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Sienna Miller Talks ‘High-Rise,’ Inhabiting a Character, and the Philosophy of Slavoj Žižek

Written by on May 19, 2016 

Sienna Miller

Sienna Miller is unlike many actors I’ve interviewed in how she seems as intent in learning about you, as you are in learning about her. It’s the same quality that makes her so captivating to watch in films like Factory Girl, The Edge of Love and High-Rise, which was at the center of our conversation. In Ben Wheatley’s epic science-fiction thriller she plays Charlotte, a single mother living in the title building, where she meets the enigmatic Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) with whom she begins an affair. Ms. Miller provides Charlotte with an almost feline instinct, onscreen she slinks with premeditated effortlessness, seducing those on her path because life has revealed that is her strongest asset. She also infuses Charlotte with a droll sense of humor that in the hands of a lesser actor would make her seem heartless.

Like Charlotte, Ms. Miller is also very frank, “listening to your own voice for that long is exhausting” she explains about the long press day that preceded our meeting, when I tell her I will make the interview “quick and painless” she blushes and explains “it’s not you” and proceeds to ask me about my day. Now I blush.  She points to my arm and says “I like your little Keith Haring tattoos…,” I thanked her and pointed out that as a native New Yorker – she moved to the UK with her parents as a child – she was no stranger to high-rises, which sets off our conversation…

Did you ever imagine what went on inside the skyscrapers in NYC?

I was raised in London and I didn’t live in a highrise, but I imagine if I was in New York when I’m in those buildings that are vast and sprawling, and enormous, it’s such a strange feeling to think of the other lives that are going on in other rooms.

Were you a fan of Ben Wheatley’s other movies?

Yes, I had seen all of them and had been following his work which I think is so unique. He’s a real visionary. He captures the satirical aspects so well, how people are so twisted, but the stories are delivered in an amazing way. He was always someone I wanted to work with, so the initial draw was to work with him.

Was it essential for your own preparation to read J.G. Ballard’s book?

Yes, that was something I wanted to do. I read the script first, but the book was really insightful and useful.

Do you think that science-fiction is the best genre to convey sociopolitical changes? Even though the film is a fantasy, it’s such a great allegory for the Thatcher era.

I don’t know if it’s the best, but I think in this story it totally works. I’m not a huge science-fiction buff, but I think a good story and a good film should have a social undercurrent, or something that resonates, lands, or makes you question and analyze not only yourself but your role in life.

I haven’t read the book, so how much of Charlotte’s backstory is actually in it?

There’s a little bit more, but you should read the book. It delves into things a little bit deeper, of course there are differences, but of course it’s hard to condense a book into an hour and a half. That being said the essence and the spirit of the book is totally what the film is.

Is it important for your process to figure out what Charlotte was up to before moving into the building?

Yeah, you figure out a backstory to find who this person is. The most rewarding part of this job is really making these people real for yourself. So whether it’s relevant or even discussed onscreen, if I walk into a room I’d think of where I’d been before for example. Rather than just imagining she was just waiting outside the door, I want to know what she was doing that day. You kind of ask these questions to add layers.

The different levels of the high rise reminded me of one of my favorite theories by Slavoj Žižek…

Oh my god, he’s amazing.

Right? I love when he uses Norman Bates’ house from Psycho to explain id, ego and superego. I hope that’s right, I always get my Freudian terms mixed up.

He’s more Lacanian though, isn’t he?

Absolutely, but this was the one time he was being super Freudian. So the characters in High-Rise made me think of that, since they’re all archetypes…

Completely. Even their names, you’ve got Royal and Wilder. Actually Slavoj Žižek should watch this film. I think he’s mad, isn’t he brilliant?

I know, I love him. Is it difficult as an actor to humanize an archetype though?

Well, you hope the storyteller will do that for you. Your job is to inhabit the character. I think if I got too analytical it wouldn’t be real, it would become overthought. So whatever Charlotte is in that large scheme is Ben’s job, mine is to play her. But I did think how she’d be the type of woman who would survive, the kind of character who could be mercurial, who could hop between layers and is accepted almost anywhere. The middle classes will rise kind of character. She’s also in the middle of the building, and those are the characters who fare the best. Something to think about, food for thought.

Sienna Miller 3

The moment I saw Charlotte in those wonderful costumes I thought of Factory Girl. Obviously your characters aren’t something you carry everywhere with you, but I wondered if you’d find it strange if people would thought you were borrowing elements from Edie Sedgwick to play Charlotte?

I wouldn’t say it’s strange. Edie was a huge icon of the 60’s, so Charlotte probably would have known who she was. The thing we decided to do with Charlotte was that maybe she was 30 now, in the 60’s she was in her 20s, and she’s clinging to her youth. She’s reluctantly a mother, so we decided to keep 60’s makeup on her, even though the film is set in the 70’s.

Like she’s in denial.

Yeah a little bit, and the tragedy that this is for her. Which is subconscious for a lot of people, but I think you picked up on it. I think that because of my research of Edie’s era, I subconsciously used things from her. But let it be said they are completely different characters.

I thought in the larger scheme of pop culture chronology the film is perfectly situated between Mad Men – Elisabeth Moss is in it too – and American Psycho, and there are all these references to Kubrick. Did Ben give you guys any assignments when it came to movies and television shows he used for inspiration?

No, I think he’s enough of a visionary to know that this was something he was crafting in his own mind. He cast the people he wanted to cast and then let them loose in an environment that he had complete control over, but we never felt manipulated or controlled, which is rare. As a director he gives you free rein but you know it’s within the confines of his brain. He was originally an editor so he knows exactly what he wants, but you don’t feel suffocated or infringed upon creatively.

What surprised you the most once you saw the final version of the film?

I didn’t think the effects would look as good as they looked. They are amazing! We shot in this strange abandoned sports center in Belfast, with a small budget, so with what they made it for, it looks just amazing.

Because of this movie I haven’t been able to stop singing “S.O.S” for weeks…

[Laughs]

…was that something that happened to you guys as well?

Yeah, Ben played it a lot on the set and Tom Hiddleston would play it a lot in the make-up trailer, so we all had that song in our heads for the entire shoot.

What’s your favorite ABBA song though?

[Gasps] “S.O.S” is pretty great, but maybe “Dancing Queen.” What about you?

Definitely “Dancing Queen.”

Everyone’s always in the mood for that one.

I’m trying to resist myself from asking you a billion questions about musicals since you did Cabaret on Broadway. But now that you’re officially a musical actress, what are your dream musical roles?

Sally Bowles! I really don’t think it gets any better than that. I’d like to do Guys and Dolls, and other things, but in terms of any characters I’ve ever played, Sally Bowles was my highlight. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing anything.

Cabaret wasn’t your first time onstage, so going from stage back to screen, what have you noticed about your process now? Has it changed in any way?

I think that theatre is an incredible training ground for any actor. The rehearsal process itself is just extensive and forensic, and you’re forced to examine things in a way you’re not always encouraged, or there’s just no time to do, in film. It’s an actor’s medium in that once you’re up and running, the director is gone and it’s yours. Inevitably, through the audience participation or whatever visceral experience happens, it moves and it becomes something else. A good part like Shakespeare, or when I played Sally Bowles, are things that make you change. You realize by doing theatre because of how much it shifts, how bottomless these people really are. You can never do enough work. There’s always something more to scratch and go deeper into. It’s essential for me to keep going back to the stage to remind myself of that. And I love it! There’s nothing like that feeling of being live, and doing something in one go through, of having the full experience. Film becomes less and less satisfying the more theatre I do. [Laughs] I love it, it’s great! But it’s just not the same.

People keep coming up with all these crazy theories about what High-Rise is about. What’s the weirdest one you’ve heard?

I haven’t really read anything or paid too much attention. What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard?

Well, people asked me to ask anyone involved in the film what the film was about, but I told them that wasn’t your job really.

Yeah, you’re right, it’s up to them to figure that out. That’s a great answer.

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High-Rise is now on VOD and in limited release.


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