There must have been a time when Warner Bros thought Ezra Miller was the answer to their PR prayers. The lead of their forthcoming comic-book blockbuster The Flash was no off-the-peg Marvel pin-up, but a waifish indie darling whose Generation Z appeal seemed watertight. After coming out as non-binary in 2018, Miller was feted on Time magazine’s inaugural Next list of celebrities who were “shaping the future”, and enthusiastically talked preferred pronouns – they/them, it/its and ze/zir, at last time of asking – in magazine interviews.
Yet this very modern movie star has become a very new kind of headache. In the last three months, Miller has been arrested twice, once for the second-degree assault of a 26-year-old woman, and has also been the subject of three separate court orders, two of which were related to their allegedly inappropriate conduct with underage girls. One of those girls, now 18 and thought to be travelling with Miller, has since defended the actor on Instagram, and described the order, which was filed by her parents, as “transphobic”. Miller’s own response, meanwhile, has been limited to some cryptic and possibly police-baiting posts on a verified but now deactivated Instagram account.
On one level, this sort of behaviour is a grim industry staple. As soon as the movies took off, they were almost sunk by a series of high-profile scandals including the Fatty Arbuckle affair, in which the silent comedy icon stood trial three times for the rape and manslaughter of the 26-year-old aspiring actress Virginia Rappe. But in those days, the studios could often accommodate their higher-profile employees’ misdeeds. For fixers like the notorious Eddie Mannix, whose four-decade stint as MGM’s shadowy “general manager” became the stuff of noirish legend, paying off call girls, covering up crimes and making aggrieved parties disappear was all part of the job.
But as studios are now discovering, a new generation of stars – armed with smartphones and an impregnable sense of entitlement – are essentially un-suppressible. And thanks to social media’s own long memory and endless appetite for retributive justice, all it takes is one mad 2am tweet or incriminating video that goes viral to put the fate of a $200 million blockbuster at stake.
Take Letitia Wright, the gifted 28-year-old English actress on the rise who was hand-picked by Marvel for stardom in 2016. Wright’s sparky performance as the sister of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in the billion-dollar-grossing Black Panther made her character, Shuri, a fan favourite: after Boseman’s death from cancer in 2020, her character was widely expected to take on the Black Panther role. A few months before filming began on the sequel, however, Wright shared a video on Twitter which speculated that coronavirus vaccines might bring about the growth of extra limbs, then went on to defend the post saying it was important to “ask questions”. The reputational fallout was so severe that Wright parted ways with her US management.
Wright also recently appeared in Disney’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, the cast of which seemed to be vying to out-cancel each other in the Covid-prolonged two-year gap between filming and release. Wright’s views were put in the shade by those of Russell Brand, who relaunched himself during the pandemic as a YouTube conspiracist. Then there was Armie Hammer, against whom a claim of rape was made in early 2021 – though no lawsuit was ever filed, nor charges laid. Still, Hammer was sufficiently tainted to be all but erased from the film’s publicity campaign.
In their fight against this new strain of actorly toxicity, the best strategy the studios have come up with are reshoots: see the decision by Warner Bros (again, poor things) to replace Johnny Depp with Mads Mikkelsen two months into the shoot for Fantastic Beasts 3, following the former’s disastrous libel trial at the High Court.
The procedure was pioneered in 2017 by Ridley Scott after his thriller All the Money in the World was rendered unreleasable by the downfall of Kevin Spacey. Scott simply cut Spacey’s scenes, recast Christopher Plummer, and replaced the missing material. Similarly, the BBC edited Ed Westwick out of an Agatha Christie adaptation in 2018 after accusations of rape and sexual assault. He vehemently denied the accusations and the charges were later dropped.
Such procedures, of course, swell the budget. In the blockbuster realm, such costs could be catastrophic. Besides, word has it that Warner Bros have quietly deemed The Flash unreshootable, since Miller plays two versions of the title hero, in scenes which have already been stitched together with very expensive visual effects.
Then there is the issue that Miller’s whereabouts are currently unknown – and the studio are presumably praying they’ll stay that way until the film comes out – they hope.