With everything I've done that explores really intense themes, you gain more empathy for the human experience. That's the bucket that keeps getting filled.
Two years ago, Sienna Miller completely stole the show in Jake Scott’s domestic indie American Woman, about a damaged soul with a lifelong habit of making bad choices, who is transformed when her daughter goes missing. It was widely dubbed as Miller’s finest performance to date, which—incredibly, confoundingly—also marked the first leading role for the British-American actress in her two-decades-long career. She took the Deauville Film Festival’s talent trophy for that role, which also might’ve been star-making for her had she not been so famous already.
For Miller, that film was unprecedentedly huge because she had almost gotten used to being overshadowed. American Woman was not only her biggest role by a long shot—there were no male co-stars to steal focus. In prestige films like Foxcatcher and American Sniper, she played the secondary wife roles. In The Lost City of Z, Charlie Hunnam all but patted Miller’s pretty wife character on the head. Even in Factory Girl, her Edie Sedgwick was an adjunct to Andy Warhol. Speaking about these past roles, Miller admitted to The Hollywood Reporter: “In many cases, I still fantasize about going and retelling the entire movie from my character’s perspective.”
At 38, Miller is wrenching herself from the clutches of those reliable-female-shoulder-to-cry-on parts, thanks to newfound opportunities that are letting her truly disappear into someone else’s skin. Her latest toplining role in Tara Miele’s trauma drama Wander Darkly, which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, makes another powerful case for Miller: an actress not to be underestimated. In the midst of her low-key renaissance after a revelatory performance in American Woman, this is now proof positive of her impressive range.
Wander Darkly injects artful turbulence into an already ailing romance between Adrienne (Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna), a couple at an impasse in their relationship. They have a young child together and are closing on a home, but distrust has wormed its way into their union, punctuated by small digs about their unmarried status. One night on the car ride home after a party, tempers flare, which is not uncommon between them, and they’re involved in a brutal head-on collision.
From this point on, Wander Darkly gets surreal in a big way. Adrienne leaves her body, watches herself die in a hospital and even attends her own funeral, where Matteo speaks emotionally about his love for her. Now a lost apparition, Adrienne wanders the streets of Los Angeles. But is she really dead? Eventually, Matteo joins her on her metaphysical travels, trying to convince her otherwise. To that end, he devises a plan to take Adrienne through their memories together—the story of their relationship—each emotional swing swelling to a critical mass. Crossing between timelines, a hallucinatory sequence might start with a premonitive peek at their daughter’s teenage future and spiral the pair way back to a romantic day in Mexico, before spitting them out onto the scene of the car crash. So what happens now? Adrienne doesn’t know, as much as the audience is kept at a distance. Is this a purgatorial limbo? Miele doesn’t give us easy answers—thankfully.
Wander Darkly will open in select theaters and hit On Demand on December 11.
Wander Darkly must be an intriguing proposition for an actor. I also now know that this was quite a personal story to tell for Tara [Miele], who has gone on the record to say that the impetus for making it came directly from having been in a traumatic car accident with her husband. She admits that the experience really changed her perspective on mortality.
I read the script and I was so moved by it, and the themes of it and the ideas behind it, and obviously by the fact that it was personal to her. It felt totally dreamlike in many ways but also rooted in a real female experience of the world—a human experience. I knew it would take full gymnastics as an actor to get to the places that it required. I was really desperate to do it! I read it and asked if I could be in it, which is something I’ve never done before. It was a really difficult subject matter. It was really painful and hard. But I think the best ones kind of tend to be that way.
Adrienne and Matteo’s relationship is quite tumultuous, and the structure in which the story is told is completely frenetic, going backwards and forwards in time, seeing them in love and then seeing them at each other’s throats. How did you keep the emotional peaks and valleys in check at any given time? I’m assuming that this was all filmed out of sequence.
It just requires a lot of prep, which I did obviously on my own, but also we had time to rehearse this. I think that was really essential because it was such an unnatural way of being in a scene, when you’re in the past and you have to suddenly stop and comment on it from the future, and have an argument about what actually happened in the moment you’ve just been performing. It required a lot of real reminders of, where have you come from? Which is actually something that is really important I think on any film. But especially on this because it jumps around in such a disorientating way. I really felt disoriented during it and that was useful for her state of mind.
Is the rehearsal period really as rare as it’s so often purported to be?
It really rarely happens, and I think it’s so important. But very few directors do it so I was grateful that we did. I think on this it was essential because it was such a complex thing to try to get right.
The film explores some of life’s greatest mysteries like the afterlife. It makes you think about purgatory. Will the Grim Reaper come to get us when our time is up? What would it really be like to visit our own funeral? What if our lives did flash before our eyes in the end? Do you personally prescribe to any of these concepts? I wonder if some things resonated with you more deeply than others, in alignment with your own beliefs.
Yeah! I mean, I’ve had lots of strange experiences in my life where it makes you stop and think, “Is there something bigger than all of us?” Also, I spent time kind of loving the idea that there is and that people can come back—that there’s not a final ending. At the same time, I think that there’s something beautiful about feeling like this really is it, make the most of your experience on earth, which is fleeting. I can definitely get sucked into a little bit of the woo-woo stuff as well. [laughs]
My 95-year-old grandmother not long ago stopped sleeping in her bedroom because she feels a strange presence in there and hears noises. She has slight dementia, too, but I can get kind of superstitious. So this hit me viscerally. I think I’m the perfect audience for it.
Aw, Kee! No, I’ve had those feelings, too. I mean, it can be something as simple as thinking about someone and when you pick up your phone to call them, they call you, or vice versa. It feels like there are connections that are kind of inexplicable in moments. You can go out one day and run into that person who you haven’t seen in ten years, you know? Things like that. I have that kind of experience all the time, and it is comforting to feel like there is something bigger than us.
Again, assembling the shoot must’ve taken almost militaristic precision. This is essentially, for the most part, a series of vignettes that all have to fit together like Tetris in order for it to work the way it was intended.
Tara really had it in her head. She and Carolina Costa, our amazing DP, had mapped this thing because there are these transitions, which are surreal and strange. That was all their work and it was brilliantly thought out. I was really surprised when I saw how effective it was. It required us to do things like suddenly turn to look into the camera a certain way because the white would go to something completely different. There were technical aspects to it, which I hadn’t done before.
Do you have a favorite moment?
I think the ending is really beautiful and incredibly moving and life-affirming. When I watch the movie, that final scene is really emotional.
What about a particularly challenging one?
The hardest was probably the moment where the realization of what actually happened occurs, where I find the box of things and go through them and it’s just full grief. I think that was a really painful and challenging and cathartic day. Hard. It took me a while to recover from that moment. And in all honesty, we had 24 days to make this film and it was a hard process to trust because it was so abstract in many ways. So I don’t know that there were days where we felt like, “That was a really good day! We really got that!” I was really anxious making it, thinking that it wouldn’t work because it was so far out. Tara just kept being really reassuring and being really positive about the dailies, but as an experience, it was a hard place to sit in, you know? It was heavy for me.
Considering that the film is “far out,” as you rightly say, and just how it exists during the making of it, I wonder if a project like this demands that the actor trust their director more, compared to a linear storytelling situation where things are much more straightforward.
I think definitely. I think it does require that kind of trust. I mean, it’s easy to say that in hindsight once you’ve seen the finished product: “Oh, you were right!” [laughs] But there were days where we like all kind of worried! Yes, I always feel like you have to trust the director. You have to because, otherwise, it’s a sinking ship as far as I’m concerned. For a captain, that’s it. Obviously, if I can tell that it’s a moronic piece of direction, I’m gonna step in. But on the whole, whatever their vision is, I’m there to tell their story and I don’t try to make waves amongst that.
I couldn’t help but notice that so many key roles in this production are occupied by women. How much progress do you think we’ve made from what you’ve witnessed firsthand?
I think we still have a ways to go, but I do feel like the change is happening. I can see it on the ground. The director I’m working with now is also a woman [S.J. Clarkson on the upcoming TV series Anatomy of a Scandal]. The producers on that are women. On that job, there is a female Steadicam operator, which is a first. I’ve never seen that before. On The Loudest Voice, Kari Skogland was pretty much the head director of that series. Before this whole movement began, I had worked with one female director. Now I’ve worked in the last two years with three. So I can see that things are shifting. Also, when projects are brought to you and there’s no director attached, if it’s a story that is sort of centered around a female, the list is female directors. That, again, was not something that ever happened to me before. So little by little, people are waking up to the fact that we do represent half of the population and that our interior lives are as interesting as our male counterparts. These stories also deserve to be told by somebody who has had that experience, and I hope it continues to become balanced. I don’t think it has to swing so far that there’s no place for anybody else—that would be counterproductive—but I would love to get to a place where there was no conversation even about gender and it’s just director.
What do you hope people will take away from Wander Darkly?
I think that people will feel moved and connected, and probably from what I’ve heard, will want to reach out to the people that they love and tell them they love them. I think that’s sort of the point of any artistic medium: to examine something. In this instance, it’s grief, which is something that everybody will have to face at some point in their lives. I think that people will come away feeling seen or heard or listened to. For people who have had a similar experience, I hope they feel soothed by it. You know, it’s the same goal with most things: to be outside of your own life and in someone else’s, and to feel more connected to yours and the people you love as a result of it.
With a movie like this where it asks life’s big questions, where it’s so deeply about the human experience, do you as a performer come out the other end feeling changed by it?
I think with everything that I’ve done that kind of explores really intense themes, you just gain more empathy for the human experience and for the people in it. That’s the bucket that keeps getting filled by the work that I’m doing—spending time sitting in and imagining what that, in reality, is like. It just opens your heart up to people who may have had that experience or connect to it in a real way, and then you’re filled with gratitude for your own life. There’s a boatload of empathy for everybody, really, and just a love for how hard it can be and how wonderful it can be, and all the ups and downs of the experience. To really sit in that is a gift of my job.
Do you have a desire to get in the director’s chair at any point?
I think I would love to direct, and I’ve kind of been kicking something down the road. I’m trying to muster up the courage to really get it together to try to make it. But again, I think this is something gendered: there’s this part of me, this loud negative voice, that says, “What if it fails?” I know that’s probably exactly the reason to go and do something. Also, I love the idea of producing. I’ve been talking about it for awhile now and I have to, again, get myself together to do it. All of those things are percolating in nascent stages in my head in life.
Would you consider directing yourself?
I wouldn’t want to direct myself. But that is, you know, the Clint Eastwood school of directing.