In the late summer of 2005, Sienna Miller was appearing in the West End of London in a production of As You Like It. It is hard to remember how things were back then – how feverish the attention around young, female celebrities was and how ferocious the tabloids were in pursuing them. Fresh from filming the remake of Alfie, and dating her co-star Jude Law, Miller was both a style icon (the queen of “boho chic”) and the biggest tabloid target in Britain – as the Observer put it, an “actress and model who has been traded like pork belly on the celebrity market”. When, that summer, the Sun published a “rumour” that Miller was pregnant, her world exploded.
She was 23, panicked, mortified – and obliged to stand on stage eight times a week before a capacity audience of 800 people. She was also, as the Sun had correctly reported, pregnant – less than 12 weeks. Looking back, she still boggles at the grotesqueness of it: “Appearing in public when you’re extremely heartbroken. Trying not to break. All the while being mocked and ridiculed.” The now 40-year-old smiles. “Hell, honestly.”
This all happened a very long time ago. The reason we are talking about it on a Monday morning in Manhattan is that at the end of last year Miller reached a settlement with the Sun. The newspaper agreed to pay the actor an undisclosed sum on the basis that there was no admission of illegal activity, and as part of the settlement the judge allowed Miller to read out a prepared statement. In it, she expressed regret that she didn’t have the resources to pursue the tabloid further, to a full trial, and restated her belief in its guilt; Miller alleges that the Sun obtained details of her pregnancy via illegal subterfuge, the so-called “blagging” of medical records from her doctor’s office by pretending to be one of her reps. “I wanted to expose the criminality that runs through the heart of this corporation,” she read, standing outside the high court flanked by her lawyers. “A criminality demonstrated clearly and irrevocably by the evidence which I have seen. I wanted to share News Group’s secrets just as they have shared mine.”
We are downtown, in a cafe around the corner from where Miller lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Marlowe. She is in green mohair, slight and cheerful. If she appears a little nervous, it’s probably because Miller has a habit of shooting her mouth off and regretting it afterwards. In 2007, she gave an interview to my colleague Simon Hattenstone in which she said, among other things, people do drugs “cos they’re fun”. A lot of people liked her for that, an honest answer in a context in which they are exceedingly rare. But it upset her mum, which she tries not to do. For much of her life, Miller has pinballed between impulse and correction. “I sometimes wish I was more able to focus and strategise,” she says, particularly in relation to her career. The fact is, however, “If I’m happy, I’m happy. I’m an absolutely present, in-the-moment person – not much looking back, or further forward. I’ve never known where I’ve wanted to be in 10 years’ time.” There’s no question that this guilelessness of Miller’s, underscored by somewhat shaky self-esteem, added to the scorn with which she was treated.
This month, she can be seen playing against type in Anatomy of a Scandal, a six-part Netflix drama adapted from Sarah Vaughan’s novel and directed by SJ Clarkson, in which an English cabinet minister, played by Rupert Friend, is caught up in a #MeToo-type sex scandal. Miller plays Sophie, his wife, with Michelle Dockery as the barrister tasked with bringing him down. It’s a loose take on Boris Johnson’s old Bullingdon Club coterie and an enjoyable, bingeable romp. (One of the makers is Big Little Lies and Ally McBeal creator David E Kelley – this is his first show for Netflix – and the series has a lot in common with The Undoing, his highly stylised hit starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman.) For Miller, the character seemed unattractive at first. “I wasn’t that excited about playing a kind of English Tory wife,” she says. But the subject of betrayal interests her; she has Shakespearean-level experience of it, both from cheating boyfriends and endless gaslighting from the tabloids. I point out there’s not a single appealing man in the entire thing. “I know! They’re all shit!” Miller looks delighted. She thinks for another second. “Yeah, no, they’re all shit. She’s rampantly feminist, SJ Clarkson. She’s great.”
The other noticeable thing about the show is the way it highlights how starkly the conversation around consent has moved on. The case prosecuted by the character played by Dockery – “Dockers” to Miller, who had few scenes with her, but is wildly admiring: “She’s genuinely a great person” – hinges on whether a woman who has said “yes” can, a moment later, say “no”. Even 10 years ago, this would have been a fantastical proposition on which to hang a fictional court case, and 20 years ago, when Miller was in her 20s, it wouldn’t have been a discussion at all. “God, no,” she says. “We grew up in such a different world.”
Miller’s own character, Sophie, says at one point, “It was just easier to acquiesce,” to which Miller adds, “as a teenager, fuck, there’s no way that you could [say no], really. I mean, God forbid you offend a man’s ego by rejecting him. Versus the generation 10 years below us. ‘No!’ They’re happy to say it. It’s very different.”
A language has evolved to enable this change, and Miller hoots with laughter when I ask if she used the word “boundaries” when she was younger. “If someone had ever said to me you need a boundary, I’d have said ‘What is a boundary?’” The same goes for gaslighting, she says. “Or ‘love-bombing’ or ‘narcissistic tendencies’. I realise I’ve been gaslit and love-bombed several times.”
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