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Sienna Miller: Girl Interrupted

Sienna Miller’s skyrocketing career was driven off course by her tabloid notoriety. Now older (a little) and wiser (a little more), she’s back to reclaim her place at Hollywood’s top table. For Esquire, Alex Bilmes joins her for drinks, dinner and – why not? – more drinks

Sienna Miller: Girl Interrupted

And then I turned around and she was gone, vanished into the early morning, home to boyfriend and baby, taking her sparkle with her, and suddenly it really was the time it really was, in the back of a bar on Old Compton Street, in the company of a gallery of Soho rogues, and while I certainly wasn’t hammered (please, I’m a professional), I wasn’t exactly undrunk, either, and I, too, had a bed to go to and a tiny child to be screamed at by.

And to think it had all started so quietly, if not quite soberly, many, many hours earlier, at Scott’s, the plutocratic Mayfair fish restaurant, where we’d slurped oysters and cocktails and made periodic trips outside to sit under space heaters and smoke fags. And talked to each other, and at each other, and occasionally over each other about feminism and social media and the press and public morality and twerking, obviously, and all the stuff you might expect people in our weird positions talk about when we’re starting to feel a bit spangled. Some of this into my voice recorder, some of it into the wind – and from time to time one of us (not always me, in truth) would remember we were supposed to be doing an interview and return to the topics of her life and career, but then inevitably we’d veer off course again, setting the world to rights over Sancerre and Marlboro Lights.

Because that’s the thing about Sienna Miller: she’s irresistible and irrepressible – a party starter, a human firework. She’s fidgety and exuberant, coltish, gushy, tactile, generous with compliments and also larky and piss-takey. She’s vivacious, convivial, a joiner-in-er, one of the gang. Of course, she’s beautiful, too, disarmingly so: tawny, kittenish, slim, blonde, blue-eyed – a starlet in the classic mould. And she’s famously soignée, too, tonight in tight black trousers, strappy heels, a low-cut, floaty white tank top over a blue bra and under a glittering, sequined black jacket, with a fur thrown on top when we go outside. She’s wearing a big statement necklace, which, of course I neglect to ask about just as I neglect to ask about so many things. Because, in a word, she is diverting. She’s a distraction from whatever it is you’re trying to get done. In this case, have a vaguely sensible conversation, for the record, excerpts of which we can later string together to fill the spaces between the photographs. So here goes.

When she arrives at our table at Scott’s, I’m already making progress on an aperitif.

Sienna (pointing at it): “What’s that? Campari and soda?”

Me (feeling good about myself): “A negroni.”

Sienna: “Dad drink. Total dad drink.”

She orders a dirty martini and we study the menu.

Sienna: “We should be really chic and have the shellfish platter. If we were cool, we’d have that.”

Me (still smarting from the dad-drink slur): “But we’re not cool.”

Sienna: “Well, I am.”

Instead, she orders oysters. The waiter wonders if she’d like them, in the house style, with a spicy sausage?

Sienna (in her best ooh-er-missus): “I beg your pardon!”

When they arrive, she points with her fork at the largest.

Her: “Do you want my big oyster?”

Me: “OK.”

Sienna: “That wasn’t a euphemism, by the way.”

Me: “Jesus, it’s like having dinner with Sid James.”

Sienna: “Oh, my God. It is! I don’t get out much.”

Pause.

Sienna: “Oh, this is so nice! I love a dinner.”

Me: “Mmm, so do I.”

Sienna: “I love a lunch, too.”

Me: “A lunch is good, no doubt about it.”

Sienna: “Sometimes I love a lunch that goes into a dinner. Double games, I call it.”

At this point, haplessly, hopelessly, I try to steer the conversation towards her situation back in 2009, when last I interviewed her for a magazine article.

Me: “I remember you were single.”

Sienna: “Was I, though? You never know with me, Alex.”

Me: “Were you not single?”

Sienna: “I was single.”

Pause.

Sienna: “Do you plan these, by the way, these interviews?”

Me: “You’re suggesting I’m underprepared?”

Sienna: “No!”

Pause.

Me: “How did you meet Tom?”

Sienna (her mouth full of oyster): “Wha’?”

Me: “Tom, your fiancé Tom, remember? How did you two meet?”

Sienna: “Boring!”

Pause.

Sienna: “Shall we go for another fag?”

Me: “Definitely.”

***

OK, wait. There was a good hour or two between this early jousting and the high jinks that occurred later, during which we managed a traditional celebrity interview, or something approximating it.

We started where we left off last time I talked to her on the record, in the summer of 2009, when she was just about to release GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, her first – and, to date, last, and to hear her talk about it, likely only – mainstream Hollywood blockbuster. Back then, she was emerging from a turbulent period in her private life, and in her public life, too. “I was in a place of chaos,” she tells me now. “I was a hamster in one of those balls, running around.”

Me: “You were a hamster in a ball?”

Sienna: “In a smoke-filled ball. Have you got a visual?”

Me: “I’m enjoying it. You’re a hamster in a smoky ball. Then what happens?”

Sienna: “That’s it. That’s the extent of my metaphor…”

Sienna’s life is calmer now, she says. She is settled and happy, no longer the tabloid victim, the subject of prurient gossip. She retreated from public life, and from Hollywood to some extent, and she concedes that Hollywood retreated from her, too. She went on the stage, she made some smaller films, she mostly stopped appearing on fashion magazine covers and partying in public.

She recently took a year off after she had her baby daughter, Marlowe, with the actor Tom Sturridge, and now she’s back at work, weighing her options, planning her next moves. It’s time to get her movie career, which had blazed for a time and then fizzled, back on track. 

To that end, she’s already got three promising films in the pipeline. Foxcatcher, which this interview was initially arranged to help promote but which has now been delayed, is a true crime drama from Moneyball director Bennett Miller, in which she co-stars with Channing Tatum and Steve Carell. Business Trip, which Sienna has been filming in Berlin, is a Vince Vaughn comedy. And then Mississippi Grind, a gritty indie.

It seems churlish, with all this good news in mind, to go over the well-trodden, sometimes rocky ground of her life before Tom and Marlowe. But it’s a hard subject to avoid, because she went through all that to get to here – and the last time I interviewed her she was in the thick of it.

Sienna first came to public attention in 2004 as the new girlfriend of the celebrated and glamorous Jude Law, her co-star in Alfie, which was only her second proper film. Her fame was overnight: “One day I was anonymous,” she told me in 2009, “the next day people were outside my flat.” She was 21, gorgeous, stylish, talented, in love – and unprepared.

“I was really naive, I think,” she says now. “I was a young 21. Not green as grass – I was by no means an innocent – but I had faith in the goodness of everyone. I was very open. And that led me into all sorts of situations that backfired.”

Sienna is a child of privilege (wealthy father, expensive schools), but her background is also quite bohemian, a bit posh hippy. Her openness, her lack of guile, her ignorance of the way her behaviour might be judged by others, she thinks, may have contributed to some of the problems she experienced in her mid-twenties, when she became the target of much public bullying.

Tellingly, later on when we are talking about the difference between her upbringing and her fiancé Tom’s, she says that while he grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong, a reliable moral compass, she didn’t necessarily have that. “Not to say I didn’t have great parents, because I did,” she says, “but they were always very liberal and follow-your-heart. That’s a wonderful way to live and I’m really glad I experienced it, but at the end of the day there has to be consciousness associated with those decisions and I don’t think there was, for a lot of my life.”

She means she hadn’t yet fully understood that actions have consequences, that sometimes it’s better, or at least less damaging, to follow one’s head than one’s heart. Throughout her twenties, she worked steadily in films, only one of which, to my mind, really did her talent justice (The Edge of Love, 2008). But it was for her love life that she was best known. She and Law were caught in a tabloid frenzy after he was revealed to be cheating on her, and they later split. Then she had another high-profile relationship, with the actor Rhys Ifans. Finally, she had an affair with another actor, Balthazar Getty, a married father of four. In these times of instant outrage, of vituperative judgment, Sienna became a whipping girl for certain sections of the press – and especially online – here and in the US.

Her reaction to the bile was bafflement. She was shocked and upset. She also (quite rightly, if you ask me) resented being told how to behave. She was proud of what she had achieved and she is stubborn, she says, and so she refused to conform to the standards demanded of her. She didn’t play the Hollywood game, largely because at first she didn’t really appreciate there was one.

She now feels all this was a mistake. It meant she had a reputation as a party girl, a libertine, rather than as a serious, committed actress. It wasn’t simply that she was subjected to unpleasantness. Her tabloid image had a negative impact on her career, as film producers and studio executives worried that public opinion had turned against her.

“It had become difficult for me to get the work I wanted, if I’m really honest,” she says. “It was a weird situation to be in because there was a lot of goodwill for me in Hollywood. I think I’d been lucky in that I’d always been naughty in that town and people had always liked me for it. And it was refreshing and it was who I was. I was English. I was, ‘Let’s be who we are! I’m not going to have my hair done every morning and yes: I smell of fags!’ And so I would walk into studio heads’ offices and we’d crack up laughing.”

Her friends in Hollywood’s high places loved hanging out with her but because she had become associated with scandal, they were less keen on casting her in their films. “I sabotaged things,” she says. “I burnt a lot of bridges.”

What does she mean by this? “I had no business sense whatsoever,” she says. “I never read a review or paid any mind to what anyone said.” Instead, “it was all about the experience. And that translated to how I behaved outside work. On set, I was first to arrive, last to leave, best friends with the crew, totally professional, no dicking around. But when I wasn’t at work, I wasn’t behaving the way you should. I’m very lucky to have a second chance in that town.”

There follows a slightly odd conversation in which I suggest that no actor should have to sacrifice her career because of the bourgeois attitudes of Middle England or Middle America. It’s Hollywood that has the twisted values and the wonky moral compass, not her. So she had an affair – big fucking deal. She stayed up past her bedtime. What’s that got to do with her acting ability? But Sienna – while conceding that she certainly wouldn’t have been treated in this way were she a man – disagrees.

“It was really bad,” she says. “What was going on in my private life was not an easy thing to read about. People don’t want to see films with people they don’t approve of in them.”

Me: “But it’s not like you’ve actually done anything immoral, have you?”

Sienna: “No, no, no, I have.”

Me: “From what I know of you, I wouldn’t consider any of what you’ve done immoral.”

Sienna: “But then you have a very, very lax approach to morality.”

Me: “Not really. In our world, you don’t get publicly persecuted for what happens in private between consenting adults.”

Sienna: “Oh, God, do I want to talk about this? I want to be candid but I also don’t want to regurgitate shit that’s in the past.”

Suffice to say, Sienna felt she needed to get away from Hollywood, from the limelight, if for no other reason than to lick her wounds.

“I felt like I had no control over any aspect of my life,” she says, “professionally or personally. So I deliberately disappeared. I was sick of myself, to be honest, or sick of that perception of me. It all felt so fucking dirty.”

After the disappointment of GI Joe, which she says she never should have made because it’s not the kind of film she would ever pay to see herself, she signed on for a play in New York, Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, alongside Jonny Lee Miller. Jude Law was acting on Broadway at the same time and they were reunited. They were together again for a year or so, until the beginning of 2011.

“Had to do it,” she says now, of their reconciliation. Their relationship the first time around was “a huge part of my life and his life and it ended in a way that was awful. When something ends in a way like that, it’s important if you can, in a way, go back and revisit it and either shut that door or create a new room. So it was a very healthy, cathartic experience. And I think it paved the way for both of us to have great futures with no animosity or drama. Such a huge relief, to heal that. And I’m great friends with him and with his children. I love them, madly. Just huge love and respect for all of them.”

She pauses. “Do you want some peas?”

***

In the last few years, Sienna has given three really big public performances: on stage, in London, for Trevor Nunn in a terrific 2011 revival of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, in which she was brilliant as an agonised actress at the sharp end of a love triangle; on TV in The Girl (2012), the BBC’s film about Alfred Hitchcock’s cruelty towards the actress Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds, for which Sienna won perhaps the best notices of her career; and in late 2011 at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, where, as one of the most high-profile victims of the phone-hacking scandal, she was a star witness.

I saw her around the time she was considering whether to appear before the Inquiry, at a party in London, and we talked briefly, over thumping music, about how strange it seemed: her alone against the might of the Murdoch media empire, when she could just as well settle for a large payment and a quieter life. But Sienna has always been a fighter in these matters: she successfully sued the News of the World for invasion of privacy; she won damages from the Daily Star; she took out a pioneering injunction against the paparazzi; and she was the first person to bring a claim against News International for phone hacking, and the first to obtain a judgment against it.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that I would do it,” she says now of her decision to appear before Leveson, “but I needed to try and think it through. I was being followed at that time. There was all sorts of stuff going on. It was scary. But I don’t regret it. I’m a lot less rich than I could have been, but glad. No question.”

Her testimony to Leveson was measured, methodical, persuasive. She talked about being spat on by paparazzi. She said she felt “violated”.The hacking of her phone had made her “very scared and intensely paranoid”. She revealed that, at one point, she became so convinced that someone close to her was betraying her that she accused her mother and sister of selling stories to the press. In fact, of course, her messages were being listened to.

Is she pleased with Leveson’s report, and the outcome of the Inquiry? “It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? It’s such a difficult one to discuss. One thing I’m pretty sure about is that no one [working for a newspaper] is tapping anyone’s phone any more. That’s an achievement. And certain parts of the media have been exposed for what they are, which is manipulative, dishonest and fraudulent, and abhorrent and criminal. And fewer people now believe what they read in those papers. And that is also a real achievement.”

Unlike certain other well-known actors – most prominently Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – Sienna has not been a regular participant in the ongoing debate into journalistic ethics and the desirability or not of further press regulation. Partly, she says, this is because she feels so strongly about it that she’s not sure she could control her temper.

She has been asked many times to appear on Newsnight, as Grant and Coogan have done, to debate with tabloid editors past and present, and she thinks perhaps eventually she will agree to do so. But not yet.

“It’s so personal, it’s such a raw nerve, it had such a massive effect on me, on my life and career, that I don’t know what would come out of it except I will kind of vent, in a fury. Believe me, there is a torrent of abuse I would love to hurl at half of their faces. But there are more eloquent people. I don’t trust myself. I’m too volatile.”

This spring, she will star in a new play about privacy, the internet, public morality, the whole shooting match, at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It was still being written when we met, by the playwright James Graham, author of the hit political drama, This House. Perhaps that will be Sienna’s eloquent and devastating riposte to her anonymous online detractors, her inky-fingered tabloid tormentors and all those individuals and organisations interested in prying into the private business of other people.

***

Sienna has no illusions about what initially drew her to the stage: she craved attention. She wasn’t a child star by any means, but she was smitten by acting from an early age. On a previous occasion, she told me a funny story about her school acting career, the highlight of which was her role as Potiphar’s Helper in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: “I just sat there with a huge fucking leaf in my hand fanning Potiphar thinking, ‘I’m better than this!’”

“I do think that ultimately you have to be chronically insecure to enter my profession,” she says now. “I think it comes from a need for approval. The applause feels good, I don’t care who says it doesn’t.”

But the impulse is not purely selfish. Acting also “comes from a need to try on different personalities, to try to experience life from different perspectives, which I think is quite an interesting thing to want to do.

“There is something noble,” she adds, “in the goal of getting to a place where you forget yourself entirely. I’ve only had it maybe once, and then barely, but it’s an almost transcendental experience and quite spiritual: a loss of ego. On the flipside, of course, it’s the most egotistical profession in the world, so it’s a very confusing place to be.”

The first and really only time she has achieved that transcendence came during the making of Factory Girl, the 2006 biopic of Edie Sedgwick, the magnetic but doomed Warhol acolyte. It was her first starring role and she rose to the occasion brilliantly, only to be let down by the film, which for various reasons was rushed, and bungled. I tell her it seems a shame: she’s so often done good work in films that disappoint.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says now, of the Factory Girl fiasco.

How can she say that?

“No, you’re right, it fucking does matter.”

But it’s no use regretting the past. And as she says, she has another chance now. I wonder if she’s worried about returning to Hollywood and to all the pressures and pitfalls of a film career.

“I don’t feel scared at all,” she says. “I feel really settled. I have a wonderful life. I’m up every morning with a little baby. That gives you incredible perspective. It’s such a gift. And it’s grounding in a way you can’t describe. And going back to work is really exciting and fun.”

Her home life, then, is happy. “What’s lovely is how protected it is,” she says. “It’s a totally novel experience, to be part of something that does not belong to anyone else but me and my man and my baby.” Of Tom, she says, “he’s the antithesis of me, really. And that’s a first for me, to be in a relationship with someone who’s in a lot of respects very different. He’s the perfect balance to my lunacy, which makes him sound really boring but he’s not, at all. It’s good, it works. It’s not easy, of course, but we’re a family and I love that. I wake up and I’m like, ‘I’m a family, I’m a grown up!’ I still can’t believe it.”

All being well, there will be more kids, Marlowe having allayed any fears Sienna had about a baby cramping her style. “I was worried before I had her,” Sienna says, “because I do love messing about and being irresponsible and I thought all that would end but I’ve realised it doesn’t have to.”

At which point I offer a banality about how having kids does change everything – but for the better.

Sienna: “Especially if you spanked it like we did, for as long as we did,” she says.

Me: “And thank God we did.”

Sienna: “Absolutely. We definitely gave it a good spanking, didn’t we?”

And with that it’s into a car, dodging the paparazzi, and off into the night, to give it one more spanking, for old times’ sake, with mutual friends and acquaintances, at Dean Street Townhouse first and then at the Groucho Club. Here, our small group joins forces with a larger group – showbiz people and media types, mostly, and people on the fringes of both – and the vodka-tonics keep coming and the crowd keeps swelling with people Sienna knows, people I know, people we both know, people no one seems to know, until the lights come on and we’re all being ushered out onto the street, and the photographers chase us round the corner, 20 of us maybe, hosing Sienna down with their flashes, shouting and jostling, until we find refuge in the back room of a late-night place, and order more drinks, which is when she slips away.

Sienna was the same in the Groucho, amid the heaving throng, as she had been at dinner: funny, flirty, friendly. Mostly what I remember from that part of the evening was her taking the piss out of me for wearing a tie, even pulling at it at one point, until I told her I’d worn it especially for her. “Oh!” she said, smoothing it down. “I didn’t know it was your Sienna tie.”

In fact, Sienna seems, I tell her, the same to me now as she had on the previous occasions we met. Her public and private tribulations have not altered her. It’s not quite true she hasn’t changed at all, she says. She is more circumspect. Not quite so trusting. Maybe so, but she still has mischief in her eyes: they haven’t knocked the stuffing out of her, by any means.

The next day, I think back to something she’d said earlier in the evening, in relation to her ambition, her notoriety, her successes and failures. She said it to me as we sat outside Scott’s with our glasses of wine and cigarettes.

“Say I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in my career,” she said, “which is to be incredibly prolific and brilliant and moving and successful and to make art, and for people to be affected by it. So my daughter would be really proud of me and her daughter would be, like, ‘Granny made these films’. And her daughter would be like, ‘Oh, my great grandmother made these films I think’. And then her daughter would be, ‘I think three generations ago there was this woman and she was an actress’. And to her daughter I would be nothing.

“I don’t even know my great grandmother’s name,” she said, “let alone my great-great grandmother. I don’t know who she was. I don’t know what she did. And ultimately none of it fucking matters. And when you’re in some massive crisis and you look at yourself in a close-up and then if you visualise pulling back and seeing England and then pulling back and seeing the world, you realise how fucking insignificant you are. I think that’s really the greatest thing I’ve learned recently: that I don’t matter. Nothing matters. It’s such a relief to know that. I didn’t get that job – it doesn’t fucking matter. Whatever I achieve, or don’t, will be forgotten, it’s not important.”

Me: “What is important, then?”

Sienna: “Be kind, be good, be happy, be loving.”

And we drink to that. 

Foxcatcher is due for release later this year

The March edition of Esquire is available on newstands from 30 January, or visit our subscription page.
 

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