Fifteen years ago, Sienna Miller was that model-turned-actress who was dating Jude Law. Heavy tabloid attention gave way to a years-long hiatus from the screen which in turn gave way to a return for Miller in a big way. She gave one of her best performances (and one of the best performances by anyone in recent years) in American Woman, directed by Jake Scott, and has emerged as one of our most talented working performers.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Miller about her new film Wander Darkly (which is available this Friday in theaters and on demand), the challenges of filming something so tricky and twisty in less than a month, and finding the reality in the most labyrinthian of sequences.
The Film Stage: Your career has been incredibly diverse. You’ve played every manner of film role. And yet, this one feels new. There’s a lot of jumping around and a lot of tonal changes throughout Wander Darkly. You’re almost personifying emotional turbulence. How do you prepare for something like that?
Sienna Miller: I think for me, there’s never a structured technique. I kind of imagine my way into what that would actually feel like. It sounds really by-the-book and kind of uninspiring, but honestly, so much of the work that I do on these things is internal and it just comes with sitting in the space of, in reality, in my life, [asking] what is that experience? I kind of looked into concussions and how people can feel disorientated and how they behave. I watched videos. I had lengthy conversations with Tara [Miele], the director, who had had an experience of a car accident where she did, for a fleeting moment, think, ‘What if I died?’ So the story being personal to her was kind of galvanizing, in terms of wanting to do it justice and get it right. But this one was just about jumping off a very high cliff and hoping it works. I didn’t trust any of it while I was making it.
I’ll actually jump to that point… so much of the movie is the fluidity of in-between moments and what have you. And I think it’s always curious in films like this, when you’re filming, are you filming each sequence as its own thing, and you have Tara just being like, ‘Don’t worry, this will all work [in the edit]?’
The complicated thing was figuring out if we were in the past or the present in any given moment. And that felt really clunky to do, because it’s just not how people behave in day-to-day life, which is sort of what I aspire to mimic on film. We had a rehearsal process where we could kind of map out ‘well, then this line it’s present, in this land it’s past.’ And just trust Tara as much as we could, as she said that it was working. But I think Diego [Luna] and I both felt as we were making it, that it felt so unnatural in moments, that it was hard to feel like it would work. It’s a film that I think, a lot of it is made in an edit, and she did an amazing job. It definitely exceeded my expectations. I loved playing this part, I love sitting in the space of a normal woman, and grief is something that we all experience in life. And to mine that from a female perspective, through a female gaze, was just alluring and intriguing and, in reality, really hard. But that’s what the good ones tend to feel like, a bit of a struggle.
I think the examination of your relationship with Diego is strikingly honest in the film. The examination of two people misunderstanding each other, deciding one person meant one thing, applying intention to certain actions. Working with him, you both must’ve had to collaborate on where you both were coming from.
Yeah, but I think that that’s the reality of what it is to be in a relationship. Someone’s experience is so different from someone else’s, and to get back and sort of look at how someone else interpreted a moment that you saw so differently, that happens in relationships all the time, it’s why they implode. I found that part of it really intriguing.
This is kind of a silly question, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. This must be the twist-iest movie you’ve ever been in, right? Nothing else comes close…
This is the most, yeah, genre-bending, as they’re describing it. The most surreal, yes, for sure.
So this role, in many ways, feels like a culmination of the last few years of great work that you’ve done. There’s been a lot of, like I said before, different stuff. A lot of it’s underrated! I watched American Woman recently and was blown away. This is a hard question to answer, but do you think this is your most challenging role, or up there in the realm of one of your more challenging roles?
Yeah. I think American Woman was really challenging too, but that felt lighter. This felt harder to shoot. And I think I’ve really been in the chapter [in my career] with those two films, specifically, really looking at grief and the way that people respond to it, which is very different [between the two films], both of those characters. But how ultimately human beings can triumph out of that, and that resilience and that strength in women and mothers. It’s something beautiful. This was the hardest shoot I’ve done. Yeah, it was.
How long was the shoot?
I think it was 24 days.
That’s crazy, wow.
Yeah, crazy! Crazy. And shooting in locations that you had for sixty seconds. So [for the scene] when I confront the homeless man and [I] was in a state of real deep emotion, we had sixty seconds to do that before pausing for five minutes to release traffic, to go back in and jump back in and do it again. It’s just taxing on a level that the odds are against you to get a good moment a lot of the time. And that challenge is exciting and scary, and can often work and very often not. So I think Tara did an amazing job, considering what she was up against.
Yeah. 24 days, that is a sprint for sure. Tell me a little bit about your research into concussions as part of your character. What did you find in that?
Yeah, there are these syndromes where people are completely confused as to what reality is, and you can kind of borrow from bits of that. And there’s footage, obviously the internet is a big, big source now of useful and really inane information. And I can kind of talk about that, and in the past I’ve sort of invented things that I’ve done. But, in all honesty, it’s just about being extremely present to whatever it is that you’re doing that day, and imagining your way in and hoping it works, but knowing that you’re coming from a real place within you. And that begins for me in a deep, really kind of rampant empath, probably to my detriment a lot of the time. But it’s not difficult for me to hear a story, either when I’m working or in real life, that someone tells me, and to really feel some version of that inside my own body. And I kind of just tap into that ability to really feel, I think… It’s a blessing and a curse.
Yeah, right. That brings up an interesting point. You’ve had a couple of decades now… Have you noticed a difference in the way you approach your performances? Are you approaching Wander Darkly in a way you didn’t approach a movie from 2008? Is there a growth that, just as a performer, you can notice, or does it just happen with experience?
I think the experience, and I think becoming a parent adds a whole other dimension to feeling. And as life goes on and the more experiences you have, the deeper the well of places to kind of mine things from. And I probably think since the noise of being extremely famous in the early 2000s, as that’s quieted, it’s made more space for me to, I don’t know, maybe take myself more seriously and focus a little more. Be able to focus because I’m not dealing with that every single day, which was really challenging. But then I did Factory Girl when I was 23, and that was playing Edie Sedgwick, who’s a real character, and I got completely swept up and lost in that. So I think the passion for it and the ability to push myself was always there. I think I’ve probably just grown up.
The last few years there you’ve done a lot of good work. Is there anything recently where you’re like, ‘Man, I wish people would reappraise that one thing?’
My heart really broke that not many people saw American Woman, because I worked so hard on that. And I think the movie is really quite moving. It’s hard when you make something and you’re proud of it. I don’t think I could have given any more. It was the first time I really felt like I’d given absolutely everything to something. And so that one, probably, that was a painful one. But at the same time, I don’t really consider box office for that reason. So anything is about if the experience was good, and that experience was close to heavenly. I loved making it.
What’s next for you?
I am actually shooting. I’m in London and I’m doing a six-part Netflix, David E. Kelly show called Anatomy of a Scandal. And we started shooting at the beginning of November, and so far––touch wood––have not had to shut down. It’s rigorous COVID testing, and it’s a whole new world to make a movie in, but it’s really nice to be able to go to work. And I feel very fortunate to have something to do with very classy people at the helm of it.
Wander Darkly opens in theaters and on demand on Friday, December 11.