Ezra Miller & Lionel Shriver: ‘We need to talk about Kevin’

The Times

October 8, 2011


The author Lionel Shriver and the actor Ezra Miller first met at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The occasion was the world premiere of Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of Shriver’s bestselling novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, with the poutingly handsome, tousle-haired 18-year-old Miller playing the teenage psychopath of the book’s title, who goes on a murder spree at his American high school. Tilda Swinton plays Kevin’s mother, Eva: the two involved in a charged stand-off, and the film, like the book (which has sold more than a million copies), acts as a boa constrictor on the audience.

Kevin’s commanding terrorising of his mother, whether it be destroying her office or smirking when she walks in on him masturbating — the mystery of his antipathy, her own lack of maternal feeling and her resentment and fear of him — is powerfully realised by Ramsay. The film is gripping and unbearable, less focused on the massacre (which occurs at the denouement), or the state of alienated American youth, than with the wholly dysfunctional relationship of mother and son, both set apart from their peers, both interlopers in their own family.

Miller’s performance was so good that Shriver, 54, was undone by it. “She walked up behind me on the red carpet and said, ‘Well hello, Kevin’,” says Miller, sitting beside Shriver in a restaurant in Green- wich Village, New York. “I turned around. A series of chills went up my spine. She looked deep into the chasm of my soul and said, ‘I feel I know you well’. I wanted to die a terrible death, perhaps torn apart by wild quails with sharp beaks.”

Shriver tuts, with a big smile: “You see how full of shit he is? He’s very self-impressed, but you get irritated with your- self because he’s charming. When I saw Ezra on screen it was uncanny: what had been in my head had gotten out. It felt as if I had made Ezra up, as well as Kevin.”

Indeed, he was so like Kevin that she called him “a little shit”, writing that “something in me truly believed that this kid had killed seven students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker at his high school, and still thought rather well of himself for pulling the atrocity off”. Tonight, Shriver tells me: “I called him ‘a little shit’ because there was a sense that he is Kevin and proud of it.

There’s an attraction I feel and I shouldn’t. The age difference makes it unseemly. But he’s cute.” Their f lirting feels half- theatrical, half for real. “I think Lionel’s cute. It’s very sick,” says Miller. “He seems very manipulative,” Shriver says. “I am deeply manipulative,” he says, dryly. The two love to parry.

The novel was written when Shriver was, as she puts it, “in the wilderness”; she had written six novels which had failed to gain recognition. Kevin, published in 2003 by Serpent’s Tail, felt like a last roll of her dice, and its feel-bad material — not just the act of mass murder, but also Eva’s maternal disillusion — had been rejected by multiple publishers. “The big difference between before Kevin and after Kevin is that I have an audience now,” says Shriver. “I didn’t enjoy writing for nobody.”

The critics mostly raved — Amanda Craig in New Statesman called it “Desperate Housewives as written by Euripides” — although The New York Times was more qualified: “Shriver overwrites in every direction, but particularly in portraying Kevin as a monster from birth. That she eventually humanises him and her narrator makes the book memorable as well as frustrating.”

Shriver doesn’t have children and she once said that, on finishing the book, she realised that “if that’s what I think of when I imagine motherhood, then it’s probably not for me”. Although Kevin was written around the time of a spate of high-profile American school and college massacres — most famously at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 — Shriver wrote the novel, she once said, to “examine what it might be like for motherhood to go fatally, catastrophically wrong”, to imagine what if — the great unsayable — a mother didn’t automatically love her child or embrace motherhood. The verdict the reader must reach, Shriver said, was “whether Kevin was innately twisted or was mangled by his mother’s coldness”; Shriver’s book doesn’t resolve that intriguing knot, and neither does the film, which has been in troubled and protracted gestation since 2005, the same year that the novel was awarded the Orange Prize. “I never thought that the film was going to happen,” Shriver tells me.

She had sold the option of her first novel, The Female of the Species, “and that hadn’t gotten anywhere”. With Kevin she was determined “not to lose any sleep over it”.

A different director would have sensationalised and ratcheted up the melodrama; Ramsay, director of Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher, while jettisoning the epistolary format of the novel (with Eva’s letters to husband Franklin), retains its claustrophobic, thriller-like momentum. The critics were mostly in thrall in Cannes. The Times’ Kate Muir said the “earth-shattering film” was a potential Oscar contender. For Shriver and Miller, the most powerful scene is the final one, which hints at redemption and love in the most glancing, spare way.

“I was delirious after the Cannes premiere, shaking at the knees,” Miller says. “As the least impartial audience member imaginable, I still felt viscerally assaulted.”

While you never see Kevin commit his massacre in the film, Miller says: “I committed the act in my mind and heart. When fir- ing that quiver of arrows, I lived those murders. After the second take, I saw a body twitch to death in my mind and felt a catastrophic loss of innocence. Human beings are natural killing machines: we have very sharp teeth and if we let our nails grow, sharp talons. We’re pretty much designed for penetration and murder.”

For author and star, the larger context of the film is America’s over-pampered yet disconnected teenagers. “Everybody, especially American male teenagers, is like Kevin,” says Miller. “They’re full of wrath. My generation is its own enemy.” Shriver adds: “Young people in the United States have it too easy. When I was a teenager I was horrified by the idea of becoming an adult-me: she would be lifeless, humourless. I’m an anarchist at heart. Resisting my parents (who were religious) was good. Most parents from Ezra’s generation allow them to smoke pot in the house and bring girlfriends home. It’s so uninteresting.”

Shriver has “a lot of affection still” for Kevin. “I like his perspective, his wit, intelligence and smartness.” Miller “sharpened” Shriver’s vision of her murderous protago- nist. “There are so many translations, re-issues and now tie-ins, but most book covers have failed to capture Kevin. The Italian one has him as a dirty-blond, the Chinese version shows a lurching teddy bear looking insane and dangerous. The Brazilian one, my favourite, is black and white, a kid standing in the middle of the road wearing a bear’s head. Ezra has wiped out these arrant images and my own image of Kevin. He is so close to it. He ate my Kevin.”

Miller only skim-read the novel in preparation. “The book is written through Eva’s perspective, not Kevin’s,” he says. “I was going to read it properly when we finished, but the second we were, I couldn’t touch it. It was the type of puppet you make and then burn.” He found playing Kevin “basic, but his relation to society and me personally was hard. Kevin is the part of you that makes you the most uncomfortable.”

Shriver chose not to be involved with the film, although Ramsay canvassed her opinion on casting. “If you had been there you and Lynne would probably both be dead,” says Miller. “You’re both prime candidates for murderers, both hardcore, both looked the truth a little too hard in the face.” Shriver smiles. “With a film adaptation there’s a subtle tussle over who really possesses this story, whose version is better. In a way, a film adaptation is a form of theft.”

“Look, more people are going to see our movie than read your book,” Miller reasons brutally, Kevin-ishly. “You’re right,” Shriver concedes. “A lot of people will see the film instead of reading the book. I signed up for this. Any author would feel lucky to be in my position. It does require a maturity that doesn’t come naturally, though. I’m very possessive and territorial. My comfort is, I still have my book. Publication is giving my book away. The film is just a different kind of giving it away. I have to be careful not to sound exhausted and bored. I have no desire to shake that sense of gratitude for an audience.”

She has long mulled over the possibility of a mass murderer citing her book as an inspiration, “but I’ve already rationalised it, should it happen: if someone is crazy enough to do something, they would have done it with or without reading my book.”

Shriver is working on her next novel, which is about obesity; her brother Greg died of the disease in 2009, “but the novel is not a memoir, it’s made up. Readers and critics think men make things up, while women write about their experiences, a presumption I get very touchy about.”

Miller is working on two film projects he declines to discuss, “trying to gather an arts collective together in New York” and pre- paring to release the second album of his band, Sons of an Illustrious Father, in which he plays drums, “which is pure emotion, a drive. I’m like that Muppet, Animal.” As they finish their glasses of wine, Shriver and Miller decry the film’s poster, bathed in lurid red with its tagline “Mummy’s little monster”. “It makes it seem like a horror film, and the tagline is atrocious on a million different levels,” says Shriver. She also disagreed with Ramsay’s decision to have Kevin kill his victims with a bow and arrow rather than a crossbow, “which has a much more lethal velocity”. Miller disagrees, saying that he calculated how he could kill so many with a bow and arrow. Indeed, the film turned him on to archery. He is about to get a licence, and will shoot deer for food. “Hunting is the flipside of what Kevin does: a positive confrontation with our essentially violent natures,” he reasons.

Shriver, who hopes that she and Miller will remain friends, is overjoyed. “Deer are an overpopulating pest. Kill as many as possible and send me the meat, please. It’s impossible to find venison in the supermarket.” Finally, to her, her Kevin has become the right kind of killer.