You wouldn’t think it, but actors Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano had a blast shooting “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The real-life incident, held over six days in 1971, involved 24 young men, randomly divided into inmates and guards, simulating a prison experience — only to have it quickly spiral out of control. But while making the new film recreation, the actors — also including Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Jack Kilmer, plus Billy Crudup as the instigator, Dr. Philip Zimbardo — easily slipped in and out of characters without coming close to going beyond Method. In fact, Miller and Angarano — who play the most sensitive inmate, respectively and the most sadistic guard, respectively — couldn’t be having more fun talking about it, saying they laugh when journalists assume they’re “haunted” by the shoot.
Well, are you haunted?
Michael Angarano: No, not even close. Actually the complete opposite of being traumatized.
Ezra Miller: Strangely enough, making this movie was, I would say, incontestably a really fun, wonderful experience.
MA: Most of these guys are good friends of mine — not even friends, good friends. And we got to really be part of something by recreating this crazy story.
EM: And we got to manifest our neuroses together.
Did it almost feel like drama camp?
EM: Totally. Definitely summer camp for 20somethings.
MA: And you get great material. Since we all knew each other there was no limit to how far we could go. We were able to do that, but without taking it or ourselves too seriously.
EM: Which has clearly all fallen through now, in the press stage.
MA: This dynamic was what the set was like.
EM: Times ten, because of the mass of individuals, all equally goofy.
How did director Kyle Patrick Alvarez wrangle you all to get the shooting done?
EM: With amazing grace and aplomb. And patience. There were maybe a couple times when it was like, “Guys, we have to focus, please.” But I think he was really pleased that we were getting along and that we weren’t recreating the recreation of the Stanford prison experiment. We weren’t engaging in that horrible act of metaphysical self-incarceration. We were in fact all having fun. I think he knew it was important that we were able to blow off some steam in between these really intense sequences, where we’d be going so deep into this horrifying reality. He wrangled us gently, but firmly, at times, when it was truly necessary.
MA: There were moments when we were doing those lineups. Those would always stray from the script, because a guy would actually forget his number, and we would have to start over. [Ed. Some of the more intense scenes find the guards forcing the inmates to rattle off their numbers, then psychologically punishing them if they couldn’t remember them.]
EM: And Michael would then attack them.
MA: That was really interesting. I was trying to go by the script, then someone would really mess up when they weren’t supposed to. And it would be like, “OK, you’ve got to start over.” It was moments like those when they were in the palm of my hand and they had to obey me. I would have to exert the actual character’s power.
EM: That’s as far as the dangerous symbiosis of art and life went. There were times that came close. It would be time to do the lineups, and the prisoners would be hanging out in their cells and the guards were out in the hallways. They would hear it was time to shoot and they would come around with their billy clubs and be like, “Guys, it’s time.” And I would say, “No, no, no, no. I’ll do the shot when [the assistant director] says to do the shot.” Especially as someone who was playing a prisoner I was desperately invested in us not recreating the Stanford prison experiment.
MA: I was really surprised that one guy didn’t take it to the next level.
EM: As Zimbardo vetted his participants, we were all vetted to ensure we weren’t complete psychopaths.