The actress is back, a decade on from being in the tabloid headlines, with a new film that reminds us how good she really is.
Sienna Miller's friend Emily Blunt is an excellent strategist, able to flit between big films and small, plotting the perfect career arc. "She's just more organised," smiles Miller. "As a woman." It was Blunt who suggested Miller, having made the indie drama Wander Darkly, next take on a role in the big-budget cop thriller 21 Bridges. "Be in something people will see," Miller deadpans. "That was her advice."
So what would a strategist have told her not to do during her career? "Behave badly publicly for a decade?" she replies. "Or not." She laughs again.
She is 39 — more than ten years removed from that stretch when she was tabloid property. "I was really rebellious against whatever system existed… I didn't understand it or have the best guidance. I had many opportunities I sabotaged at that moment, and so now I don't know if I'd necessarily change that decade, because I had a good time and survived it. But, as a strategist, if I could go back to 23, I'd say, 'Maybe, tone that bit down.' Or just shush a little."
When Miller started out, she wanted to be the new Meryl Streep. She went to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and, boy, is she good at what she does — she acts on the edge of various emotions, but is never over the top. She has great onscreen restraint. Then, in her twenties, at the time Layer Cake, Alfie and Factory Girl — playing the Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick — ignited her career, she found herself in a number of high-profile relationships you can find the details of on websites still picking through her past for hits. At that point, she became the new Kate Moss, in front of more paparazzi lenses than movie cameras.
Does anybody teach actors how to deal with fame? "No," she says. "But I could have done with some media training in my early years. But, also, whatever." She shrugs. "You sort of lean on others who have gone through that. That's what I tried to do. But I'm very good at hearing advice and not so good at following it."
We chat over Zoom. Having lived in New York for years, she is currently back in Britain, in her cottage in the countryside that she bought when she was 25. Her daughter, Marlowe, 8, is downstairs home schooling — "You might hear wailing" — while Miller is upstairs, on a many-cushioned bed wearing a big brown cardigan. It feels serene. A dog lies lazily in the background, and Miller has a day off shooting Anatomy of a Scandal, a glossy Netflix series based on Sarah Vaughan's novel. It is a very good gig, but mostly the actress is pleased to have something different to do, after almost a year of home schooling. Which is very relatable.
Anatomy of a Scandal is yet another role in a strong run for the actress that the world sort of forgot. After her initial rush, there was a break, before support slots in the acclaimed Foxcatcher, American Sniper and The Lost City of Z. Then, three years ago, Miller was better than ever as the lead in American Woman, about a mother raising her grandson when her daughter goes missing. Throw in the part of Beth Ailes in The Loudest Voice, about the Fox News boss Roger Ailes, plus the imminent Wander Darkly, in which Miller plays a grieving woman who may be dead, and suddenly the shell of an actor in the ghastly GI Joe blockbuster in 2009 seems like an entirely different person.
A few years ago, she said, "I think, within my industry, people think I can act, which is nice." That lack of confidence feels a little sad? "I probably," she begins, "as a self-defence mechanism, joke about the very public persona thrust upon me at a very young age. And the noise of what was going on in my life really overshadowed the work I was doing. I hadn't worked in a while when I did Foxcatcher and American Sniper. I'd just become really disillusioned and needed some space. People would say, 'What happened?' As in, I could suddenly act. And I defensively mentioned things I thought were good before. But it occurred to me that people didn't see me as an actor for a long time. I was better known for other things."
Miller looks up. There is somebody at the door. "I've just got to do a Covid test," she tells me. She got the virus over Christmas, but as a protocol for filming Anatomy of a Scandal, she needs three tests a week. On set, they blast antiviral spray and keep it very draughty and cold, but at least they are working. The nurse pops up. A medical bag plops down on the table as Miller introduces herself and they have a small talk. "You had many of these?" asks the actress, turning to me, a face on a laptop on the bed. "I won't let you watch," she laughs, as the nostril bit begins, so she turns me away. The chat turns to PPE and ICU. Well, you just did not get this sort of colour from interviews back in 2019.
Nurse gone, back to the past. Miller's acting hiatus came in the three years after GI Joe, but it took a further six, to 2018 and American Woman, for her, once again, to be a lead of note. She thought audiences did not want to see films starring people they did not, thanks to the tabloids, approve of.
Does she think that perception of her changed, or does she now not care? "I don't know if I ever cared," she says. "And my behaviour reflected that." She once squirted the paparazzi with urine from a water pistol. "But it was just so overwhelming and I was a product of a moment, where fame reached a level I don't know exists any more. It would have been a disaster if I was on social media, but people are much more in control of their narratives in a way that, back then, in England, was impossible. It was a frenzy and I was exhausted by fighting back [Miller got £100,000 in damages after the News of the World admitted to hacking her phone]. And I'm glad I did set the record straight to some degree with my legal actions, but now my life is not that interesting. Deliberately. I just have space to focus on what I want to do, which is to be a mum and work."
Wander Darkly is such work — and it is excellent. Think Ghost via Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shot by Terrence Malick. She made it a while back — "What is time any more?" — but is finally getting a release on demand. She is Adrienne, partner to Matteo (Diego Luna), and the film starts with the couple in a terrible car crash. What follows is a lush and surreal commentary on memory and mistakes, but it is never obtuse. I enjoyed a scene in which they have sex and a curtain catches fire and she remembers him as running out of the room, but he says he went to get help. It all feels very natural.
Did it make Miller think of her own past? "That always happens," she says. "Also, as a person, I am quite reflective and nostalgic and like to meander through memory. [The script] landed on my lap at a moment I was taking stock of my own romantic life experiences, and trying to understand what they have been. Those moments where you diverge in a relationship… Tiny little moments, that corrode."
She mimics dust falling through her fingers, as the last word trails off.
The film industry has changed since Miller arrived in it in 2001 aged 20. First, of course, stars have more control over their own fame, diminishing the need for, as the actress told the Leveson inquiry in 2011, "running down a dark street on my own with ten big men chasing me" for a photo. And since Me Too, there are significantly more women in key positions behind the camera, which has led to more female-led stories like those Miller has been in of late.
"Whether it's a male director or not," Miller says, "they have to, at this point, be aware that the female experience is something that should be examined. It's not just the Monica Bellucci 20-minute one-take rape [as in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible], which is definitely through a male gaze. With patriarchal bullshit being exposed, there comes a feeling of solidarity in being able to stand up for yourself and not be accused of whinging. I will not now tolerate certain behaviour that I probably would have acquiesced to because it was easier in the past."
Would she feel happier with Marlowe becoming an actor in today's business rather than the one she started out in? "I mean, I never had horrifying experiences being an actor," says Miller. "I felt belittled. I felt insignificant. I got shouted out by Weinstein, but never molested. So my experience was never that predatory. It was unpleasant, because women…" She slightly adjusts her thoughts. "I was seen as something that lacked the substance I felt I had as a person."
"But no," she continues. "I love being an actor. It is a great job and my daughter is artistic. I would never dissuade her [and] predatory behaviour is in any workplace or bar. It's something women have to navigate that men probably underestimate. And have to deal with their entire lives. I'm glad she's growing up in a world where that behaviour is not tolerated in the way it was when I was young."
When Chadwick Boseman, her 21 Bridges co-star, died of cancer last year, Miller spoke out about how the actor gave up some of his own salary to ensure his female colleague was better paid. Miller says his action has galvanised people — herself included. "For many years," she says. "I underestimated myself to such a degree I would've accepted anything. But Chadwick's gesture and the way women in my industry are talking about [pay] is empowering. I'd feel embarrassed now to not fight for myself. But it can take me being put into that corner to do something."
They filmed in 2018. Was she aware that he was so ill? Miller sighs. "I would never have known he was sick to the degree he was," she says. "But I could tell he was really tired in a way that now makes sense. It never affected the work. But he was very thin. Thinner when we went back to reshoot. It is astounding he was at that stage of a battle and we made that film. I remember when I said goodbye, the last time I saw him. In reflection, which is often the case, it felt like a real goodbye. And I remember being really moved, but also really confused. He had tears in his eyes and it was a hug and I felt it was the sweetest thing ever, and never saw him again. But it makes sense of course. You put the pieces together in the aftermath."
There is a lot of the old soul about Miller — like nothing ruffles her any more. She has lived the sort of packed life that ruined others, but she just comes across as content and calm. She remains self-critical, though. A result, perhaps, of those years when she lacked self-worth. For example, she says the Brooklyn accent she had for 21 Bridges was a bit much. "I was like," she says, waving her arms about and putting on a show, "'Hey! Wotcha doin?' But I got to work with Chadwick."
Her ambitions are big. "I want to be doing this when I'm 80," she says. "Like Glenda Jackson playing King Lear!" Or, "My goal is to be hired by Paul Thomas Anderson and be the lead. Or Scorsese." And why not. Look at much of her recent work, though, and you can be forgiven for thinking she is figuring out her memories via her roles.
Anatomy of a Scandal is about adultery. "It's centred around betrayal," Miller explains. "Which is something I have experienced a lot of, bizarrely. And [my character] responds to it in a very different way than I do. In my own life, my own response to that behaviour has been really singular. And hers is more forgiving, tolerant. It's not like me, but the circumstances are familiar."
Most resonant, though, was American Woman — a brilliant role in a film well worth seeking out. She plays Deb, a wild young adult who people think rather ill of, but then, over a decade, begin to understand in a different light. She nods along, grinning. "She's very easy to judge and then emerges at the end as someone you love," she says. "And respect. I liked that arc."
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London