Sienna Miller was born to play Miss Julie, which she does this fall in Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the Strindberg classic.
If there were an Olympic Games for acting, Sienna Miller would be going for gold. After small roles on TV and in film, she made her West End stage debut playing Celia in Shakespeare's As You Like It, even going on at the last minute once as Rosalind when the lead actress fell sick and had no understudy. She’s pushed herself beyond making money as a model, or playing one, as she did on British TV’s sitcom Bedtime, to take on demanding independent movie roles like the real-life “rolling stone” of the 1960s, Edie Sedgewick, in Factory Girl, about Andy Warhol’s muse; the celebrity opposite Steve Buscemi in Interview; and Peter Sarsgaard's squeeze in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. And just when she seemed destined to win over the art film world, the intrepid actress appears in the super summer blockbuster, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Nevertheless, her most audacious act occurs this fall when Miller makes her Broadway bow in the title role of After Miss Julie, an adaptation of Strindberg’s modern classic by Patrick Marber, whose Howard Katz was seen recently at Roundabout.
Maybe it’s easy being so brave onstage when you believe, as does Miller, that acting is her destiny. “It’s really weird but the only thing I dreamed of doing since the age of three was being an actor. My mother actually went into labor with me during a performance of The Nutcracker Suite, so I was kind of born in the theatre.” Now, in her late 20s, as Miller’s destiny draws ever nearer, she spoke with Front & Center from her hometown of London.
FRONT & CENTER: Although you were born in New York, you grew up in England and were sent at a young age to Heathfield, an all-girls boarding school. Were you in all the school plays?
SIENNA MILLER: I was so keen to be in them but I never got the good roles! We did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and I was desperate to be the Pharoah, but I was about two feet tall— I was about nine—and so they made me the understudy and invented a part for me as his helper and I had to sit onstage fanning him. It wasn’t really fair. I did get to play Lady Sneerwell in School for Scandal. That was my first big role.
You have said that you always knew you wanted to be a professional actor, but was there a point—either onstage or in film—where you realized, “I can actually make a career of this”?
I was always pretty insecure and hard on myself—I still am. And I used to find it very hard to cry on film, to get into that emotional state. Then I did Factory Girl. One day, I had to do the most intense emotional scene where I confront Andy Warhol in a restaurant and it requires really heavy sobbing and all that. It’s the second day of the whole shoot! So I didn’t know anyone and it was really scary. I managed to do it and get myself to a really emotional place and I gained a bit of confidence then because I learned how I could access something quite deep.
Do you consider your studies at Lee Stasburg Institute your main acting training?
I never did any other training, but to be honest, I only did three months at Lee Strasburg and then I went traveling in Central America. Then I went back for another three months so I never really did a full-on training. I think a lot of acting is instinctual and I would say a lot of people are “Method” without really knowing it. You have to get emotionally involved and have something intense to do and you probably pick some sense memory to get yourself in that place and that might be typed “Method acting” but it’s just acting.
When you were at Strasburg, did you do all those crazy—well I shouldn’t say crazy—but those infamously idiosyncratic exercises?
No, it was crazy. We’d sit for two hours pretending we had a lemon in our hands and try to smell it and taste it—then you kind of do. It’s the weirdest experience in the world. We did all of that—the animal work, sense-memory—all of it. The main thing I got out of it was confidence. I loved being in New York. I was 18 and set free for the first time and amongst crazy people doing crazy things. It made me realize I was doing what I wanted to do.
To me, perhaps the most frightening acting job you ever undertook was when you were playing Celia on the West End in As You Like It and Helen McCrory got sick, and you took over Rosalind at the last minute, one of the most demanding female roles in Shakespeare.
I wasn’t even her understudy. God knows how I got through that. She was sick and we’d just opened two days before. Somehow I knew her lines since Celia’s in almost every scene with Rosalind. You hear the play all day every day in rehearsals and so I kind of knew the lines. But it’s something I’d never like to do again. I’ve never been so scared in my life.
I imagine you had been offered other theatre projects so it seems impressive that you chose Shakespeare—which some actors avoid for years—as your first West End show.
It was definitely intimidating, but I like to find challenges, to push msyelf. I studied literature in school and being English and it being Shakespeare, it’s such a huge part of my culture and my schooling. And I was playing Celia and didn’t have to carry the whole show myself. I’ve been offered a number of projects since then but they didn’t feel right.
Tell me how you came to be involved with After Miss Julie?
Roundabout’s [Director of Artistic Development/Casting] Jim Carnahan asked me, but Patrick Marber had to give his approval to casting. For me it’s a dream come true since I’ve always been a huge fan of his writing, from Dealer’s Choice. He’s just so respected and so brilliant that to be asked to do one of his plays is so exciting.
This is a fabulous role. Have you seen productions of Miss Julie in the past?
I saw After Miss Julie at Donmar Warehouse in London about six years ago and it’s a really heavy play, but it’s just an incredible role for an actor.The writing is superb and the relationship between the three characters is really thought-provoking and very dramatic and therefore fun to perform. But it’s scary being Miss Julie. That’s an intimidating thought.
She’s kind of like Hedda Gabler or Hamlet—a very famous character in dramatic literature. Now, I understand that when you get a script you are prone to doing a lot of research. How are you approaching this project? Are you going back to the Strindberg original, for instance?
I did read Strindberg’s version to see what happens there. And I’ve been up to a big stately manor house in England that’s open to the public. Patrick Marber suggested I have a look at the kitchen to see the kind of room the play comes from. The other thing Jonny Lee Miller [who plays Miss Julie’s father’s chauffeur and is no relation] and I plan to do is talk to his father who was alive when the election happened in 1945 , which is the night when Marber’s version takes place and what it meant to the people living then. That’s a big part of what the play’s about: the class struggle and the breakdown of social boundaries and the hang-ups these people have about it. The setting, the election where the Labour Party had its famous landslide victory, is important. Other than that, so much of the play is in the writing. It will come together through the discussions we’ll have in rehearsals and how Mark Brokaw, the director, envisions it, and eventually Patrick will be really involved as well. A lot of the research I did for other roles in films was for people who actually existed. Then I go nuts for research.
There’s always the question for actors: if you’re doing a famous role, do you watch previous film or tv versions or do you block them out?
I say avoid it. Even seeing Kelly Reilly doing it at Donmar in London has made me hear her voice sometimes when I’m reading it because she was so good it’s stuck with me—and that’s quite scary. My biggest concern is to make Julie sympathetic. There are a lot of different possible readings and she can come across as vulgar and crass and awful but I think there’s a real vulnerability in the writing that could get lost. I really want to find her vulnerability.
I’m wondering how much American audiences will respond to this version since class is just not as big an issue in the United States as it is in the U.K.?
Patrick describes the play as being about two people who slept together and shouldn’t have—and the complications that come with stupid decisions. Everyone can relate to that—it’s just the human condition, it’s a very human play. It’s very real.
Now, I hope this will be the beginning of more theatre in your future?
Yes. Just the whole idea of being on Broadway is so exciting. And having seen shows in New York City, the audiences are brilliant. I love seeing theatre in New York. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be bitten by the bug and never want to leave Broadway.
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