Article featured in the New York Movies
written by Jada Yuan
A tall, pale, floppy-haired youth loiters below the High Line on West 20th Street, rolling a cigarette, laconically considering the hopes and dreams of others. As he’s proven twice in the past year, in Another Happy Day and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ezra Miller is a very convincing tortured adolescent. He has the coloring and bone structure of a vampire. At 19, he’s got both acne and gray hairs. When and if he can grow a mustache, he wants to play Edgar Allan Poe.
And yet, as I approach, he breaks character and smiles broadly, gives me a hug, and leads me to the “hope tree” he’s been perusing. It’s really a pole dressed up as a public-art project, with a mess of bright-orange and yellow tags tied to it, each scrawled with the yearnings of passersby. Miller reads aloud the one that delights him most: “I want a gorgeous, humorous, sexy, warmhearted man who is tall, wants children, is creative and affectionate. Also important is that he needs to have a U.S. American passport and wants to marry me within the next week.” Miller can’t remember the exact tag he wrote the last time he visited a hope tree, but “it was something about your body being a part of history. I wanted us all to act accordingly with that general premise,” he says. What does he mean by “body”? He explains: “Initially the physical body, but also all the other ones, like the emotional body.”
I’m still not sure what he means, but Miller has a habit of spewing half-baked musings that sound possibly profound. He picked the High Line as our meeting place not only because he wanted to smoke but also because, he says, “I’m interested in why I’m interested in the High Line, and furthermore why it’s compelling to people. It’s, I don’t know, a clarified vision for our drastic times—the apocalyptic nature of these weeds overgrowing train tracks.” Never mind that those weeds were planted by a landscaper. We wander around until we find the little amphitheater that steps down to frame a view of Tenth Avenue (“Here it is!” he says. “Here’s life as a play!”) and drink chai tea from a vintage, burnt-orange plastic thermos he’s brought along.
In films, Miller often has been cast as the quick-witted fuckup son. He played Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies’s kid with a fat fetish in City Island, and Ellen Barkin’s arrogant nihilistic druggie kid in Another Happy Day. He got that role after showing up late to meet with director Sam Levinson and then demanding that they sit outside so he could smoke. (“I thought, ‘What a fucking prick! He’s perfect for this film!’ ” said Levinson at the time.) In his latest, Kevin, with Tilda Swinton, Miller takes his troubled-teen type a few steps further, committing a Columbine-like mass murder.
In his off time, he’s a neo-hippie. Activities include visiting Occupy Wall Street, Burning Man, and drumming, often shirtless, in a rootsy rock band, Sons of an Illustrious Father. The name comes from Plato’s Republic and, Miller says, refers to “the inherent torment of being privileged or coming from an illustrious father in a time of gross economic disparity.”
His father is Robert S. Miller, who is group publisher of Workman Publishing. Miller grew up in New Jersey with two older sisters; his mother, Marta, is a dancer. They keep a place in Chelsea, where Miller lives, “as much as I live any place.”
At 8, Miller performed in White Raven, a Philip Glass collaboration with Robert Wilson about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, at Lincoln Center. As part of it, he was hoisted “300 feet in the air!” (actually more like 40 feet, to the ceiling of the New York State Theater). There, he says, “I conducted the orchestra. With one grand, sweeping gesture, I brought up the sun. It was the most profound ego boost that an 8-year-old could possibly receive.” He then joined the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus before being washed up when puberty kicked in. So he turned to acting.
His first film role, at 14, was the lead in Afterschool as a boarding-school outcast who numbly videos twin sisters dying of a drug overdose and masturbates to Internet porn of girls getting strangled. Director Antonio Campos says, “I could just tell he was special. He was a lot smarter” than other teen actors (they bonded over their love of A Clockwork Orange), and “more sensitive. He wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself.”
He also wasn’t a virgin; Campos had difficulty getting Miller to act awkwardly in the sex scene. He already smoked, too. “I would smoke anything back then, man!” says Miller. “Dried bananas, you know, orange peels. Anything that burns, essentially. Tea used to be not for drinking.”
Though a good student, Miller dropped out of Hoboken’s Hudson School his junior year, prompted by a dream in which a despondent Ludwig van Beethoven visited him in the subway. “He was crying, and he said, ‘The four symphonies I’ve written are no good. They’re just, like, not enough.’ And I was like, ‘You write five more! Keep going!’ And I woke up in a cold sweat and I was like, ‘I need to drop out of school.’ ” His interpretation? “I think it’s about how it’s the responsibility of every artist to make sacrifices and seemingly irrational decisions in order to carve out their little pebble of work to put on the big, like, art kingdom that everyone’s been building for so long.”
A despondent Beethoven came to Miller in a dream when he was 16, and he decided to quit school.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given those dreams and circuitous musings, Miller was arrested in June for pot possession while shooting The Perks of Being a Wallflower, an adaptation of the popular teen novel in which he plays Emma Watson’s gay brother. Though “pot was strewn about, covering me like a quilt,” says Miller, he got off, thanks to a “kindly magistrate” who gave him two counts of disorderly conduct and “a lengthy lecture regarding my influence on the young extras of our film, one of whom he later revealed was his daughter.”
Miller remains unapologetic. “I don’t feel like there’s any need to hide the fact that I smoke pot. It’s a harmless herbal substance that increases sensory appreciation.”
He can’t have been easy to raise, but Miller’s parents have been remarkably supportive, which is why he refrained from speaking to his mother for Kevin’s entire shoot. “In the moments where my mind could escape Kevin’s, I had this growing, gathering appreciation for everything that my mother did right,” he says. “But to bring back to the forefront of my brain this loving, empathetic relationship with my mother would have been extremely detrimental to either me or the film, so it was really essential that she, uh, keep fair distance.” She sat beside him during Kevin’s debut at Cannes, to see a killer with her boy’s face. “I’ve never heard her cry like that,” he says. “Like, audibly sobbing and shaking.”
Our wanderings take us through stoop sitting, or, as Miller calls it, “the most harmless of petty loiterings,” and the Nan Goldin exhibit at the Matthew Marks Gallery, before ending where we started, back at the hope tree. Miller has a new one: “I hope that I might always play my part so that I will always know my hopes.” He tries to explain that, but never really does, and in a way, it might be disappointing if he did.