Ezra Miller on Beware the Gonzo and Dodging Teen-Actor Traps

city_island_miller_garcia.jpgMaybe it's coincidence that Ezra Miller had two films premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, including Beware the Gonzo -- which finally arrives theaters this weekend in limited release and is currently available everywhere on VOD. (His 2009 Tribeca entry, City Island won the festival's audience prize.) But it's no accident: Since his 2008 screen debut in the harrowing prep-school drama Afterschool, the 18-year-old actor has built a reputation behind the scenes for fearlessness, intensity, comic chops, and holding his own against alpha-castmates like Andy Garcia, Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt. And coming soon: Tilda Swinton.

In addition to his Tribeca 2010 tandem of the ensemble drama Every Day (as Schreiber and Hunt's gay, rebellious son) and the high-school media-war comedy Beware the Gonzo (as the titular rebellious journalist), Miller is made headlines at Cannes 2011 for his role in the upcoming We Need to Talk About Kevin. Adapted from Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel, Kevin features Miller in the title role of a young man whose inner turmoil explodes with horrific consequences; Swinton plays his mother Eva, whose letters about the boy reveal some of -- but not quite all -- the circumstances fueling his rage. It's up to Miller and Swinton (with co-star John C. Reilly) to fill in the blanks with director Lynne Ramsey in her much anticipated return to filmmaking after eight years.

And that's to say nothing of his other high-profile work on the horizon, including the Emma Watson-led Perks of Being a Wallflower and Sam Levinson's feature-directing debut Another Happy Day. Talking to Movieline during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, Miller practically bounded with joy over his darkest role yet, catching us up as well on his Liev Schreiber acting seminar and why print isn't quite dead (yet).

So I recently saw two new films of yours in 24 hours. You're making quite the fast impression.

It was great. It was such a privilege to be able to have this experience of Tribeca so full-on. It was definitely overwhelming; it was definitely a dip and a dive into some serious self-awareness as an actor, seeing two of my films in that brief period of time. I don't know. It was fun and kind of intense.

I'm struck by how Afterschool -- only three years ago -- was your first film. How, when and why did you jump into acting?

It was kind of like this somewhat gradual process. In hindsight, it seemingly happened naturally -- as a progression. I started by getting really into opera when I was like 6, and through a strange connection to my mother, who's a modern dancer, I started doing this this opera, which was called White Raven at Lincoln Center. After that I was sort of trained as a singer, and I started singing with the Metropolitan Opera. I was doing seasons with that and getting this taste for art and performance, just noting that I wanted to do that with different contexts in my life. And then film just sort of naturally evolved from theater and musical theater and the opera thing. When I found film, it was like, "Of course!" It was this very intense realization that this is perhaps the most powerful, honed context that I've found.


So why Afterschool?

I had just gotten representation of sorts and had read, off the bat, a lot of garbage. I read a lot of bad scripts and weird television shows. I don't know. There's a lot of work out there I was reading at 14 years old and noticing this lack of thought. And then, reading Afterschool, that's full of thought. It was bursting with ideas. [Director] Antonio Campos wanted to convey these specific feelings and ideas, and that was very exciting. And the role was so not me but something I thought I really understood as part of this new generation. So Afterschool felt so natural, and what it ended up being was the ultimate lesson in film acting, because the character's so understated -- to the point that he's almost a representation. And then [there were] these long scenes, and I had to be comfortable with some pretty intense material. And I had to do it, and it became this great lesson. So again, hindsight is 20/20, but Afterschool was the perfect first film.

That might have been your breakout role, but it also implied a sharp learning curve in joining an ensemble like the one in City Island. What was that experience like?

It was obviously a major leap, but again felt so incredibly right. That movie was a comedy that drew from truth, and truth is drama. That's why it almost didn't seem like too much of a leap. Even when Antonio called "cut" on Afterschool -- especially if you're making a dark film like that -- you've gotta see the humor in it. City Island was just the opposite direction. That cast was so incredible, and everyone was giving these wonderful, honest parts of themselves to these characters, and so much was brought to the table. We got to really play and make something really smart and funny -- and easy to watch. At least that's more the reaction to City Island than there will ever be to Afterschool.

Your characters in those films as well as Beware the Gonzo and Every Day have specific personal or sexual interests that he doesn't think his family can relate to. What is it about that character dynamic that appeals to you?

Honestly -- and I think this is why so many movies of that nature come my way or any young actor's way -- it's because that's a reality of teenage life. Especially when you're exploring the family. Family is this very deep, complex thing that for most people becomes everything. It informs your entire life. The sexuality of the budding human beings that are teenagers is important -- it's critical. I'm attracted to that because it's true. Every teenager deals in his or her own sexuality and has to face it and figure out how it can coincide with the rest of their lives in a healthy manner. And try to navigate it in our modern society, which is wrought with stigma and taboo and repression, and sort of as a result, these inner monsters that some teenagers really struggle with. That's the appeal.


Beware the Gonzo is a kind of comic riff on Afterschool -- like if John Hughes made films in the new-media era. Were you aware of or attracted to that correlation?

Absolutely. I was drawing little parallels between things like that. Gonzo's in a prep school, and there is that attempted subversion of emotions or outspokenness in youth. There's this new-media lockdown feeling. Afterschool is this cold, dark look at what really happens most of the time -- that this subversion continues in this terrifying way and gets worse and worse. And then in Gonzo, I absolutely agree [has] that John Hughes -- may we be honored and privileged enough to say -- spirit of what-if, idealistic rebellion. But then again, Beware the Gonzo questions that, because this rebellion is a failed one.

It also borrows heavily from the mythology -- if not the experience -- of Hunter Thompson. Was his estate involved in the film?

Yes. They and the [Ralph] Steadman estate were incredibly helpful. Of course they had to be involved. What's interesting about it is that it's mostly unspoken. Someone with some knowledge of Hunter S,Thompson's work or the way he lived or the Gonzo philosophy has an added layer, maybe, to what informs this kid's psychology.

Working in the media, every day I hear, "Teenagers don't read newspapers. They're not interested in print."

Oh, God.

How true is that? I mean, Gonzo starts his own newspaper. His actions repudiate that whole theory.

I don't know. The whole thing is that Gonzo is doing something rebellious. Even the people in his rebellion are saying, "Uh, dude -- the Internet." It's scary to me, but what I think your co-workers are saying is a reality. At the same time, I do think it's true to say that we're not all dead yet out here. There are certainly people who are my direct contemporaries who read the printed word. There's obviously something beautiful and romantic and essential about that, and my hope is that these people, as it seems to die, will come out of the woodwork and stop it from ever dying completely.

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