Wentworth Miller, ‘Prison Break’

Lead actor, the un-usual suspects

Ivy League grads don’t normally aspire to a life in prison. But for Princeton alum Wentworth Miller, incarceration has been life-changing.

Miller plays inmate Michael Scofield, the emotional center in the Fox hit “Prison Break,” an engrossing drama with an absurd premise: A man robs a bank in order to engineer an escape with his brother, who’s been wrongly convicted of murdering the U.S. vice president.

That preposterous plot is actually what intrigued Miller about the role.

“Michael Scofield is not a cookie-cutter TV hero,” he says. ” ‘Prison Break’ is so far-fetched, I had to make viewers believe that Michael is capable of making the impossible possible.”

Naturally, as the season progressed, the escape plan evolved, as did Miller’s interpretation of Scofield.

“Prison is changing Michael. Nobody could spend time in prison without experiencing a shift. I purposely made him cold, and I spent the first season dismantling his facade. He has so many shades of gray.”

One of the more challenging aspects of a large ensemble show such as “Prison Break” is the interaction with so many characters. Miller’s Scofield is surrounded by a colorful group of accomplices including Amaury Nolasco as cellmate Sucre; Peter Stormare as mob boss Abruzzi; and, most notably, the incomparable Robert Knepper as the deliciously creepy T-Bag.

And there are plenty of scene-stealers on the other side of the law, too, like Wade Williams as corrupt guard Bellick and Paul Adelstein as Agent Kellerman, who’s at the heart of a government conspiracy.

“With all the characters on the show who chew the scenery, Michael is the calm at the center of the storm,” says Miller, who came to the public’s notice three years ago on the bigscreen in the Anthony Hopkins/Nicole Kidman pic “The Human Stain.”

Of course Scofield didn’t spend the entire season calm, cool and coldly calculating. There was a memorable scene in episode 17 in solitary that really allowed Miller to plumb the depths of Scofield’s psyche.

“When the new pipe thwarts their escape and Plan A is in the crapper, the first rock has been thrown in the still pond of Michael Scofield, which led to his breakdown. That was a lot of fun for me to arc as an actor.”

The season one cliffhanger left the inmates outside the prison walls. So what direction does Miller see his character going in season two and beyond?

“It all depends on what stories they come up with. My conception of the character is today and tomorrow. I haven’t thought about what will happen (now that) he’s out,” says Miller, adding, “The writers are incredibly clever and I have a great deal of faith in them.”

SOUND BITES

Favorite moment of past season?

“It was 9 in the morning and I was standing on a frozen cornfield. It was zero degrees and I wasn’t wearing a coat or a hat or gloves, and I was doubled over, gasping for breath because we’d literally been running all night, take after take after take. And suddenly the director yelled “Cut!” and just like that, from one moment to the next, we were on hiatus.”

Favorite shows?

“I don’t get a chance to watch much. On DVD ‘Oz,’ ‘Reno 911’ and ‘Family Guy’ are definitely in the top 10.  I did manage to squeeze in an entire ‘Surreal Life’ marathon on VH-1 one weekend. I just couldn’t turn it off. I felt dirty, but in a good way.”

Underrated actor?

“‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ was a terrific show and Sarah Michelle Gellar was terrific in it. It’s really difficult straddling that line between drama and comedy, action and romance, sci-fi and reality and Sarah did it beautifully.”

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