Jonny Lee Miller: interview
By Vicki Reid
4:24PM BST 03 Oct 2009
Whether going posh for a costume drama or plunging into a frozen lake and stripping naked, Jonny Lee Miller is an actor who thrives outside his comfort zone.
Jonny Lee Miller: 'I've never taken myself too seriously. I consider myself really lucky and I always have done'
Photo: Tom Craig
In December 2007 Ben Fogle and James Cracknell were in Norway on a 10-day intensive training course with other prospective competitors for their planned race to the South Pole 13 months later. They had invited along the person they hoped would make up the third member of their team, as well as the television crew that would be documenting the race. At the end of the training – which had involved hours of lectures, four days’ trekking in the snow, camping out each night at -20C, a 10km orienteering race – as a final challenge, everyone was expected to jump, fully kitted up, into an ice hole hacked into a frozen lake.
The person first to go hesitated only for a fraction of a second before launching himself into the water and swimming to the edge where, as he hauled himself out with his ski poles, gasping, he looked straight at the cameras and wryly commented, 'Jonny Lee Miller, Scorpio.’
It is a good example of Miller’s capacity to surprise, both as an actor and as a person. As an actor, it is surprising that he is probably still best known for his role as Sick Boy, the bleached-blond Sean Connery-obsessed pimp and heroin addict in Trainspotting, and for his short-lived marriage to Angelina Jolie, for his cv is packed with extraordinary performances, on both stage and screen. His career trajectory may seem to outsiders to have been a frustrating one, overshadowed by such friends and contemporaries as Jude Law and Ewan McGregor. But it is more likely that he chose the quieter, though no less ambitious, path. His projects following Trainspotting involved complex characters in less commercial films (an adulterous businessman in Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow, a shell-shocked First World War soldier in Gillies Mackinnon’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, for example), usually critically acclaimed but not widely seen.
It would have been impossible to second-guess his career: no two characters he has played have been the same, and his ability to inhabit fully each one means his audience is constantly wrong-footed. His Byron, for example (shown on the BBC in 2003), confounded expectations, the flamboyant self-publicist played to reveal a darker, conflicted soul. Most recently in Channel 4’s Endgame, shown earlier this year, about the secret talks that contributed to the end of Apartheid, he took on the small but crucial role of Michael Young, an employee of the British mining company Consolidated Goldfields, who engineered the secret talks between the ANC and leading Afrikaners. Through Miller’s interpretation, his character’s unobtrusive presence became the backbone of the drama.
Miller moved to Los Angeles in 2006, where he has starred in two US television series; both were ratings and critical hits, and yet both were cancelled. The first, Smith, an unconventional take on 'cops and robbers’ starring Ray Liotta, was pulled after only seven episodes ('we were at work and got a call saying finish the day’s filming and don’t come in tomorrow’). Then he played the eponymous lead in Eli Stone, a brilliantly funny and occasionally surreal series about a high-flying lawyer whose unnerving hallucinations involving George Michael lead
him to think he is some kind of prophet. Its being recommissioned for a second season was the reason Miller pulled out of the Antarctic expedition – only then to have the show cancelled after 13 episodes. 'It was a really emotional experience,’ he admits now. 'It was tough. You get very close to everyone – you spend more time with them than you do your family, 12 to 14 hours a day, often 80 hours a week, in very close proximity to people – and then someone comes in and says we’re done. It was a harsh shock.’
We are in Shoreditch House, a private members’ club in east London. It is a joyously hot day, but Miller has arrived hunched into a leather jacket, his eyes hidden behind aviators. Leaning against the back of the lift on the way up to the bar, he confesses that his six-month-old son, Buster, has kept him up most of the night. (He married the actress Michele Hicks last April – 'we were introduced in a bar by a mutual friend, and that was it.’) Miller keeps his jacket on for the entire time we are together and the shades come off only after a good half-hour, revealing eyes bruised from lack of sleep, oddly making him seem younger than his 36 years. He talks quietly, deliberately, becoming more animated after a Stella and a pizza lock his brain back into gear, and he gradually relaxes into the conversation. He is a fun person to spend time with: thoughtful, interesting, interested, revealing a dry wit through various observations, usually at his own expense.
He has been in England for the past three months, filming a four-part adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma for the BBC, in which he plays Mr Knightley opposite Romola Garai. Shooting finished only three days before we meet and Miller is in the process, as he describes it, of 'decompressing’, with a matter of days left before he returns to California. 'I’ve had the best time,’ he grins. 'Plus, you bring everyone over, see your family, spend time with your friends, and someone else pays for it.’
Miller had never read Emma. 'I just really liked the script. Because I didn’t know the book I thought she was going to end up with Frank Churchill,’ he laughs. 'I had no idea.’ Aside from Miller and Garai, the cast includes Michael Gambon and Tamsin Greig. 'Yes, there are some cracking actors there, I have to say.’ He pauses. 'I felt really quite self-conscious a lot of the time. I don’t normally get like that, but I did on this, because they’re all really good.’
Jim O’Hanlon, who directed the series, has no such reservations when we speak later. 'It’s not immediately obvious casting, but I think he’s going to be a revelation,’ he says. 'The thing that struck me most watching his work is that he is incapable of being untruthful, whether you like the interpretation he takes of a part or you don’t. I just felt there was a depth and complexity about everything he did.’
There is something of Benedick and Beatrice about Miller and Garai’s performance; their chemistry has a real energy and lightness of touch. Miller’s Knightley is the perfect foil to Garai’s feisty Emma; he is a gentle soul, almost unassuming, yet he manages to bring out the subtle humour of the character. There is an essential stillness to Miller, which means Knightley’s internal struggle with his feelings for Emma is beautifully nuanced through the tiniest of movements,expressions or inflections of his voice.
Watching his performance, it is hard to believe he had those doubts about his ability. 'I think it’s something to do with having done the same part for a long time with Eli Stone,’ he says. 'And costume drama is not my most comfortable area, so the language and the way of speaking and being conscious of not being posh and trying to be posh – I struggled with that.’
Those who have worked with Miller constantly refer to his focus and commitment to whatever challenge he is undertaking, whether it’s a role, a marathon (he has done 10), or polar training in Norway. Danny Boyle, who directed him in Trainspotting, talks of his 'ferocious application’; James Cracknell points to his 'dedication’ and the 'intensity within him’.
This ferocious application is perfectly illustrated in The Flying Scotsman (2006). Playing the role of twice world champion cyclist Graeme Obree (a man famous for breaking the world hour record on a bike he built himself), Miller set his own training programme, in order to recreate convincingly the racing sequences. 'Which looking back was probably stupid,’ he says. 'But part of Graeme’s psyche is like that – and to me, to understand somewhat the solitude, the mindset of someone who does things their own way, was part of that process, to do it myself, to work it out.’
'That’s what I love about Jonny: he could trade on his looks and he could get away with it,’ O’Hanlon says. 'Instead he puts himself into difficult and challenging places, even though it may not necessarily be his comfort zone. And I think he’s quite a shy and reserved person, and so he’s not necessarily comfortable being thrust into the limelight. It’s not his natural inclination, he’s not a show-off.’ Or as Miller puts it, 'I think I’m semi-confident about my abilities. Which doesn’t mean that I think, yeah, I’ll be able to do a great job, but I think if I do the correct things and I pay attention and I’m serious about it, then I’ll be OK.’
Jonny Lee Miller decided he wanted to be an actor at the age of seven. 'I remember doing stuff in assemblies, and when you get praise from your peers, for example, it affects you very strongly,’ he says. 'Or you could say it was just attention-seeking.’ Acting is in the family genes: his father acted in repertory theatre before becoming a floor manager at the BBC, which is where his parents met. Miller’s grandfather was Bernard Lee, who played M in 11 of the Bond films, though he describes his memories of him as 'foggy’, as he died when Miller was eight.
'Some kids are good at maths,’ Miller says, 'some kids can run, and acting was an interest of mine. Because I knew you could do it for a living I decided, that’s what I’m going to do.’
He was born and brought up with his sister, Joanna, now a journalist, in Kingston upon Thames, and attended the local grammar, Tiffin School. Making the decision to become an actor at such an early age, he says, 'did make me incredibly lazy at school. Because I was like, this doesn’t matter, it’s stupid.’ He joined the National Youth Music Theatre, where he met Jude Law ('my best friend in life’), and together they would spend holidays rehearsing and taking productions on tour and to the Edinburgh Festival. 'I couldn’t wait for the holidays and to go back to the theatre company where all my real friends were.’
Miller had been acting professionally since he was 10, including a part in the BBC’s Mansfield Park (16 years later he would be in Mansfield Park again, this time as Edmund Bertram opposite Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price). He left school at 16 after his GCSEs and got a job as a porter at the Hard Rock Cafe in London, followed by a stint as an usher at the Drury Lane Theatre. His parents divorced when he was 19. 'That was quite difficult,’ he says. 'I felt everything that had happened was a lie. It’s not true, but that’s what it felt like. Everything’s great now. They’ve given me a great deal of love and support, and it’s been wonderful to give them a grandchild, their first.’
Small roles in EastEnders, Prime Suspect 3 and Cadfael led to his big-screen debut as Zero Cool in Hackers in 1995 (it was released after Trainspotting). The cyber-thriller is memorable only for introducing Miller to his co-star Angelina Jolie, for whom he moved to Los Angeles and whom he married in March 1996. The press were fascinated by the coupling, the fact that for the ceremony the bride wore a white shirt of Miller’s with his name scrawled in blood, while he was dressed in leather, and that he only met his father-in-law, Jon Voight, weeks after the event. Eighteen months later, the marriage was over. 'There are no regrets and no bitterness,’ Miller announced at the time. 'Marriage was something that didn’t work out, and I had to make the decision sooner or later. I decided to make it sooner.’
By then he had struck gold with Trainspotting, his Sick Boy a sulky-mouthed amoralist whose aloof charisma was as seductive to audiences as the chaotic charm of Ewan McGregor’s Renton. It made them both stars. Miller, Danny Boyle says, 'is a brilliant actor, a chameleon. There’s something he does that’s slightly mysterious. It’s not to do with haircuts or noses or putting on false things, it’s something interior. He was the perfect element to add to that mix of actors.’
Hollywood besieged him with offers of parts, all variations of Sick Boy, but Miller charted his own course, with mixed results. Afterglow and Regeneration aside, there were several forgettable films – the slight highwaymen caper Plunkett & Macleane (1999), the improvised muddle that was Love, Honour and Obey (2000) and the dull sci-fi Aeon Flux (2005). Miller’s reputation never suffered, as there were still jewels to be found: the dogged determination of his Obree in The Flying Scotsman; his self-important, out-of-work actor in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (2004); and his occasional forays on to the stage – most notably as the sexually abused son confronting his father in Festen at the Almeida in 2004.
'I think he’s too interesting in a way to be a massive star,’ O’Hanlon says. 'He’d be a star if he went for the obvious, but he doesn’t.’ Which is why Eli Stone was such a great fit – its wry wit the perfect showcase for Miller’s understated talent – and why it must have been all the harder when it was cancelled. This, James Cracknell thinks, is why Miller chooses to push himself in physical challenges: 'They’re all within his control. The results are success or failure and you can judge for yourself without someone else telling you if you were good or not.’
Miller was on a break at work filming Eli Stone when in December 2007 he received an email from Ben Fogle, 'out of the blue’, asking if he might be interested in racing 750km to the South Pole. His response? 'I leapt out of the chair.’
'I don’t know how,’ Miller muses, 'but they obviously knew I had bit of an adventurous spirit.’ From the start, he made it clear to Cracknell and Fogle that if the second series of Eli Stone was picked up, he wouldn’t be able to do the race, but they all agreed it was worth taking the risk. Which is how he came to be throwing himself into an ice hole in Norway. Talking about it now, 'I could go on and on,’ he says with a smile. 'It was just awesome. Norway is beautiful. You come out of your tent in the morning and you’re preparing to walk all day and then you notice the light… you see some stunning sights. I remember the cameraman dancing around.’
The training, he continues, was 'how to survive in the Antarctic, and then a mini-expedition to simulate the conditions. We learnt cross-country skiing, pulling pults [sledges with their gear on], learning how to make water, how to operate the stove, how not to get frostbite, and how to put the tent up and make sure it stays up; your heat management, how to stay alive.’
Of the ice hole he says, 'It was great fun. Once you’ve pulled yourself out you’ve got to run 100 yards and strip naked to then warm yourself up and get into dry clothes, and literally your hands do not work.’
Cracknell was delighted with their new teammate. 'When we were training he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, he was getting stuck into something new and was determined to master it.’ It was, Miller says, 'the best 10 days of my life’.
Miller’s enthusiasm and effort was recognised at the end of the training. 'We had a big party and they gave out awards, and mine was for Most Improved. I was really made up,’ he laughs. 'You know when you’re really proud of something, I was like, “I’ve won a troll!” I’m very proud of that troll, it’s the only award I’ve ever won.’
The trio met up on two further occasions – Cracknell and Fogle went to visit Miller in Los Angeles and they went rock climbing in Joshua Tree national park – 'because we were going to be going across crevasse fields and we wanted to get some climbing in’ – and then they ran the London Marathon in May last year. Miller made his best ever time of three hours one minute, 'but James broke three hours, bastard. He’s like a machine, that man, a Terminator.’
When Miller found out in June that the series had been recommissioned, it was a bittersweet moment, knowing his chance of racing to the South Pole was over. Cracknell and Fogle were 'gutted’. 'Jonny would have been a really key element to the team, Cracknell says, 'because he wanted it done properly in a way that we were a bit like, “Oh, just go for it”. He’d have been a great addition to us personality-wise as well – he’s very funny, a really dry sense of humour, he’s great at mimicking people. We support the same football team, we’ve been to watch Chelsea… I’d love to do something with him in the future. I’ve actually got a spare place in the New York marathon, so I was going to give him a ring.’
Miller is returning to the stage again, this time on Broadway, starring with Sienna Miller in Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, due to open in October. A reworking of Strindberg’s classic, it takes place on the eve of Labour’s historic landslide in July 1945, at a country house outside London. Miller plays the chauffeur, John, whose seduction of the aristocratic daughter of the house has devastating consequences. 'It’s a dream come true,’ he beams. 'My wife, bless her, has just followed me here for three months and now we have to uproot to New York for five months, but she’s really supportive. Doing a lead on Broadway never comes along and she understands it’s a great opportunity.’
Sienna has known Jonny for eight years, and describes him as a 'fiercely loyal friend’. She is speaking on the phone from New York, where they are preparing to start previews. 'He’s a fantastic stage actor, and an incredibly hard worker; he’s got stamina and discipline tattooed on his arms,’ she laughs. 'I think he has an understanding of people and a curiosity when it comes to personalities, and that tends to make a good actor. He’s also a real team player; he’s friends with every crew member he’s ever worked with – they’re constantly texting him.’
Miller admits to being nervous, but says that his philosophy is simple: 'I’ve never taken myself too seriously, I’m not into that. I consider myself really lucky and I always have done. My approach is that if I know I’m relaxed and happy, then I will do my best work. Besides, I’ve got a little baby who doesn’t give a damn what I’ve been doing – he’s just “wheheyyy”.
'It’s a cathartic job,’ Miller continues. 'Even when you’re producing difficult material and you get emotional, after it you feel good; you feel like you’ve done a good job, or had an emotional release. I’ve always enjoyed that, but you go home and think, that was a good day’s work, and you move on.’
EastEnders中的小角色Prime Suspect 3与Cadfael给了他进军大银幕的机会，他接到了1995年《黑客》中的角色Zero Cool（《猜火车》后上映）。人们记住这个科技怪客的唯一一点是他与合作的演员安吉丽娜·茱丽相识，此后的1996年，他移居洛杉矶，并与之成婚。媒体对他们的婚姻极为关注，婚礼上新娘穿着米勒的白衬衫，上面血书他的名字，而他则穿一身皮衣。婚礼举行好几个星期后，他才第一次见到了他的岳父乔恩·怀特。18个月后，这段婚姻便触了礁，“没什幺遗憾或好埋怨的，只不过是这段婚姻不成功，”米勒当时说道，“迟早我都要做出决定，而我决定早点结束。”
米勒再次回归舞台，这次是在百老汇，与西耶娜·米勒一同出演帕崔克·马柏导演的《After Miss Julie》，10月开演。本剧根据斯特林德伯格经典作品改编，讲述1945年历史上著名工运前夕，伦敦郊区一座贵族房子里发生的故事。米勒扮演剧中诱奸贵族女儿的司机约翰，引致了毁灭性后果。“象是美梦成了真，”他喜不自禁地说，“我妻子——上帝保佑她——跟我搬到这里才刚三个月，现在又要搬到纽约住上半年了，但她真的支持我。得到百老汇舞台主角的机会不是天天都有，她非常理解那是怎样大的机会。”