Sienna Miller
Photo by Jan Welters

Sienna Miller: “It’s always a dilemma”

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Short Profile

Name: Sienna Rose Diana Miller
DOB: 28 December 1981
Place of birth: New York City, NY, United States
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Miller, although you’ve surely been offered compelling leading roles since Foxcatcher and American Sniper, we continue to see you in supporting ones. How come?

I found that hard to balance with motherhood. I’ve done a play, which you can kind of get away with because you have the days off, but the idea of three months on set in every scene is really daunting. I think it’s always a struggle in whatever industry you’re in. But with acting, it’s the inconsistency that makes it complicated. I sometimes have tons of time for my daughter, which I love, but other times… I think it’s always a dilemma, isn’t it? To get that balance right, to fulfill your creative needs and also be there for your kids. So, I do find that now I'm a parent, my ambition has, to a certain degree, dwindled.

Which is normal for any parent, no?

Of course. I think I’ve just realized that there is something more important than my career and my own needs — and that's my child. I've never been the most ambitious person in the world, you know, I've always prioritized family and friendship, or put that on a par with my career. It's not the only thing that I see as a fulfillment in my life. I think to be really successful you have to probably be a little bit more driven than I find I am, you know, in terms of strategizing and doing releases that will make money so that you get value… You have to compromise artistically, and I've never been that good at doing that.

“Acting is the only thing I ever remember wanting to do.”

Nonetheless, you seem to have a very clear idea of what you want from your career. 

Well, acting is the only thing I ever remember wanting to do. I remember always putting on plays at home and dressing up… I'm still not clear on why I was so set on it but I never really allowed myself to imagine doing anything else. It was too expensive to go to the theater all the time, but I loved it when I did! My mum would sometimes take us to the theater or the ballet. I remember really distinctly this thing Richard Burton did called Anne of the Thousand Days. It was about Anne Boleyn and I was obsessed with it. I loved The NeverEnding Story as well, the usual people like Katharine Hepburn, Judi Dench, Clara Bow, silent movie stars, Chaplin films, things like that.

Those are quite highbrow choices for a kid.

I guess I always responded to things on an intuitive kind of level. I'd read lot of plays, I'd always read literature… I think I've always had a big imagination, which is sometimes a very inspiring thing and pleasant thing and sometimes not the easiest to navigate and manage. I think that movies and plays kind of cultivated an imagination that helps with acting. I think that's why I love theatre: the investigation and research and experience.

Do you fear you’ll ever grow out of it?

I don’t think I’m ever going to stop wanting to see and experience things. I think the day that you don’t long for that anymore is the day you have kind of given up. I don’t imagine ever not wanting to explore and see and grow and develop as a person. That is the point of existence in many ways. I love my job for that reason and I hope that I never grow out of it. Sure, there are some roles I could probably do standing on my head and get away with… But I would be bored out of my mind! Whether for a film or not, I would leap at the opportunity to learn a new skill.

You also trained with a Michelin-starred chef for a part, right?

Increasingly as I get older I want to do more and more of that, like in La La Land, learning all those dances and songs… That would have been great. I’ve also learned to belly dance and sword fight, I got to research the life of cartographer and explorer Percy Fawcett and his wife for my role in The Lost City of Z recently, which was interesting because I think when I first started out people thought I was very modern. It was hard for me to do period pieces.

People didn’t really know how to place you.

Exactly and I think I had a strong perception fashion-wise, which probably didn’t help. But I do look back and feel like I played diverse characters but these days I do make a real effort to look different in every film so that I broaden people’s horizons. I don’t know if people have the imagination you assume they would. If they’re casting someone with brown hair they tend to cast an actress with brown hair, you know? People tend to be that narrow-minded in Hollywood, and I think in order to break down those perceptions, you have to really change your physicality. I think you have to relinquish vanity in films. Young women tend to get pigeonholed, and I think I was a victim of that.

“Your response to underestimation is either to be defeated by it or to rebel against it. And I am just inherently rebellious.”

Do you think your career suffered because of that?

Well, it wasn't like I was locked in a room not working ever or anything, I don't walk around feeling underestimated. But it was a real battle when I was growing up and when I was young because I felt like I was a sort of a media creation… I was watching this life play out and it wasn't who I was and that was very, very unsettling. I don't think people assume that you are intelligent or well-read if you are a young actress in Hollywood, who kind of has fun and is English and a bit goofy.

How did you deal with such misperceptions?

I would say I'm pretty resilient. (Laughs) I think I have more of an understanding of myself these days, which helps, but that's just getting older. Motherhood is very grounding in that way. But in the context of my life, it's relatively easy to overcome that kind of thing because I don't give it any gravitas or any thought anymore. I'm not a woman in a situation where I don't have a voice. I do have a voice. And now I would really stand up for myself against that kind of belittling behavior. I wouldn't ever let anyone underestimate me now. Not to my face, at least.

I’m sure at the time it also allowed you to shatter people’s expectations.

If there's defiance in you, then yes, it can be galvanizing and I think for me that was my response ultimately. But the frustration… I'd love to just not have to deal with people asking, “What changed?” I’m like, “Nothing! I was always this fucking person, you just didn't want to see it.” (Laughs) I do think that your response to kind of underestimation is either to be defeated by it or to rebel against it. And I am just inherently rebellious.