Sienna Miller Survived Tabloid Hell. Now She’s Thriving.
The British actress opens up to Marlow Stern about going to war with the paparazzi and her road to making some of the most rewarding work of her career.
In the fall of 2005, less than a month into a study-abroad semester in London, I managed to secure last-minute tickets to the West End production of As You Like It (thanks, student ID!). The Shakespeare adaptation had generated a great deal of buzz, owing not so much to Helen McCrory’s towering turn as Rosalind or the presence of The Wire’s Dominic West but rather Sienna Miller, making her stage debut in the role of Celia.
Over the summer, the up-and-coming actress’ life had been turned upside down when it was revealed that her famous fiancé, the actor Jude Law, had cheated on her with his children’s nanny. Tabloid mayhem ensued, with a mob of paparazzi stalking Miller wherever she went and The Daily Mail somehow blaming her for Law’s affair. Amid all this chaos, Miller was expected to perform in front of an audience seven times a week.
“That was one of the most challenging moments I hope I’ll ever have to experience. Because with that level of public heartbreak, to have to get out of a bed let alone stand in front of 800 people every night, it’s just the last thing you want to do,” she recalls. “It was really hard. And the other thing was, it was at the height of all that paparazzi madness, and in London where there was an epidemic of bad behavior. They knew where I would be every night.”
And yet she managed to pull it off, proving a charming and vibrant foil to McCrory with The Guardian declaring, “Miller may be a celebrity but she can also act.” One can’t imagine the amount of focus, of compartmentalization that took. Looking back, Miller says she has a hard time recounting exactly what happened during that tumultuous period.
“There’s a whole six weeks of that experience that I don’t remember. I have no recollection of it,” she offers. “People who came to see me said we had dinner, and I don’t remember. I was in so much shock over it all. And I’d really just begun. I was only 23. But if you get through that, you feel like you can get through anything.”
Years later, the tabloid News of the World would confess to hacking her phone during this time, and was forced to pay her £100,000—then the highest invasion-of-privacy settlement to date.
“I’m pretty resilient,” Miller tells me. “There were moments where it came close to making me really feel crazy, and it was incredibly aggressive. The way I managed it was to get really litigious, start suing. I secretly recorded paparazzi on a lighter that was a camera, and got a privacy act taken to a high court to get the law changed in England, which essentially means that if I’m anywhere or coming out of anywhere where I can expect privacy they’re not allowed to take my photo.”
“It was a long battle, and I think I was really paranoid,” she continues. “There was so much noise that it was hard to think straight and focus on my work, which I always took very seriously. It ate everything else. I look back on it and wonder how I did get through it—but I did.”
Once the paparazzi were off her back, Miller’s party-girl reputation began to fade away, and her career took off. There was her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Tippi Hedren in The Girl, followed by roles in Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Lost City of Z, and American Woman. And her performance in the upcoming Wander Darkly is one of the most impressive of her career.
Directed by Tara Miele, and available on demand Dec. 11, Wander Darkly centers on young couple Adrienne (Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) who, after suffering a tragic accident, retrace the peaks and valleys of their relationship in A Christmas Carol-like fashion—from awkward sexual encounters, to petty jealousies, to raising a baby—in determining where exactly things went wrong.
“I think it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a piece, because it was so heavy, and arduous, and long,” says Miller. “We shot it in 24 days, and it was 17-hour days sometimes in this state of real grief. As an emotion I feel like I’ve really mined that now. I don’t feel the need to explore grief anytime soon.”
“In terms of my mental health and wellbeing during it,” she adds, “I’ve been happier.”
Throughout the film, we’re not sure if Adrienne is dead—a spirit caught in purgatory, made to relive her past—or experiencing a traumatic break with reality. At her lowest point, she enters her baby’s bedroom and, believing it is dead, shakes the child—only to discover that it is very much alive.
“That was horrible to shoot,” recalls Miller. “It was a real-life baby, and with this poor real-life baby, I had to scream at it and it started crying. And when you make a film the babies are always identical twins, so you can swap them out, and there was this one identical-twin baby who did not want to come out and do the scene with me.”
I joked that it was a far cry from the infamous scene in American Sniper, wherein her co-star Bradley Cooper had to cradle a baby doll and pretend it was real. At the very mention of the scene, Miller bursts into laughter.
“I actually want to get that baby!” she exclaims. “I just like the moment where Bradley’s holding it and he tries to make it look real by wiggling its little arm. We’ve laughed about that many times. It’s funny, because I think there was at one time a real baby, then there was an animatronic baby, and I don’t know why we had a doll baby in that scene. But look, the movie worked!”
In addition to the court ruling keeping the paparazzi vultures at bay, motherhood appears to have made Miller approach her work with a renewed focus, and sense of purpose. And there’s no getting around the fact that her young daughter Marlowe and I share a similar name.
“I was about to say, great name!” cracks Miller, who is Zoom-ing from her bedroom. “Actually, you just missed her. I had to kick her out. She was lying on the bed.”
She pauses. “Being a parent for me has added a whole other layer of emotion to my life, and I’m sure other parents feel the same way.”
Eventually, our conversation turns to Casanova—the underrated (in this writer’s opinion) romantic comedy pairing Miller with the late Heath Ledger at the height of his powers. As Miller tells it, filming the movie in Venice sounds like a dream.
“A boat would pick me up in the morning, take me across the Grand Canal, and pick up Heath in an apartment which was opposite mine,” she remembers. “We’d have a Walkman with two earbuds, and he’d have one and I’d have the other, and we got to ride down the Grand Canal listening to music on the way to work. We shot in St. Mark’s Square, and the only day they gave us permission to shoot was when the city flooded, so by the time we were doing our close-ups we were up to our waists in water! The whole thing was like a fairy tale, and it’s bittersweet looking back at that film because I miss him. He was a friend and such a great talent, and to spend any amount of time with him was a gift.”
When I ask Miller, who is now 38, about her long journey toward roles like her character in Wander Darkly, she pauses again.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’m more selective about the kinds of things I want to do. And I think because the tides have turned in Hollywood, people are more focused on examining what a female experience is—the female gaze, essentially,” she says. “But then I look back on Factory Girl and Interview, which are characters that were very layered and complex. I think the noise of that decade was overwhelming what was actually going on in my work.”