In the late summer of 2005, Sienna Miller was appearing in the West End of London in a production of As You Like It. It is hard to remember how things were back then – how feverish the attention around young, female celebrities was and how ferocious the tabloids were in pursuing them. Fresh from filming the remake of Alfie, and dating her co-star Jude Law, Miller was both a style icon (the queen of “boho chic”) and the biggest tabloid target in Britain – as the Observer put it, an “actress and model who has been traded like pork belly on the celebrity market”. When, that summer, the Sun published a “rumour” that Miller was pregnant, her world exploded.
She was 23, panicked, mortified – and obliged to stand on stage eight times a week before a capacity audience of 800 people. She was also, as the Sun had correctly reported, pregnant – less than 12 weeks. Looking back, she still boggles at the grotesqueness of it: “Appearing in public when you’re extremely heartbroken. Trying not to break. All the while being mocked and ridiculed.” The now 40-year-old smiles. “Hell, honestly.”
This all happened a very long time ago. The reason we are talking about it on a Monday morning in Manhattan is that at the end of last year Miller reached a settlement with the Sun. The newspaper agreed to pay the actor an undisclosed sum on the basis that there was no admission of illegal activity, and as part of the settlement the judge allowed Miller to read out a prepared statement. In it, she expressed regret that she didn’t have the resources to pursue the tabloid further, to a full trial, and restated her belief in its guilt; Miller alleges that the Sun obtained details of her pregnancy via illegal subterfuge, the so-called “blagging” of medical records from her doctor’s office by pretending to be one of her reps. “I wanted to expose the criminality that runs through the heart of this corporation,” she read, standing outside the high court flanked by her lawyers. “A criminality demonstrated clearly and irrevocably by the evidence which I have seen. I wanted to share News Group’s secrets just as they have shared mine.”
We are downtown, in a cafe around the corner from where Miller lives with her 10-year-old daughter, Marlowe. She is in green mohair, slight and cheerful. If she appears a little nervous, it’s probably because Miller has a habit of shooting her mouth off and regretting it afterwards. In 2007, she gave an interview to my colleague Simon Hattenstone in which she said, among other things, people do drugs “cos they’re fun”. A lot of people liked her for that, an honest answer in a context in which they are exceedingly rare. But it upset her mum, which she tries not to do. For much of her life, Miller has pinballed between impulse and correction. “I sometimes wish I was more able to focus and strategise,” she says, particularly in relation to her career. The fact is, however, “If I’m happy, I’m happy. I’m an absolutely present, in-the-moment person – not much looking back, or further forward. I’ve never known where I’ve wanted to be in 10 years’ time.” There’s no question that this guilelessness of Miller’s, underscored by somewhat shaky self-esteem, added to the scorn with which she was treated.
This month, she can be seen playing against type in Anatomy of a Scandal, a six-part Netflix drama adapted from Sarah Vaughan’s novel and directed by SJ Clarkson, in which an English cabinet minister, played by Rupert Friend, is caught up in a #MeToo-type sex scandal. Miller plays Sophie, his wife, with Michelle Dockery as the barrister tasked with bringing him down. It’s a loose take on Boris Johnson’s old Bullingdon Club coterie and an enjoyable, bingeable romp. (One of the makers is Big Little Lies and Ally McBeal creator David E Kelley – this is his first show for Netflix – and the series has a lot in common with The Undoing, his highly stylised hit starring Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman.) For Miller, the character seemed unattractive at first. “I wasn’t that excited about playing a kind of English Tory wife,” she says. But the subject of betrayal interests her; she has Shakespearean-level experience of it, both from cheating boyfriends and endless gaslighting from the tabloids. I point out there’s not a single appealing man in the entire thing. “I know! They’re all shit!” Miller looks delighted. She thinks for another second. “Yeah, no, they’re all shit. She’s rampantly feminist, SJ Clarkson. She’s great.”
The other noticeable thing about the show is the way it highlights how starkly the conversation around consent has moved on. The case prosecuted by the character played by Dockery – “Dockers” to Miller, who had few scenes with her, but is wildly admiring: “She’s genuinely a great person” – hinges on whether a woman who has said “yes” can, a moment later, say “no”. Even 10 years ago, this would have been a fantastical proposition on which to hang a fictional court case, and 20 years ago, when Miller was in her 20s, it wouldn’t have been a discussion at all. “God, no,” she says. “We grew up in such a different world.”
Miller’s own character, Sophie, says at one point, “It was just easier to acquiesce,” to which Miller adds, “as a teenager, fuck, there’s no way that you could [say no], really. I mean, God forbid you offend a man’s ego by rejecting him. Versus the generation 10 years below us. ‘No!’ They’re happy to say it. It’s very different.”
A language has evolved to enable this change, and Miller hoots with laughter when I ask if she used the word “boundaries” when she was younger. “If someone had ever said to me you need a boundary, I’d have said ‘What is a boundary?’” The same goes for gaslighting, she says. “Or ‘love-bombing’ or ‘narcissistic tendencies’. I realise I’ve been gaslit and love-bombed several times.”
After her parents divorced when Miller was five, her father, an American banker and art dealer, stayed in New York and she returned, with her sister and her English-South African mother, to London. At eight, she was sent to boarding school. It has been a feature of Miller’s life that she has been serially underestimated, and it started early. “I was raised to be a people-pleaser,” she says. (Her daughter, however, has no trouble saying no, which is great, says Miller, bar “moments of arse-clenching embarrassment” when she won’t do what her mother asks her in public.)
As a child and a young adult, Miller was sunny and pretty, and when she got into acting and modelling after school, a readymade template was waiting for her. It’s thanks almost single-handedly to Miller that many of us tried, in the early 00s, to carry off boot tassels, big scarves and floaty florals, a wardrobe that made her look pixie-like and whimsical, and made the rest of us look like we got dressed in the dark. She hated the “It Girl” tag. “For a long time [my reputation] was something to celebrate – it’s just it wasn’t celebrating anything that I wanted to celebrate. People would come up to me and say, ‘I love your clothes!’ I’d be like, ‘Aaaaaargh, I’m trying to do Shakespeare!’”
If this was the extent of her grievance, Miller, whom no one forced to pose for the cover of Vogue, wouldn’t have much to complain about beyond basic, misogynistic double standards. (Jude Law, as pretty as Miller back then, had – I’m going out on a limb here – much less substance than his then girlfriend, but in spite of appearing on magazine covers, too, was taken very seriously indeed as an actor. Miller, on the other hand, was dismissed as an empty, talentless celebrity.) But of course, it went further than that. In her statement to the high court Miller said that she believes it was Rebekah Brooks, then editor of the Sun, who called Miller’s publicist and told her she knew Miller was pregnant. Miller alleged that Brooks was one of those responsible for leaking the story. The story itself was not originally published in the Sun but in Page Six, the notorious gossip column in the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s US tabloid. The Sun followed up and published the story in the UK.
For a split second – “Because I was in a mess” – Miller wondered if one of her close friends had betrayed her. How else could the tabloid have found out about her pregnancy? But she didn’t suspect her friends for long. “I mean, there’s no fucking way they could’ve known that from someone [I knew] – literally my three best friends were the only ones who knew. I realised pretty soon that [the Sun] was blagging medical records.” How did she know? “My doctor phoned and said, ‘We sent the documents you asked for.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t ask for any documents.’” Wow; a real the-phone-call’s-coming-from-inside-the-building moment. During the hearing last year, Miller’s legal team presented evidence, including invoices issued to the Sun from an alleged medical blagger for “Sienns [sic] Miller Pregnant research”, along with personal expenses that used references such as “SIENNA MILLER PREGNANCY RIDDLE” and “DINNER WITH TRACER (WHO CONFIRMED SIENNA WAS PREGNANT)”.
The allegations are shocking, even now. It’s obscene that a 23-year-old, in the early stages of a pregnancy, should have had these alleged actions taken against her. She did not ultimately continue with the pregnancy. “Horrible,” she says. “The anxiety it induced. At the time, it removed any ability I had to think clearly about making a decision. I was in an absolute panic, and already dealing with a huge amount of pain.” She pauses. “And then you think of, you know, the family of Milly Dowler [the murdered schoolgirl whose voicemails were targeted by the News of the World], and it’s insignificant. But it was just so toxic. Those days – the frenzy of it, the madness of what women, specifically, were subjected to. I actually look back at it and it’s like a weird film. Another universe.”
Making her statement outside the high court was a complicated moment for Miller. It didn’t feel like a victory. “When you hear there’s been an out-of-court settlement, of course it’s an astounding amount of money, but it’s nothing near what you imagine. I don’t tell people the actual figure as I’m not allowed to say. But it’s a drop in the ocean. I mean they won, essentially.” The reason Miller was able to go after the Sun in the first place was because she didn’t settle with the News of the World during the first phone-hacking scandal. When that story broke, she knew she was one of those who had been hacked. “I knew it. And I was being told that I was not one of them. I had to take the police to court to even find out I was a victim, which is indicative of how deeply it all runs, in terms of this democracy we’re living in.” She sued the police to hand over evidence that she was a victim of phone-hacking, and the judge ordered them to comply. “I got four boxes of evidence.” But in the end, “There’s very little you can do with it; you’re going up against a Goliath.” Airing all this is fine, she says, but “I thought it would have more of an impact than it did.”
What struck her most about the evidence was how removed reporters at the Sun were from the implications of what they were doing. It was gamification, effectively, and she was considered fair game. “I heard a lot, at the time: ‘You wanted it. You asked for it.’ Well, no. No one can prepare you for what that experience is. It was like big game hunting. It’s so vicious. And then reading through the emails of the correspondents and journalists, in court: ‘Look what she’s done now, silly little twat’ – that kind of thing. Banter, between grownups. There’s a weak link in human psychology, which is the part that makes us slow down on a motorway and look at an accident. That’s what tabloids exploit.”
She doesn’t blame individual Sun journalists particularly. “It was a collegial environment, where that’s what they were doing, and it was probably exciting. And I understand if you just detach from the fact that there’s a human being [at the other end of it], you can get sucked into a way of behaving that you are really not proud of, ultimately. And I think that a lot of people look back on it and probably feel pretty disgusted at what they did.”
News Group, which owns the Sun, has always denied that illegal activity took place at the News of the World’s sister daily during the era when Rebekah Brooks was editor of the tabloid, including the blagging of medical records. Though it has made substantial payouts to celebrities who have accused it of phone hacking, including Paul Gascoigne.
How did her parents react when all this was going down? “Ugh, it was brutal. Actually, Mum’s got a claim against the Sun. It’s starting to be worth it because of all the people around me who were hacked and are going to get a settlement. That’s made it worthwhile, once you add up what everybody else is getting.”
Wait, what? “Mum and my best friend. The web was extremely large. It was agony, because it was out of everybody’s control. They were watching me somewhat implode. They set the stage for people to unravel and then documented it. Young women. Amy Winehouse. Britney Spears.” When I asked a Sun spokesperson if it had any comment on the allegation that it targeted Miller’s mum and her friend, they said no.
It’s because of all this that Miller is very nervous about phones. Marlowe doesn’t have one. “I’ve told her she’s never getting one. She can have a flip-phone when she’s 12. All she wants is to go to her friends’ house and learn TikTok dances.”
It is with a bleak amusement that one notes that, after the Sun’s pregnancy story exploded, the first movie Miller made was Factory Girl, a biopic of Edie Sedgwick produced by … Harvey Weinstein! Ah, to be a young woman in Hollywood in the early 21st century! Actually, says Miller, Weinstein never tried to assault her, partly, she thinks, because “I was Jude’s girlfriend, and there was probably protection in that. Jude was a big actor for Harvey.” And partly, she says, because “I called Harvey ‘Pops’ from day one, which I’m sure helped; you’re not going to wank on that.”
The former movie mogul and convicted sex offender currently serving a 23-year prison sentence did, however, shout at her. “I was rehearsing one day with Steve Buscemi, and Harvey called and asked me to come to his office. I said, I’m in rehearsal. And he shouted, ‘NOW!’ and sent a car. He sat me down in his office and said, “You’re not fucking going out any more, you’re not partying, rah rah rah.’” This was a period during which Miller was out every night, appearing in gossip columns. “I was having a lot of fun, but I managed to go to work on time. And he was standing over me while I was sitting in a chair, lip quivering, and then he slammed the door, and I burst into tears. And then he came back in and said: ‘It’s because I’m fucking proud of you.’ And slammed the door again.”
It sounds abusive, but at the time, says Miller, it felt like an honour – “You weren’t really inaugurated until Weinstein made you cry. I imagined this is what Hollywood producers were like. I genuinely felt he’d given me the biggest validation. I was so grateful. I wasn’t scared of him, actually. And I was not aware that he was raping people. He asked for one meeting with me in a hotel, and I brought the other producers and it was innocuous. I’ve never been propositioned by anyone, for a job.”
Her biggest problem, beyond the behaviour of tabloids, has been her own confidence. Miller has appeared in more than 30 movies, turned in excellent performances in films such as Foxcatcher, and American Woman, and appeared on stage as Sally Bowles in a 2015 Broadway revival of Cabaret. But, she says, “I don’t have rock-solid self-esteem. I wish I did.” Learning to ask for equal pay has been hard – although she was pleased, recently, when she walked away from a theatre project rather than accept less money than her male co-star. More generally, though, “Advocating for myself in that way is not who I am. I don’t see myself as valuable. I’m just grateful to be there. I’m trying very hard not to think this way; to switch my mindset into a place where I can say no. I try. And I can’t. Because ultimately, deep down, I am really happy to be there and would probably pay to be there.” She’ll tell a joke against herself before anyone else can get there. “I do it endlessly and I have to stop.”
Is she ambitious? “No. I mean, I must have some ambition. I have had this conversation with my English agent, who thinks I do have ambition. But I know that reaching some kind of apex of success in this industry is not the thing that would make me happy.” Other conventional measures of success have never interested her, either. She notes with interest that Sophie, her character in Anatomy of a Scandal, is someone with an agenda: “To marry the ‘best’ man, to be the wife, to have the kids. To set up the perfect world to live out that fantasy, and it all implodes. That’s so far away from my ambitions when I was younger.”
Miller, who is single, separated from Tom Sturridge, the actor with whom she had Marlowe, in 2015, but he is very present in their lives. His mother, the actor Phoebe Nicholls – who in fact appears in Anatomy of a Scandal as Sophie’s mother-in-law – is visiting Miller at present, and at one point walks past the cafe where we sit, though she doesn’t spot us. During the first lockdown in 2020, Miller moved upstate into a house with Marlowe, Tom, her best friend, Tara, and briefly, her dad. “It was communal living, which I love, although by the end we were ready for it to end. But Marlowe was really happy. I look back on the start of that lockdown quite fondly.”
Miller sometimes wonders, and worries, if she talks and thinks too much about what happened to her at the hands of the Sun and its sister papers during those days of her early 20s. And she tries to recalibrate. “It was at the same time as really falling in love, and having magical times. I look back on that decade with mostly fond memories. I can really dissociate my life from that person – put it in a box where it feels like somebody else.” But a moment later, she rebels against this impulse. “It was such an enormous part of my life. And it’s still being bashed out.” Reading the statement outside the high court, in which she publicly accused Rupert Murdoch’s company of doing her harm, was a moment of terror and empowerment. “To be able to acknowledge the truth.”
Does that mean she has closure? Miller laughs, suddenly incredulous with outrage. “No!” she says. “No!”
• Anatomy of a Scandal is on Netflix.