"Really wish I had written a speech," says Sienna Miller, untangling the cord of a microphone. The actress stands against a wall in film composer Hans Zimmer's cozily appointed recording studio in Santa Monica, where she's hosting a reception for the International Medical Corps, an organization that specializes in first-response support for disaster-stricken regions, which Miller has volunteered for since 2009. "I always think it's better to talk from the heart," she continues, "but then the moment comes and it's terrifying, so please bear with me." But her audience, crowded around the studio's kitchen, is, of course, already hers. Miller, in a structured white blouse, slim black pants, and strappy heels, recounts her experience witnessing the violent resuscitation of a woman whose heartbeat flatlined in front of her at a makeshift hospital in Haiti. The story draws tears to her eyes which she shyly wipes away. "Talking about motherhood, it's awful!" she jokes. "You say a little bit, and you just cry."
Finally, she thanks the group and hands the microphone to another organizer. Miller folds back into the crowd, laughing and chatting warmly, as if among old friends at a birthday party. Seeing the actress in this informal scene has a slightly surreal effect, at first. But after spending the past two days in her midst, I realize the warmth and informality of the scene shouldn’t be surprising. It is, in fact, distinctly Sienna Miller.
We first meet at the Standard Hotel’s 24/7 Restaurant in West Hollywood, which is mostly empty at 11 a.m., the late morning sun streaming past retro beaded blinds, flooding the long, narrow space with light. When Miller enters, the light catches the new rosy-orange shade of her hair before she slides into a corner booth just out of the sun’s range. After we say our hellos, conversation quickly transitions, as it does, into analysis of her new hair color. “I’m just not sure about these,” she offers, in her delicate English lilt, pointing to her eyebrows, which have been dyed to match. “Normally, I’m blonde with black eyebrows!” Other than that, Miller looks as Sienna-esque as ever, both casual and polished in a thin, navy-striped top with a long, swooshy cream-colored skirt and platforms. (In a few weeks, her hair will be back to its signature shade of blonde.) Occasionally, she flashes her approachable smile, revealing the naturally pretty teeth of a head cheerleader, rather than the glow-in-the-dark Chiclets favored by many movie stars.
Miller, who primarily lives in England, is in Los Angeles to take meetings for her second wave of projects following the year she spent away from acting due to the birth of her daughter, Marlowe. (Marlowe’s father is Miller’s fiancé, the actor Tom Sturridge.) A tidier narrative would point to the birth of Marlowe as Miller’s moment of refocusing her acting career, but the truth is, when she was only a few months pregnant, she filmed The Girl, in which she brilliantly portrayed real-life Hitchcock muse Tippi Hedren, earning the actress her first major American award nomination—a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV movie or miniseries. But according to Miller, while it may not be the exact beginning of a change in tune, the year she spent away from the industry did serve a purpose. “In the past I was always drawn to the roles, and was often really exploring characters, but then the final result was not what it was supposed to be,” she explains. “My modus operandi after I had the baby was to work with great people, no matter the capacity, even if I had a smaller part.” She fills her water glass from a bottle of Pellegrino and continues: “I feel far more focused now than I ever have.”
This year will bring several major opportunities to show what she can do. In Foxcatcher, directed by Moneyball and Capote’s Bennett Miller and based on a true story, she plays Nancy Schultz, the wife of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who was killed by paranoid-schizophrenic John du Pont (Steve Carell). From there, roles in the comedy Business or Pleasure and gritty indie Mississippi Grind (co-starring Ryan Reynolds) will follow. Most recently, Miller was cast as the lead in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship (alongside Chloë Sevigny). Booking these projects happened fairly organically, according to the actress. “It’s all very trend-driven. It’s pathetic,” she says with an amused scoff. “The fact that I’m in Bennett’s film makes people think, ‘Oh, well, maybe she’s a serious actress.’ And actually it’s that Bennett’s a serious enough director to overlook any sort of perception. You’d be amazed at the lack of vision that some really creative people have.” She takes a sip of her water then adopts a slightly dopey voice: “‘Well, she’s kind of fashionable, so she can play the fashion part,’” she says, adding, “I’ll shave my head and be whatever you want me to be! That’s the job of an actor.” Then, because sarcasm doesn’t suit her for long, she erupts into laughter. “I’m rambling!” she says. “I’ve had, like, five cups of coffee today.”
Rambling or not, there is an obvious truth there. “I’ve gotten to a point where I feel much more confident in myself and my ability. If you start to feel that, inevitably, it will affect your work and your perception,” says Miller. “But ‘perception’ is a minefield. I’ve never been very good at being how you’re supposed to be, and not being who I am—which is a very, very open person.” She laughs. “A worryingly open person to be navigating any kind of celebrity.”
Miller quietly came back to work months ago, but with those films not yet out, the press had yet to take note of her return. That is, until she was called to testify as one of the victims of a phone-hacking scandal dating back to 2005, when reporters for the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World allegedly illegally intercepted voice mails of actors, including those of Miller, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig. Miller, of course, became famous first for being Jude Law’s girlfriend, after the two met on the set of 2004’s Alfie. Ironically, a trial meant to exact justice for an invasion of privacy exposed its victims yet again with revelations brought about during questioning. (Within minutes of her testimony, rumors began to swirl about an affair between Miller and Daniel Craig.) “I feel very let down by that system, but there is a more important thing going on: this conversation about hacking people’s phones and privacy. I’m really proud of the things that I’ve done standing up for myself in that way,” she says. “But it doesn’t make it easy that suddenly Jude and I are back on the cover of every newspaper in London.”
At the same time that Miller was becoming known for her relationship, the public became transfixed by her innate sense of style, resulting in a flurry of major fashion magazine covers and controversial comparisons to that other stylish Brit, Kate Moss. So while ostensible star-making turns, like the role of Edie Sedgwick in 2006’s Factory Girl and then as Baroness in the G.I. Joe action franchise, mostly fizzled, public interest in Miller only grew.
And it’s easy to see why. What other actress would appear in a magazine licking her own Dr. Martens boot, as Miller did in her first NYLON feature? “My go-to [during shoots] is to do something ridiculous,” she says. “I also get bored quite easily. I’m not very good at the selfie face. I can do it for, like, three seconds and then I crack up.” Miller has smartly diffused tension in her professional life by assembling an inner circle of people she trusts. Her longtime publicist, Tori Cook, for example, is her best friend from high school (she is Cook’s only client), and Miller co-founded the clothing line Twenty8Twelve with her sister, Savannah. “For me, it’s totally important,” she says. “I love these women, so I want to be around them all the time.” As for Twenty8Twelve, the sisters stepped down from the label in 2012, but it was for lack of time, not lack of interest. “We were designing a really big collection in the end,” says Miller. “I think maybe I’d be more fulfilled being a couturier or something, or doing 10 amazing pieces a season.”
Miller’s original choices are precisely why she stands apart from the endless rotation of It Girl actresses, whose off-screen personalities often seem crafted from the findings of a focus group. Now, she aims to save this fearlessness for her work. “There is this aspect of my personality: the harder it is, the more fulfilling it is. If I go to work and have to sob all day and kill myself thinking about every sad thing that’s ever happened, I’ll get home feeling like I’ve flexed some sort of muscle,” she says. “Then I’ll analyze it and be like, ‘You’re really twisted.’” She laughs. “It’s cathartic, it is!”
Her collaborators on Foxcatcher speak to her growth. “She was able to take on a vocal quality, an accent, a physicality, and the inner life of her character, which is really what separates the women from the girls. She was right there–amazingly, beautifully,” says Ruffalo, of her depiction of Nancy, a blue-collar Midwesterner. He also admired her ability to multitask. “We’d be sitting in the makeup trailer, and she’d be with little Marlowe, and I’d just think, ‘Look at this amazing carnival life that you live,’” he adds with a chuckle. Channing Tatum, who previously worked with Miller on G.I. Joe, co-stars as Mark Schultz, Dave’s brother. “I hadn’t seen Sienna since she became a mother. It was so beautiful seeing her play that role,” he says. “She has always been a very heartfelt, soulful person, but somehow, I think becoming a mother deepened that all the more.”
Bennett Miller, who successfully cast Jonah Hill against type in Moneyball, wasn’t overly familiar with Miller’s past projects, but was pleasantly surprised when he came across the audition she self-taped from her kitchen in London. “I guess I was expecting somebody who was too beautiful, had an English accent, and probably didn’t have a sense of this blue-collar world,” he recounts. “We were looking for somebody based on a real person, and I had come to know this real person. She has a kind of self-possession and a maturity of spirit. She’s somebody who is loving, but doesn’t take shit. She has a big heart and a generous soul, but you can’t take advantage of her because she holds her ground. Sienna just was that.”
Still, the director acknowledges the difficulties for many actors, especially female ones, to find these kinds of breaks. “It’s probably more difficult for a woman because, truthfully, there are fewer great roles and fewer special opportunities in general,” he says. “I think, without question, Sienna is a real candidate to be recognized differently than she has been and deserves to be.”
At 24/7, a waitress brings over two piping-hot chocolate croissants. She offers share plates for civilized consumption, but Sienna politely declines, instead spreading out her napkin and tearing the pastry apart above it, showering it with flaky bits of dough, coating her fingers and, momentarily, a lock of hair with gooey chocolate. The conversation turns, as it does, to love. First, through a series of rapid-fire questions, she tries to establish the seriousness of my relationship with my boyfriend. When did we move in together? After seven months of dating, I tell her, which I note seems pretty early to me. “Or after two weeks, like I did!” she offers, grinning, of her speedy cohabitation with Sturridge. Chance-takers—both of us!—it is decided. “But I like living that way,” she says, a little wistfully. “Life’s really short. A lot of what we do is a reaction to what people think you’re supposed to do: ‘Have a kid at 30. Move in, but live together for at least this amount of time.’ All of those rules I want to rebel against.” She gleefully pops a bit of croissant into her mouth. “Because I’m a spiteful little shit, basically.”