In light of the recent school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, there is something tragically timely about the movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which opens in limited release this week.
Based on a 2003 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling through the aftermath of her teenage son Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) horrific crimes and, through a series of flashbacks, details the boy’s bizarre and troubled youth leading up to the tragedy. Above all else, the movie poses one unspoken question: What went wrong with Kevin?
In answering that question, the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture is the logical place to start. Was Kevin born a manipulative, hateful psychopath or was he simply a victim of circumstance, bad parenting? I recently caught up with Kevin himself, Ezra Miller, and asked.
“I don’t believe in the concept of ultimate evil, or ultimate good, for that matter,” Miller, 19, told me. “I feel like, not only is it off base, but I feel like it’s also counterproductive. We can keep calling each other evil and killing each other forever if we want, but I really do think that every single human, creature, thing is a composition of many different aspects of light and dark nature, both sort of conflicting and coexisting in order to create anyone.”
He continued, “My approach to Kevin was never as a monster or someone evil, but someone whose circumstances had driven them to a place of extremity.”
It’s a tough line to swallow, especially considering how unshakably distant and disturbed the younger versions of Kevin (Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) are portrayed, despite the admittedly frustrated efforts of his mother. However, it appears to be Kevin’s mom, who is played with brilliant depth and devastation by Swinton, who is made to shoulder the blame.
“I [viewed Kevin] as a kid who was after what every human being is, on some level, innately entitled to, which is the love of a mother,” Miller said, explaining how he sympathizes with his character. “And I saw him pursuing that, even in the most misguided and horrific ways.”
Often more disturbing than Miller’s performance as teenage Kevin, was that of young Newel, who plays the 6-to-8-year-old version of boy. Noting the precise similarities in menacing facial expressions and tormented body language (not to mention the same jet-black hair style), I questioned Ezra about the process of coordinating with his tiny counterpart.
“Both Kevins and myself were able to get some time in the week before production,” Miller explained. “We made a ‘Kevin room’ in the production office. We’d lock ourselves in there. We’d exchange mean looks. Sinister conversations were had. We’d make makeshift weapons. If anyone came in the room, we’d pelt them with dodge balls.”
Miller also pointed out that watching the young Kevins on set was like creating memories for his teenage character. Instead of imagining what Kevin’s relationship with his mother was like at age 6, he was fortunate enough to watch it happen and use the emotions as context for his performance. Unfortunately, a performance wrought with such tragedy and angst can also take its toll on an actor.
“There were a variety of difficulties. First of all, to find a way to identify with someone so complex on a human level was a challenge. And once I found that avenue – at the end of the day – being able to let go of the great amount of emotional and physical discomfort that the character exists in … those were sort of two challenges that I was combating.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.