When the opportunity to interview Ezra Miller came up for the Feb. 12 DVD release of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I immediately said yes. As would have anyone who saw Miller co-star with Tilda Swinton in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film about a boy (Kevin) who perpetrates a school massacre. Former LAPD cop, Christopher Dorner, was hunting former officers when I spoke from Los Angeles with Miller about violence in America and gun control, topics that our country's still grappling with less than two months after Adam Lanza's killing spree.
A former opera singer (he performed as a child with the New York City Opera), Miller delivers on the oft-used promise of "exciting new talent," seemingly cut from the same cloth as a new crop of female singers (Grimes, Sky Ferreira, Azealia Banks) who emerged in the last year. Featured in the Vanity Fair's current Hollywood issue, Miller talked about his upcoming role (co-starring with Mia Wasikowska) in Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary, the perils and privileges of being labeled beautiful, and being gay-bashed -- twice.
Tomas Mournian: Have you ever been assaulted, verbally, or physically, for looking or being perceived as gay?
Ezra Miller: Yeah. Definitely a couple times. One time I was at a show in New York City for a hardcore band. I was wearing a velvet green jacket, and I was doing sort of a swing step, kind of Lindy-hopping in the mosh pit. Then I walked out of the mosh pit, and I was standing in the back of the crowd, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and all I heard was the word, "Faggot." I got punched in the eye.
The face is designed to protect the eyeball but this dude managed to punch at a particular angle. I had a bunch of tears in my retina. It was very confusing. All of a sudden, my eye was bleeding, I couldn't see where the guy had gone, and I never really knew who it was.
Mournian: What happened the second time?
Miller: I wore this faux fur leopard print jacket for a while. I really liked it. I was in Hoboken, N.J., where my parents live. There was a Giants game going on so bros were about, and on the prowl.
A guy grabbed me by the jacket and was like, "What the fuck is with this jacket?" And I was like, "It's a jacket that I'm wearing." And he's like, "Who are these fuckin' people you're with?" And I was like, "That's my mother. And we're just going to get some dinner. Would you please let go of me?" He went, "What?! My mother!? My mother?!" He sort of let go of me, and I was like, "Look man, you're confused, and I'm sorry, I'm leaving."
Mournian: Maybe it was the leopard print.
Miller: He went pussy. And I was like, that guy just spat out the most non-sensical of masculine, gay-bashing skewers. He didn't even know what angle to take. He tried the mother angle, he tried the pussy angle, the what-is-with-this-jacket angle. The first guy was a more self-assured, confident gay-basher. That second guy needed to sober up, figure out his hate crime a little more.
Mournian: Right now, there are all these leading men: James Franco in the Cruising project, Matthew McConaughey in The Paperboy, Matt Damon & Michael Douglas in Liberace -- guy-guys who are driving projects that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Why do you think now, at this moment, straight identified actors are so eager to play gay?
Miller: I think it's that all of a sudden the flood gates are open to wonderful, well-written gay characters. These roles are good. No longer is there this long-standing, unspoken reality that playing gay somehow involves the defamation of an actor, or the ruin of a career. A space opened up. Once the space opened up, the roles started gaining depth. No longer are gay roles just victims, or tokenization, but real, wonderful characters.
Mournian: In the upcoming Madame Bovary (with Mia Wasikowska) you're playing Leon. How did that come about?
Miller: I've had a love affair with Madame Bovary -- is a weird thing to say -- simply because the book is such an expository to the falsehoods of love affairs. I loved that book for a long time, and it really came from me getting the woman who is directing that film, Sophie Barthes, and seeing that she had a visionary handle on this project.
Mournian: How will this Madame Bovary be different from the other sixteen film adaptations?
Miller: This one is going to be real, it's going to hit the pulse of that book which is going to be something extremely dark, and tragic, and sexy. And beautiful, all at the same time. I'm very much excited about Sophie's vision of a story that I've loved for a while.
Mournian: In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it's interesting how, in contrast with Kevin being intertwined with his mother, Patrick's social relationships are all with his peers.
Miller: Yeah, I think Patrick is very much a peer-powered individual. He both derives his strength as a human being from the people in his life to sort of pull him through. He has that sort of combined relationship of given family, and chosen family in his stepsister -- who I think he's really chosen to regard as his sister. And it's implied, in the book, that Patrick has a good relationship with his father, and his stepmother, Sam's mother. The entirety of the book and the film, all exists within the world of the peers. The parents could almost be headless. Like whatever cartoon that was.
Mournian: You've played a lot of teenagers but Patrick was different.
Miller: It was an important thing for me (as an artist) to play that kind of social dynamic of a teenager because I had played a lot of that first circle of the home life. And to play the broader circle of the social environment. I think it's a whole different ball game for a kid that age.
Mournian: How did you hear about The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a project?
Miller: When I first heard about Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was not through a friend of mine, necessarily, free-willingly give me the script, but I was staying on a friend's couch, and was creepily, sneakily looking at it in his stack of scripts. Just to see if anything had fallen through my crack.
Mournian: You were immediately interested.
Miller: I was initially not into the idea of a film adaptation of Perks of Being a Wallflower at all. Just sort of seeing it written on the side of the script, and then got the script through my agent, and saw on email that I received it in, that it was written by Stephen Chbosky [the novel's author] and that he was going to direct it.
Mournian: Do you get scripts from other young actors?
Miller: I feel like there's more and more a savvy, youth actor culture who are looking to get things made, looking to move their own weight more than has been traditional for people of this age. Emma [Watson] is a glowing example. Now she knows how to move things into place, and how to make good projects happen, not only for her but for all of us. We will get to see all these awesome projects that she's sort of shoving into existence.
Mournian: Because it was a period setting, all the relationships were in the world i.e., not conducted by cell phones, or texts. Kristen Stewart said something interesting in an On the Road interview, and it was about how much she yearned for a world without cell phones. Philosophically, what side of the digital divide do you stand on?
Miller: I've been trying to encourage myself to be more willing. Because my resistance towards cell phones -- which I definitely have, a great resistance towards cell phones -- it becomes a problem. At this point, no matter where you side of that digital divide you are entrapped by it. Because there's a level of expectation of the availability of communication that we just can't go back on. There's no reverse button. Even though I don't like cell phones, I wish there could be spaces and gaps of time where people were excusably missing from the cyber net.
Mournian: Can you see a way out?
Miller: I really don't think there's a way out. My voice mail is literally begging people not to be angered that I'm within immediate cell phone communication. Even I get upset. Sometimes I won't be able to get in touch with someone, and I'll be like, "What the hell." We're done for.
Mournian: Yet what Kristen Stewart said really spoke to me, and I assume other closet Luddites.
Miller: We can yearn for that lost time, and romanticize it, but we're going to have to figure out ... hopefully, we can overcome the initial fanaticism. We're still in the crazy, early stages of digital communication. Hopefully, we can relax a little bit into it as a pervasive reality. Right now, it's still -- it's gone from being the new toy to the security blanket.
Mournian: Given the recent events in Newtown, Conn., I'm really curious how having played that role [in the movie, We Need to Talk about Kevin] do you look at those events?
Miller: I think that definitely playing that role, that's something that will always be brought up when these tragedies occur. I always think about the under-exploration of the human dynamic. And I generally watch media sensationalize these events, and usually somehow turn the story into one note ideas. Basically, a singular topic that becomes the reason or the excuse.
Mournian: Or, mental illness.
Miller: A vague idea of mental illness. Or, something about this one incident in this person's life that we can look at, and pick apart. Or, it's the video game they played. There's something about the American psychological condition that's much more to blame, and at fault. I think we should try to proceed into that discussion with a little bit more willingness to delve into expansive gray areas. Which is hard in the wake of tragedy.
Mournian: The article always begins the same way--
Miller: "It began in a small town where nobody would have expected in this tiny suburban haven that someone would do something so awful." I wonder when the moment comes that they realize they've been saying that same line for like twelve years. Because this is where it happens: It happens in suburbia, it happens in environments where kids might be getting the superficial things they need. Like the artifice of what they're supposed to need, but there's a lot of emotional deprivation. There's a lot of stuff that gets buried and pushed under the rug.
Mournian: What's your stance on gun control?
Miller: Obviously, I think there's no harm in making the size of a gun's magazine a little smaller, or putting a safety on the goddamn thing, or making sure people have to register to get guns. I think all of that is almost painfully obvious. It's bizarre to me that there are people who think that those ideas are restrictive, or somehow how... part of some overarching, governmental conspiracy. I've been hearing all sorts of shit.
Mournian: You're featured in Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue which revolves around beauty, youth, & fame. Are you aware of the privilege that physical beauty affords you?
Miller: That is a really heavy question. Yes. I think it's a strange reality, but it's the world we live in. I think it's probably going to be one of the last... it's a final frontier. We're changing all these modes of discrimination in our industry but there's still one, out-standing mode of discrimination. Which is that so much of this work, and so much of this industry is based on the way people look. Which will never be the end-all, be-all, determining factor about human character. Even though we still seem to perceive it that way. That good-looking people are somehow superior. Which I think is quite foolish.
It's kind of like any of the privileges that I find myself at the center of -- white privilege, or the privilege of being free of poverty. Any of these privileges, I think it's essential to acknowledge them, and acknowledge all of the opportunities and imbalances that end up tipping in your favor. But then I think it's most important to try and address where the roots of these privileges and inequalities come from.
Mournian: Do you feel the beauty label is a trap?
Miller: I think everybody within this industry who's labeled as beautiful feels the tyranny of beauty. That is a standard that's set for them, a pedestal that they can only tumble from. I also think it ultimately creates a lot of self-loathing, and self-doubt for people who are labelled beautiful, or ugly. In the end, it's not actually helpful for anyone -- the labeling and rating systems we've established for ourselves.
Mournian: Do you think you'll live a full life cycle, or will it be preempted by melting glaciers and rising oceans?
Miller: I am not so certain either way. I think there are a lot factors in human history that are reaching pinnacle turning points. There's an exponential climb that our whole species has been on that's definitely reaching a crucial juncture. I don't completely -- I don't take any of society's current mode of high frequency operations for granted. I definitely don't count on a full life cycle for many reasons, glaciers being one of them.