Photo: Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
The role that will be labeled as nineteen-year-old Ezra Miller’s break out is not a forlorn adolescent love interest, a precocious child who sees ghosts, or a strapping young swashbuckler in a costume drama—but a callous teenage serial killer. Opposite John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton (whose portrayal of the movie’s protagonist, Eva, has earned her a Golden Globe nomination), Miller plays Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay and based on Lionel Shriver’s chilling novel in which a mother reconstructs the events and parenting choices that preceded her son’s high school killing spree. Miller grew up in northern New Jersey, decided—after performing in Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass’s opera White Raven at age eight—that he wanted to be an actor, and just released a second album with his band, Sons of an Illustrious Father. His taking on a troubled character is not unprecedented—he played a rabble-rousing school reporter in Beware the Gonzo, a young boy grappling with his sexuality in Every Day, and a tenth grader addicted to disturbing images on the Internet in Afterschool.
As Kevin, Miller sears and grates. A seeming sociopath from birth (as a baby, Kevin’s shrill cry torments his mother; as a child he is cruel, ruinous, and manipulative; as a teenager, Eva suspects him of attacking his younger sister with bleach—an accident that leads to the loss of her eye), Kevin is eerie, terrifying, and exacting in a way that is almost incomprehensible given his age. From his apartment in Chelsea, Miller spoke to Vogue about taking on the dark character.
This is a complicated role. What attracted you to it?
When I read the script, the role seemed true. [Kevin] was written in such a way that, even though he’s remote from myself and a lot of sensible, empathetic human beings, he made sense to me. I really felt that I could understand the true motivation within Kevin, and the false justification that he brandishes in order to commit the deeds he does.
Was it more arduous than playing a sympathetic character? Was it difficult to play a sociopath for months?
[Shooting] lasted for about a month, but I entrenched myself in Kevin’s head awhile before we started. I’d been thinking about it since two years prior when I first read the script, because I felt such a strong compulsion to get this role. Even when the prospect was nowhere close at hand, I was sort of brewing Kevin. And that was certainly a long haul, and a strenuous one. I definitely had a good deal of my dreams become nightmares. And it can be difficult to keep yourself in a place where you’re continually shutting down the mechanisms of your own human empathy. I couldn’t actually talk to my mother, really, at all.
No I couldn’t, at all. It’s such an opposing happy reality with my mother that I didn’t want the goodness of my relationship with my mother in subtle ways tarnishing the tension and horror of Kevin’s relationship with Eva, and vice versa—even more so. I didn’t want to impose any Kevin on my actual mother. But there’s something to be said for having perspective—I find myself to be an empathetic person. I found there to be something useful about coming from an opposing place and bearing perspective because if I truly was an apathetic, manipulative, conniving person who hated his mother, how would I not be blind to the realities of that character?
How are people reacting to you, after seeing you convincingly play such an evil character?
I do get a certain kind of validation and gratification from the way people will sort of approach me tentatively, with a little bit of fear [after they see the film]. It echoes to me that in some way or another I did my job. I had a close friend see it, and we went out to some party afterwards. We were hanging out, and I thought we were having a fine time and my friend was like, “Listen man, I gotta go. It’s nothing personal, I love you but I’m just having a really hard time being around you.”
Your next film is Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which comes out this year. It looks like a great cast (Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Nina Dobrav); was it fun to shoot?
It was the funnest cast imaginable. It was like we were all collectively destined for that movie and for one another. It’s how I could only imagine a John Hughes cast being or how something like that would have felt because we were making this movie where our characters all had a strong connection within this group of friends—in a way that echoed the reality of our lives. We’d shoot all day or all night, and we’d spend the next ten hours playing music in one of our hotel rooms and being mischievious kids. For three months, we were constantly having a ball.
Now that it’s awards season, are there any movies that you’re excited about?
Martha Marcy May Marlene. My good friends who I made my first film with—Borderline Films—made that movie, and I’d been wanting to see it for a really long time, expecting nothing but greatness from them. I think Miss Elizabeth Olsen deserves the highest form of praise. And John Hawkes. All the performances in that movie blew me away.
What role does fashion have in your life?
I shop only at thrift stores and vintage stores. In New York, I like a place called Star Struck, and a place called The Family Jewels. And then up in Massachusetts, there was once a store called Skiddoo. My mother and I are friendly with Paige, the woman who ran it, and she still has this warehouse filled with clothes from the Prohibition era and all sorts of amazing stuff.