As Sienna Miller stars as the mother of a missing girl, she tells Chris Harvey how she seized control of her career.
"If you started to restrict me to playing English women who went to boarding school at eight, you know, I would give up," says Sienna Miller, defiantly. We're in a club in west London; Miller is hunkered down on a small sofa, wearing a rumpled green flak jacket, clearly intended for protection and for warmth. And we've just tiptoed into a minefield.
In her new film, American Woman, Miller gives a startling performance as a blue-collar, single mum – and 30-something grandmother – living in Rust Belt USA, whose teenage daughter goes missing. I've suggested that the character exists far beyond the actress's own experience of class. Miller, 37, the daughter of a banker-turned-art dealer and a former model – "We're not posh!" she insists – has responded with a deep sigh. "It seems so sad to talk about that but it's true, yes, I came from a very different background," she begins.
And then we're into it, the whole hot topic about the roles actors should be allowed to play, the issue that has spawned entire schools of controversy about the whitewashing of roles for people of colour, whether straight actors should be cast as gay characters, if transgender characters should be played only by transgender actors.
"I feel everybody should be able to play everybody," Miller says. "It seems absurd to me to start to legislate on creativity. That's not trying to be insensitive – of course, there are people who have a deeper understanding of experiences, and they should definitely be considered… [but] I certainly don't want to play myself for the rest of my life.
"I'm about to get myself into trouble, I know," she adds, treading deeper: wondering whether we should go into art galleries and remove all the paintings by Caravaggio (who fled a death sentence for murder in Milan); what to do with the idea that Degas might have been a rapist (in Miller's view). "How do you begin to muddle through this moment? Surely we can make our own decisions about what we want to see and what not? I'm all for a lot of the changes that are happening – and I'm benefiting from them as a woman. But it does feel complicated when you start to legislate on what roles you can and cannot play.
"I think it's English to not be as careful," she adds, before delivering a damning verdict. "It feels like liberal is becoming almost fascistic in its controlling of what can and cannot be done. It feels dangerous to me."
All this is delivered in a quiet way. Miller speaks softly but enunciates precisely; she uses words to powerful effect without seeming to try. The expression "effortless cool" is overused, but Miller has something of it. She breaks off midstream to take a puff from a vape. "This is not weed," she says, "so please don't comment on it. I'm not sitting here getting stoned in your interview."
We've met before, during Miller's lunch break in rehearsals for the 2017 West End production of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (The Telegraph would later call her performance, as Maggie the Cat, "hideously plausible"). "Did I get cross with you last time we spoke?" she asks. Yes, she did, a few times. "I thought so," she says. That day she was charged up, focused, trying to eat a salad between answers, and generally pretty angry; I was being quite annoying.
She told me then that, for her, "studying and performing a great work is a way of managing the existential crisis of being human…". She laughs now when I remind her of that – "it sounds like something I would think" – then immediately dives into a thought about how acting can be "very relieving… turning down the noise on your own life and shifting the focus to what it would be to be someone else.
"You do cease to exist," she says. "There's real peace in that."
She comes back up out of it. "I also do like being myself," she adds quickly. "I'm not filled with self-loathing and trying to escape it, but I just… I like disappearing."
She certainly disappears into the brash, overtly sexual Deb in American Woman. She's one of the very few characters that Miller has carried with her. "I still think about Deb almost every day," she says. "I imagine what she's doing." Another was Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick, whom she played in Factory Girl (2006), in pixie-crop and black tights. "I didn't take those tights off for about three months," she admits. "It got a little worrying." It made her mother "frantic, anxious".
Miller now lives in New York with her seven-year-old daughter Marlowe (whose father is Miller's former partner, English actor Tom Sturridge) but she still thinks of the UK as home. She will definitely move back here one day, probably to a farm in Dorset, she says, although her life in the "busiest, noisiest city in the world" is much quieter than it was here. She intends still to be acting at 80.
Between Factory Girl and American Woman is a CV that doesn't quite do justice to Miller's talent, despite some standout roles, such as her turn as Tippi Hedren opposite Toby Jones's Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, and some fascinating minor roles in American Sniper, Foxcatcher and in James Gray's widely admired The Lost City of Z. She's just about to be seen opposite Chadwick Boseman in 21 Bridges, a Brooklyn-set narcotics thriller, which she describes as a "Sidney Lumet-esque old-school cop film".
Her ability to make much of supporting parts, meanwhile, is put to excellent use in The Loudest Voice (just aired on Sky Atlantic), in which she plays Beth Ailes, the wife of Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), for many years the guiding intelligence behind Rupert Murdoch's controversial US television channel Fox News, before a sexual harassment scandal in 2016 ended his career. She wore prosthetics for the role and says she "loved the mask… it was liberating".
The MeToo movement, though, has intersected unhappily with her own life. She worked on James Toback's 2017 film The Private Life of a Modern Woman, before the director was engulfed by abuse allegations on an enormous scale. "It was crushing, really, because he'd been a family friend for a long time," she says. "I didn't really want to do that film" – despite admiration for Miller's performance, it was described as "a pompous chore" by The Telegraph's critic – "but [the shoot] was a week, and it was an old friend, you know, it was Uncle Jim. He'd never behaved inappropriately towards me. It's dreadful how many hundreds of women say they have been hurt by him."
Harvey Weinstein, too, she had known for ages and worked with on a number of films, including Factory Girl; he thought she was "the next big thing". "I had known his wife, Georgina, from before they were married, from when we were in London. And had never had that kind of experience, thank God. I mean, I was yelled at, but that was just Harvey, you know, you'd just brush it off… He did scream at men as well.
"It's really complicated to talk about this carefully," she says. "I called Harvey 'Pops' from day one. Probably because on some level I sensed that that [other side of him] existed and it was a way of deflecting whatever I felt. And it did, and that was lucky. I'd go, 'Oi Pops, give us a job', and he'd go, 'Ah, stappit.'
"But I was very fortunate that no one ever propositioned me for work with sex – and if they had, I would probably have slapped them." She stops. "But it's not that easy," she says. "I know that you couldn't say no to Harvey if he asked you to do something. For me, it would be, like, an extra week of press, so I imagine in a situation where it's sexual, it would also be hard to say no, and that's crushing."
She's conscious of the rush to judgment that extreme individual cases have created. "There is a trial by media and there's really no coming back from it. I'm aware that I have the power to say one thing about somebody and that's pretty much it for them. And that scares me." Is she deliberately not saying something for that reason?
"No, I would say."
In American Woman, Deb experiences a disturbing coercive relationship, in which the mechanism of control is money. Miller is at pains to point out that "it really exists from men to women, that dynamic, it's not necessarily financial, it's psychological. There's something about a woman like Deb" – not passive, not compliant, sexually confident – "that is threatening, and the response to that is to control and belittle. I think that happens with women of a certain type. And maybe they're subconsciously drawn initially to the idea of being taken care of. It feels romantic and protective, then spirals into something abusive."
Has she ever been in or close to a relationship like that? "It's very, very personal, but I've definitely experienced controlling behaviour. Men are complicated," she says, "women are, too. I think that the dynamic between people is incredibly complex. I mean, sexuality is part of a communication. It's very difficult, this moment that we're in."
One aspect of it is stark. Miller has been a consistently strong voice demanding pay parity for women. Is that battle won? "Do we have to keep fighting? Imagine if I said, 'No, no, let's leave it at 60 per cent'." A recent study showed the pay gap in Hollywood was almost the same in 2015 as it was in 1980, and although that has improved a little, women's wages remain lower across the board. "That's something we can't tolerate. You have to go into a deal and pretend you're a man. And unfortunately, that's the way that I still have to think about it. Negotiate as if I was a man. But I don't want to have that thought. I'd like to go in and negotiate as a woman and feel like that would be enough."
We talk about other stuff, too, about how she was at Glastonbury this year, loved Stormzy and the Killers. She's a camper rather than a glamper by nature, she assures me. I'm not entirely sure I believe her, but Miller is instinctively a truth teller, and forceful with it. She also tells me she spent a lot of time at her friends' secret Glastonbury club known as The Rabbit Hole (it's hard to find, and you have to answer a riddle to gain entrance). I believe her about that one: Miller, as we know, likes to disappear.