In Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, playing the profoundly disturbed son of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), Ezra Miller delivers a stunning performance. Kevin is a duplicitous boy, feigning easygoing normalcy for his dad, but baring his true self – a malicious, rage-filled soul – to his horrified mother. For the 19-year-old who only made his big-screen debut four years ago in Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, it is a career high to date, earning him a British Independent Film Awards nomination for Best Supporting Actor. What is most striking about the young actor during a January phone call is the enthusiasm and warmth that blasts through the phone, a marked contrast to the role he so thoroughly inhabited. It is a performance not many have seen yet – the film earned under $2 million at the American box office in a limited release – but that should change now that We Need to Talk About Kevin is available on demand and coming out on DVD on May 29.
Q: How do you get into a character like this, who is so angry and so self-contained?
A: You know there’s a lot in this movie that has to do with memory. Almost the whole movie is told through the hindsight perspective of Eva. For me, the formation of the character came in a similar fashion, where obviously what composes a human being will largely be the experiences of his life before the point that we meet him. In this movie we see really sort of the highlights in Eva’s memory from Kevin’s conception. For me, it was about sort of internalizing those memories and making those memories my own, elaborating on those memories and finding the way the track of this person’s life, in combination with just who he innately was, led him to feel so much rage and aggression and hostility.
A lot of that process is simply sitting and thinking and reminiscing on a lifetime that truly was not my own, was this invented lifetime and finding the way that that forms everything from the way that Kevin moves to the way he talks to the way he looks at his mother.
Q: John C. Reilly has talked about how the story is told through Eva’s eyes and since she is not necessarily a reliable narrator, it skewed the way he played the father. Did you feel that way as well?
A: It was absolutely a matter of at certain times addressing the fact that I was playing a dream figure or a formation of someone’s memory, particularly a memory at a time in her life when she is under the weight of extreme emotions, as sort of polarizing her reminiscence of who Kevin was at various times. I would say polarization would be the most prominent factor when someone’s looking back at this experience that they – because of the nature of an event, you associate all the details with the centerpiece of that event. Perhaps at times his malice is exaggerated in her hindsight. Those were certainly considerations the whole way through except for a single scene that I personally believe to be in real time and actual.
Q: How did this come to you? Was it just another script coming through your agent or was this something you knew about and actively pursued?
A: Oh yes! Initially, it came through an agent just like any other script does, in an email. But I read it and it sort of consumed me. It became instantaneously my most passionate pursuit. I’ve truly never wanted anything more. I vehemently chased this film. I went in and auditioned for it with a casting director. Then I met Lynne the second time I went in. I was very excited about it. I spent a bizarre majority of my time considering the way to approach this character, not knowing we were almost two years away from when the film would actually be made.
The film disappeared for a while, to my absolutely horror. I was pretty consistently annoying my agent when he was trying to show me other wonderful options and things that could be great and fun. I would say, “Yes, sure, cool, whatever. What’s going on with We Need to Talk About Kevin? What’s happening with that?” It vanished for a little while, as a lot of films at that time did – it was around the time of the economic crisis. Several months later it re-emerged and I was ecstatic and then put myself back on the intense regimen of spending most of my day considering how to properly approach this character.
Q: Was the audition process still going on at this point?
A: Yes. I met Lynne for a second time and then for a third time with her companion and co-writer Rory [Kinnear] and then after that, there was a chemistry read with Tilda. So now tensions are heightening and I’m sort of starting to become a nervous wreck in all other aspects of my life. I’m walking around subway platforms terrifying people, because I’m in character. I think when I was going to that chemistry read with Tilda someone actually got out of their seat on the subway platform and moved to the other end of the platform just because I’d been giving them the Kevin stare. Then after the chemistry read, I waited two weeks, just chewing every available part of my body. Any part of my body that my mouth could reach, I would chew incessantly.
Q: Was the chemistry test the end of the auditions?
A: I got a call from Lynne and she just had this specific thing that she really wanted to do. She wanted to see the last scene, because we’d been doing all these other scenes from the film and there’s an extreme difference in that last scene. There’s something new. We see a mask drop, we see a performance slip, Kevin’s performance. That’s really a key factor of that character, that pretty much all of the time that we see him, he is performing. So to see that change, to see that sort of glimpse through the facade, it was essential for Lynne to see.
She told me to come on Saturday and she meant Sunday. I came on Saturday and was waiting in the lobby and she had already left the building, but fortunately, she had forgotten her cell phone, so she came back and saw me there. “Oh my God, I’ve made such a mistake! Oh no, I’m so sorry! Why don’t you just come and have a drink with us?” I was not at the time old enough to drink. I’m still not old enough to drink by technical New York City/United States law, but I came and sat with them in this pub near the place where they were staying and we talked for about four hours about the movie and about the scene we were going to do the next day and the character. I really think that was sort of an invaluable accident. I think we were able to truly connect and understand that we felt and saw many of the same things for this film. So we said goodbye and I came back the next day. We did the scene and by the end of the scene, everybody was crying.
I still had to wait for another two weeks. At this point, most of my my body was down to bone. Then she cast me, so it was fortunate that I chewed myself down to bone, because then I had to lose 20 pounds to be the malnourished Kevin. That’s sort of the epic saga in its entirety.
Q: Lynne has said that one of the things that impressed her about you is that you were not intimidated by Tilda Swinton. Was that true from that first chemistry read or did that just fall away as you got to know her?
A: (Laughs) I wouldn’t say I wasn’t intimidated by Tilda Swinton. That seems like the highest form of hyperbole, but certainly when I entered that chemistry read, I was for the most part sort of within the mind frame of the character. When I met Tilda, obviously I stepped out of the mental initiative of that character and met Tilda, but still in sort of my emotional core was carrying this hatred, disgust and resentment. I think that sort of masked the true emotion, which was absolute admiration and a feeling of laudation toward Tilda, who has been one of my heroes in this art form for a long time. I think it was a convenient deception. It just sort of turned out that way. – Pam Grady