By David Canfield
September 11, 2020 at 02:13 PM EDT
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If there's one name you'll learn out of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, let it be Reid Miller's.

The 20-year-old actor, who's been steadily working onscreen for years in TV series and indie films, gets a huge showcase in Good Joe Bell, the new tearjerker from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) costarring Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton. Based on a true story, the film follows Miller's Jadin, a gay teenager facing relentless bullying in rural Oregon, and his father Joe (Wahlberg), who struggles to understand or fully accept his son's sexuality. Jadin eventually takes his own life at just 15 years old; Joe, in grief and helplessness and regret, embarks on a walk across the U.S. to raise awareness of bullying and the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth.

Miller is heartbreakingly magnetic as Jadin, capturing his spirit and joy as well as the pain that ultimately leads to his tragic death. He also works extensively with Wahlberg, as the two actors find a loving if tense dynamic.

Seeking distribution, Good Joe Bell premieres at this year's TIFF on Monday, Sept. 14. As part of our series of must-list interviews out of the festival, EW caught up with Miller about the nuances of the role, the research behind it, and the toughest scene to play.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How familiar were you with Jadin's story before you signed on? And what was your reaction when the part came your way?

REID MILLER: Honestly, I hadn't heard of this story. It happened in 2013. That's when Jadin took his own life. And I was 13 at the time. But when I got the audition initially, I did all this research and I found out about Jadin and his father. And there was a weird moment where I read the script and, knowing the story, it was like I sort of knew. I was like, Okay, I'm meant to do this. I know that sounds weird, but it was just like I felt an instant connection to Jadin based on what he'd gone through. For myself, I had grown up dealing with bullies because I was different. I grew up in a town that was very sports-oriented. Definitely not to the same degree as he did; he was tortured on a daily basis. But I related to him in that way of being misunderstood by some of the people around me. And reading about what happened to his father as well, like how he went on this journey across America to spread awareness, but also to sort of understand why Jadin took his own life himself, for me, it was kind of jaw-dropping reading everything that happened.

So to read the script, and to know what happened, and to connect with Jadin in such a way, I knew I had to do this movie. Of course, it wasn't in my control. With casting, all I can do is my best and hope for the best. But luckily, they saw how passionate I was about the story.

How did the character come to you, in terms of how to play him?

Having spoken to his mom and his brother, Jadin was a very strong, independent, very outward personality. He was not ashamed of who he was at all. And I loved that; in real life, he was just this what you see is what you get and I'm not going to hide who I am type [of] personality. And I think that's beautiful.

TIFF

One of the things I love about the character in the film is that he's presented with a lot of dignity and strength. He's not pathologized. Can you talk about approaching him in that way, finding that fight in him?

Oh, absolutely. He was a very strong person. When I stepped onto set, I wore the clothes that he wore. I also had his iPod that he listened to.

Oh, wow.

Yeah. So I was able to listen to his music. And all of it was all strength-oriented stuff like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Madonna — all very, be proud of who you are, regardless of what other people think. And I think the key to finding the strength was, in a way, finding the reason, maybe even if it was just for myself, why he did take his own life. Because I don't believe he took his own life because he was ashamed of who he was. He took his own life because he felt everyone else was ashamed of who he was. Even though he was ridiculed, he never for one second faltered in his stance on who he was or tried to hide or pretend to be somebody he wasn't just to be "normal" — [that's] the strongest response to that, I think. Even in the face of adversity and in the face of people who did hate him, because they didn't understand him, he was unapologetically himself.

For me, playing the character was actually very easy to show that strength. Because, yes, he was surrounded by people who didn't like him, [but] there was still that hope for him. There's the scene in the film where he talks about how he wants to go to New York [for college]. There's always that hope. And again, having spoken to his mom, she said that herself. All of this is isn't assumption — it is based on what his mother knew about him, what his brother knew about him, that he was a very strong person who, unfortunately, just... yeah. He was just in a very unfortunate situation.

What were those conversations with his family like, beyond unlocking those elements of Jadin, just in terms of talking through such a tragic thing?

I remember the day they came to set. It was a very, very powerful moment. My hair was blond for the film because Jadin would dye his hair; I was in costume, wearing his clothes. I stepped out of my trailer to go talk to [Jadin's mother] Lola. And it was a very overwhelming moment because when she saw me, she saw Jadin. Once we got past that very emotional moment, we were able to really talk about who he was, but not even just who he was, but about everyone in the family. And that was really interesting, to hear all of their dynamics and things that aren't even really in the movie, but just things for me to know personally that would help me paint a better picture of who he was. Because I don't ever want to assume things. I wanted to know what he was like. Was he a very calm person? If he ever had an argument with his dad, would he fire back or stay a little more reserved and just take it? Was he very well-spoken?

Also, more importantly, it was really interesting to talk about Joe. To find out about him and that relationship between Joe and Jadin, because Joe loved his son very much. It, unfortunately, was a situation where he didn't understand it.

Given those insights you had into Joe and Jadin's relationship, you and Mark have such great chemistry in this movie. What was it like playing off of him? 

Mark is so funny, and so relaxed, and so welcoming. Playing off of him was really quite easy because he made it easy. We were really able to connect on a deeper level than the material. The first time I met him during the audition process, I went to his house. After we read together, [we] walked into the kitchen and he said, "You did a great job. I really felt like I was talking to my son." And in a way, I kind of felt like I was talking to my dad. The moment we had that interaction, we both felt that same sort of connection, I knew that this was going to work. And I knew that this was meant to be. Because it's one thing for me to feel it and him not feel it, or [vice versa]. But it was there from the very beginning, there was a very father-son friendship. And it's funny because I was so nervous. I grew up watching Mark Wahlberg! I remember I saw Transformers with my dad, the one that Mark Wahlberg was in. To watch him up on the big screen and then be in his house talking to him and acting.... It was such a crazy moment of like, Oh my God, here I am. I'm here with Mark Wahlberg.

And I'm also curious, because in a lot of those scenes with Mark you are sort of playing a ghost. How did you approach that?

When talking to [the director] about that, we didn't really want to play that I was playing a ghost. We had to keep in mind that he is aware that he's a ghost. It's almost up for interpretation. Some people are going to think he's a ghost. Some people are going to think he is in Mark's head and he's just talking to himself. A lot of people are going to take it different ways. But what was super important to us was to not play that he was a ghost or that he was a memory. Like: This is Jadin. And who I'm playing and how I'm playing him is who Jadin really was.

The last scene before Jadin takes his own life in the film, there's a lot of weight to it, with the movie getting him to that point where the viewer can try to understand why he makes the decision he does.

Right.

And it's so wrenching, too. Was it tough to figure out?

Absolutely. That scene was probably the most difficult scene to shoot in the movie. It had to be authentic. It had to be real. I think there are people who are able to cry on screen, but the actual emotion and motive behind that cry isn't there. And we couldn't do that. I didn't want to do that. This is the most pivotal scene of the film. I knew I could get to that place, but quite honestly, I was afraid to go to that place because I didn't know if I'd be able to pull myself out of it; it's a very dark place to be in. But I knew I had to do it to do justice to this story, to do justice to that scene, to show what he was really feeling in that moment. And, even then, I could never imagine just how much pain he was in.

But I understand my own pain. Getting to that point, once we did that scene, was kind of a turning point for me while shooting the film. In that moment, I realized just how much alike Jadin and I are. From then on out, how I approached playing Jadin, in general, was flipped on its head. At that point, I really felt like I became him for a moment and I really understood. I felt like he was there with me and he was guiding my performance. And I would like to think that he was.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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