritical to the ideals and morals of what a Christian should be, completely hypocritical.

MW: We see that every day.

MORETZ: Every day. Definitely growing up in that oppression is strange because your simple tendencies as a teenager — to kiss who you want to kiss, or to fool around and figure out your sexuality — is weaponized against yourself, to where you hate your natural animalistic feelings. You know what I mean? And I think that’s something that anyone that grew up in a situation, no matter the religion, in an oppressive community like that, knows what it feels like to grow up recognizing your natural tendencies as sin, and forever that little voice in the back of your head, even as an adult, is there. Where when you do something, you’re like, “Oh. Sin is there.” And, “You should hate yourself. You should hate yourself. You should hate yourself. You should hate yourself. This is a bad thing,” and it’s not, and it takes years. It’s a constant thing where you’re currently going like, “That’s not true. That’s a lie. That’s a total lie. These are projections.”

MW: Did you encounter any conversion therapy programs that were not based on religion?

MORETZ: There’s a lot that are based just on therapy and are non-denominational. Really, any form of conversion therapy that you want to find, you can find. Most of them are based through religion. It doesn’t matter the religion. I haven’t seen any one of them involved with, like Islam, but it’s definitely in Judaism, it’s in Christianity, Catholicism, across the board with Christianity from evangelicals to even in the Mormon community, so it’s really across the board.

And the one thing that Mathew Shurka says is that conversion therapy is the one thing that doesn’t discriminate, so you’ll see people that are from non-religious families be put into it. You’ll see people that are from incredibly serious religious families and from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different nationalities, everything. You see it all in conversion therapy because they prey on fear and the inherent fear of sexuality.

MW: The queer young people that you know, are their experiences closer to something like this and Boy Erased, or to the open acceptance of Love, Simon?

MORETZ: I don’t think you can generalize, obviously. I don’t think there’s the ability to make a generalization because every person’s growth and every person’s coming out story is different. The way their family reacts is different. Every single person’s reaction is different. Also, I know some people that have come out to their families, and their family’s been fine with it, but it’s been they themselves who’ve hated themselves for it, which I think is another interesting perspective. I think that comes down to the fact that there is no general gay. There’s no stereotype to gay that is real. There’s a stereotype afflicted by society, but there’s no one gay, and there’s no right way to deal with it. It depends on the person’s personality, and who they are, and how their family obviously raised them, and what they connect to.

MW: What message do you hope people connect to with this movie?

MORETZ: What really struck me is the idea of chosen family, [that] really came across to me, and the beauty in that, and that it’s okay that the family that you were born into might not be the family that’s right for you. It’s horrible, and it hurts, but you can find people one day who will support you, and they will be your family, and you’ll be seen as normal and an equal, completely equal, and that I think is very important to show on screen. And the beauty, and the intricacies, and the weird comedy that comes with meeting other gay kids for the very first time like yourself and realizing that you’re not alone. And also the depiction in the film that people who are heading these organizations and those doing the therapy aren’t inherently malicious sadists. They’re people who think that they’re doing the right thing, and they’re misguided, and they’re miseducated.

MW: On a lighter note, this movie is very, very ’90s. Had you ever played a cassette before?

MORETZ: Yes. My oldest brother is 15 years older than me, so I was lucky to grow up with all the ’90s things, which my friends who are my age that don’t have older siblings did not, so I feel like I definitely am a little bit cooler than my friends in that sense.

MW: You chose Miseducation after taking a break to reset your career. What path would you like your career to follow from here?

MORETZ: Well, I really only want to be releasing content and making movies that I think are pertinent, that I feel are not only impactful to myself, but in some ways societally impactful.

MW: Does following that purpose exclude doing big studio comedies like, say, Neighbors 2?

MORETZ: I haven’t said that. I think Neighbors 2 was a very progressive movie. It was a movie that for the first time showed women being able to be silly, and dumb, and make mistakes, and we get wasted too, and we are teenagers as well, so I think that goes in line with who I am. I don’t think it’s exactly that I can’t do studio films, or I won’t do. It’s not even that. It’s just listening to my heart and making decisions based on where I am, and who the filmmakers are, and who’s telling the story. Is it a story that we’ve heard before, or is it a new perspective that we need to hear? Stories that mean something. So even if they are comedies, still let them be impactful and societally important, as was Neighbors.

[Any] movie I pulled out of when I did my break in my career, it was not Neighbors. Neighbors was already released and I had done the press tour on that. It was the movies that I was attached to that I was potentially going to be doing that weren’t right for me, but it wasn’t because of just the content. It was the obstacles and these hurdles that I was trying to overcome from the studios, and the conversations I was having with people that were trying to tell me how young women should be depicted when I am a young woman. That was my issue. It was the issue of working with people that I don’t think had the best interest of the future, when I think art is the most important form of activism that you can be releasing.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not rated. It opens August 10 at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit landmarktheatres.com.

 

André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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