Two years ago, when Sienna Miller received the scripts for “Anatomy of a Scandal,” a high-gloss limited series from David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, she read them straight through. “I binged them in the way that you would want to binge a six-part drama,” she said.
She had been offered the role of Sophie, the silken wife of James (Rupert Friend), a parliamentary minister. Sophie would require the complete range of Miller’s skills and gifts — charisma, vulnerability, beauty, wit. And in a career in which she has mostly been relegated to supporting wife and girlfriend slots, Sophie is solidly the lead. And yet, Miller hesitated. “I had reservations because it felt sort of ugly and familiar,” she said.
In the first episode, Sophie learns that James has had an affair with a co-worker; The Daily Mail will splash the story in the morning. For Miller, who had weathered a mid-2000s scandal, in which her then-fiancé Jude Law slept with his children’s nanny, the resonances were obvious.
But in the way you might feel compelled to run your fingers over a scar once a wound has healed, the opportunity to revisit these past experiences became part of Miller’s attraction to the role. “In the weird, twisted way that somehow exists, I was drawn to that, to exploring that from a different perspective,” she said.
This was on a recent weekday morning, in the restaurant of a boutique hotel in Manhattan’s West Village, near where Miller lives with her 9-year-old daughter Marlowe. In “Anatomy of a Scandal,” which arrives on Netflix on Friday, Sophie dresses in plush golds, creams and taupes. Miller had pulled from that same palette that morning, in off-white jeans and a beige sweater, with necklaces overlapping at her throat.
Of course, Miller isn’t Sophie. She is liberal where Sophie is conservative, expressive where Sophie is constrained. Sophie plays a role, that of the perfect politician’s wife, for very personal reasons. For Miller, role-playing is strictly professional. Her off-camera self is unaffected and open. And yet there are moments in “Anatomy of a Scandal” when Sophie’s life seems inextricable from the actress playing her.
Take, for example, a scene in a late episode, in which Sophie confronts a not-quite antagonist. “I have been simultaneously under and overestimated my entire life,” she says. “If I have traded on the currency that the world told me was mine, well, that’s what I was trained to do.” It’s hard to know just who is speaking.
These parallels weren’t lost on Sarah Vaughan, who created the character of Sophie in her 2018 novel and is an executive producer of the series. They lend “an extra level of nuance and meaning to her performance,” Vaughan said.
In shooting the series, Miller also consciously drew on her past. “There is a kind of muscle memory about many of her experiences that I have. So it was quite available,” she said. Sometimes, it was almost too available.
Friend, speaking by telephone, said that Miller can give herself over to a character so completely that she seems practically possessed. “Sienna herself will be physically altered, will be either sweating or shaking, or her heartbeat will have increased, or a twitch will have occurred that she could never have planned,” he said.
When it came time to shoot the scene in which Sophie learns of her husband’s affair, Miller’s heart began to beat so fast and so loud that it registered on her microphone. “The feeling that something’s about to come out that you have absolutely no control over, the anxiety of knowing that you’ve got one sleep before something intensely personal is made extremely public, that’s an agonizing state of affairs,” she said.
And yet Sophie ultimately handles her situation very differently from the way Miller did. To say anything more risks spoilers, but Sophie’s approach to the reputational damage didn’t feel like an option for Miller back then, and so playing out Sophie’s narrative felt liberating, therapeutic even, she said.
“There’s catharsis in all of it,” Miller said. “Anytime you get to go to work and cry, it sort of feels weirdly good.”
Watching Miller in the role, Vaughan noted the rawness of her performance, the seeming honesty of it. And something else. “I don’t know if I’m reading into that because of knowing what she’s experienced,” Vaughan said. “But I think there’s an anger to it, but a contained anger.”
When asked where that anger came from, Miller said, “At this point, at 40, I have had experiences that I’ve internalized and can use — betrayal and a frustration at how much I just accepted and did not push back on and how little self-esteem I had.”
She said this smiling, but there was also something spiky underneath it. Gibson, the showrunner, noted Miller’s ability to hold more than one emotional truth — fury, resignation, a wry amusement — at once, giving her performances a natural complexity.
“She deserves every challenge,” Gibson said, “because she’s up to it.”
These days, Miller has more self-esteem. It took a couple of decades, a dozen more roles and the birth of a child, but she knows who she is now, she said. Sophie’s speech about having been underestimated and overestimated goes on. She tells her adversary, “A lot of people think they know me. You think you know me. Trust me, you don’t.”
What does Miller wish that people — the ones who have spent 20 years staring at her face in fashion magazines or checkout tabloids — knew about her? Nothing.
“I’m less attached to really caring at this point,” she said. “I understand that I have much more substance than I was allowed to express as a person and always did. And I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, I’m very happy. I feel very grounded. I have a healthy child and I’m working still, and I survived a pretty extraordinary decade, and many people didn’t. So there’s a kind of quiet pride in that side of it.”
“What do I wish people knew?” she added. “I don’t.”