Sienna Miller’s Dreams: Talking to the Actress About Cabaret, Broadway Anxiety, and American Sniper

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Sienna Miller, about to come to Broadway in Cabaret. Photo: Christopher Anderson

In less than a week, Sienna Miller will take over from Emma Stone to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway. On a fear scale between one (getting stung by a bee) and ten (jumping from an airplane), she rates her current apprehension as an 8.5. “I’ve started having full anxiety dreams,” she says over coffee at Cafe Cluny. “I dreamt that the first show was a disaster. My boyfriend came backstage and said it was ‘really underwhelming.’ And Alan [Cumming] was furious with me for being so bad.” At one point in the dream, Miller was supposed to perform a sexy dance wearing a black officer’s hat, but the cast made her wear a chef’s toque instead, as punishment for bringing shame upon the production. “Like a dunce hat.” She shudders.

It is 18 degrees outside, the kind of weather that makes you want to swaddle yourself in luxurious textiles and never leave the house. Miller, who is staying nearby in the West Village, is wearing the closest acceptable thing to blankets: two chunky sweaters, layered, and a pair of fuzzy cheetah-­print booties. Her lips are chapped. On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, a man scuttles past with head bowed and tears streaming down his face (from the cold, one hopes). Her days have been filled with dance training, rehearsing, and singing lessons. Especially singing lessons. Miller has never sung professionally: “Recreationally, yeah. I sing all the time in the car, in the house, and I was in the choir at school,” she says. “And a lot of karaoke. They would say I was prolific in the karaoke department. But that’s a whole different thing.”

Luckily, Miller points out, Sally Bowles is more iconic for her look (Weimar imp) and emotional aspect (tragic) than her voice. “She’s not supposed to be a formidable singer, thank God—hence it being a great part for actresses who sing, not singers who act.”

Sitting across the table at Cluny, Miller looks closer to Sally’s age (19 in the original story) than her own (33). She doesn’t have any of the startling physical characteristics that actors display in real life—the abnormally small head, the BMI of a plague victim, the fillers that turn normal cheeks into water balloons. Instead, she resembles a good-looking graduate student: messy-haired, makeup-free, picking fuzz balls from her sweater.

“They would say I was prolific in the karaoke department. But that’s a whole different thing.” Photo: Christopher Anderson

Lately, she has experienced a career renaissance that no one quite expected from a woman better known for “It”-girlness than virtuosity. In the early aughts, Miller rose to semi-fame playing “some really interesting people in films that weren’t necessarily great” (her words, possibly referring to Layer Cake, Alfie, and Factory Girl). She became a style icon, popularizing a certain boho profile—skinny jeans, chubby furs, Moroccan ephemera—that dominated popular womenswear for about five years starting in 2003. She was photographed doing a back bend for the Pirelli calendar. Then came Jude Law.

Law and Miller dated, got engaged, and canoodled about town. Presently it became known that Law had cheated on Miller with his children’s nanny. The nanny reported to press that “Jude was a masterful lover who made [her] whole body tingle.” Miller and Law parted ways. Even by British-tabloid standards, the coverage was meddlesome. (Miller was among those whose voice-mail was hacked by News of the World and also among those who testified at an inquiry about it.)

At that time, Miller didn’t always heed the Kardashian rule of public engagement, which states that unless you’re a celebrity of sub–Kris Jenner status, the incentives to engage the chattering world—to be funny or subversive or ­candid—are nil. In 2006, she joked to Rolling Stone about shooting in Pittsburgh, calling the town “Shitsburgh.” It was an imprudent thing to toss off but also funny in a prankish rhyming-slang way. Miller meant no harm. Her dad is from a Pittsburgh suburb. (Her family moved to London when she was a child.) A great deal of umbrage was taken, and Miller was forced to apologize. In another interview, she told stories about her all-girls-boarding-school days: streaking across the sports field, kissing the gardener.

After spending the mid-aughts primarily as paparazzi-bait and secondarily as a working actor, Miller began going to fewer parties and taking fewer roles. The tabloids retreated. She started dating the British actor Tom Sturridge, and in 2012 she gave birth to a daughter, Marlowe Ottoline Layng Sturridge. Then, this past year, something curious happened: An actor who hadn’t been on anyone’s mind suddenly popped up in two Oscar-nominated films, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, with plum roles opposite Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch in the pipeline. In a period of about 12 weeks, Miller went from the inner pages of the Daily Mail to the cover of Vogue. In the marketplace of celebrities, this is a black-swan event.

As a rule, it’s impolite to say to a person “So! Your personal stock has been upgraded from SELL to BUY. Care to explain?” But Miller doesn’t mind the question. A decade ago, she says, she chose her movies based solely on the role: “Is that a great part? Is it challenging? Is it interesting? Does it hold me? Is it just ‘the girl,’ or is there more to do?” Today, the parts are less about visibility than cachet; her days of starring in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra are over. (By choice.) “If it’s an amazing filmmaker and an amazing group of actors—like Foxcatcher—I want to be on that set. Even in a small role,” Miller says. “Just to be around those people and that process and absorb it and try and get better.”

Hence American Sniper, in which Miller has a smallish but chewy role, and which she pursued primarily because of Clint Eastwood. As a director, Eastwood was “incredibly nurturing, incredibly attentive,” Miller says, and full of crafty maneuvers. For one thing, he’d keep rolling after a scene ended, forcing Miller and the movie’s star, Bradley Cooper, to ad-lib when they didn’t expect it. “My first scene with Bradley is in a bar, and the scene was probably two and a half, three minutes scripted,” Miller says. “I think we rolled for seven minutes.” The awkwardness of ad-libbing with an actor whom she barely knew wound up working. Some of the improvising was used for the final cut.

Another of Eastwood’s tactics was just being his steely-eyed, Clint Eastwood–y self. “His presence is a huge form of direction in itself, because it’s Clint Eastwood sitting there, watching you,” Miller says. “He has a great barometer for truth, and you don’t want to lie in front of him.” When it comes to the politics of American Sniper, she brooks zero ambiguity: “If you have a film where the opening scene is an American having to kill a child, it’s not pro-war,” Miller says. She pays no attention to partisan claims on the movie, no attention to Twitter, no attention to reviews. She learned to do this the hard way.

The current version of Sienna Miller is more diplomatic and less funny. She’s gone from giving zero fucks to giving a reasonable amount. Her status has shot up accordingly. It’s too bad that we can’t have both, because Miller’s wicked streak is what makes her so likable in person. She cracks about the non-blizzard of Juno (“I was bulk-buying tinned food”) and about her infant daughter (“She’s still portable”) and even about Eastwood, clarifying that the “let the camera roll” move is an actual tactic and not a result of Eastwood zoning off and forgetting to call “Cut!” (“He’s fully lucid”). It’s clear that she still chafes at the primary bummer of fame, which is that celebrities must renounce all the traits that add up to a charming adult if they ever wish to, for example, score an Oscar nomination. In a more interesting world, Miller would be the exception.

*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.