For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
“For somebody who is really quite joyful and pathologically authentic, I choose insanely dark material,” Sienna Miller tells me on an afternoon that finds her wrapped up in a blanket in her cottage in the English countryside. We’re discussing her most recent turn in Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal, in which she stars as Sophie Whitehouse, an upper-class Brit whose world is upended when her husband, James (Rupert Friend), is publicly accused of rape. Through harrowing courtroom scenes and flashbacks to the early days of the Whitehouses’ romance, Sophie slowly comes to terms with the fact that her college sweetheart might not be the man she thinks he is. For Miller, starring in the psychological thriller from David E. Kelley offered a welcome challenge. “It goes back to a place of feeling a desperate need to prove myself as somebody serious,” she says of why she gravitated toward the role. It’s hard to believe the British star still feels, at 40, compelled to prove her seriousness on-screen. But perhaps it’s because she’s known—and loved—for her seemingly chill demeanor in her personal life. To wit, when I mention the viral photos of her at Wimbledon sitting in front of her ex Tom Sturridge (with whom Miller has a 10-year-old daughter) kissing his girlfriend, Alexa Chung, she laughs: “That’s the definition of a modern family.” Here, Miller discusses venturing into comedic territory on film and how motherhood keeps her honest.
Playing Sophie in Anatomy of a Scandal must have been emotionally taxing. Did you have any reservations about taking the role?
Initially, my story line was more focused around betrayal. I was [reluctant] to take that on because it felt like unpleasant territory to put myself into for five months. But I think as a whole, it was such an interesting and current examination of how difficult it is to prosecute a rape and how people who are entitled and privileged get away with almost anything. James nearly walks away from it all, and is cleared of the rape that I unequivocally think he did do. Some people didn’t think he did, which was staggering.
Where does it rank among your other heavy roles?
It’s up there, but this wasn’t necessarily the one that’s been the most emotionally demanding. I mean, American Woman was devastating—I lose a child in that movie. But I just did my first comedy, and I had so much fun every day, going to work and laughing. I realized that can be far more rewarding than feeling like you have to put yourself through hell to express something truthful. From now on, it’s comedies and levity. I’m going to be tap-dancing and singing, and that’s all I want to do. I don’t know that I’ve got any more ways to cry than I’ve shown. That’s it—that’s all I’ve got.
Do you completely immerse yourself in a character, or are you able to separate yourself at the end of the workday?
I have a daughter who will not allow me to fully immerse myself. I used to try to read her bedtime stories in whatever accent I was doing, and she was like, “No. You can do that when you get in the car on the way to work, but when you walk through that door, you’re mum.” In order to balance motherhood and the responsibilities I have outside of my job, I have to put it in a box. Now I can laugh in between takes, and I’m better at creating an atmosphere that I need. I didn’t know how to ask for that when I was younger, so I just would have to sit in a corner, listening to Sigur Rós, and work myself into some emotional place.
Why do you think Sophie stays in court? Why put herself through hearing such painful testimonies?
For much of the show, she does believe he’s innocent. She’s got her family, and she’s adamant she will keep it together and get through this. He says something like, “You might as well announce to the world that you think I’m guilty” if she doesn’t show up in court. So she makes the decision to support him for the optics, and then gradually, sitting there and having to listen to these impossibly difficult memories really takes its toll and puts her on the journey of questioning him and his innocence. She’s sitting there looking at this person she’s been with since she was 17, 18, 19 years old and realizing she doesn’t have any idea who he is. That’s terrifying, and it’s not as uncommon as we think. People are capable of enormous duplicity.
On a much lighter note, you chose to channel Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous. How would you describe her to American readers who aren’t familiar with the show?
A sort of boozing, drug-taking, elegant, hilarious, recalcitrant bomb. [Laughs]
When did you first see it?
I must have been, like, 8. I don’t remember a world without Ab Fab in it. If you are raised in England, it’s part of your culture. Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders [who play Patsy and Edina, respectively] are complete cultural heroes for us. One of my best friends made people come to her hen party as famous blondes, and made me come as Patsy. I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun at a party than I did being her. I’ve got an inner Patsy that I like to channel. [Laughs]
Hair by Caren Fisk; makeup by Wendy Rowe; makeup assistant: Alice Swindells.