The pioneering 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment may have been hell for its participants, but that’s exactly why the new movie based on it was enticing for its many up-and-coming young actors. Foremost among them are Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano, who play two Stanford students drafted to participate in a psychology study that will split young men into groups of prisoners and guards. The experiment was meant to last two weeks, but less than a day in, it had already devolved into an eye-opening treatise on abuse of power, as the guard played by Angarano and the prisoner played by Miller locked horns and were pushed to psychological extremes. Vulture recently caught up with both actors to talk about how well they’d known each other before they found themselves screaming at each other on set for weeks.
The experiment in this movie kind of doubles as a metaphor for acting, so my first question to you guys is this: As an actor, are you more like Michael’s character, who can do screwed-up things at work and then leave it all behind at the end of the day, or are you more like Ezra’s character, who finds that the simulation is personally affecting him?
Ezra Miller: That’s the dopest, most meta question I’ve ever heard. I think that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I fall on that spectrum, and ironically enough, this film was a huge step for me in endowing my own ability to leave a role behind. I think I’ve done a lot of experimentation with picking a role up and throwing my actual self into it, and I think that is good and has its place, but it’s a magical understanding to know that you don’t need to do that. You can get the same power of performance while maintaining your society.
Michael Angarano: I have a very similar journey to Ezra’s, I think, in the sense that I’ve tried a lot of different things. Not to say that I don’t admire someone who takes it home with them and is personally affected by a role — depending on the kind of material you’re working with, stuff will come home with you, and you can’t help it — but now I admire the skill and the craft of leaving it all on the set. I kind of strive for being able to go home and having a totally separate life. I worked with Christopher Plummer once, and I was really blown away by his ability to step in and out of character so seamlessly that it was almost unfair. But there’s a lot of effort required for that effortlessness.
Miller: I had a similar experience with Tilda Swinton on We Need to Talk About Kevin, where I was this wild, young actor. I had been watching her all film long, and we came to this crucial scene where I was like, “Tilda, we should do a thing where you tell me something about your life that you don’t want me to know, and then I’ll know it, and you’ll know that I know it!” And she was like, “You know what, darling? I think if we’re just present when the time comes, we’ll know what to do.” And that’s a really beautiful idea that’s changed my view on this exact subject. If we’re really present, everything is available to us.
Angarano: A lot of really great actors I’ve worked with tend to be older, and I think the better you know yourself as a person, the better an actor you can be. So as I’ve gotten to know myself as a person and grown up, I’ve realized that. Although certain people do need to stay in character the whole time, and that’s just what they require as a person.
Miller: And certain people should! I think we’re both trying not to invalidate that method, which is still something that I plan to do at certain times. I define my acting method as “whatever the fuck it takes.” Whatever it takes to make the thing happen, so you know you got it and you hit the moments you needed to. So I’m not swearing off the “Daniel Day” of it all. I’ll have my “Daniel Day” day again, I’m sure.
So what was it about this movie, Ezra, that encouraged you to concentrate on the craft rather than throwing yourself into it headlong?
Miller: I think we were being really intentional about not going too Method on this one, because we were making a movie about the re-creation of a prison. If we’d gone there too much, we would have run the risk of simulating the simulation all too well, and then we’d be in prison.
What appealed to you both about the characters you play in this? I could have seen you switching roles, too, like a theater company that trades off every night.
Miller: And that would have been really fun, and honestly, we should probably do that as a play experiment. That’d be a good exercise. The Stanford Play Experiment.
Angarano: That’s what I liked about the script. While there are a lot of roles, I found each role to be very intrinsic and important to the story. When I met with the director, it wasn’t for a specific part. I talked to him about the parts that I thought were good, but what’s so great about the experiment is that it strips the ego away to the degree that you realize the character you thought you would play in the movie is probably the character that you’re not in real life. Even in the real experiment, the guy that my character was based on, I think he would have been very different if he’d been picked as a prisoner, not a guard.
Michael, you told me at Sundance that when you watched your performance in this, you were shocked by some of the things you found yourself saying. Do you often have that experience?
Angarano: I always want to watch something I’ve done, so that I know what I didn’t do well. But yeah, sometimes you watch something and you don’t recall it. It was a choice that you made and you weren’t aware you made it, and that’s kind of all you can ask for.
Miller: That’s how you know you’re doing it well, when you completely forget the doing of a work of art. That means you were open and that something else could come through. Really, that’s my goal beyond being an actor, is just being an open channel.
Had you guys known each other well before the movie?
Miller: I think we knew each other for about four years before the making of this film, through mutual friends. Michael actually came out for a friend’s birthday when I was working on a film with that friend.
Angarano: They were making Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I essentially knew the entire cast.
Miller: Except for me, until you came out!
Michael, what was your first impression of Ezra?
Miller: Oh, I want to hear this.
Angarano: Honestly, I was fascinated by Ezra. He was somebody I could talk about stuff with that seemed very, very deep. I can remember at one point we went on a walk to a concert and I very specifically remember in the middle of talking, thinking, Wow, this is a great conversation.
Miller: Having not really seen much of your work, I remember meeting Michael and saying, “Oh, this motherfucker is a good actor.” I don’t know what it is … sometimes you can just catch the light off someone in a first interaction. Also, he’d been getting pretty hyped up. He had some hype men around him: “Ladies and gentlemen, the unbelievable, the incredible Michael Angarano!” But yeah, I remember thinking, This dude’s got some shiny parts.
Okay, last question: Michael, please tell me about the Drunk History episode where you played Walt Disney. I’ve always wondered what it’s like for an actor to mime along to all that.
Miller: Thank you! I’ve wondered this, too, and it’s hard for me to be the guy to ask. Tell us, Michael.
Angarano: You get the actual drunk-person interview a couple days before, so you’re able to learn it …
Miller: … but not too well.
Angarano: You’re also like, “Oh fuck, this is gonna be really hard, actually! I have to learn this guy’s pattern of speech in two days!” They play it for you as you’re saying it, because there’s no sound in the scene. So, thank God, they’re able to play the interview as you’re acting it. And they have a great hair and makeup team helping you along.
Miller: I have a question, if you don’t mind. Michael, are you concerned that when Walt Disney comes out of cryogenic freeze, that he’s gonna come after you and say, “Hey, man, that wasn’t cool”?
Angarano: I actually think it’s a very loyal and fair interpretation of Walt Disney.
Miller: He’ll be chill with it. “Listen, Walt 2.0, I had nothing to do with this idea. Talk to the guy who was drunk. And I swear I’m not Jewish.” [Laughs.]