The Verge || by S.T. VanAirsdale || 04 26 2010 9:00 AM
Maybe it’s coincidence that Ezra Miller had two films premiere over the weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival, where City Island — his film currently playing in theaters — won the audience award in 2009. But it’s no accident, either. Since his 2008 screen debut in the harrowing prep-school drama Afterschool, the 17-year-old actor has built a reputation behind the scenes for fearlessness, intensity, comic chops, and holding his own against alpha-castmates like Andy Garcia, Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt. And coming soon: Tilda Swinton.
In addition to his Tribeca 2010 tandem of the ensemble drama Every Day (as Schreiber and Hunt’s gay, rebellious son) and the high-school media war comedy Beware the Gonzo (as the titular rebellious journalist), Miller made headlines last week for his casting in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel, Kevin features Miller in the title role of a young man whose inner turmoil explodes with horrific consequences; Swinton will play his mother Eva, whose letters about the boy reveal some of — but not quite all — the circumstances fueling his rage. It’s up to Miller and Swinton to fill in the blanks with director Lynne Ramsey in her much anticipated return to filmmaking after eight years.
Talking to Movieline en route to the Kevin set on Sunday, Miller practically bounded with joy over his darkest role yet, catching us up as well on his Tribeca experience, his Liev Schreiber acting seminar, and why print isn’t quite dead (yet).
So I saw two new films of yours in the last 24 hours. You’re making quite the fast impression.
It was great. It was such a privilege to be able to have this experience of Tribeca so full-on. It was definitely overwhelming; it was definitely a dip and a dive into some serious self-awareness as an actor, seeing two of my films in that brief period of time. I don’t know. It was fun and kind of intense.
I’m struck by how Afterschool — only two years ago — was your first film. How, when and why did you jump into acting?
It was kind of like this somewhat gradual process. In hindsight, it seemingly happened naturally — as a progression. I started by getting really into opera when I was like 6, and through a strange connection to my mother, who’s a modern dancer, I started doing this this opera, which was called White Raven at Lincoln Center. After that I was sort of trained as a singer, and I started singing with the Metropolitan Opera. I was doing seasons with that and getting this taste for art and performance, just noting that I wanted to do that with different contexts in my life. And then film just sort of naturally evolved from theater and musical theater and the opera thing. When I found film, it was like, “Of course!” It was this very intense realization that this is perhaps the most powerful, honed context that I’ve found.
So why Afterschool?
I had just gotten representation of sorts and had read, off the bat, a lot of garbage. I read a lot of bad scripts and weird television shows. I don’t know. There’s a lot of work out there I was reading at 14 years old and noticing this lack of thought. And then, reading Afterschool, that’s full of thought. It was bursting with ideas. [Director] Antonio Campos wanted to convey these specific feelings and ideas, and that was very exciting. And the role was so not me but something I thought I really understood as part of this new generation. So Afterschool felt so natural, and what it ended up being was the ultimate lesson in film acting, because the character’s so understated — to the point that he’s almost a representation. And then [there were] these long scenes, and I had to be comfortable with some pretty intense material. And I had to do it, and it became this great lesson. So again, hindsight is 20/20, but Afterschool was the perfect first film.
That might have been your breakout role, but it also implied a sharp learning curve in joining an ensemble like the one in City Island. What was that experience like?
It was obviously a major leap, but again felt so incredibly right. That movie was a comedy that drew from truth, and truth is drama. That’s why it almost didn’t seem like too much of a leap. Even when Antonio called “cut” on Afterschool — especially if you’re making a dark film like that — you’ve gotta see the humor in it. City Island was just the opposite direction. That cast was so incredible, and everyone was giving these wonderful, honest parts of themselves to these characters, and so much was brought to the table. We got to really play and make something really smart and funny — and easy to watch. At least that’s more the reaction to City Island than there will ever be to Afterschool.
Your characters in those films as well as Beware the Gonzo and Every Day have specific personal or sexual interests that he doesn’t think his family can relate to. What is it about that character dynamic that appeals to you?
Honestly — and I think this is why so many movies of that nature come my way or any young actor’s way — it’s because that’s a reality of teenage life. Especially when you’re exploring the family. Family is this very deep, complex thing that for most people becomes everything. It informs your entire life. The sexuality of the budding human beings that are teenagers is important — it’s critical. I’m attracted to that because it’s true. Every teenager deals in his or her own sexuality and has to face it and figure out how it can coincide with the rest of their lives in a healthy manner. And try to navigate it in our modern society, which is wrought with stigma and taboo and repression, and sort of as a result, these inner monsters that some teenagers really struggle with. That’s the appeal.
Beware the Gonzo is a kind of comic riff on Afterschool — like if John Hughes made films in the new-media era. Were you aware of or attracted to that correlation?
Absolutely. I was drawing little parallels between things like that. Gonzo’s in a prep school, and there is that attempted subversion of emotions or outspokenness in youth. There’s this new-media lockdown feeling. Afterschool is this cold, dark look at what really happens most of the time — that this subversion continues in this terrifying way and gets worse and worse. And then in Gonzo, I absolutely agree [has] that John Hughes — may we be honored and privileged enough to say — spirit of what-if, idealistic rebellion. But then again, Beware the Gonzo questions that, because this rebellion is a failed one.
It also borrows heavily from the mythology — if not the experience — of Hunter Thompson. Was his estate involved in the film?
Yes. They and the [Ralph] Steadman estate were incredibly helpful. Of course they had to be involved. What’s interesting about it is that it’s mostly unspoken. Someone with some knowledge of Hunter S,Thompson’s work or the way he lived or the Gonzo philosophy has an added layer, maybe, to what informs this kid’s psychology.
Working in the media, every day I hear, “Teenagers don’t read newspapers. They’re not interested in print.”
How true is that? I mean, Gonzo starts his own newspaper. His actions repudiate that whole theory.
I don’t know. The whole thing is that Gonzo is doing something rebellious. Even the people in his rebellion are saying, “Uh, dude — the Internet.” It’s scary to me, but what I think your co-workers are saying is a reality. At the same time, I do think it’s true to say that we’re not all dead yet out here. There are certainly people who are my direct contemporaries who read the printed word. There’s obviously something beautiful and romantic and essential about that, and my hope is that these people, as it seems to die, will come out of the woodwork and stop it from ever dying completely.
I hope you’re right. In Every Day, meanwhile, you play a kind of reversal: A gay teenager who seems more of an outcast in his own family than he is in school. How did you approach the role?
It was in consideration of what is a very real and common situation in our culture. To be a LGBT teenager is always going to be something that causes some altered dynamic in their family — again, just in this response to sexuality, which is very confused at this point for a lot of people. Just this idea of his father’s fears tying into his disapproval — and then Jonah’s need to assert himself as being not in any sort of wrong? At the same time he probes exactly what his feather fears [through] a stark rebellion against his father. Having that turn into such a nightmare — and their struggle to come to a place of understanding with each other — is a struggle that can never be won for a lot of queer [teens]. There are a lot of LGBT people who have their relationships completely severed with their parents. It’s a constant struggle for a lot of people.
That’s why I love doing movies about families. There’s nothing more important than trying to rectify the purity of home.
What’s beautiful about Jonah, I think, is that he takes this struggle in stride and is able to come to some sort of middle ground with his father. At least it seems that way: that in this one very sensitive moment, that can start happening. That journey back toward each other. That’s why I love doing movies about families. There’s nothing more important than trying to rectify the purity of home. It’s not necessarily your bloodline. It’s your family — those people who inform your psyche and your emotional self in such a huge way. it’s so important to, if possible, make those relationships work.
You’ve played the sons (or grandson) of Liev Schreiber, Brian Dennehy, Andy Garcia and Campbell Scott. What are you picking up from these guys?
Oh, Jesus. Everything I can get my hands on. I’m scrambling like a hungry animal in the dark. They have so much. The people I’ve been privileged to work with… it’s school for me. They don’t know it, but that’s how I’m learning. These people know how to do this really magical thing that I would like to be able to do for as long as I can. It’s just something to be ever-thankful for and not take for any sort of granted.
What’s an example of something you’ve picked up?
Well, Liev Schreiber is one of the most amazing American actors alive today. I really think he’s very much the real deal. We did this one scene that I thought was a very important scene; we got some takes, and then Liev started tossing out ideas. Very pensively, stoically throwing out ideas, approaches, new approaches. “Before we move on, let’s try something different.” Just things — some angles that would change little dynamics. I remember one of the things he said was, “Let’s try this with the sense and the stakes that we’re old friends who haven’t seen each other for 50 years.” This — in a scene where we’re father and son.
That actually tied in with something I learned from Andy Garcia on City Island. Everyday Andy would give me words of wisdom, and one day it was: “Break the slate. Give them a take, and then smash everything you were applying to that scene and give them something totally different. It’ll improve your odds of getting something real and natural.” If you can let go of everything you thought you were doing with the scene four minutes beforehand? That was a really valuable lesson of that year I made City Island and Every Day.
You’ve played the son in three fraught families, and you’re going to play another in We Need to Talk About Kevin. What drew you to this project?
Oh, man, this movie is kind of it for me. I’m attracted to everything about his film. This film is pieced together like a beautiful and brilliant puzzle, and the applications seem almost kind of infinite. It’s the story of a mother and a son. And if you want to talk about the struggle to come together, then this movie is going to be quite a heightening of that theme for me. Kevin is a terrifying character. He’s a very deep and twisted anomaly, but he’s also very real and dimensional. There are parts of this character that I see extreme validity in. All hopes for the coming three weeks that that’s what other people see, too.
That might be the scariest thing. That’s what I’m attracted to. I’m attracted to the exploration of what dark — bringing light to darkness and darkness to light. I’ve never read a story like this. A lot of storytelling is just other stories repeated, but this is a very real dynamic — an extreme one, to the point of being almost allegorical — about what exists between a mother and a son.
But the source novel is observed solely from his mother’s point of view. How does the adaptation let you explore his inner life?
Obviously what’s there — but not in the same way — is a spoken narrator. The movie is observed. It is through the lens of Eva [Khatchadourian, played by Tilda Swinton], but it’s third-person. So a lot of the speculation that Eva does, the viewer will have to do that speculation themselves. Which is sort of accurate, actually, because you, like Eva, are an unreliable narrator. And the point of this is that it should require thought and a lot of speculation. What is a simple story is incredibly thought-provoking; at least that’s my experience with the script. That’s my experience with a lot of the book.
Have you gone over this with Tilda?
Oh, yeah. I’ve shot one day; they’ve actually shot a whole week. Then these next three weeks I get my reign of terror that spans a few years. But we’ve met, and the conversation is certainly up and running. And it’s certainly an exciting conversation.