Ezra Miller is talking quantum theory over a sloppy turkey pizza burger. In a parallel universe the 18-year-old is just another downtown kid in this West Village diner—from his vintage Little League tee and emerald blazer down to his tight red jeans and Marlboro Reds. But in the universe where you’re reading this, Ezra Miller is an actor on the verge of transcendence.
In the past few years, Miller has played hyper-intelligent teenagers of varying degrees of darkness: from Afterschool’s boarding school loner with a penchant for porno, to the too-smart-for-his-own-good fat fetishist in the family dramedy City Island. He kicked off this year at Sundance with his role in Another Happy Day, holding his own opposite Ellen Barkin with his frank portrayal of a son self-medicating his way through the complexities of family life. To get into the character’s headspace, Miller committed himself to self-deprivation: forgoing food, sleep, and even sunlight. The result is one of the first times he’s felt comfortable watching himself on film—he’d seamlessly slipped into character.
Next up is the highly anticipated We Need to Talk About Kevin from director Lynne Ramsay (whose work includes Morvern Callar and Criterion favorite, Ratcatcher) in which Miller plumbs his darkest depths yet. In “the most intense, hard, really challenging, and ultimately fulfilling experience” of his life, Miller stars as the titular son at war with his ambivalent mother, played by Tilda Swinton. As the wound between them festers, Kevin devolves into a monster capable of violence on a seemingly unthinkable scale.
“The fact is that the human psyche, any human being’s psyche, is entirely capable of anything; everything we know on this earth and in the known universe can be found inside a singular human brain,” Miller says, neglecting his sandwich as he talks in a roundabout style shared by the super-smart and stoners. “Genius all the way to idiocy—it’s all there. That’s kind of the power of acting; you are routinely shocked to find that anything you might want or need to access is already there. In a situation like preparing the role of Kevin, that can be a little terrifying.”
These terrifying places are where the magic of acting happens. In fact, Miller refers to some of the immeasurable talents he’s worked with—Swinton, Barkin, John C. Reilly, Liev Schreiber—as magicians, people with the complete confidence and self-awareness necessary to transpose their personalities into others’.
To get in touch with the infinitude of characters, Miller digs deep. He believes that people are born with limitless possibilities. As each decision narrows the number or possibilities in one life, infinite others are created in the parallel universes described by quantum theory. That’s the space where Miller finds inspiration: “In order to get into a character, all that you really need is the conditions of what the circumstances and decisions of this character’s life have lead them to, and essentially any one human being can be any other human being in the world out of six billion, because we’re all born in the exact same position of an infinite plane of possibility.”
The path that got Miller to this point, in this universe, began in New Jersey, where he caught the performance bug early. He suffered with a severe stutter and finally found his voice when a teacher introduced him to opera. He fell in love with storytelling and went on to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, where he starred in Philip Glass’ White Rabbit. “Through doing that I realized that humans, with our voices and our songs are the species—the only one we know of—that tells the story of the universe. It’s sort of our responsibility.” By eight years old, Ezra Miller’s path was set. “There is no choice for me. This is my divergent reality.”