January 29 2011: The actor talks about finding success in the US and being reunited with Danny Boyle for the role of a lifetime
The actor talks about finding success in the US and being reunited with Danny Boyle for the role of a lifetime
The last time that Jonny Lee Miller worked with Danny Boyle, back in 1995, the director had to ask the young actor to stop rollerblading with Angelina Jolie. Miller met Jolie on Hackers, a high-tech fantasy film, and the couple were Rollerblading on the top floor of the Wills cigarette factory in Glasgow while Boyle was filming Trainspotting downstairs. Jolie was over from Los Angeles visiting Miller, a big-eyed pretty boy who had bleached his hair platinum blonde to play Sick Boy.
Boyle likes to tell the story of Miller and Ewan McGregor, who played Renton, turning up one morning “absolutely wrecked” from the night before. It was a gorgeous sunny day near the end of the shoot and the two actors had to film the scene in which they shoot a dog in the park. “They literally couldn’t walk,” Boyle says. “All they could do was lie down . . .”
This is not what Miller remembers and he wants to set the record straight. “That is bollocks! We never went out all night before work. I’ve never done that in my life! I know it to be true because Angelina, who at the time was my girlfriend, had come to visit. I was with her! She came to the park and Danny said, ‘Who’s that beautiful girl?’” He grins. “Angelina was leaving the next day so I certainly wasn’t out with Ewan McGregor.”
Miller, now 38, is being a little playful; I don’t think he really minds too much that Boyle still insists he was drunk. So when Boyle phoned him last year and asked him to be in a stage play of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, Miller immediately agreed. “I was very pleasantly surprised by the call. It was a fantastic offer.” He wasn’t wrong; apart from a few day seats, the performances are sold out for the current booking period. Before it has even opened Frankenstein is widely expected to be one of the most electrifying plays of the year.
Miller is sitting in a tiny room at the National, taking a lunch break from the Frankenstein rehearsals. A daily runner and veteran of 13 marathons, he still looks incredibly youthful and ridiculously healthy, with clear skin, limpid blue-grey eyes and a shaved head. He wears soft brown corduroy trousers, smart brown leather shoes and a comfy blue cardigan. He places his trilby on the table but leaves his blue coat on. It’s not cold in the room, but perhaps Miller subconsciously needs to know that he can make a quick getaway. He is not, after all, particularly comfortable doing interviews — partly because of shyness, but mostly because he was once married to Jolie.
I am surprised that Miller mentions Jolie at all, even if it is only to contest a Trainspotting anecdote; he usually avoids talking about their relationship or wedding (in which she infamously wore a white silk shirt with the legend “Jonny” written on it, apparently in blood; their marriage lasted from 1996 to 1999). He would much rather talk about Michele Hicks, the actress and model he married in 2008. He is clearly smitten with their two-year-old son, Buster, and apologises for leaving his phone on in case the new childminder calls; having moved his family temporarily from Los Angeles to London, Miller feels responsible for Buster’s wellbeing.
Miller calls Boyle’s Frankenstein a “crazy experiment” and he has a point. Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch will alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature from day to day. This is extraordinarily ambitious, especially for two such ostensibly different actors. Miller is an instinctive, interior actor and Cumberbatch, who most recently played Sherlock Holmes on TV, more cerebral, flamboyant. How do they work together? Miller shrugs. “We realised early on that we were going to get on. I don’t know if it’s sheer luck. Danny must have sensed something. I can’t imagine that everyone would be able to work this way.”
It can’t be easy to swap roles. Miller laughs. “That was the worry to begin with; how precious were Benedict and I going to be? That’s my idea, you can’t do that! But as long as you acknowledge each other, it’s fine.” Does he prefer playing Frankenstein or the Creature? “The Creature is much more physical, with bells and whistles. I’m surprised how much I like playing Victor. He’s been harder to discover. It’s not a story about a monster; it’s about two guys, about abandonment, love and loneliness. The Creature is a man who is treated as a monster because of the way he looks.”
If it does indeed prove to be exceptional, Frankenstein will reintroduce Miller to a British audience. He is still best remembered here for Trainspotting — despite playing Mr Knightley in a BBC adaptation of Emma in 2009 — simply because most of his recent work has been on American television (and in a Broadway play with Sienna Miller, After Miss Julie; The New York Times described him as “first rate”). In Eli Stone he played the title character, a San Franciscan lawyer with George Michael hallucinations, and last year joined the fifth season of Dexter to play “a proper psychopath, a really awful person”.
Miller’s American accent is so impeccable that British fans of Eli Stone and Dexter may not even know that he is British. Miller laughs; he doesn’t seem to mind what people think of him so long as he gets the work. He certainly doesn’t think of himself as having had any wilderness years and is philosophical about Smith, another American TV series, being cancelled after only seven episodes in 2007. “That was a bummer. I thought I’d got this great job working with Ray Liotta . . .”
Although Miller has established himself as a versatile actor with a strong physical presence, there is no denying that media excitement about him peaked in the late 1990s. In 1996 Trainspotting was released and quickly became an enormous success, and a year later he formed Natural Nylon, a film and theatre production company, with his old friend Jude Law and Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee and McGregor.
Back then, Miller, Law and McGregor were rock-star cool, hanging around in Primrose Hill looking pretty. Were they serious about making Natural Nylon work as a business or was it all posturing? “The idea was to have a brilliant time. But we didn’t know what the f*** we were doing! It doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have if you don’t know how to execute those ideas. So, yes, we were naive.”
Didn’t he feel like king of the world: married to Jolie, cool mates, shining career ahead? He looks away. “I wasn’t … I mean … my marriage was over. I had followed Angelina to LA and I was there for the best part of two years. I moved back here in 1997 and didn’t go back to LA until five years ago. Anyway, I’d have felt a lot better about Natural Nylon had I managed to produce a film!”
The company folded in 2003, but Miller is still best friends with Law. “We met when we were 13 and both joined the National Youth Music Theatre. I didn’t really enjoy secondary school at all so I lived for the holiday breaks when I could rejoin the theatre. Jude and I used to try to smoke cigarettes and we’d wander around Edinburgh during the festival till 2am. It was one of the best times of my life.” He looks out over the Thames and says in a posh voice: “Jude and I are coming up for our 25th anniversary. I guess I’ll have to get him something silver.”
As he says, Miller didn’t care much for school. But it didn’t matter because he “absolutely knew” that he wanted to act. He was brought up in Kingston upon Thames in a low-key show business household: his maternal grandfather, Bernard Lee, played M in the early Bond films (rumours that Miller auditioned for the current Bond are just that, although he was once at a dinner with producer Barbara Broccoli), his mother and father were stage managers at the BBC and his father used to act. He remembers watching Blue Peter and Top of the Pops live as a kid and feeling “a certain connection” to that world.
Miller is in a good place just now. Happy marriage, “lovely” son and probably, all being well, the role — or should that be roles? — of a lifetime at the National Theatre. He says that he trusts Boyle completely but right now, less than two weeks away from opening night, admits that “the terror is starting to creep in”.
I wonder if, despite the drunk-or-not Trainspotting anecdote and the six-day week that he is doing on Frankenstein, Miller would consider the much-discussed Trainspotting sequel. “I’d be totally open to it, but only if the script is as good. I like Danny’s idea of making it at some point in the future when the original cast is all visibly older.” So, in Miller’s case, no time soon. He puts his trilby on, pulls his coat tight and grins. “Well, thanks … But if you want to know would I work for Danny Boyle again? Of course I would.”
Frankenstein runs from February 5 to April 16. It will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK on March 17 as part of National Theatre Live (nationaltheatre.org.uk) Danny Boyle: In His Words by Amy Raphael is published by Faber and Faber