I’m definitely one of those people who enjoys the vast majority of movies I see in some way. But I’m rarely blown away by a film to the point where I’ll want to see it twice in a short period of time. One such film that did have that spirit-moving effect on me was “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” based on the book of the same name by Lionel Shriver. The film is told from the perspective of a mother (played by Tilda Swinton) who is looking back on her experience raising a boy named Kevin, who eventually massacres teachers and classmates in a school shooting. Swinton’s character Eva is shown both in the present as she faces what’s left of her life following Kevin’s crime, and in flashbacks to his upbringing. The film is deeply moving and frightening, a truly successful adaptation of a great, complicated book. Swinton, as you can always expect from the great actress, is fantastic, but I was equally as impressed by Ezra Miller, who portrayed Kevin as the teenager who eventually commits these atrocious acts.
I was lucky enough to interview Miller, 19, about “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (which is in theaters nationwide now), the ways in which he actually related to the character, how society views motherhood, and acting in general. I was very impressed by his intelligence and found that his thoughts heightened by impressions of the film to the degree that I actually want to see it a third time. Check out our Q&A after the jump!
One of the most important things to me about playing Kevin is that he can’t simply just be a “monster” — the audience needs to be seduced by Kevin and I found you very seductive in the role.
Cool, fantastic! Yeah, that was certainly the hope. When I read the script, I immediately understood that the way the film would be most effective was if Kevin’s perspective was compelling and the audience members found themselves in the sort of morally bankrupt situation of momentarily identifying with Kevin. And pulling yourself out of that it almost, like, made them culpable. What I wanted more than anything was to believe his sentiments so strongly, to have his head so certain of itself that an audience member would actually be compelled.
There were very few moments where I felt Kevin flinching from his purpose. he has this laser sharp focus on who he is, what he wants to accomplish and what he believes and I thought that you conveyed that really well. With that in mind, you’ve said in other interviews that you can relate to Kevin — I’m curious what you meant by that?
To me, while Kevin is fully aware of his intellectual justifications for his actions, there is something occurring on a more profound and more primordial level of his being that’s not really existing within his mind so much as existing within his heart and his body, his emotional body, that is extremely basic. [That is] the longing for the attention of your mother, which is something we can all identify with. We’re all once children and our natural impulses, you know, it’s written into the double helixes of our DNA that we should clamor for the attention of our guardians.
So, essentially, my identification with Kevin was in imagining what would happen if that attention was denied. I can recall moments when it was even momentarily denied to me by my very attentive, very caring mother and I can recall the internal feelings of just solid rage. Just true anger. And that’s when I was very young, I can recall that. I think I identify with the idea that if a child is denied the one thing that we have an innate right to — the love of a mother — that that will naturally cause dystrophy, distortion, and eventually anger in its most concentrated form, with anger being something written into our survival instincts. You probably become so angry, so aggressive, so hostile because that hostility was once required of us in order to protect ourselves, protect our loved ones, kill other creatures on the planet, hunt for food, things like that. So it’s that I identify with Kevin on a common human level, not necessarily that I identify with Kevin’s thoughts, his objectives, or the actions he takes, because those are actually quite far removed from the essential human motivation.
Is it that Kevin is born a sociopath to a certain degree, but that sociopathic behavior then becomes channeled in the direction it does because of the way he was raised? So his nature is a combination of both him being born a sociopath and also being a product of his environment where he didn’t feel loved by his mother?
I didn’t see it sociopathy as much as I saw it as hyper-intelligence. So there’s something in the keen intellect naturally dwelling in a child’s brain that then makes him so incredibly aware of the emotional and social situation present between his mother and himself. I think that sociopathy is a very big concept generally just encompassing the lack of human empathy existing within the individual, but I really see Kevin as possessing the capacity for human empathy, but having overridden that capacity with sharp and keen intelligence and an over-awareness from a very young age.
One of the most interesting questions the film/movie brings up is how much blame Kevin’s mother Eva (played by Tilda Swinton in the film]either holds or doesn’t hold in the way Kevin turns out. The book/film seems to be a reflection of how society views motherhood and women who become moms, and how women view themselves in that role — that it should be something that you naturally want and if you don’t take naturally to it, will you fuck up your kid?
My personal opinion, my own emotional perspective, unrelated to the film, is that we hold unrealistic standards for human behavior in this society. That in and of itself is a problem, but there’s a chain reaction that that brings about. If a mother doesn’t feel internally that she is fulfilling an emotional standard of, say, loving the idea of a child growing inside her, already she is at odds with social convention. So even at a very basic, early stage, she lacks a forum to negotiate with and deal with what is happening, which is a rather irreversible process after so many trimesters. And at that point, you have someone who doesn’t have a way to be understood or heard — I feel like that is the most dangerous and most horrific scenario. In these situations in which we hold these unrealistic standards for human behavior, people can’t express when something is going slightly off of that course, when something has derailed from that pre-negotiated track. At that point, you have a wicked, vicious cycle of not being able to discuss [those feelings] openly, bringing it harder upon yourself internally which is just going to further the condition inevitably.
It’s not actually a sin or a wrongdoing if a mother doesn’t immediately feel love for this organism that she’s never even met, that she doesn’t even know, and that will essentially be depriving her of many of the aspects of her life up until that point, just naturally. That’s not a wrongdoing. If there was a way for her to be supported in [having those feelings] and to discuss that and to move through that, then there’s the possibility that she could find a new way or the alternative route to loving her child. I think, probably in some way or another, it’s always possible for any human being to come to love another; even in the most extreme situations, there’s a natural, empathetic bond between all people on the planet, regardless. I really think that’s true. We’re naturally built to connect, but the fact is, if there’s no forum or understanding of even that initial impulse of not feeling so happy day about a child, then you’re already, in this society, stuck. You’re stuck within a taboo and that taboo only closes you off and puts you in a place where your condition of contempt or dislike towards the child will only further. That’s sort of the quintessential danger of taboos in and of themselves; that’s why we should abolish them, burn them alive.
And you definitely see Eva try to voice her concerns at times during the movie, specifically with Kevin’s father, only to have them dismissed as irrational. Eva was very alone in dealing with this feeling, or lack of feeling, she had for this child.
Which is just a recipe for tragedy. Being isolated in a circumstance is always going to go in a bad direction because we’re social creatures and really the way for us to solve any problem or work through any particular landmark in our struggles is going to be together, through cooperation. I always perceived Franklin [Eva's husband and Kevin's father, played by John C. Reilly in the film] is often allegorically representing societal perspectives. That’s always how I saw it. The movie, because it couldn’t use so many words and didn’t want to use any voiceovers, has one of its great triumphs in that they wrote the script and it captures what, in the book, is a one woman soliloquy, and they do it in images and symbols. In that, I think that the movie takes on a sort of nice allegorical quality. Each character becomes a symbol as well.
Did you read the book before you started the film?
I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth — I skimmed it. I skimmed the book and I intentionally did so because I did not want to have such a complete internal knowledge of Eva’s perspective. So much of the conflict and so much of the tension for Kevin as a character is trying to figure out what his mother is thinking. Trying to figure out what her next move might be and trying to anticipate that in what essentially becomes a battle or a war between them. So, I really read the book sort of sporadically and in very small pieces, pieces that would inform the character without giving me this complete, omnipotent understanding of Eva’s thoughts as they are observed in hindsight in the book.
Well, that’s the thing — Eva is somewhat of an unreliable narrator. You don’t know how much of this is her looking back in hindsight with a warped perspective after Kevin’s committed these crimes. How much of her perspective is informed by her own paranoia and her own feelings of guilt and blame for what happened.
It’s true. Pretty much every scene that I was in, besides the last one, was really me playing a figure of dream and memory and not an actual person.
I’ve joked that seeing the movie is perhaps one of the best birth control methods out there because I think it reinforces a fear that every eventual parent has that their kid will turn out “bad.” Maybe he or she won’t turn out like Kevin, but they’ll maybe not like you or be so likable or you won’t have such strong and loving feelings for them as you imagined you would. I know you’re still quite young and probably not thinking about this too seriously yet, but did making the movie make you think about fatherhood at all? Did it freak you out?
You know, it took me through a healthy process which was the realization that you really want to be intentional and certain when it comes to the rearing of a child. You want enter that life-long ordeal with a fastened sense of purpose and a complete understanding of what it means and what could potentially happen, which is truly anything. You want to have some sort of degree of preparation.
But I also don’t think the world needs more people right now. We’ve got seven billion and growing and the worst managed system of resources you could possibly imagine. So more people doesn’t seem like the need, what seems like the need is more people who come from solidified intentional roots, you know what I mean? I would like to think that someday I might be able to form the foundation of whatever the crazed family situation might be that would bring up a child who could feel that they had, as they truly do, all the possibilities of the world at their fingertips. That they could hate me, and they could reject everything I stand for, and be completely unlike me and that I would have a fastened intention to accept that and even support that. “Yes, hate me. Good. That’s a good solid human perspective. Let’s talk about why you hate me,” you know what I mean? That’s the reality of parenting. Every child hates their parent at some point or another, so if a parent is entering pregnancy or birth or whatever just expecting a loving, happy relationship the whole way through, they probably shouldn’t be having a child. And in that regard, I support contraception of every form. [laughs] Especially art contraception.
The film certainly does a good job warning the audience that, while the chances may be slim that your child will come out like Kevin, he or she certainly won’t always be a delight.
I feel like all of the hardest situations that a human being can endure begin with that human being having a child. That is something to seriously consider and then be comfortable with before you decide to bear one.
So, how was it working with Tilda Swinton, one of the most incredible and unique actors, um, ever?
[groans with pleasure] It was amazing. Amazing! In terms of an educational experience, it was like Neo in “The Matrix” closing his eyes and then opening them and being like, “I know kung fu.” Because just … just being around her, you can’t really see what she’s doing, but you can feel what she’s doing. That is, like, the most invaluable lesson I’ve ever been given. Feeling her letting each singular, microscopic beat of a scene necessitate her performance, you know, when done correctly is nothing short of true magic. It was like some street urchin getting to hang out with Merlin. Unfortunately, because it’s the question I’m asked most, there’s very little I can say about it because who she is as an individual, just as a human being, is ineffable and what she does as an artist is also, like, impossible to describe. I’ve found myself in this sort of blubbering situation a number of times because she is beyond words, as all of the great, valuable things in life seem to be. She totally defies linguistics and verbalizations.
What scene was the most difficult for you to film?
You know … different scenes were difficult in different ways. As an actor finding the character of Kevin, that last scene required the most investigation, the most thought and consideration. It took the most focus into how to find that place within a character that he has hardly found.
But then, from the perspective of just me as a human being, firing arrow after arrow with the chronic thought that I was killing people? And really sort of heightening that condition within myself so that there was a point where I was really almost, like, hallucinating. That scene only appears in tiny cuts, but we filmed it a few times. I fired like 20 arrows into the dry board, but by the end, I could see these kids dying … you know, like, twitching on the ground. That was just difficult on the level of, like, what happens when they call cut? Essentially, I had to run off set and, like, cry for a little while. i felt this very intense thing where reality merged with art and all of the sudden, I’ve killed somebody. I haven’t … but I have. You know? it’s a strange thing. If you can imagine something well enough it is the same thing as perceiving something in reality.
How deep do you go…
That’s the beauty of the art form but it’s also the threat, the danger, of the art form.
Let’s talk about the next film you have coming out, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
I think that if the magic of the product is in any way, even marginally, representative of the magic of the experience of creating that story, with that group of kids out there in Pittsburgh, then it’s on. It’ll be fantastic.
Your character in the movie is an older kid who introduces a younger, more innocent type to his first experiences with sex and drugs — so, who introduced you to those things?
It’s funny … I had a group of friends when I first entered high school, who were seniors when I was a freshman, who did. They were my guardian elders who brought me into the fold of all sorts of vice and into the realm of, you know, teenage social existence, which is really the foyer to adult social existence. These kids were all artists in their own right, and they recognized me as being much younger but also being equal on some level, in that I was also pursuing artistry in my life. They gave me some valuable tips.
One of them, this girl Maggie Watts, actually introduced me to the book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s like a full circle. Back then, I was in the position of the main protagonist of that book, Charlie, the young kid who’s just entering that realm and trying to figure out how participation could possibly work. Then Maggie, who was much older than me, also my my first girlfriend, Esther, introduced me to that book, which then, like, four years later on the dot, I got sent the script for to fulfill essentially what was their role. If you want to talk about a mind-boggling metaphysical, art/life loop, that’s certainly one of them.
Do you keep in touch with those friends? Have you told them you’re in the film adaptation?
Oh yes, absolutely and they just think it’s hilarious and amazing that I am Patrick in the movie. It’s very mind-blowing for all of us.
What kind of parts are you hoping to play in the future? Is there any interest in doing bigger budget stuff or are you happy doing indie movies?
I’m really happy doing films where the content rings in a genuine sense; where I feel the resonation of the truth of the story just, like, in my chest when I read the script and throughout the experience of making it. That’s my interest. That doesn’t exclude any range of budget or type of character or genre of film. For me, I’m very happy to wait, I’m very happy to potentially not work for awhile, or whatever might be the requirement in order to keep doing work that I can, throughout the process — up to this point where I am trying to talk to someone about it — feel that the story has a ring of truth or there’s a ripple effect where it touches true nature somewhere along its path. Because otherwise, it’s not the art form I love, you know what I mean? Bad film isn’t film. It’s Wonderbread. There’s no nutrients so there’s no substance, so it doesn’t exist. It’s iceberg lettuce.