Rebellion in Hollywood is a predicable hand, a calculated mess of recycled personas, dramas and dips. Typically triggered following the mainstream success of an indie film in which a talented young actor gives an emotional performance as a disturbed youth — said actor begins shaping his/her nonconformist attitude in and around the end of the last of the big international film festival, a few months before the Oscars, when the actor emerges in the media as a dark enigma, prime for controversial sound bites. Photographs of them looking disheveled and tired begin popping up, along with magazine interviews that read like rifts on The Brothers Karamazov. Like so much of what is manufactured out of Hollywood, its brand of rebellion seems almost scripted.
But, in the case of 18-year-old actor Ezra Miller — star of this international film festival season’s golden ticket, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the much hyped about Palme d’Or-nominated Festival de Cannes hit — there’s nothing “Hollywood” about the quirks of this self-described “well-intentioned degenerate” — least of all predictability.
Miller arrives at the Empire Hotel for our photo shoot precisely on time, free of manager and handlers. He’s dressed like an art student from the 70s — and smells like one too. After going around and introducing himself to the team, he immediately makes his way to the gold mask on the dresser where the stylist has organized the female models’ accessories. He turns serious as he begins to preach the virtues of packing a mask in one’s bag at all times, before setting down the prop and reaching into his canvas tote bag to retrieve his own gold metallic mask. Without missing a beat, he pulls the mask on over his head and demonstrates how to scare off assailants by feigning insanity.
It’s clear off the bat, Miller is not the type of person to build a persona; or if he is, than he’s an architectural genius when it comes to creating one with diverging character traits stark enough to render it impossible to pin down.
It’s no wonder the actor is drawn to roles like that of the title character in We Need To Talk About Kevin. To describe his character as “disturbed” would not do the intricacy of Kevin’s psychosis, or its sociological reverberations, justice. Setting out to play duel parts in his own life, Kevin’s split personality develops from a deep rooted disconnect with his mother, which quickly expands to encompass greater society, leaving the audience spending the entirety of the film trying to figure out what triggers Kevin’s descent into mass violence against his classmates and family — and whether it was a step down from his sense of “normalcy” at all.
Intelligent, polite and humble — we caught up with the introspective young Miller a few weeks before the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of We Need to Talk About Kevin to dissect the inner workings of his character, the malaise afflicting his generation and the Hollywood effect. A deep conversationalist with thoughts that speed along heavy and ideologically loaded, the only way to share any insight into the actor’s personality and career’s work justly is to present you with his own words on the subjects, and so, below is FILLER’s meditative chat with actor Ezra Miller.
Lionel Shriver novel made quite the stir back in 2003 when it was published, as your film has since its premiere at Cannes. Were you familiar with the book before you auditioned for the role?
No, I had not heard prior tell of Kevin. The eerie thing, though, was how quickly I felt I knew the words all too well. As an American teenager, this script hit me fast and hard as a largely untold story. That of my generation’s great plight, as sprouting from our privilege (the deficits and surpluses) and all of our many murders, as sprouting from our Mother (her or our actions and our or her reactions.)
The content spoke to you then?
Oh yes, as I recall that creeping familiarity had effortlessly ascended my whole spinal column by the time I finished page 1.
Kevin is such a multilayered character, you never quite know what he’s thinking or feeling, was it difficult to communicate this in your acting?
Well, Kevin knows exactly what he’s thinking. You as the audience don’t, as a result partially of his meticulous manipulation and particularly because you look at Mr. Kevin Katchadourian through Eva’s mind and memory only.
Judging from your performance, I’d say you got a pretty firm grip on your character’s mindset. Unearth anything particularly useful about Kevin’s personality in your preparation for the part?
I found in my investigation of the boy that two umbrella aspects of the character served the purpose of encompassing all the others. It’s a duality that could be explored in any person. On one end is what I thought of as essential Kevin: the core elements of his being as dictating his true needs and wants. The other is motivational mind: the insatiably churning brilliance that dictates and invents his focused actions and justifications.
And how did you filter this discover into your performance?
I found this time-honored psychological dichotomy useful in my whole game with this film, actively preparing spiritual, emotional, physical, and energetic Kevin in the time proceeding production so that when the war of production rushed us along, I could just let Kevin exist in his own perception, thoughts and motives.
When watching the film, I found it hard to figure out what Kevin was thinking — what motivated him, how his perspective shaped his relationships with others etc. How did you connect with the character, or could you relate at all?
Oh, come now, Kevin’s a very relatable young man. Everyone knows a Kevin or two. I mean I found him to be such a raw archetype that he’s practically applicable to a piece of anyone’s deep psyche. Read up your old high school copies of Sophocles. Modern Western living is like a machine gun, rapid fire spitting Oedipus complex-riddled souls into a dark lack of societal understanding. The bodies start turning up eventually.
This draws to mind the question of nurture vs. nature: is Kevin born “bad” or raised to be “bad” based on his emotional environment from the womb onwards?
Have any of the babbling academics hatched an answer on this over-plucked age-old debate? I’m confused as to how anyone delineates or decides something like that when nature so radically informs the way you come to nurture and the nurture you receive so radically affects the way you… well… nature [i.e.] sensing, being, fucking, killing, giving birth, dying, etc, etc ad deep ol’ nauseam.
Describe our complex anti-hero in one sentence.
A motherless child who sees his mother every single day.
Pretty spot on description. Let’s move on to Kevin’s parents — his judging mother and his forgiving father, what’s the dynamic like between him and each of them?
They’re both very classic foolish tragic heroes, felled by their own faults at the feet of their own loins, flesh, blood and brains. I think it’s a common feeling amongst parents these days.
From our chat alone, it’s pretty clear that this film encompasses quite a bit of heavy subject matter; do you find it difficult to turn off the emotions of your character when off set?
Sometimes, in these early parts of my exploration of this acting puppetry game, I’ve strongly felt at times that it’s my job to not turn it off till the work is done. Don’t worry about us mad artists though; we lay our whole lives in fiendish wait of those projects worthy of costing us parts of our lives or sanities.
Quality co-stars can help with sanity issues when on set, how was it working with Tilda Swinton?
Like jamming with David Bowie for a month. Like playing chess with Bobby Fisher for a month. Most simply, it was like living a story through dream with a real made up character for five minutes at a time and in between, having a ball with one of the warmest and simultaneously, coolest mamas ever…for a fucking month!
The story is told through Tilda’s character as you said, and a lot of what we see aside from her memories of her son is the fallout of Kevin’s actions on her social life, specifically how people in the community perceive her, which is not kindly. How much of the community’s opinion is influenced by the media’s coverage of Kevin’s final act of violence, and how much is it human nature to cast blame?
Media these days just reaps the cash benefits of all of our modern heightened human nature. With the ready, happy help of the media monopoly, we ascribe specific blame to every tragedy that comes our way. It seems we’ll blame just about any person, any group, any idea or belief in this fight to never find the blame in ourselves. This is the internal stake and responsibility we all have in the world’s violence and tragedy.
With all this heavy subject matter, how do you expect the mood of the average audience member to be after watching the film?
I have no standards or expectations for how anyone might feel after experiencing anything. Good god, I am no doctor. But I do know that I, personally, couldn’t walk, speak or look at my uncontrollably sobbing mother for a good little while after my viewing.
Sounds like director Lynne Ramsey did a good job then. How was she to work with?
Well I was walking through the thickest forest I’d ever seen. The wood [was] holly and the ground [was] made entirely of bullshit, money and screenplays. After my first long trek through this forest I came to a clearing and saw, at it’s center, a short beautiful woman crying out in a Gaelic tongue I could only partially understand. Wildly swinging a sword made out of celluloid, she told me she’ll have cut a path right through in no time and I laid at her feet in eternal allegiance.
And what of indie films like this, do they too have your eternal allegiance or do big budget productions have to be worked into the picture as well?
I wish there wasn’t such a big difference or exclusivity between those two! I am considering everything I can wrap my head around. But as we know, many have held although most have dropped the sign that reads: Will work for art (and nothing else! till the day I fucking die!)
You seem to be a bit of an old soul, but ultimately because of your age, people will group you amongst the ranks of young Hollywood? How do you feel about being shuffled into that category?
Does anyone in the world have a choice any more? The minds of the world are being dragged one by one, into “the ranks of young Hollywood,” stylized-youth vampires, media brains, hateful of ourselves, afraid and untrusting of each other, fully terrified and unwilling when it comes to sickness, age and death. It’s twisted and corrupted to the marrow of our bones. I know we can all feel that that much is clear.
Is it all bleak then?
The youth of this industry, like the youth of today’s world, [are] rapidly awakening to the facts of Hollywood matters and there just might come a day that the media that employs and relies on us may regret putting us into “ranks.”
What of the overall Hollywood machine; is there anything you’re especially wary of when it comes to your business?
I guess I’ve just felt since I was a kid I’ve felt a bit like corporate America, in the ideal business model, wants to profit extensively off of our imaginations, and then devalue and destroy our imaginations just in time for us to live out our short remaining lives in the all too real debts and logistical crises that our corporatized and Americanized imaginations got us in to in the first place. I’m as wary of Tony Montana as I was of Mickey Mouse.
Well it seems like you’re doing a pretty good job at navigating through the fluff with The Perks of Being a Wallflower on its way out next year after your current indie-darling leaves theatres. Another acclaimed book-turned-film production — this time beloved by a loyal following of teens — did you feel any pressure adapting the material to film?
I’m certain that I systematically ruined everything for all the loyal perks readers who might wish to see a book actually become a movie with full literary triumphs and truths maintained throughout. The best thing anyone can do for them selves when viewing an adaptation is allow for a new experience and story to merely sprout anew from the soils of the original work that we all love so much.
The film deals with teen depression, do you think this issue gets enough attention or should teachers and parents be more schooled when it comes to the signs?
Get Unschooled, parents, your kids all hate this school garbage. Make your self as unafraid as your parenting hearts will allow. You need to be unafraid to look at the signs, the symptoms, but most importantly: the causes! Stop talking to your kids and listen! We all have things to say. And at the end of the day, when you know your kid isn’t gonna pull the trigger, as hard as I could imagine this might be, leave us kids and our depression the fuck alone. We as young humans have to figure it out for ourselves now. You’re children are all depressed and suicidal, that’s evidence enough that you guys don’t know what you’re talking about. Let us fix ourselves so we can figure out how to fix the world that all you well intentioned hippy-crites did such a good job destroying.
Is ditching ideas of normalcy part of the fixing things? Seems like the pressure to be “normal” may be a common trigger for depression in teenagers.
Well I imagine that without a diagnosis and a standard of normality, there is only cause and effect within the grand circumscribing human nature. Now, with all the cures on the shelves, everyone’s sick. There is more mental illness and suicide than ever before. I’m not an authority on any of this, but I do know that, as a kid, I first got depressed the day someone told me what depression was.