Miller: what it means to be a woman in Hollywood
Star explains why it’s ‘absurd’ to legislate on creativity and why Weinstein is ‘Pops’ to her
“If you started to restrict me to playing English women who went to boarding school at eight, you know, I would give up,” Sienna Miller defiantly says.
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.
“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.” 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. 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 – 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.
“I also do like being myself, I’m not filled with self-loathing and trying to escape it, but I just . . . I like disappearing,” she adds.
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.
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, it got a little worrying,” Miller says.
Miller now lives in New York with her seven-year-old daughter Marlowe (whose father is her former partner, English actor Tom Sturridge) but she still thinks of the UK as home.
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”.
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.
“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.
“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,” Miller says.
“It’s really complicated to talk about this carefully.
“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.
“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.
“But it’s not that easy . . . I imagine in a situation where it’s sexual.
“It would also be hard to say no, and that’s crushing.”