By Randy Myers
It’s somewhat of a shock that it’s only been in these last couple of years that multi-talented actress Sienna Miller, unforgettable in films as diverse as the gangster drama Layer Cake (Festival 2005) and the epic adventure The Lost City of Z (Festival 2017), segued from primarily supporting performances to lead roles.
From her intense portrayal of the notorious Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl (2006) – one of her first major parts – to her BAFTA/Golden Globes nominated turn as a resilient Tippi Hedren enduring the wrath of Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl (2012), her performances and characters sear into our consciousness and stay lodged there.
That’s particularly true of her shattering acting tour de force as an anguished, troubled mom desperately searching for her missing daughter in American Woman (2019). Miller’s crescendo-like performance in Jake Scott’s gritty drama remains not only a career high, but is also one of the most effective, visceral acting feats of the previous decade.
The New York-born, London-raised actress consistently becomes a high point of the films she’s in, and is one of contemporary cinema’s most dedicated, under-appreciated artists, a risk taker with the ability to tackle tough characters that are shouldering the burdens of an unjust world. Her latest dramatic high note is the tricky-to-pull-off Wander Darkly (2020), which world-premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Critics praised her portrayal of an unhappily married mom clinging to the fabric of a deteriorating past after a devastating car crash. Diego Luna costars as her husband.
Born to a South African mom who was a model and a banker father, Miller studied acting at New York’s prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute but didn’t immediately migrate to her true love, acting. She originally pursued a modeling career, gracing photo ad campaigns for Coca-Cola, and frequently popped up on the cover and in the folds of the Italian edition of Vogue. The acting profession, though, beckoned, and her passion for it blossomed at an early age.
“I’ve wanted to be an actress for as long as I can remember, and I can say I was almost born in the theater,” Miller recalled in a previous interview. “My mum went into labor while she was watching The Nutcracker Suite in New York – apparently I was kicking like mad.”
While she seemed to come out of nowhere with her role as a girl mixed up with mobsters in Matthew Vaughn’s frisky 2004 debut feature Layer Cake, a slick gangster double-stabber starring a relatively unknown-at-the time Daniel Craig, Miller had appeared before in other films – her first being the 2001 romantic comedy South Kensington – opposite Rupert Everett and Elle Macpherson. She had also appearing on TV, including as a member of the regular cast of the clever Keen Eddie (2003), a witty Fox series about a New York cop fumbling about due to a transfer to a precinct in London.
But it was her sultry and sexy role as a cagey Tammy in Layer Cake that garnered the most attention from audiences and critics alike for the 21-year-old. In 2008, all that attention led to her receiving the BAFTA rising star award.
Frequently, Miller’s work helped prop up the performances of actors around her, from Heath Ledger in the title role of Lasse Hallstrom’s fanciful Casanova (2006) to Bradley Cooper’s Navy SEAL in Clint Eastwood’s 2015 Oscar-winning adaptation of Chris Kyle’s autobiography American Sniper.
That’s changing now, Miller said in a recent Forbes interview during her American Woman tour.
“I’ve supported men through many films where there is that kind of arc, but [American Woman] was a first for me. I think it was the best role I’ve ever been given.”
Miller’s diverse filmography includes numerous appearances in many high-profile films, including the actioner G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) wherein she got the chance to play a villain; Bennett Miller’s somber true crime drama Foxcatcher (2014); and the trippy, rather prescient Ben Wheatley adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise (Festival 2016).
Other spot-on performances include portrayals of one of Jude Law’s many love interests in the 2005 Alfie remake, a prostitute in Anna Boden’s and Ryan Fleck’s gambling addict drama Mississippi Grind (2015), the tenacious wife of British explorer Percy Fawcett in James Gray’s striking The Lost City of Z, a mobster’s daughter in Ben Affleck’s 2016 adaptation of author Dennis Lehane Live by Night, and a no-guff police detective in 21 Bridges (2019).
Miller’s love for acting extends to the stage where she’s received raves for playing, amongst others, the iconic characters of Sally Bowles in the 2015 Studio 54 Broadway production of Cabaret and Maggie in the 2017 West End production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Given Miller’s ascent in films and theater, it might seem like she might be taking it a bit easier in the coming years. Not true.
In a 2019 Vanity Fair interview prior to American Woman’s debut, Miller – who is involved in numerous charity organizations – says she won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “I don’t think I’ve ever reached a point where I’m like, ‘Ah, this is it. Now I can relax and sit back.’ I don’t think I ever would, irrespective of what success I might have or failure I might have. I think it’s always an endless kind of quest for something. And in these moments where you creatively tap into something that you weren’t even sure you were aware of or had – I suppose that’s the closest you can come to some sense of achievement.”
Randy Myers is a freelance film critic for the San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Times. He is the former president of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle and adores independent and international films.