ABOVE: BACK ROW (LEFT TO RIGHT): BRETT DAVERN, TYE SHERIDAN, JOHNNY SIMMONS, EZRA MILLER, CHRIS SHEFFIELD, LOGAN MILLER, AND JACK KILMER IN THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT. FOREGROUND: MICHAEL ANGARANO.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of psychology is familiar with Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s experiment in the Stanford University basement. But Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s riveting Sundance film The Stanford Prison Experiment, out today, brings the six-day period to life vividly and viscerally.
During the summer of 1971, Zimbardo and a team of researchers recruited 24 college-age men for a study on power dynamics in military prisons. The study was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Subjects, who were paid for their participation, were split into two groups: guards and prisoners. Many of the guards swiftly and enthusiastically filled their dominant roles, emotionally and physically abusing their real-life peers. As the makeshift prison’s superintendent, Zimbardo (played in the film by Billy Crudup) watched the experiment unfold without interfering. The project was initially slated for 14 days; it was abruptly halted after a mere six.
While the experiment has been meticulously documented in the decades since (first-hand video footage from during and after the experiment is even available on YouTube), Alvarez’s film brings a newfound intensity to these events and intimacy to its subjects. Twenty-seven-year-old Brooklyn-born Michael Angarano, who has been acting since he was a child (he played the younger version of Patrick Fugit’s character in Almost Famous) and currently plays Dr. Bertie Chikering on Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, stars as Christopher Archer, the most monstrous of the guards. Channeling a John Wayne drawl and badassery to boot, Archer basks in his permission to torture, particularly locking his grip around Daniel Culp, otherwise known as Prisoner 8612. Played by 23-year-old Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Madame Bovary) Culp is a livewire: sarcastic, frenetic, and disobedient.
We spoke with Angarano and Miller on their on-set rapport, moral corruption, and breathing life into Zimbardo’s well-worn narrative.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: This film has such an excellent ensemble cast. What was the casting process like?
EZRA MILLER: I think it started with Brent Emery, the producer, a long time ago. This movie was cast a couple times. I’ve heard crazy rumors—I’ve heard Leo DiCaps was down on it. I heard Emile Hirsch was in the mix. There’s been a couple different castings. I think they were working on this project since, well, I guess 1971. [laughs] For us, we were all reached out to and approached by Kyle. We all had talks with Kyle, and we were all vetted to make sure we weren’t psychopaths just like in the experiment.
MICHAEL ANGARANO: In this iteration, Ezra was the first one cast.
ANGARANO: I think you were, because when I met with Kyle, you were the only one doing it. I remember when I met with Kyle—and I’m pretty sure this is how he met with everyone else—he really didn’t specify which role he was meeting me for. And it became very clear upon meeting him that he didn’t know which role he wanted me for. He cast a very broad net, and when it came time to read and audition, there were two sides: one for “Unspecified Guard” and one for “Unspecified Prisoner.” You got to choose which one you auditioned for. I know a lot of guys didn’t know which parts they were playing until very shortly before filming started. Kyle just cast a group of actors that he wanted to cast—that he thought would interact well with each other—and assigned their roles.
LINDSAY: How long were you filming?
ANGARANO: We filmed for 16 days on a soundstage in Los Angeles.
LINDSAY: Even though it was a pretty short shoot, did it get at all claustrophobic? It’s such an intense film.
MILLER: Shockingly—I’ll speak for myself—I experienced no aspect of that sort of feeling. I had much more of that experience watching the film than I ever did on the set. I think that there was a really amazing, convivial, collaborative atmosphere that was created and we managed to maintain, which is a really beautiful mercy, I think, on us all.
ANGARANO: Yeah, it was kind of unexpected. A lot of us were friends heading into it, and I genuinely thought there was a possibility I wouldn’t have the same group of friends walking out of it because things would get so heated. Much to Kyle’s patience and specificity on the kind of set he wanted to run, it never really got to that level. Any dramatic tension that we created on camera was really offset by a group of guys having fun off camera.
LINDSAY: I thought it was especially fitting it was you two sitting for that interview in the end. Ezra says something along the lines of, “I think you’re a nice guy, but I hate you.” I was thinking that sentiment might in some way carry on off camera.
ANGARANO: Yeah, it never really got to that point, surprisingly so.
MILLER: But we’re still here, and it could still go haywire. I’ve been doing interviews today for a while, and I’m starting to get pissed off by the shape of his ear.
LINDSAY: What was your relationship with the actual source material prior to filming? Were you familiar with Zimbardo’s work?
MILLER: I definitely had some familiarity with it. There was a teacher and mentor who was really important to me who was really interested in various forms of activism and investigation into problematic frameworks in our society. His name was Andrew Staff and he was a G.I. Resister during the Vietnam War. He told me a substantial bit about the Stanford Prison Experiment when I was only, like, 14. I’d done some reading about it, and I’m a really avid watcher of the news program Democracy Now and they had Zimbardo a while before we did this project. It’s also, like, Psych 101 at this point. It really holds quite a mantel in psychology.
LINDSAY: What are your personal thoughts on the experiment? Was Zimbardo at all morally corrupt for letting it escalate the way it did, or is it in more of a grey area than that?
MILLER: I think Zimbardo is as—maybe more—ready than anyone to say that he totally lost control. That he fell into the role of superintendent of the prison and that he did let it go too far. I think that that was massively ethically and morally questionable, but I think that in hindsight we can see it as being—and forgive me, all those who participated in the experiment and were traumatized by it—worth it because he brought a really important line of thought into our lexicon, which is more and more critical day by day in our country as a global scenario and everything that’s going on right now, to confront systematic problems. And also just to think about whether or not incarceration is an effective mode of rehabilitation for those in society who we think need reform.
LINDSAY: It definitely gives you a lot to think about. Even with the reenacted interviews in the end, the participants can’t say with certainty how they’d act if they were a guard or how they’d act if they were a prisoner. I don’t know that I could say with certainty where I’d fall.
ANGARANO: Yeah, that’s what was a really fascinating thing to me when I started to really watch all the interviews. The interview itself that we recreate at the end, when you watch it on YouTube, it’s so interesting. Almost more than anything I read that Zimbardo wrote or even more than the script, it was the most insight I was able to get into the mindset of these guys.
LINDSAY: Was there any other preparation that went into the role? How did the fact that these characters are real people affect your approach?
ANGARANO: Kyle wanted to be very sure that we weren’t really impersonating or mimicking the actual guys who were part of the real experiment. The film doesn’t take anybody’s name except for Zimbardo, and Kyle wanted to make sure that we, as actors, had liberties and freedom to create our own personalities based on the material. The experiment went out of its way to strip all of these guys of their character and their individuality, so this was a really interesting thing where the role you’re actually playing in the experiment as the character was the role that you played in the film. All the guys in real life were roleplaying.
MILLER: There’s also a ton of video and audio footage. We definitely found a bit of a fusion of our own interpretation and some stuff drawn straight from the footage was desirable. There were certain sequences in the video or audio archives that are so good, so fully embodied, that you couldn’t really hope to do anything with a performance except for mimic. I know that Michael and I, when we staged that last interview, were very much taking some of those beats quite literally because that interview is just so endlessly fascinating and amazing. It says in this little scene between two people so much about humanity and the inherent dangers thereof.
THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT IS OUT TODAY, JULY 17, IN SELECT THEATERS AND VIA VOD.