Horror fans might not be familiar with the name Ezra Miller, but once Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin hits theaters on February 3rd, they will. Co-starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, directed by Ramsay (Morvern Callar), and based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, Miller plays the titular Kevin, a teenage sociopath who ultimately commits an atrocious crime at his high school. The film is told primarily through the perspective of his mother Eva (Swinton), as the two engage in a vicious cycle of resentment born of desperation. We Need to Talk about Kevin isn't a psychological horror film in the traditional sense; instead it's a full-on investigation of the parental psyche. The film, like the relationship between Eva and Kevin, is an act of emotional terrorism. We spoke to Ezra Miller about his outstanding performance, his perception and interpretation of Kevin, and the thought-provoking maternal themes in the film.
I had the pleasure of revisiting We Need to Talk about Kevin this past Saturday. I hadn't seen it since Fantastic Fest last September, and it still holds up incredibly well. At this point, how many times have you seen it?
I have only seen the film once and imagine I will only ever see it once, so kudos to you for watching it twice.
I'm a glutton for emotional punishment, I guess! So what brought you to this project, and in particular, this character? Kevin is rather inaccessible, not only narratively speaking, but to the audience as well.
Essentially I got this script and after reading only like, 10 pages of it, I felt like I was aware of a few things -- that this character was very hard to understand and that this character was virtually impossible to identify with on any sort of whole or emotional level. I knew right away that there would be tons of actors from my rather monstrous generation who would be fantastic at playing a really horrifying monster of a boy. I felt, though, in this very strong way that there was much more to the intricacies of the character, and I felt like I could truly get in the head space of this person and identify with his beliefs, which are completely preposterous, and in a more strong way, I could identify with what was motivating him internally. I found it to be something very simple -- to oversimplify it, it's love. The desire for the attention of the ones who created you, you know, the guardian figure, and it's something that we all instinctively need.
How do you prepare for a role like this? Did you research Columbine or any other recent school shootings, or did you try to approach it as a blank slate?
I certainly had the fun time of reading up on many massacres of the past, but most of what I derived from that investigation ended up kind of being discarded with the realization that Kevin is the exception to many of those rules. His crime is not motivated by social dysphoria, it's not because he's an outcast or misunderstood, or even bored. It's a direct emotional attack on his mother, like a very twisted play or performance art piece, that he mounts very elaborately merely for the benefit of one human being, his mom. Essentially understanding that made it necessary to remove him in many ways from the legacy of all of the school shooters that have existedin the world. Really, his performance is meticulously carried out until that final scene and because we had to shave my head, we had to shoot that scene last. It was interesting to be able to build all these various masks that Kevin wears throughout the film to the point at the jail, in that final scene, where he lets those masks slip. That was kind of the most essential thing that had to happen there and it had to happen in a way that was subtle. That was sort of the climax that everything built toward in production, but obviously also in the storyline of the film.
You mentioned the last scene, and I think that's the most telling scene in the entire film because that's the moment when we realize why Kevin does the things he does. Eva asks him, and he doesn't have an answer, but I think the realization of why occurs in that moment, not only for the characters, but for the audience as well.
Had you read the source material at all prior or during the making of the film?
Very little. I read only very little of the material because essentially the book is one long, verbose, highly descriptive track of Eva's perspective. So much of the tension of their sort of warfare is trying to know at a given time what she's thinking or what she's feeling, and so to read that entire perspective before we did the work seemed like it would be a distraction. I had planned to read it when the film was through, as you might be able to imagine, when we were done with filming I was quite done with Kevin.
I read the book after seeing the film, and it does feel like it lends itself more to the idea of the "unreliable narrator" since it is all told from Eva's perspective in the form of letters to her husband. I just wondered if it had influenced you at all in your depiction of Kevin.
I did read it a little, though. Sort of like someone might read the Bible. I opened to a random page and tried to flip to a place where it became about Kevin, I'd read a little bit and close the book and sort of let that saturate, and let that inform the work, but I didn't want to read it in its entirety.
As I mentioned, Eva is a somewhat unreliable narrator, and there's an argument amongst viewers in regard to how much of the film should be taken literally and how much of it is subjective and almost abstract, since we're seeing a translation of Eva's memories and her mental makeup. How did you interpret the relationship between Eva and Kevin, and how did you let that inform your performance?
It was an interesting thing because essentially, except for that last scene, I play a figure of memory. A lot of it was in trying to consider where in the story she might be polarizing or capturing in her memory the extreme of a scenario, rather than the truth of it. It all existed in a very interesting grey area because there were times where I did find myself wondering if this was truly how the course of events played out or if this was one specific time where it was sort of specific to the way she recalled it. And that was interesting, it was sort of a fun experiment.
I think another problem that people have, especially in the US, is accepting the notion that a mother might feel apathy toward her own child -- that a mother isn't necessarily born a mother, but rather becomes one, and there's a chance that she might not have that maternal instinct.
I think it's very interesting that people have a hard time accepting that a mother could be anything but ultimately loving toward her child, in a world where that is so clearly the case. It does seem like it's one of our last standing hard and fast taboos, that we have this very unrealistic standard for maternal behavior. In observing the plot line of this film, that taboo is more to blame than any one character in this film because she never has a forum or an opportunity or a space to express the way she's truly feeling or actually be able to work through it. Her repression of what is not in invalid emotion... motherhood means all of these sacrifices for a woman, it means irreparable change, it means irreparable damage, and all of that is true and a part of what motherhood is, so if there was a way for her to talk through those feelings, then there might have been hope, and so I think it's interesting that that taboo persists as a reaction to this film, which is essentially trying to mount an assault on that taboo.
I couldn't agree more. It also speaks to the idea of nature versus nurture, and I feel like We Need to Talk about Kevin exists almost as a thesis on that very argument. It's cyclical, like the chicken and the egg. Do you feel as though Eva created this monster with her resentment, or do you feel as though he is innately monstrous?
It's an interesting circular argument. What I've found thinking it over a lot, over and over and over in a recurring cycle, is that more than anything it's unbreakable. The way the human genetic composition will affect their emotional disposition toward a child or toward a mother, it becomes inseparable. I've started to side with the third perspective, which is that they essentially feed each other endlessly. In fact, neither nor the egg came first as we now scientifically know. The Darwinian theory of evolution shows us that it was a long series of chickens and eggs with minor mutations down the line making one survive better that made the chicken as we know it. That's where I stand.