The Stanford Prison Experiment's Michael Angarano Plays a Very Different Kind of Character

Decades after the Stanford Prison Experiment, Dr. Philip Zimbardo's 1971 study on the psychology of imprisonment, we continue to see incidents — from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib — that demonstrate the systemic influence on individuals in social situations.

“To this day, we talk about what happened in those six days and how we're seeing it on television news and in the papers every day,” actor Michael Angarano told SF Weekly. That's why docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment, starring Angarano, Ezra Miller and Billy Crudup is so important in 2015. But how did the baby-faced, 5'7″ actor, best known for playing Roberta Guaspari's violinist son in Music of the Heart, young William in Almost Famous, Jack McFarland's son on Will and Grace and the young hero in The Forbidden Kingdom, get cast as a sadistic prison guard? SF Weekly spoke to Michael Angarano about playing against type, being hounded by paps and dancing like a 13-year-old girl. 

[jump] In The Stanford Prison Experiment, you play a student, who's playing a particularly sadistic guard, who abuses several of the students, who are playing inmates. I would imagine that that made for an interesting set dynamic.

It was a really interesting set, because Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the director, pretty much vetted all the actors beforehand. I think he chose each one very specifically and carefully, so the environment on set wouldn't become an experiment unto itself. I think he was very aware that it could easily happen, as everyone could easily get lost and take their roles very literally. So it was very easy to get lost in stuff that we were doing onscreen, which was so intense. But the second they called cut, any tension we created on camera was offset by what we did off camera. The fact that many of us already knew each other, we were all friends before the movie got made and many of us worked together before, it allowed us to dip in and out of our roles so seamlessly and really allow ourselves to have fun with it. 

How did you prepare to play such a challenging character?

I first read the script eight years ago. There are so many iterations of this movie. They first started to make it in 1975, and then Leo DiCaprio was attached to it at one point. Then, eight years ago, there was a whole different cast and director. I was aware of it and saw the footage before. There is a documentary on it that you can find on YouTube. The interviews are easily available online. For this, it was not a problem to go down a very deep rabbit hole of information that is now available. 

Of any of the roles you could have gotten in the film, the Christopher Archer character is the last I would have cast you in based on your previous work. Yet now I can't imagine anyone else playing it but you.

I think what Kyle did was cast a very broad net of actors that he wanted to work with and knew would work well with each other and was very careful about picking who would play which part. I think up until days before filming he was switching those parts around. But with me, specifically, I remember meeting with Kyle and asking him which part I would like to play. There was never a doubt in my mind that that part that I ended up playing was the one I wanted to play, because it's the kind of part an actor salivates over and it's a real character.

The guy actually was very unique within the experiment because he was the only one who made a choice to take on another role. When I auditioned — he did this with everybody — he gave them two [options]: unspecified prisoner and unspecified guard. I chose guard and auditioned the character that I played. I did the accent. It's important to know that one thing I always wanted to do with this part, which I found so complex, was to really understand that he's really never outwardly trying to hurt somebody. When you watch and read all the interviews with him afterward, he wanted to make a choice that would instigate the results of the experiment, so in a way he was doing what he was paid to do.  I think that's a really interesting perspective that he took, because eventually he just detaches himself physically, emotionally and mentally from the whole torture that he's imparting on these guys, which makes him so much more evil and sociopathic in a way. But that doesn't make him a bad person because in his eyes he's acting. And it turns out the real guy was an aspiring actor, who had acted in plays in high school before and that was something that really interested him.

Are you trying to show your diversity with this role?

I always wanted to try to do something that I've never done as an actor. I always want to try and challenge myself, so there was an intention to grow as an actor and to investigate something different. But it wasn't a completely result-oriented choice. I just thought it would be a great role for any actor to play. 

What kind of preparation went into the accent that your character affected?

I worked with a great voice coach, and I had the idea of what I wanted in my head. I listened to the real guy's accent in the actual footage and it was a little different. He affects more of a generic drawl.  The accent that I chose for the film is very inspired by Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke. It's one of my favorite movies and he's one of my favorite actors, so I'm really familiar with his cadence of speaking and how he really drags out sounds.  The accent means you come from the South and brings with it a certain Southern gentleman etiquette. But I didn't want to be too strict on it. There were moments when I wanted the accent to drop completely, because he's working for eight hours straight, so his accent dropped in and out, so I thought it was a fun moment to go in and out. When he starts the shift, it's really thick, but then he loses it, so I thought it was a fun thing to play with and to remember that's it's a guy affecting an accent. 

Did you work with the actual students to get their characters down?

No, we never reached out. The producers and Kyle made a really distinctive vision in not asking the students to volunteer their names to the film, to protect them and give us as actors liberties. While some scenes in the movie are verbatim what happened in the actual experiment, I don't think Kyle cast the actors because they looked or sounded like the guys. I think he wanted us to have poetic license and the freedom to create characters within the experiment.

Is this your breakout role?

I don't categorize roles like that, but I am very grateful to Kyle because I don't think a lot of people would cast me in this, based on my body of work. That's for sure. I'm really not sure what gave him an inkling that I could play this role, but I'm definitely excited because it is something that is completely different for me and that was very fun to do. 

With growing fame comes growing attention from the paparazzi and gossip bloggers. With your and your girlfriend Juno Temple's growing fame, do you worry about being hounded and talked about? 

You are forced to think about it, because whether you ask for it or not, it seems to come with the occupation of being in the public realm. It seems like sometimes you can't really help it and it's out of your control, but I don't think it's anything that's ever going to affect my life. I take an example from the talented, famous actors I've worked with, that it's a part of their life, because it has to be. But that it doesn't really affect them because at the end of the day it's nothing that really matters. So I think it's the kind of thing that you just go about your everyday life as you normally would, and the moment it does affect your life is the moment you have to reconsider your priorities. 

Speaking of priorities, you come from a dance family, with your mother and sisters running three dance studios in New York and Los Angeles. Was dance ever a priority for you?

I started acting so young, but it was always a huge part of my life. If I wasn't in school or on a set, I was in a dance studio. I've danced in recitals before, so it's something I really enjoy. I love watching it. I think it's one of the most beautiful expressions we have. I almost wish that I had more time as a young kid to really do it. I would definitely say it's a passion of mine.

Are you any good?

I'm pretty good at it. I'm not a technically gifted dancer, because I never took classes. But my mother teaches children, so when I do dance, I tend to dance like a 13-year-old girl, which I find very interesting. But it's something I really enjoy, and if you enjoy it, you're good at it. So why not?

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