In the new film Take Me to the River, the young American actor Logan Miller plays Ryder, a California-bred teenager who gets caught up in buried secrets and escalating tension after he is accused of assaulting his young cousin during an overwhelming family reunion in Nebraska, in a performance that earned him notice as a breakout actor at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Previously best known as the lead of a Disney show, Miller calls the project “one of the most rewarding films I’ve been a part of,” but he admits to having initial misgivings after his first uncomfortable meeting with first-time writer and director Matt Sobel. “He gave me the most unconventional, strange audition that I’ve ever had,” Miller recalls. “He asked me what the worst thing I’d ever done was and then he told me what the worst thing he had ever done was. Then we did this 45-minute improv where he was playing my mother essentially and I had to tell him that I had done something significantly wrong to a child, and I left that audition being so angry.”
Still, awkward audition aside, Miller says that when the offer came as production on the film started a year later, he was more than ready to sign up. “Once I saw some of the work that Matt had done previously and we were having more of a dialogue about the story, I was completely in,” he says. That audition, in fact, ended up being an apt opportunity for Miller to prove himself and his readiness to take on the vivid lead role in a film that is tense and dramatic in surprisingly unconventional ways. “He tried to make me feel really uncomfortable—and he did—and then talking to him later, it was a test in a way,” Miller explains. “He was like, ‘Is he up for this discomfort?’ There’s such discomfort within the whole film, so he did it to be able to see that I could deal with it.”
Ryder is gay, a fact which is revealed within the first minute of Take Me to the River, but Sobel makes a point by moving on quickly, and the character’s coming of age through the film ends up having nothing to do with coming out. Miller says that it was exactly that unorthodox approach that drew him to the script. “I’m looking for interesting, genre-bending projects,” he explains. “Take Me to the River’s like that. It’s got this thriller aspect, but it’s also this surreal, dreamlike film. I like movies that are always trying to keep you on your toes and that are just a bunch of puzzle pieces so that by the end you’ve finished the product.”
Such idiosyncratic films are a long way from Miller’s early years appearing in Hasbro commercials and Dickies ads while growing up in the suburbs of Dallas. He spent his childhood making videos with his sister and other neighborhood kids, and his mother eventually signed him up for an acting class, which led, at the age of sixteen, to a small part in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in 2009, playing the teenage version of Matthew McConaughey’s character. He shot pilots for Nickelodeon and Disney shortly after, and the latter was picked up and became I’m With the Band, the Disney XD series Miller starred in for two seasons, moving out to Los Angeles to live on his own at seventeen to do so. “I had the best-case scenario because I was working on a show that was a little bit of an experiment,” he says. “It was on a new network that was just starting out and I was the only kid on the show, which is very, very rare for Disney, so I was working with all these cool character actors who had been doing it for years, so they were really there to help shape me. It was the first time I felt like I was treated like an adult and people gave me the respect I needed. I learned a lot along the way.”
Now twenty-four, Miller credits his time in the Disney stable as a valuable learning experience and remains grateful for the role, but he says that after the show ended, he was understandably concerned about what sort of opportunities would be available to him with that as his main credit. “It actually really scared me initially, because I wanted to be treated like a serious actor,” he explains. “I wanted to do really hard-hitting stories and, after that, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m necessarily going to be treated like that. I’m going to be put into this Disney pigeonhole,’ and I’ve never been that way and I never wanted to do that.”
He says that he went “way over the top” in some auditions after the series ended, and had to focus on realigning himself to a more organic performative style after two years of Disney-approved cheerfulness. His transformation proved impressive enough that he soon landed a part in Kelly Reichardt’s 2014 film Night Moves, opposite Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard, which takes a dark look at the radical environmentalist movement. “Kelly’s really great in how she works because it’s really laid back,” Miller says. “We don’t do a lot of takes. She likes the idea that your first initial thought of how you would present yourself is how you’ll portray yourself in the film.”
Since then, Miller has continued to build up his indie CV, going to Sundance in 2015 for both Take Me to the River and The Stanford Prison Experiment, which recounts a particularly controversial real-life psychological experiment and also stars Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, and Thomas Mann. This year, he is fresh off the recent South by Southwest première of Kasra Farahani’s The Waiting, in which he torments James Caan alongside his on-screen (and real-life) best friend Keir Gilchrist. He has also lately been exercising some other creative muscles, playing guitar in his band Johnny Madrid and returning to his original love of filmmaking, recently completing a short about sleep paralysis and currently working on developing his first feature. “The last few years have been a real fun ride because now I’ve finally been able to accomplish being in all these great independent films is rewarding and I hope it continues,” he laughs. “Otherwise I guess I’ll sell myself on Hollywood and Vine.”
Take Me to the River is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles.
Styling by Mitchell Belk at Art Department. Grooming by Katherine Reel. Photographer’s assistant: Kyle Tunney. Stylist’s assistant: Ivan Dutton.