The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most talked-about cases in any psychology class. In 1971, psychologist and professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up a simulation of a prison, splitting up male college students—his test subjects—into two groups: prison guards and prisoners. The experiment—which ended eight days before its planned two-week run—cut deep into the psyche of these students, with the guards exhibiting sadistic behavior and the prisoners driven to the point of mental break.
New indie film The Stanford Prison Experiment (out July 17) is a cinematic recreation of the real-life events, both loyal to the original transcription and stylized enough to make a thrilling psychological drama. It's an intense reenactment that illustrates the horrors of what a simple experiment can do to the psychology of a person. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the movie stars Billy Crudup (as the infamous Dr. Zimbardo), Olivia Thirlby (as his wife), and a loaded cast of up-and-coming It Boys as the college students (Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Thomas Mann, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Miles Heizer, Tye Sheridan, etc.). Surprisingly, the filming process was a lot more fun and a lot less taxing than expected. I met with Miller and Angarano—who play prisoner and guard, respectively—to talk about the behind the scenes of their new film, gush about Billy Crudup (swoon, those cheekbones!), and address Ezra's Harry Potter rumors.
How are you guys?
Michael Angarano: Doin' good, doin' alright. You know?
Good! Ezra, I know you had an exotic smoothie this morning.
Michael: Did you?
Ezra Miller: Well I'd hardly call it exotic now, but it was tasty.
Michael: Like a passion fruit kind of deal?
Ezra: No, there was some maca. And some plant proteins.
You guys were both fantastic in the movie. Michael, you play this despicable character so well.
Michael: Thank you.
Ezra: Yeah, you're so good at it, man.
I thought one of the best things about this movie was the casting. Everyone in that movie is like my favorite It Boy.
Ezra: I'm actually, in this moment, being brought up to the level of the other It Boys in this film.
Ezra: Feeling pretty good about being called an It Boy.
Michael: To be on the level with the other It boys is really…
Ezra: In the presence [pronounced preh-zance] of such...
Michael: That should be our fun thing, we should just pronounce normal things weirdly.
Ezra: We're doing one pseudo French pronunciation each interview. Last time it was "shallange" [challenge].
Well I'm sure, they were stoked to be in you guys' presance. But like how fun was that, shooting with all those guys? I feel like it would have been a "boys will be boys" kind of situation.
Michael: It very much was.
Ezra: And they very much will be.
Michael: There was no physical violence or real schism of guard versus prisoner. There was no Outsiders-like tension. You know when they did The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola really separated The Socs and Greasers.
Ezra: Apparently it got pretty rugged, too.
Michael: Yeah, like everybody was hatin' on the other group. But there was none of that, and everybody really got along and really liked each other. It was very pleasant actually.
Ezra: I think we were all expecting a bloodbath. Instead we were all just… sittin' in the garden.
Michael: Yeah, you never know. Sometimes it's one guy, sometimes it's all of them... I was expecting at least one guy, whether it be me or Ezra, to take their role way too seriously and really make it miserable for all of us.
Ezra: I thought it would be me.
Michael: But it never happened. I think, also, everybody knew each other from other projects, so it kind of allows you to dip in and out of this energy that we all created and not really have to do your own thing, like, 'I'm gonna separate myself and make sure that I'm taking this seriously.' Everybody was able to focus in and collaborate together.
Ezra: Which was really empowering.
Ezra: I think that it's empowering for any artist to see just how deep one's magic goes, and really be able to tap it as a group and I felt like I was empowered to do that by being around all of you, you know what I mean? Like we were all kind of fueling each other and assuring each other that we can do that, we don't have to kill ourselves and destroy our psyche, every time we wanna go deep on some dark material, or shall we say twisted material.
Yeah, because I was wondering... What if you guys actually felt the effects of the Stanford Prison Experiment while acting it out?
Ezra: There's a great danger of creating a simulation of a simulation. And the whole point is that it went too far in a way that ruined everyone involved—at least for a little while.
Michael: I also kept hoping that it was gonna be Kyle [Patrick Alvarez], the director. I kept wishing that he was gonna show up on set, like barefoot, no shirt on…
Ezra: Yeah, giving us really fucked up commands.
Michael: Yeah, and it's also a testament to Kyle that he hired, you know, really intelligent, smart guys, and Kyle himself is highly intelligent.
Ezra: From what I understand, they were kinda doin' background checks.
On the actors?
Ezra: Yeah, and also having conversations with each of us.
Michael: There was a vetting process.
Ezra: I don't know how we got through…
Ezra: Me, least of all, essentially to determine whether or not someone could be trusted to hold steady psychologically.
I mean that's interesting 'cause with the actual experiment, they were like, 'Why did these people end up acting like this?' The ad called for people who were interested in doing a "psychological prison experiment" and those people's aggressive levels tests higher than those who responded to a fake ad that just said "psychological experiment," without the prison aspect. I heard the real Dr. Philip Zimbardo was actually overseeing the movie.
Michael: He was. He kept a distance for the most part. He wasn't behind the monitor, I know he was more present for some of Billy [Crudup]'s stuff. We shot all of our stuff in the actual hallway the first two or three weeks of shooting.
Ezra: Yeah, it was 16 days.
Michael: Then the rest of the stuff they shot, with Billy, completely separately. Once they started shooting all the scenes with Billy and the rest of the guys watching the experiment, we had already done it, we were all wrapped.
Did you guys have to do a lot of research on the actual experiment before going in?
Ezra: I feel like I've done more depth-y research since.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. There's the book, The Lucifer Effect, which is pretty much, line for line, a reenactment of the actual experiment that Zimbardo wrote. The actual script was that. Tim Talbott wrote what was essentially a manuscript from the experiment and the original script was something like 300 or 400 pages long.
Ezra: I think it was even maybe longer.
Michael: Yeah, it was literally a transcript of the experiment.
Ezra: Every moment, every beat, he just wrote it all, and then edited it down.
Michael: And so our script was more than other scripts. It really was kind of the research that you needed to do. Even if it's a period piece, this is existing in its own time and space.
Ezra: I definitely watched all the video and audio that I could find. It's a deep and heavy subject matter and I think that since doing it, it's drawn me into a lot of incarceration theory.
Right. Michael, you had a mini reunion with Billy Crudup from Almost Famous!
Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ezra: HOLY SHIT.
Ezra: I did not think about that at all.
I guess you guys didn't actually share scenes in that movie...
Michael: No, we didn't.
Ezra: It would have to have involved time travel.
Michael: There was a time travel sequence that was cut.
Ezra: It was cut. Very sad.
Ha! Did you actually get to meet him then?
Michael: Yeah, I had a moment even though I was in five minutes of Almost Famous...
Ezra: Killing it!
The five BEST minutes of Almost Famous.
Ezra: Five crucial minutes.
Michael: Right. The Cameron Crowe rehearsal process is extremely intensive and I rehearsed on that movie for like three months.
Ezra: [Laughs maniacally]
Michael: There was like a nine-month shoot. That was bizarre to me. So I did meet Billy. I remember sitting in his trailer with Pat Fugit having just met Billy as he was practicing his guitar licks on a little amp and just thinking this man is the coolest person I've ever seen in my life. It's like the reaction everybody gets watching the movie, only in person, in his little honeywagon, I'm like "This person is so cool." It's so funny because I have since seen Pat Fugit, and Kate Hudson, and Cameron, and I feel like I know them so well, but they don't know me. I've grown the most, physically, so I'm like a completely different person
Ezra: Although Billy is lookin' pretty ripped these days.
Michael: I mean he's always been ripped. Have you seen Without Limits?
Ezra: Yeah, good point.
Michael: Or Stage Beauty. Like, dude is in good shape.
Michael: I asked him at one point, "Did you run a lot for Without Limits? Like what was the diet?"
Yeah, what is his secret?
Ezra: What did he tell you? Can we dish right now? For Complex?
Michael: He was like, "Yeah, man, not as much as you think."
Just born this way I guess.
Ezra: And those cheekbones! Can we talk about the cheekbones?
Michael: I know, emphasized by the facial hair.
Ezra, I just watched Trainwreck! You were so funny, I couldn't even believe it.
Ezra: Oh, word. Thank you! That's good to hear, I haven't seen it yet. I'm gonna see it at the premiere.
You're so good. After this and Stanford, I guess you're doing a couple bigger movies. You're playing The Flash [in Batman v. Superman and The Flash]. And... the Harry Potter movie, Fantastic Beasts, as well?
Ezra: Motherfuckers have been sayin' this shit to me and I'm like, I fucking wish!
Ezra: Where the fuck is that coming from? I mean I wish they'd tell me about it if that's true, you know? I'd hope I'm on it. I hope they would be recognizing my long-running wizardry practice, how I'm fucking ready to go! But I just keep hearing this from people who I guess are reading, like, Gawker or some shit…
Yeah, but now it's on your IMDb page, so I thought it was FOR REAL.
Ezra: Whoa. It's on my IMDb page?!
Michael: Have you not seen your IMDb page recently?
Ezra: No, dude! I don't look at my IMDb page that has this headshot from when I was 14.
Maybe you're in it, and you just don't know…
Ezra: Well I would appreciate it if whoever is making that movie would fucking tell me.
They filmed you in the wild!
Ezra: If you're reading this Complex article right now, please let me know if I am in your film. Could I see the script, what is my character… these are things I'd like to know.
Can I get a photo of your feet by the way?
Ezra: Yeah you can take a photo of my feet.
Oh my god, this left foot.
Michael: The Ezra Miller foot is something that is spoken about outside of this room.
Ezra: Dude, and can we talk about how well featured they are in this movie?
Michael: I know, I know.
Ezra: Almost too well featured.