When she was in her 20s, Sienna Miller was everywhere, but not always for the right reasons. The scrutiny of the tabloids, which were obsessed about her relationship with Jude Law, didn’t necessarily help her career. So Miller disappeared: She took time off to raise her 2-year-old daughter Marlowe (with partner Tom Sturridge) and rethink how she wanted to work. She’s made a career U-turn with a pair of understated performances in “Foxcatcher” and “American Sniper,” about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), which opened to a record $105.3 million over the long weekend.
Both of the films are based on true stories, and Miller twice plays the wife of heroic men who (spoiler alert) end up murdered. She didn’t make the connection until she researched “Sniper” last spring, and started to spend time with Kyle’s widow, Taya. At a recent Peggy Siegal lunch in Manhattan, Miller was seated next to Taya, who didn’t know about “Foxcatcher’s” premise. After a reporter clumsily explained the story line, Taya let out a laugh. “Sienna, is there something about your personal life I should know?” Taya asked. “Are you OK, girl?”
Miller will have a banner 2015: She’s scheduled to appear in seven films, including the Sundance drama “Mississippi Grind” and Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass.” She’ll also star in Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night” after a Broadway run in “Cabaret,” filling in for Emma Stone as Sally Bowles. “I think it’s ‘Birdman’s’ fault,” says Miller, 33, who studiously keeps up with current films. “I’ve got the sudden urge to be back in the theater.” She spoke to Variety about her new career.
Did you have to audition for “American Sniper”?
I went to Warner Bros. and auditioned, which is never fun at all, and thought I’d messed it up.
I don’t think you ever really feel good in that environment. It’s not conducive to creativity. You’re reading with someone who’s pretending to be a man, who’s actually a woman. It’s never going to feel great. Thankfully, it worked out.
Is it true that Clint Eastwood doesn’t give a lot of direction?
He does, though. That’s the thing. He does it his own way. But for me, I found him to be really attentive. I felt very directed throughout this whole film. He’s literally sitting by the camera and he’s looking at you, and he doesn’t take his eye off you. I remember before an emotional scene, he came up and put his hand on my back and he just whispered in my ear the death toll in Iraq on the day we’re shooting. It was an amazing piece of direction, because it grounds you.
How did you get to know Taya?
As soon as I found out I had the part, I started emailing her and then we had a conversation on the phone and we started to Skype. We spent hours and hours together.
And you later spent time with her in LA. What would you talk about?
I feel like the first thing I was most interested in is her speech inflection on the phone. And then on Skype, I’d pay attention to, how does she move? To capture a sense of someone. That’s where you begin. The things I’d talk to her about were awkward, because what I’d want to understand fundamentally was her relationship with Chris, how they met. Each scene was relatively true to what happened to them in real life. The bar scene, for example, she’s in a horrible mood before she went to that bar. It’s not explained why in the film, but I loved having the backstory to bring to that moment. It just adds substance in some way. The stakes are really high in this film, and to have her input was invaluable.
You read all the emails that Taya and Chris exchanged while he was in Iraq.
I felt really wrong doing it. She gave us her blessing, so I knew it wasn’t morally wrong. They were so personal and sweet and never written with the intention of being read by anyone other than each other. I felt really uncomfortable, but I knew at the same time it was informative. Bradley and I had these points of reference and this shared experience to that personal world.
Did you cry when you saw the film?
I cried at the very end, when I saw the footage of the funeral procession, which I’d never seen. The way it ended it was so classically Clint.
Taya called you after she saw the movie. What did she say?
She was incredibly moved by what Bradley did. She said it was like having her husband back. You realize the weight of this story is enormous. By all accounts, she felt happy with what I did. I think it’s really hard to look at yourself objectively. She doesn’t know what she looks like or moves like, but she did say she learned things about herself through it. And her friends thought it was like her.
Did you work with a dialect coach to sound like her?
Tim Monich. He’s someone I worked with for years and years, starting with “Factory Girl.” He’d worked with my ex-boyfriend [Jude Law], so I spent a lot of time with him on the set of “All the King’s Men.” We used to eat the whole craft table together.
Are accents hard for you?
No, I find accents really easy. The less I sound like myself, the happier I am.
Your career seems to be in a different place now. Are you trying to make different choices?
I feel like my life is in two chapters. There’s the pre-baby and post-baby. I love my job so much, but I didn’t think very laterally about the implications of working with filmmakers. After having my daughter and re-evaluating my priorities, I realized I really want to work with amazing filmmakers and had a strong sense of the films I want to watch and try to be in. And also, letting go of any attachment to the size of the role. I genuinely don’t need to be the lead. I don’t need to carry something.
Did you need a break?
Yes, I did. I’d been, not by choice, dissected by the media and exposed and all the things that really make it hard to be a good actor, or to be seen as characters, to disappear into something. And I always had strong and pure intentions. But it was just being swallowed up by this tabloid animal.
There seems to be different standards for men and women in Hollywood.
And in the whole world.
But in Hollywood, many actresses quit in their 20s because of all the added pressures that women must overcome.
It’s completely sexist. It’s completely imbalanced. It’s insane. I had an experience with the New York Times, where my ex-boyfriend Jude was doing a play on Broadway. They did a profile on him, and during the article referred to the fact that he had a relationship with me. The following week, the same newspaper did an article on me and referred to Jude as “a fling.” As if I was promiscuous, and all the connotations that come with that word. That’s sexism in the upper echelon of journalism. Don’t get me started. Even Channing [Tatum] says with his past of being a dancer, if that was a woman, it would be really hard to come back from that. Dancer? I mean, stripper! [Laughs.]
You and Channing had previously worked together on “G.I. Joe.”
Ergh! It was an odd movie for me to be in.
Did he recommend you for “Foxcatcher”?
No, there’s no telling Bennett [Miller] what to do. Are you kidding? I made an audition tape in London in my kitchen. It was a short scene that isn’t in the film between Mark Schultz and Nancy.
Did a lot of your scenes get cut?
No, it was never a big part. There were a few more scenes. I think there was a version of the film that was Channing and Mark [Ruffalo]. There was a version of film that was Steve [Carell] and Channing. Bennett made both films — that’s the way he works, and then found the film in the edit room. Left to his own devices, it probably would have been a four-hour film, and it probably would have been incredible. There wasn’t an awful lot for me to do until the very end, where David Schultz is murdered. It was scripted that Nancy calls 911. Bennett played me the real 911 tape. And then we broke for the Christmas holidays. After we went back, Bennett asked, “How much of the 911 call do you know?” I said, “All of it.” And he said we’ll shoot all of it. It was some of the best acting that I think I’ve done. But it was too much at that moment in the film to have the dialogue and the sound.
Did you ever meet Nancy?
Yes, she was on set. It was really intimidating, to have the woman you’re playing sitting by the monitor. I had just had a baby. I was in brand new motherhood. You’re vulnerable and completely inside out. I was just so aware she was watching me trying to be her. It goes against all your instincts as an actor. But maybe that feeling of discomfort was really useful.