Oscar-Worthy: Ezra Miller on We Need to Talk About Kevin

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This will probably be the last of our “Oscar Worthy” series this season, but it’s with Ezra Miller, a young actor who’s gotten a lot of attention this past year, as well as an actor whom we’ve been fully on board the fanclub train for a couple years, ever since seeing him steal scenes from Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies in Raymond De Felitta’s City Island.

The performance that’s really gotten people excited about Ezra Miller’s potential is his title role in Lynne Ramsay’s psychological drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, playing a teenager who has spent years tormenting his mother, played by Tilda Swinton. Things eventually come to a head when he does something unthinkable, and the film takes a non-linear path in showing what led up to that day and how the mother-son relationship is affected afterwards.

We’ve become accustomed to Miller’s incredible wit and timing when delivering well-written dialogue, such as in City Island and Sam Levinson’s Another Happy Day–and we last spoke to Miller a couple months back for the comedy Beware the Gonzo–but in “Kevin,” he shows a much darker side, though one that still shows a surprising amount of wit. As much as the film is getting attention for Swinton’s performance, we think Miller’s portrayal of her son in their scenes together really makes the film quite unforgettable, which is why the film has been making such waves since it debuted at Cannes.

ComingSoon.net got back on the phone with Ezra a few weeks back to talk about making Ramsay’s film as well as throwing in a couple of questions about Another Happy Day, since it was one of our favorites of 2011.

ComingSoon.net: How were you contacted by Lynne to do this and did she have you read the book or did you just get a script and go by that?
Ezra Miller:
To this day, I still haven’t read the book. I read it in a very specific certain way, sort of skimmed it, so I read the script first, just via my agent sending it to me about two years before we made the film. When I initially read it, it just struck me as the most amazing piece of potential work to come that I’d ever stumbled across, and I was flipped by a biting need to somehow finagle my way into the role of Kevin, because I felt that despite all his darkness and his seemingly sociopathic nature, I felt there was an empathetic human being to be found at the core of him. And so, I auditioned once or twice and I met Lynne, and I really feel like we had a connection from early on, but then the project disappeared for a while, to my absolute dismay. I was constantly inquiring about it, and as so many movies did, it had sort of disappeared in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Independent film relied so heavily on the whim of investors and I suppose at that time, for one reason or another, it had lost its footing.

CS: Had you already done “City Island” and any of the other movies like “Gonzo”?
Miller:
That’s a good question, it’s hard to keep track. I guess it was a little before we did “Gonzo” and certainly after I’d done “City Island” and “Afterschool” and before anything else.

CS: I’ve spoken to a lot of actors who have played quote-unquote villains and they tend to have to find a way into the character they can grab onto so it makes sense to him. What about Kevin made sense to you?
Miller:
It was simple and very basic in the connective tissue of a motherless child who feels the anger of being abandoned while his mother is around, when he sees his mother every day. There’s something in the sensitivity that every baby has in terms of his awareness of the love he receives or doesn’t receive that to me was the core of the character. There was something very primordial about his anger.

CS: Was it really obvious when you read the script how visually stylistic the film was going to be or was that something you only realized when you saw the final movie?
Miller:
No, actually that was one of the most amazing things about reading the script, that the lattice-work, the netting of imagery and the visuals and auditory symbols that just riddled the script, there was at least one of those to punctuate almost every dramatic beat within the story, and those were written in, really mapped out, within the script itself. Even things like the sprinklers or the flashing red lights, things like this were predetermined and written in the script.

CS: I assume Tilda was on board very early on, maybe even before you, so at what point did you sit down with Tilda and did you read scenes with her as part of your audition process?
Miller:
Yeah, later on in the audition process there was a chemistry read that we did with Tilda, and Lynne says that when I came in, we met one another but I was largely in character. Every time I’ve auditioned, I rigorously put myself into Kevin’s mind before walking into the room, and there was a moment where Tilda and I stood against a wall and Lynne took a picture of us, and she always recalls that in the picture, we were moving away from each other. There was a natural repulsion between us in those characters, and that was maybe the second to last piece of the rather lengthy audition process, the read with Tilda.

CS: There’s also younger actors playing the character of Kevin, so did Lynne shoot all those scenes first and you were able to watch that footage for background or did you want to do it fresh without seeing any of the previous Kevins?
Miller:
Yeah, for me that was one of the most amazing and really fun things about doing this piece is that we had a very auspicious fact to the shoot that we shot mostly in chronological order, so I was able to observe the incredible performances by both Jasper Newell and Rock Duer who play the younger Kevins. Also, Jasper and I particularly – Rocky and I as well but Jasper and I spent a lot of time shut in production office rooms sort of relating on what Kevin would be like, talking about how we felt as one cohesive character. We’d do the Kevin walk, we’d do the Kevin face at each other, sort of finding these common tools for us both to use in our performances in an effort to create one cohesive character.

CS: I wanted to ask about some of Kevin’s mannerisms, like the way he bites his fingernails. I assume all that stuff was in the script, not sure if it was in the books, but things like biting off the fingernails and arranging them on the table, did Lynne explain where that came from?
Miller:
Yeah, I happen to know that. I heard that Rory Kinnear, the co-writer who wrote the script with Lynne, talk about how that fingernail thing was the purest, best way to communicate the passage of time in those jail cell sequences. In the book, you have these early visitations in the prison where Kevin just says nothing, and simply stares at his mother, willing her to break, and of course we couldn’t have a 20 minute scene of absolute silence in a film, so the biting of the fingernails was sort of a tool to demonstrate the passage of time in that sort of showdown, stare down silence.

CS: You’ve done a lot of comedic roles, and pretty funny naturally, so was Kevin a hard character to get in and out of, especially once you finished the movie?
Miller:
As soon as I finished the movie, I immediately had to call my mother and I needed to spend some time in the woods. I needed to play some music. I had to do some of the activities that best return a person to their most primal, natural state. That’s what I find after delving really deeply into a role is it’s best to just do something that levels you out, takes you back to a level basic playing field of human existence. Doing things like playing music, something that’s so natural and basic to human function, running around in nature, eating delicious food. These things are intrinsic in basic, primordial to human beings, so that’s sort of a way to return to a blank canvas, allowing my true personality to return.

CS: Is music something you’ve been doing even before you started acting? Or is that fairly recent?
Miller:
Well, music is certainly something that proceeded acting in many ways for me, doing opera as a child and starting to play the drums when I was about 11 years old, so in later years as I’ve been approaching more difficult and potentially more entrapping roles, they’ve proved to be useful tools to return to a more basic form of myself.

CS: What have you been working on since finishing this? Have you done anything over the last few months?
Miller:
Since “Kevin” I’ve done two films, I’ve done “Another Happy Day” which is also coming out now and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and I’ve recorded an album with my band, Sons of an Illustrious Father, an album called “One Body” which was released last month and we’re very proud of and right now, I’m trying to be careful in my consideration of what could be the next character and the next story to plunge headfirst into.

CS: I didn’t realize you did “Another Happy Day” after this, which is an interesting because that role combines the darkness of “Kevin” with something a little closer to the humor we’ve seen you do before.
Miller:
It was certainly a dark summer of contemptuous relationships with mothers. (laughs)

CS: I really loved “Another Happy Day” so what was Ellen Barkin like to work with?
Miller:
Great. She’s sort of the epitome of a powerhouse when it comes to the female actors of our time, and working with Ellen is like doing a merry jig with a mythical beast or something.

CS: Some could say that about Tilda, too, because she’s a force as well. Did working with her prepare you as an actor and make it easier to take on Ellen?
Miller:
I would say that both of those roles and both of those stories had their own intrinsic challenges and struggles within them, but Tilda was certainly amazingly helpful in showing me this very direct and immediate way to let yourself fall into roles and into characters and into stories. She has an uncanny ability to naturally allow herself to just fully embody the character on a dime, and just to be in contact with that was a very informative learning experience for me. She was before I knew her and she is now and will continue to be I’m sure just a wonder to me, an indescribable force to be reckoned with time and time again.

CS: At one point a couple of months ago, your name was mentioned to do a role in “Akira,” which you then turned down, so how do you decide what to do next?
Miller:
You know, it’s sort of a strange process of decisive instinct where I’m reading scripts and trying to be patient in my waiting for a role that will speak to me in a way that I feel is honest and a story that sort of naturally compels me like “Kevin” or “Another Happy Day” or “Being a Wallflower” did. There are no specific mechanics, there’s no scale for me to use in making that decision. It’s really a matter of feeling and my feelings when I read a script do tend to be rather strong and particularly in the moments when I find a role that I feel is right for me and within or happily challenglingly just beyond my imagined grasp. That sort of reading experience will sort of bind me to the material just in the time that I read the script, so really, I’m just reading and then awaiting something that’s quite a pure feeling.

CS: Any idea when “Perks of Being a Wallflower” might be seen? Is that going to be doing the festival circuit next year?
Miller:
I think Summit will be releasing it to the world in the spring, and I think April is the perceived date, and I’m very excited to know what that experience has evolved into as far as a film. I’m very eager to see the product of what for me was just a very magical time.

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza on January 13 and in Los Angeles at the Arclight on January 20.