Human nature is a deeply nebulous topic. But while defining it is difficult, studying it — reproducing its manifestations in a lab setting — is even more daunting. Enter Dr. Philip Zimbardo. In 1971, Zimbardo, then a psychology professor at Stanford University, designed an experiment that would, alongside Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, come to serve as the definitive psychological investigation into human nature. And the results weren’t pretty.
Though the Stanford Prison Experiment began as an inquiry into the causes of conflict between prisoners and guards, it transmogrified into a power-play that exposed our deep-seated human desire for conformity and power. Twenty-four male students, randomly assigned roles as prisoner and guard, were selected to live in a 14-day mock prison in the basement of a Stanford University building. The simulation quickly turned into reality: The guards became increasingly rapacious in their desire for control, instituting cruel authoritarian measures and in some cases employing psychological torture. None of the participants spoke out against the unjust punishments administered. Two prisoners suffered psychological breaks and quit the experiment early, and after seven days it was terminated. The most harrowing perpetrator? Zimbardo himself, who became so enmeshed in his prison warden identity that he permitted, and in some cases encouraged, abuse.
Michael Angarano is a power-hungry guard and Ezra Miller his defiant prisoner in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s interpretation of these events. After enduring development purgatory for 20 years, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens Friday at critical juncture in modern American history. Indiewire spoke to Angarano and Miller about the ways in which the film sheds light on Ferguson and informs our reevaluation of the criminal justice system. The actors also talk about their upcoming roles (Miller in “The Flash” and Angarano in “The Knick”), the benefits of growing up as a child actor, and the unique challenge of their generation.
Why did you want to take part in what is essentially a dramatization of an iconic experiment?
Ezra Miller: This experiment holds a lot of sway to this day. It’s become 101 reading for any psychology class. Zimbardo’s work has been drawn upon in a lot of very real social situations. I think it remains really relevant… Probably more relevant than ever, as we’re now the country that incarcerates the most people by far. I think that it’s also a great time to be thinking about and asking questions about problems that are systemic, when it could be tempting to blame individuals. Also, I just thought it was a dope script and I wanted to get down into this nice acting sho-lange.
Michael Angarano: It’s the greatest acting sho-lange for young men.
For all the laymen out there, what, exactly, is a sho-lange?
Miller: It would be the pseudo-French pronunciation of “challenge.” A nice sho-lange [Solange] Knowles, if you will.
[Laughs] So besides the sho-langing elements, what was compelling about the story?
Angarano: Well, it’s been around. I read the script 8 years ago and was too young to even be considered for it. It was a completely different incarnation of cast and director. I feel like that’s been happening, or so I’m told by Zimbardo, for the past 25 years. They’ve been trying to make the movie for a really long time. That just means that the story has really reached out, not only in its original intention of social psychology, but also to actors, and writers and directors. It’s such a great subject and it really is one of those things that feels like an actor’s dream.
Miller: Michael, let me ask a little follow-up question here. Do you feel you may have held back progress on the making of the “Stanford Prison Experiment” film because you read it when you were 9 and were just wishing so hard that it got prolonged?
Angarano: It could very well be.
Miller: Well, you are to blame and thank, my friend.
This is impeccable timing for this film to come out, given the necessary reevaluation of our criminal justice system spurred by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. How will thinking about this film — and the experiment in general — impact the way people think about these current events?
Miller: I’ll definitely say that this seemed to happen for a reason, exactly at this time. We were making this movie while the riots were happening in Ferguson and the protests and all the organization and networking that was starting to really spark off there in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. It was crazy. I will never forget that we did that scene where Nicholas Braun’s character hits my character in the face when my character has crossed the line. I remember that we were doing it all day. It was a tough scene. I accidentally really did get hit in the face, which I believe is the take that was used. I went home that night to my little hotel cave and was watching whatever it was, Rachel Maddow, live, and saw pretty much the same choreography, beat for beat, happen on a street in Ferguson. I definitely think that what Zimbardo put forward in the wake of this experiment is that when something horrible — tragedy, caused by one human hurting another — happens in our society, we are very eager to point fingers of blame at a single individual. I think that a large part of the movement that has sprung up around all of these people’s deaths has to do with the fact that this problem is massively systemic. We’ve created a situation, just like Zimbardo created a situation in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. We’ve created this situation of white supremacist, imperialist, racist state. Now we’re living in those power structures. When someone acts on the power structure in a violent way, we all act horrified. The truth is that we all bear communal responsibility in the system that we collectively create in society.
But we can’t absolve ourselves of individual responsibility, can we?
Angarano: What’s so interesting about the experiment, which is a microcosm and a metaphor for other similar situations, is that none of the guards really spoke out to the other guards. There was no individual who was courageous enough to speak up to or against the people whose side he was on. I feel like the [students who were chosen to be] prisoners had this egotistical, prideful thing about…
Miller: …being in the righteous position.
Angarano: These kids were also Vietnam protestors, some of them. These were people who were very indignant in the first place about systems and guards. I think it just says something about the duress that we feel under social situations to not only act a certain way, but to not act out of a certain way. It’s a fascinating thing about the experiment that it even took Zimbardo himself way longer than it should have to actually stop the guards from doing what they were doing. Nobody stopped them. Nobody did anything.
Miller: I think that is a really, critical answer to that question. Essentially, where there’s potential for individual accountability to play a massive role is in individuals standing up and speaking out against systems of oppression when they see them, as they see them.
Do you think you’d have the strength to dissent?
Angarano: I think you could think about it, but what you learn from the experiment is that you really don’t know.
Miller: There are those people who do step up, who do speak out. I think about the Holocaust. There are countless, countless German people, soldiers, officials, who stepped up and were murdered. Countless. I think it really comes to this idea that there will be defining moments in everyone’s life where we’ll have opportunities to know our own real substance. A big part of the experiment’s findings is that our identity is fictitious. When you end up in a serious situation where violence is happening, all of your supposed internal mechanisms rapidly dissolve.
In the experiment, after 24 hours, you’re just a number. Societal constructs are stripped away.
Angarano: Right. What’s so interesting is that as deep as this all sounds, it really is that deep. It goes down to your complete unawareness of ego. You lose all form of identity. The guards lost their identity because their eyes were covered and they had these uniforms on. The prisoners lost all form of identity by being called their numbers and by wearing smocks and having these do-rags on their heads. Everybody was stripped of individuality. How we interact, the civility about how we should go about everyday life was completely gone. All form of time left them. They didn’t know if it was dark or if it was light. They didn’t know if it was night or day.
You mentioned defining moments. Can you think of any in your own lives?
Miller: Oh, my goodness, I’m bathing in defining moments. Every day I wake up defining [laughs].
Angarano: Every time you see a march going on outside, even though there are so many marches going on outside, I feel like that’s a small act of defiance. That’s a defining moment. We just live in a time where there have been so many of them that they didn’t seem to have as big of an effect as Kent State did back in the day or the Los Angeles riots back in the day. While it’s encouraging, it’s also kind of troubling. What more can our generation really do? Our generation seems to be at a lack of power. We’re not hippies, we don’t have punk rock.
Miller: We are hippies, Michael! We do have punk rock! Don’t you see?
Angarano: What we don’t have is a cultural revolution.
Miller: I disagree. Especially when I look at the black community in America, the youth, and I look at the art that’s coming of that community: To Pimp a Butterfly, and the new A$AP album. They’re representing a very radical, very departed ideology. I think that you might be right that there are big portions of our generation that are really bathed in consumerism and really blinded by the light of the phone screen and could step up a lot. I’ve had some defining moments where I’ve fucking failed hard and fallen apart and not done the right thing and not intervened when I saw an act of domestic violence or any of these types of things. I’ve failed. That’s how we learn, that’s how we start thinking about the next defining moment and what we’re going to do between now and then to be ready when it comes.
Probably becoming “The Flash” will be a different kind of defining moment for you, Ezra. How did that come to be?
Miller: I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the “who’s going to be ‘The Flash’” argument.
Angarano: You’re saying that it was out of your control, ultimately.
Miller: Yeah, it was out of my hands. I don’t really know how it happened, that I became The Flash. To my understanding, usually someone’s either struck by lightning into a basket of chemicals or they inhale heavy water vapors [laughs]. So I think that’s how it happened to me, too. Just in a more abstract sense.
What’s next for you, Michael?
Angarano: I have Season 2 of “The Knick.” I directed a movie, which I’m very proud of and can’t wait for people to see.
Miller: Which I’ve heard is super dope, by the way.
Angarano: We’re just finishing it up. It’s called “Avenues.” It’s also starring Nick Braun, Ari Graynor, Adelaide Clemens and Juno Temple. It’s about a young guy celebrating his 25th birthday a month after the death of his older brother. It’s a little bit of a drama and a comedy. It’s both. I hope it comes to a festival near you very soon.
Miller: Or very remote from you, but awesome.
Like a destination wedding, but less obnoxious.
Miller: Yeah, a really cool place where you could go to see it.
You both grew up acting. What were the benefits or challenges of having that kind of childhood?
Miller: I think the benefits outweigh the challenges in massive ways. I think it’s an amazing, beautiful right that unfortunately in our society is an extremely rarified privilege. A child is a super-powered being, let us not forget. Stating an intention for my life of what I wanted to do and in that moment, and being told, “Okay, great! Do that. Sounds cool.” That’s rare. It happens a lot that a child says, “I want to do this,” and the answer is, “Well, okay. But have you thought about the reality of that?”
Angarano: Or, conversely, a kid says, “I don’t want to do that,” and everyone’s like, “You are doing it and you’re going to love it,” which is unfortunate. I feel like we both are not those cases, which makes us really lucky.
Miller: It’s an amazing privilege when a kid can be allowed to do what they wish to do in terms of a creative or exciting endeavor. When the resources can be present to enable the kid to have access to some version of those things. I hope that more people can have it. It’s fun. Every kid is an artist. When we’re children, we’re all in touch with the creative force, without exception. We’re all actors. We’re all playing make believe. We’re all making crazy, Basquiat-like illustrations. A lot of people get told that that’s not real and not what their life is going to look like. A lot of kids get told that they’re insufficient or their circumstances are insufficient to allow them to go after a personal dream. I feel immensely grateful.