How the pussycat got her claws
As she stars in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, Sienna Miller tells Chris Harvey why she feels exposed, exploited – and angry
Sienna Miller is about to do battle with Elizabeth Taylor. She’s starring in a West End production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as Maggie, the desirable wife of a man who says he cannot stand her. Maggie has a voice that can sound like “a soft caress” and such an aggressive sexual need for her husband that if she thought he would never make love to her again, she would “pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart”.
She has been played on stage by Lindsay Duncan, Kathleen Turner and Scarlett Johansson, but is irrevocably associated with the prickly heat of Taylor’s performance in the 1958 film. Maggie the Cat is a role with claws.
“I don’t feel I can be catty,” says Miller, “but I understand her cattiness, I do. I have to, I have to love her. And I’ve felt longing and the depth of her passion, I can totally relate to that.”
We’re in the costume designers’ room at a rehearsal studio in south London. It’s windowless, the one large mirror is cracked, and a black silk slip is hanging on a rail. Miller is grabbing the odd mouthful of salad between answers in her short lunch break. She’s wearing jeans and a blue-and-white Fifties-style top, a thin choker with a single diamond on it. She’s calm and self-assured on the surface, but her hands tell a different story – they’re performing a twisting, pulling, contortionist’s dance.
Starring opposite her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Jack O’Connell (as Maggie’s husband, Brick), whom she knew before only from his films, in which he “felt like a Brando” to her in the rawness and honesty of his acting. “I think he’s going to blow people away,” she says.
The hidden component of Brick and Maggie’s relationship is the former’s love that dare not speak its name for a friend, Skipper, who has recently committed suicide. Does this element of the play chime with Miller, I wonder, since she works in an industry where concealing your sexuality is common. “Yeah, it’s hard to imagine,” she says. “It makes me sad that people don’t feel like they’re able to be themselves.”
Later that day, she goes on The Graham Norton Show to plug the production and promises there will be nudity, to which Norton responds, “Woohoo, tickets begin selling!” This highly visible promotional role is something Miller refers to when I ask her if she has ever experienced the pay gap between men and women in the movies: “Yes… to a degree where it’s staggering.”
She says that it’s “part of what you accept and tolerate as a woman because you have deep-rooted inferiority”. She adds: “At the time, I felt grateful, even knowing what [my] co-star was getting, but actually you’re so leaned on as a woman to promote a film by doing magazine covers, by what you wear on red carpets… they rely on that so heavily that you really should be compensated sometimes more than your male co-stars for what you’re asked to do.”
That imbalance is something she’s been thinking about a lot. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, first performed in 1955, the women are financially dependent and the men are dominant; that’s an out-of-date dynamic, isn’t it? “It’s very alive and very well,” says Miller. “That is one thing that I am struggling with in this play – the sexism. That still exists; I know relationships where that is the case and families where the male is dominant and the grandfather is really dominant. It’s there – think of Trump.”
Miller is angry. Poised, in control, unfailingly articulate, but deepdown angry about how women are treated. “I’m 35 years old, and I honestly can say that only in the last year I’ve been noticing quite how deep-rooted [are] the effects of feeling marginalised and disrespected – and tolerating that.” She’s wary, too. “I’m only really just understanding the extent of it in my own life and in my own behaviour, and what I have permitted and allowed.” She doesn’t want to answer questions about how she balances motherhood with a career, or talk about her tabloid-splash past (“I was in my twenties and was reckless and having fun”), or respond to new gossip, such as that linking her with Ben Affleck on the film they made together last year, Live By Night (“It’s not true, we’re great friends. There’s always gossip [about] every single person I work with or have been in a room with”). She wants to know if I would have been comfortable asking Affleck how he felt about all this – “an imposing 6ft 5in man who’s got a body of work”. It’s not comfortable asking, I say.
She looks back with dismay on how women have been treated by the media. “I remember Britney Spears having a breakdown and it was everywhere – exploited, talked about and mocked. And then Owen Wilson had a tragic moment, where he tried to commit suicide, and was left alone and respected. I couldn’t think of a more glaringly obvious example of the treatment of women and how awful that is.”
It has played out in other ways in her own life. “I remember when I first started, going for an audition and they’d said wear a short skirt and a T-shirt – now I would be furious at even that request – and they made me stand there so they could film my whole body and then turn around and film it from the back and it just felt that it was totally exploitative.”
Fame arrived suddenly for Miller when, in 2003, she began dating Jude Law, her much-more-famous co-star on the remake of Alfie. Does she think that this had a negative impact on her career? “I don’t think falling in love had a negative impact,” she says. “I think being catapulted into a tabloid world before I’d had a film come out meant that I was something before I was an actress, I was somebody’s girlfriend who wore nice clothes. I imagine if I’d had a couple of films out before then, I would have been an actress first.”
She’s definitely an actress now: versatile, capable of making a lot of a little in supporting roles, such as the stay-at-home wives she played in
‘I was asked to audition in a short skirt. Now I’d be furious about that’
Focused: Miller has proved herself a versatile and fascinating actor