Michael Angarano Talks Simulated Prison & Real Life

Every now and then a movie comes around that you can’t shake out of your head. Such is the case with The Stanford Prison Experiment – a filmic adaptation of the groundbreaking psychological experiment conducted by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) in 1971, which reveals the semi-innate propulsion towards evil once given power. The experiment consisted of 24 male students whom were randomly divided into either ‘guards’ or ‘prisoners’ in the prison simulation that Zimbardo set up. Zimbardo told the guards there would be no intervention by him or his team, and as the filmed results led on, this quickly created an overzealous dominance from the guards, who made the prisoners undergo physical and psychological abuse until Zimbardo’s fiancée said that the experiment had gone too far.

The film, directed by Kyle Alvarez, has outstanding characters, but perhaps none are more chilling than Michael Angarano’s Christopher Archer (John Wayne) and Ezra Miller’s Culp (8612) – each in charge of creating a revolution within the guards and the prisoners respectively. The film–like the original experiment–presents a case study that is incredibly surprising, chilling, and uncomfortably violent. Milk Made’s Ana Velasco spoke to Angarano on what it was like to immerse himself into the meta character of John Wayne, what the experiment was like to live through and what the takeaway of the from film should be.

Congrats on the film, it was incredible. Are you excited for the premiere?

Yeah I am, honestly watching the movie for the first time, I was really excited because with a movie like this you just want to be honest and you just want to be faithful. You just have to get the story right. I think Kyle did such a great job re-creating the experiment and bringing it to life. When you watch the documentary that was made about the experiment 30 years ago, when you read The Lucifer Effect and when you read the script, it’s heavy stuff. It’s really upsetting to think about. And I think if the movie succeeds at all in doing the same thing, then we achieved something.

What do you think is the take away of the film and experiment as a whole?

I think there’s so many different things you can take away from the experiment. I think it’s more relevant than ever topically just as far as the things that it deals with. I feel like as an audience member, if you could walk away just talking about it and the same issues the experiment brought up, then it did a really good thing, so hopefully it does that. I think more than anything you’re a horrified observer more than you are a victim of the circumstances like these guys were.

I think part of that is seeing the down time when the students who play the guards in the experiment, start changing from clothes to the uniforms. How was it different between the guards and the prisoners, seeing as the prisoners were always in their role?

The guards, specifically my guard, was really just playing a character. He was an aspiring actor, especially when you watch the interviews of him, after the fact, months later, it’s fascinating because he was the one who was able to completely detach emotionally from his own behavior and what he was inflicting on the people around him. That’s such a specific, interesting thing. He’s not a bad person, he was able to act like a bad person and that takes a certain kind of individual no matter what. It would be really fascinating to understand what kind of prisoner he would be if on a flip of a coin, he was chosen as prisoner. I think it’s really important to portray these guys outside the experiment — you know they were smart guys. They weren’t all Stanford students, but they were all college students and a lot of them were Vietnam protesters. And these guys, none of them wanted to be guards. These were all well educated activists. All of them were white and came from middle class homes and were very privileged and never experienced being in a prison before. I think that also is very specific niche part of society that these guys were representing. I think Ezra Miller’s character is just as much of an antagonist as Archer, my character, they both kind of incite their specific groups to act or react.

It’s so meta that you yourself are an actor, playing this actor within the role. That makes me wonder, did you find it easy to detach yourself emotionally from what your character was doing too, in terms of the experiment part of the film?

Yeah, completely. You can go even deeper and think, Asher, who my character is based on, he might have thought ‘this is an experiment, this isn’t a real life circumstance, this isn’t a real life situation, these people aren’t being physically harmed, they’re stressed out, but this is not a real prison’ — but it is prison, so I feel like with that safety net it allowed him to go as far as he went. I would like to also consider what sort of role he would play in a real life prison situation and I guarantee you, and bet a lot of money, that he wouldn’t be the character that he created in the Stanford prison experiment. He just instigated the experiment. And in all respect to him, without Culp, who Ezra Miller plays, you would not have had the same results.

What do you think is the most shocking part about the treatment of the guards towards the prisoners?

To me, I think it’s way more systemic. I think it goes all the way up to Zimbardo. This whole time, as long as this went on for, nobody said anything. Nobody really did anything to stop it. Not Zimbardo himself, not one of the grad students. It’s not until Christina, his future wife, comes along and is like, ‘these are children, you’re way too far into it.’ None of the other prisoners, and more over, none of the other guards said anything. They were in such a hierarchical balance that once an alpha male guard was established in all 3 guard shifts, the other guards around them were neutralized and just did what they said. To me, what’s shocking is that it took that long for somebody to step in and say something. Specifically from Zimbardo and that’s self-proclaimed from him. He’s said multiple times that he made a mistake and that he let it get out of control.

So what was the most challenging part about preparing for this specific role?

It was just kind of tuning into what these guys were psychologically going through. One thing that I found to be fascinating was that even though the consequences weren’t that great— meaning that none of these guys were seriously injured or hurt emotionally— it still was a prison, and that was a really interesting thing for me to realize. That while it was a simulated prison experiment, these prisoners were still prisoners to the guards. That was something I had not considered having jumped into it.

What was your favorite memory about this movie?

Honestly, it was a really fun shoot. I know nobody would assume that from watching the movie because it’s so intense and fucked up, but it was a group of guys who all knew each other pretty well, who were the same age, who are usually competitive with each other and so it was actually really fun to work on something together and be collaborative. I know for me being able to work with Billy – even though it was just one scene – was really exciting.

You’ve played other characters that are based on real characters. Is it trickier to play a character based on a real person or do you think the freedom to create your own version of a fiction character is lost?

It’s interesting because both present completely separate difficulties. Obviously, when you have a person who you’re basing your character off of, it gives you a well of material and that’s always nice but it could also be daunting because you’re that much more restricted to that more person. I always thought that some of the hardest roles to play would be the really iconic figures in culture that everybody is aware of. It would be really difficult to play somebody like Martin Luther King or Johnny Cash— people that everybody knows. If you don’t nail them just right, their voice and their movements, then you didn’t do them justice. But on the other hand, when you get to create a character on your own, you get to really use your imagination, but it’s always important to base whatever you’re doing on something real and tangible. They’re both great.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is now playing in select theaters

Photos courtesy of IFC .

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