Sienna Miller is apologizing for Juuling. Sipping coffee across from me at a small café in her neighborhood, New York’s West Village, she’s looking breezily gorgeous, makeup free with her blonde hair framing a pair of mismatched tortoiseshell earrings, and wearing what she calls her “dregs”: a vintage camel-colored blouse, black joggers, and a pair of Stan Smiths “half-eaten by my dog.” She pulls the vape out of her bag and laughs as she raises it to her lips. “I do this everywhere. It’s cucumber,” she says. “It’s almost extinct, so I’m buying it up.” She takes an elegant, discreet pull. “Mmm. At least I’m not smoking anymore.”
It’s one of many playful references Miller makes to her life in the mid-aughts during our conversation. For much of her early career, Miller’s captivating presence in films like Factory Girl and The Edge of Love was overshadowed by an omnipresent vilification for nearly everything she did off-screen: for her famous boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, for being the victim of an infamous paparazzi phone hack (and eventually the winner of a lawsuit), for refusing to extinguish her effervescent personality in public, for smoking. Looking back, Miller knows she was a victim of a structurally misogynistic system that’s only now beginning to (very slowly) repair itself. “I did feel judged by people. Like, ‘Silly little girl, you asked for it,’” she says. “I felt paranoid and scared the entire time. At a certain point, my life was completely unmanageable.”
At 37, Miller has finally wrenched herself from the clutches of the tabloids, thanks in part to a streak of roles that are letting her disappear into someone else. This month alone, she’s donning major facial prosthetics to play Beth Ailes, the long-suffering wife of Roger, in the Showtime series The Loudest Voice. She has landed her first lead role, in the indie drama American Woman, as Deb, a 30-something on a decade-long journey of pain and healing that includes grappling with the tragic disappearance of her daughter. Outside these roles, Miller is, in her own words, living a “quieter, small, sweet” life: walking her 6-year-old daughter to school, hanging out in the “mumsy” West Village with her boyfriend (gallery exec Lucas Zwirner), and, as soon as our interview ends, taking six weeks off to relax in her native London.
But Miller hasn’t lost the spark that drew people to her in the first place, or, as she refers to it, her “slightly fuck-it attitude.” Throughout our conversation, she’s warm and generous, but she’s also self-deprecating and dryly funny, often interrupting herself mid-thought when she thinks she sounds “like a wanker” and making fun of her own tattoos. At one point, she compares herself to her character in American Woman, who starts the film with an irrepressible energy that can give way to recklessness but by the end has settled more easily into her skin without shedding the best parts of her younger self. “I had some of that fire in me,” says Miller, laughing. “I still do.”
This is an intense role in an intense movie; your character changes dramatically over the course of a decade. What about it appealed to you?
I love that this film starts with somebody you wouldn’t necessarily respect, and she earns your respect. It doesn’t normally happen in a film. You see these stories of these epic men on these journeys, and they save the day and they’re redeemed. This feels like a different kind of redemption. There was something so interesting to me about her earning respect through her resilience and bravery. It was so tragic, so rich. I really wanted to do it. So I drove to meet [director] Jake [Scott], and I was really scrambling. I had just finished the movie Live By Night, so I was like, hair everywhere — like it always is — and I banged into someone. He said by the time I’d sat down, he’d cast me because I was absolute chaos. I had the chaos down.
I’m really curious about how you managed to play someone so believably in all these very different stages of her life — how did you vary your performance?
At first, I was really wanting prosthetics or age makeup, but from 33 to 44, you don’t really change that much. I was stressed about it, but it was physicality, ultimately. How does she move? In the beginning, she never stopped moving, a whirling dervish hopping around. Jake gave me complete freedom, so I was sitting on counters, whacking people over the head. Then she emerges at the end with a real stillness. We weren’t shooting in order, so I prepped for about a year.
How did you keep track of where she was in each scene?
I can’t explain it. It was there. I meditated so much that it was just really in me. Without sounding like a wanker [groans], it’s impossible to talk about acting. Because I do think it’s noble, in my mind. And I love it, it’s what I do. But yeah, if I wanted to cry, it was there. If I had to laugh, it was right there. I could switch gears. Normally, it’s like, sitting in a corner with Sigur Rós and really traumatizing myself. But I did a lot of work. If you’re that prepared, it’s like a play, which I’ve done a lot of.
What sort of prep did you do?
Dialect work, a lot of thinking, a lot of talking to women who’d lost children and what that’d be like, documentaries, spending time in rural places, looking at people on subways. It’s very solo, solipsistic work. I journal. It’s very internal. I start looking for her in people — my aunt does this [sucks teeth] when she’s had wine — and hanging out with people who have those little ingredients.
I love the sort of lightly trashy early-aughts outfits you wear in this. They’re so spot-on. How involved were you in coming up with them?
Alex Bovary is an incredible designer — she had these amazing ideas, which were the same as mine. We really played. Deb came to life in that wardrobe. Those T-shirt dresses and push-up bras. I really wanted a thong sticking out of my low-slung jeans. You don’t really see it, but it’s there. I still have it. Everyone in the early naughties was, like, thong out.
Yeah, I definitely did that back then. I’ve only recently banned them from my wardrobe.
They’re so uncomfortable. My daughter is like, “Why is your bum out?” I’m like, “That’s a very good question. I have no idea.”
[Some light spoilers for American Woman follow.]
The ending absolutely devastated me, when she leaves her family behind and drives away. Can we talk about why that happens?
A lot of people have said that! “Why would she leave?” There was supposed to be another scene where she drives away with [her grandson] toward Santa Fe, and she stands on a rock and looks out, and the sun is rising, and it’s all peace and space. I wish we had the budget; we were going to do a sort of road trip. But you kind of get it in that moment, in the car.
Finding out what happened to her daughter, and the deceit that happens, she’s ready for a new chapter. But it is devastating. Her relationship with her sister Cath [played by Christina Hendricks] is so sacred. But she has to move away from where the tragedy happened and begin her new life. I imagine she’s now in a crystal shop and she’s a lesbian. [Laughs.] She’s given up on men and has an amazing hippie lover, and she’s selling crystals and goes home all the time to see her family.
This is your first lead role, though maybe Factory Girl counts in a sense?I’ve never really done it, I realized. There was an Andy [Warhol] in that. There were scenes I wasn’t in. This is the first time I’ve been in every single scene of a film. I really liked it. I’d spent so much time trying to make the most of things that weren’t quite there. There were some really great movies with great directors, but I was really always trying to do something interesting with nothing. To finally be in charge of something, to tell a story and map the entire thing, was really great. I’m 37 years old. I’m ready to do that.
Would you ever go back to doing another sort of Foxcatcher or American Sniper–esque girlfriend or wife role?
I don’t want to be someone’s wife, trying to embellish some role that’s really nothing. I won’t do that anymore. Foxcatcher changed a lot of things for me, though. I had more to do but not quite enough. But I was in an incredible successful and well-loved film. So yes, I’d do that again. I mean, if Paul Thomas Anderson called me and said, “You have one scene and you’re sitting in the background sipping tea,” I’d be like, “Yes.” [Laughs.]
Let’s talk about The Loudest Voice. Tell me about the face situation. You look … extremely different.
[Laughs.] A lot of prosthetics. It’s a four-hour prosthetics job, with the nose and down the neck, and it ends at the chest. I flap it at people. But yeah, [Beth and I] look very different. And I wanted to do that. I loved it. To look at yourself and not see yourself was really liberating.
Having gone through life as this classically beautiful woman and then looking like that — did it feel odd to you not to have that sort of constant armor you normally have?
I don’t walk around feeling that way, genuinely. Certainly in film, I often don’t wear makeup or look glamorous. I don’t look like myself in Foxcatcher or American Sniper; nobody recognizes me from those movies. And in this, the crew never met me, only Beth. I’d start four hours before everyone got there. On the last day, meeting these people I’d worked with for five months, was so funny. But the prosthetics did make me brave, without self-consciousness because I was masked. I disappeared.
Beth is really at the mercy of Roger in a horrible way where her entire life is dictated by him, including her professional life. Have you ever found yourself in any scenario like that in a professional sense?
Where Roger gives her the ultimatum [to choose him as a partner or as a boss]? Oh God, yeah. I was a woman in Hollywood! [Laughs.] I felt very out of control of a lot of decisions for most of my career — and very willing to accept that, which is the saddest part. How grateful I was just to be in the room. If I walked into a room with seven men, or actors, I’d feel inferior. And I still struggle with it.
Does it feel like it’s gotten any better?
Definitely. Whatever this moment is, it’s significant for sure. I feel it internally, but it’s a journey to really overcome those feelings, which are really deeply entrenched. I do feel like there’s been an army of women in my industry, and the Time’s Up movement has been huge for a lot of women. I got paid for the first time to act, which was a great feeling.
What do you mean?
I got paid, not equal, but close to what the man got. Versus 90 percent less, which is the majority. You’d be shocked at the difference. Of course, I would have done it for free because I fucking love my job, but getting valued, it turns out, is really amazing. So I understand why these men felt really great for a long time. Because I do now! This is a high-class problem; I get paid well. But the disparity is alarming. Now there’s more transparency. I can ask the questions, I can say no. I wouldn’t tolerate anything that was covert or nasty. I’d just tap into the army of vocal women behind every one of us.
You were one of the first actresses to really speak out about paparazzi aggression, privacy, misogyny. Where did the courage to do that come from?
I was living in a place and a time when the paparazzi were very toxic. I couldn’t function in that world. It was impossible to live a life and tolerate that. So I sued them and got this law changed, a harassment law against paparazzi. If I’m in London, where I’m going tonight, I can expect privacy. Rupert Murdoch hacked my phone, and I could have settled out of court and made that private, but I didn’t, because it was wrong. When pushed, I will fight back.
I just made that connection — Murdoch features heavily in The Loudest Voice.
Another reason I wanted to do it! I wanted to be in the room with the belly of the beast.
It’s sort of a great fuck-you to Rupert, starring in this.
Your words. [Laughs.]
When you sued Murdoch and spoke out about these things, did you feel supported by your fellow actresses?
There wasn’t the level of connection between people that there is now. There wasn’t social media, not that I engage with that now. These grassroots uprisings couldn’t spread. I felt very alone. I did feel judged by people as well, because it was like, “Silly little girl, you asked for it.” That was the paparazzi attitude: “You go to a red carpet and pose for photos, so why can’t we block your front door and chase you down the street at night?” It was strange. I felt very vilified. And it definitely perpetuated toxic behavior. You’re in a toxic spiral. I had to get out of it because it was dangerous.
The narrative around you was so pervasive.
Yeah, it was. Tabloid party girl. I became famous before I had a film out; that was where it started.
Do you feel you’ve fully gotten out of it now?
I do, completely. I mean, it’s a real struggle for people to see you in a new way, but I can’t pay too much attention to it, because it’s out of my control. It was a battle against what I was famous for. Is it because of your boyfriends? Because you wear nice clothes people like? That became much louder than the work I was doing, work that was good.
But I didn’t help. [Laughs.] I didn’t mediate my behavior. I grew up going to school in the ’90s, watching people behaving appallingly. I was like, Oh, that’s what you do. When you become well known, you go out, you have fun. You’re grubby. But then it was like, Oh no, it’s a different era. I was just emulating what I’d seen, which was so amazing. Kurt Cobain and the like.
During my research, I found an article about you from 2014, by a male writer. And it was frustrating to read because, even five years ago, the way men were allowed to write about women: He was acting like you were flirting with him and was just generally leering. Did that sort of thing frustrate you at the time?
At the time, no. In hindsight, it bothers me. But it’s another thing you just accept. It’s the way things were.
The worst was the New York Times. I was doing my Broadway debut, and they did a profile on me and referred to my ex-fiancé [Jude Law] as a “fling.” A week later [the Times] did a profile on Jude, who also had a play on Broadway, and said he “had a three-year relationship and engagement with the actress Sienna Miller.” The latent sexism … the message is so clear. What they’re trying to say is that this person is frivolous and a slut, and this person I’d been engaged to and had an intense relationship with [isn’t]. It’s just disgusting. It made me angry. I got an apology that was a centimeter long. In a publication I value as one of the most noble in the world, it was so hurtful and crushing. It’s out there; no apology will take it away. And it listed people I’d never slept with in the opening. It makes you go totally weak. It takes any power you have.
I was dreadful in the play, and I blame them. Not my fault! [Laughs.] When you’re doing something that’s a lot of work and the greatest publication in the world is calling you something, it’s hard to change a narrative.
When did things shift?
I stopped caring and focused on work, and that shifted it, I think. I don’t know if there was one moment. Maybe the year I did Foxcatcher and American Sniper — serious work in serious films. People like a comeback; that was a moment. But I don’t pay attention. I just work. And I have my life, which feels very small and sweet and not frenzied. I don’t think people are that interested in me, which is great.
My friend Amy Nicholson, who’s a film critic, tweeted that you were the “best actor of your generation” and implied that you’d been slept on. How does that feel to hear?
Like I’m in love with Amy! Obviously, that’s about the nicest thing you could ever have somebody say about you.
There was also a little campaign to get you as Captain Marvel before Brie Larson was cast. Did you ever audition?
Are you kidding?! No! Who are these lovely people? I literally don’t know about this. There was a campaign for me?
Four people? [Laughs] I would have loved to do that.
Did you feel overlooked from a talent perspective — and does that feel like it’s over now?
I do feel like I’ve been, for much of my life, underestimated. If you do something that starts to tackle that and stop allowing that underestimation, that’s a huge personal thing. It’s really lovely.