We need to talk about Ezra Miller

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday February 28, 2012
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Actor Ezra Miller onstage at last year's Mill Valley Film<br>Festival. (Photo: Steven Underhill)
Actor Ezra Miller onstage at last year's Mill Valley Film
Festival. (Photo: Steven Underhill)

Actor Ezra Miller is a lanky, dark-haired, one-time child opera singer who, when his voice changed, turned to an equally ferocious vocation. He became a teen actor specializing in the kind of gritty urban roles that a few generations back fell to John Garfield, and later would be the trademark of De Niro, Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino. After seeing him as a disturbed prep school boy implicated in the drug deaths of two coeds, as a steak knife-wielding Italian-American brat, as a bi-polar acid wit determined to put a hitch in his half-brother's wedding plans, and as a gay kid challenging his TV writer dad's boundaries, I was all set for the ultimate challenge: to see what this nice Jewish boy could do as a mother-loathing sociopath kid who goes on a Columbine-style killing spree in an upscale Connecticut high school.

Despite the subject matter of Lynne Ramsay's family horror story We Need To Talk About Kevin, the articulate 19-year-old Miller is no Anthony Perkins. He's an upbeat, focused pro who spends time between films as the singer/drummer of the NYC-based band Sons of an Illustrious Father. Imagine a gawky beauty who's still growing into his adult body, who in style and manner is a feisty mix between the Giants' indie cool ace pitcher Tim Lincecum and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is anything but a star vehicle for Miller, who really doesn't appear until the second half of the film, or for the two high-wattage performers who play his parents, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. Kevin, based on an epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver, in the hands of the brilliant Scottish-born filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is a personal, stylistically surreal story of a mom (Swinton) trying to come to terms with the havoc unleashed on an American town by her own "demon seed." Throughout this very unsettling trip " which spares us American horror films' patented camp, patronizing irony or gore for gore's sake " we are trapped inside the head of Eva as this "bad mom" struggles to comprehend how a failure to bond with her "evil" male child could have such hideous consequences.

Fans of Ramsay's small oeuvre will be glad she's back after Ratcatcher, a low-key account of a Glasgow slum kid's guilt following the accidental drowning death of a playmate; and Morvern Callar, the peripatetic adventures of a young woman who wakes up to discover her boyfriend's dead and decides to claim his unpublished novel as her own. The nearly decade-long gap on Ramsay's resume resulted from her dropping out of efforts to bring Alice Sebold's novel Lovely Bones to the screen, a task that fell to New Zealand's Peter Jackson. Kevin proved no walk in the park as the producing company, BBC Films, had to spend time on script development and raise what for the British was a large budget to shoot Stateside. Unlike previous Columbine-themed films (Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Ben Coccio's Zero Day ), Kevin spares us the specifics of how the crime was planned. Instead it's the tale of how a mother and son fail to bond at birth, and the ticking bomb that results.

My conversations with Ezra Miller began in the sun-bathed lobby of a San Rafael motel hours before he was feted as the guest of honor at Kevin 's premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Weeks later, we chatted in detail about Kevin and the dark themes in his first six films. Ezra, shirtless with a black vest, kept brushing back his shoulder-length hair as he corrected Internet bio gaffes.

David Lamble: You were born in Hoboken?

Ezra Miller: No, that's not true, I was born in deeper New Jersey, in Bergen County. I went to high school in Hoboken, and entering high school is like a birth or a rite of passage. It's like the actual death of innocence: here's your consciousness full-on, it's on fire, and you are not a child anymore.

You started your professional life as a kid opera singer?

At six, opera was the first art-form I found. To a child, the magical world is the truer world. It was like being taught a religion at an early age. My first production was Robert Wilson and Philip Glass' White Raven. I auditioned for the child of the earth. The first thing they did was hoist me up in a chair 300 feet in the air, because the child descends down from the sky. I was in the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus. I was an alto-soprano, but I didn't go castrato, my voice changed, and at 14 I got cast in Afterschool. Then I came out here to do my second job, Californication, which is a funny first reason to be brought to California, for Californication: Welcome to California, kid, come get fucked!

Your reaction to seeing yourself in Kevin?

Even being terrified by my own face, I felt a sense of pride. I was attempting to be horrifying, so it's good that I feel so wretchedly uncomfortable watching myself. With something like this, you're sort of shooting blind, so when any of it works it's sort of a happy miracle.

Oddly enough there are hints of Kevin 's themes in your feature debut Afterschool, where your character stumbles upon classmates dying from a drug overdose.

Adolescence is a condition with naturally horrifying side effects.

What about Kevin's sexuality?

We see that scene in which he continues to masturbate as he looks his mother in the eye. I found Kevin to be someone plundering the roots of his sexuality as one of the many outlets for his endless supply of rage.

I was proud of your reaction to the news blip about being busted for a small amount of pot in Michigan during the shooting of Perks of a Wallflower.

It's kind of unfortunate that it had to be such a publicized act of rebellion when in fact all I was doing was a very harmless substance which I feel uncomfortable even calling a drug. I hate that this sort of thing becomes a way of summing up me as a person, or even what I do for kicks.