In director Lynne Ramsay's 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin, actor Ezra Miller (City Island) plays title character Kevin Khatchadourian, a high school student whose unaffectionate and ambiguous relationship with his mother (Tilda Swinton) leads to a horrific massacre at the hands of the young man.
During an interview with me, Miller, 19, talked about playing such a disturbed individual and how developing a friendship with Swinton off camera made it easier to clash with her character during the shoot.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is currently playing exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Theatre.
Where do you have to be emotionally as an actor to tap into someone as chilling as your character?
For me there was a wide variety of things. I found in Kevin there was something dualistic about his nature in a sense that his rational justification and actions are not necessarily representative of his internal motivations and true feelings. So, there was a sort of process of evolving before we started shooting the true internal condition of this character. The horrifying reality I found was that Kevin is an empathetic human being though he may not appear that way. Internally, he is experiencing a vast range of human emotion. He is tortured by the fact that he is deprived of one essential thing we are all entitled to: the love of a mother.
Personally, do you think Kevin’s problems come solely from the thoughts he is creating in his own mind or do they stem from his mother’s indifference during her pregnancy and his childhood?
I think that’s what you have to ponder in the film. You never really know where nature ends and nurture begins. I, myself, feel like they are intrinsically tied together. The development of a child on a physical and neurological level is happening from the instant the child is born and even in prenatal stages. I think the relationship a child has with his mother is very specific to that child’s neurological development.
I actually saw this film about a month after I had my first child, so thanks for scaring the hell out of me.
(Laughs) Oh, man. I must apologize. I had no way of knowing. Hopefully, there was a glimmer of hope and a lesson to be learned through all of the horror and bloodshed.
Is it easy to leave a role like this on the set, or do you take it home with you? If you do leave it on set, how do you not think about it?
Certainly I felt that I had the same emotional and physical condition of Kevin for the entire month we shot the film. It was strenuous and grueling, but it was also essential for me. I didn’t want to have to consciously tap into the emotional and physical conditions of Kevin. I wanted them to exist so I could focus on the rational mind of Kevin and how he’s using intelligent justification for his actions. It was a process that had me holding that condition inside my gut for the entirety of the shoot, which provided for a stark release when it was finally over. When it was over, I was able to let that character go and go play a drum in the woods.
What kind of off-camera relationship did you have with Tilda Swinton? Is it hard to create a friendship when you have to exude something else while filming?
You know, it’s funny because we were able to be quite friendly with one another in the moments we had with each other outside the context of the film. She would always greet me as her first-born son. We would hug each other. We were able to have a rather pleasant and friendly rapport immediately off set. There was something about developing this mother and son bond that proved useful in filming the much more complex and strained relationship of the characters. That’s what made that bond so unique.
How do you think you were able to take a role like this and make it different than the typical role you’d see in a horror or thriller that centers on a disturbed kid? Was there something you specifically read in the script or was that work you had to do on your own?
For me that existed in the script and story already. This story fearlessly confronts the idea that a child doesn’t need to be “the bad seed” or the son of the Devil or a changeling in order to be horrifying. In fact, the scariest thing is that a simple human being is the most capable of such atrocities.
Whether we’re talking about a tragedy like Columbine High School or Virginia Tech, school massacres always seem to shake the moral foundation of our society and give us this sort of wake up call. Did you have to revisit any of these horrific events to get a sense of why they happened and who were the people behind them?
I looked into it for my own purposes and my own understanding. I found that the school shooting is a smoke screen for Kevin and not the cause or the center point of his campaign. He utilizes the massacre to battle for authenticity with his mother. He could have done many things to engage in that warfare. The school shooting just happened to be what he chose.
The final scene of the film is interesting. We have Tilda Swinton staring in your eyes, which are basically empty. Is there room for any type of forgiveness in this story? Where do you think these characters are at the end?
I find the ending of this film to be incredibly hopeful. I think in the core, primordial instance where she asks him why he did this and him saying, “I don’t know” there is a platform and a beginning for possible hope and a future between these two people. At that point, however, it really is all interpretation.
Do you think Kevin will realize later what he has done?
Yeah, even in that last scene, I feel he has already plunged into that painful, realistic confrontation as opposed to these fictional rationalizations he has created. I my own opinion, I do see that as hope for this character.