Sienna Miller is feeling stunned. That’s how she describes her current state of being. Having spent four happy years living in New York, she’s unexpectedly had to relocate to London. “It’s surreal, because I wasn’t ready to move back,” she tells me, in the front room of her rented west London house. “I have to remind myself that I’m here because I’m working.”
The job – her first acting gig since she wrapped on the Roger Ailes/Fox News harassment drama The Loudest Voice in April 2019 – is a Netflix adaptation of the bestselling novel Anatomy of a Scandal. Miller plays the wife of an adulterous Tory MP. The series, from the creator of Big Little Lies and co-starring Rupert Friend and Michelle Dockery, was meant to shoot in London this summer. When it moved instead to mid-fall, Miller had to enrol her eight-year-old daughter, Marlowe (whose father is Miller’s ex-boyfriend, British actor Tom Sturridge), into school here rather than New York. Now she is committed to staying a year, possibly longer, which has thrown her off balance. “I think I’m more self-conscious in London,” she says. “I feel like everyone’s seen my pants.” Certainly, her tabloid past looms larger on this side of the Atlantic.
To make matters more complicated, Marlowe was recently sent home from school after a few teachers came down with coronavirus. She is now being home-schooled in the next room. For Miller, it brings back memories of quarantining in Upstate New York earlier this year, when schools shut and the actor took charge of her daughter’s remote learning. “She was too young to be able to manage it on her own,” Miller recalls. “And being an only child, she didn’t have much stimulation from people her own age, so I had to regress and [assume] a seven-year-old mindset. [There was] lots of roughhousing, throwing ourselves on beds and playing, which I was very happy to do. But there wasn’t much time for anything else. I had grand ideas of learning a language. I downloaded [languages app] Babbel. I haven’t been on it once.”
Today, the 38-year-old is dressed in jeans and a baggy sweater, looking as golden and beautiful as ever. The wide collar of a patterned Wales Bonner shirt peeks out over the top of her knit. She has been running lines from Anatomy of a Scandal, trying out posh English accents for her character, while her wire-haired dachshund Walter and rescue dog Tennessee are snoozing on the floor.
“I love to really SIT in an experience. To gain some understanding about MYSELF and the other person. How is it that people can be so in LOVE and then [become] strangers?”
I’m here to talk about her new movie, Wander Darkly, which tells the story of a couple (played by Miller and Diego Luna) who are new parents drifting apart. After a traumatic event, they find themselves revisiting past moments from their relationship in the hopes of salvaging it. Miller is tremendous. She gives the latest in a series of powerhouse performances (including American Woman, 21 Bridges and The Loudest Voice) that have drawn rightful focus to her onscreen presence, rather than the media’s past obsession with her private life and high-profile dating history.
This new project, though, required her to tap into her previous relationship experiences. She tells me, for instance, about the intense emotional reaction she had reading the script. “The idea of analyzing a relationship from its inception to its ending and being able to step back in time and look at the moments where you went wrong… I cried every time I read it,” she says. “The bit that got me [was when] she is reminiscing about this person she loved, and I think being a woman with a daughter, there are some parallels; it was filled with longing and nostalgia. It broke my heart to see how people go wrong and the mistakes they make.”
The relationship scab-picking that the film dramatizes so well is often painful to watch. “Some people don’t want to look at that and are very good at walking away,” Miller considers. “I am the opposite. I love to really sit in an experience. To gain some understanding about myself and the other person. How is it that people can be so in love and then [become] strangers? Or hurt each other so deeply without meaning to?” The real-life subtext looms large.
I bring up an interview with her, Luna and the film’s director, Tara Miele, at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered. The interviewer asks whether any of them have ever been in a rocky relationship like the one in the film, and both Luna and Miele immediately turn to Miller. Knowing what we think we all know about her personal life, who wouldn’t? I wonder if she was mindful of that perception when she accepted the role. “No, I never think about things in that way,” she says. “I probably should. But my experiences with relationships have probably made me intrigued by them on a level that meant this film resonated.”
“The more you PRACTICE the uncomfortable acts of standing up for YOURSELF, the more confidence and SELF-WORTH you cultivate”
She rightly points out that everyone goes through heartbreak. The only difference is hers were public. “I don’t feel people are particularly interested in my private life anymore,” she adds. “Certainly, when I was younger, that was the focus and it was really aggravating. But I think the world has changed. I’ve been working for long enough. There’s enough to talk about. I don’t feel valued only for what I wear or who I was with. I don’t feel defined by those experiences, either. I certainly did when I was 21 or 22. Maybe it’s different in the UK, but I don’t think in America it was as much of a [big deal].”
Nonetheless, her “aggressive experience with fame”, which included having her phone hacked, for which she successfully sued the News of the World, did leave her feeling “totally run-down” and with her confidence dented. “I can definitely hold my own,” she says now, seeming to refer to her private life, day to day. But as an actor in Hollywood, “I feel a bit like an imposter,” she shares. That lack of confidence has extended to some elements of her career, like negotiating pay.
Recently, she revealed how the late actor Chadwick Boseman forfeited part of his salary to cover the fee she had requested to star alongside him in 21 Bridges. It was a rare case of Miller asking for the sum she deserved. I ask how she came up with that figure and she talks about the number of shooting days required, but also how, “as the woman, you’re lent on so heavily for promotion in a way that men often aren’t. What you wear on a red carpet; how much press you have to do… They are going to get their money’s worth,” she says.
“I was SHAKING and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’d never been so TERRIFIED in my life. [My agents] said, ‘Don’t leave your trailer. Refuse to shoot.’ It was an incredibly EMPOWERING move and I got what I wanted”
For American Sniper, Miller went on the regional publicity tour because her co-star Bradley Cooper was appearing in The Elephant Man on Broadway. But she was “alarmingly underpaid” for that movie and her bonus for doing publicity was “pitiful” given that the film became one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies ever. “At the time, of course, I was incredibly grateful,” Miller recalls. “[To be] offered a role in a Clint Eastwood movie. I’d had a baby; I hadn’t worked for a while; it was with Bradley Cooper; it was an amazing story. They knew I would do it for nothing. And I always had done that.”
Things are different now. Not only has fair pay become a rallying point for women in Hollywood, but Miller has hired a “demon lawyer”, who has educated her about her worth. “I’m pretty hardcore these days,” she says. “If you have to move location for filming – which men have to do, but more often than not their wives stay home with the kids – when you’re a single mother shooting, I have to bring my child, find a school, find childcare. Who pays for that? Why would I not be more compensated as a result for having to uproot my entire family in order to work? That’s a battle. Her father is amazing, I’m not saying I’m on my own, but as a working mother, I can’t be away from my kid.”
When Boseman boosted Miller’s salary, it was a big moment. “It’s about self-respect,” she says. “An act of generosity like that is validating. And maybe I shouldn’t look for validation from my peers, but I do. For me, it’s about relearning how to stand up for yourself. Ultimately, I’m such a pleaser. I want everybody to have a good experience; I don’t want to be difficult.”
“When you’re a single MOTHER shooting, I have to bring my child, find a school, find childcare. Who pays for that? Why would I not be more compensated as a result for having to UPROOT my entire family in order to work? That’s a BATTLE”
“But then,” she goes on, “I had an experience on The Loudest Voice, where there was an issue with the prosthetics.” To play the older Beth Ailes, Miller wore extensive facial prosthetics. “It was week one. We had shot a scene and then it was just too time consuming to [apply full prosthetics for the next]. Everybody was trying to get me to shoot without it. I was like, I can’t play this part without them. We agreed to this. I was on the phone to my agents. I was shaking and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’d never been so terrified in my life. [My agents] said, ‘Don’t leave your trailer. Refuse to shoot.’ It was an incredibly empowering move and I got what I wanted. I look back and know that wouldn’t have happened to [my co-star] Russell [Crowe]. That wouldn’t have happened to men.” Crowe rallied behind her. “Russell loved it,” she says. “He was like, high five. ‘You stand up for yourself.’”
This is something Miller is working on, to combat the challenges of being treated differently as a woman. “The more you practice the uncomfortable acts of standing up for yourself, the more confidence and self-worth you cultivate,” she concludes. “I’m trying to be assertive. That might mean having difficult conversations and advocating for yourself in a way that just doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m trying.”
Wander Darkly will have a multi-platform release in December 2020
The Fashion Challenge
Sienna Miller is renowned for her impeccable style, so how does she do when she’s put to the test against the clock? Watch and see…