Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Somewhat like her character in Mysteries In Pittsburg--the alluring classical violinist Jane Bellwether--Sienna Miller is a compelling, straightforward person who makes no bones about what she's about and how she handles her life in the spotlight. Her fellow cast member Peter Sarsgaard, who, like his character, the seductive Cleveland Arning, can be this wry, almost snarky, individual who, in a rapid-fire manner, replies as playfully to questions as much as he answers them.
In a sense, they replicate the experience of meeting their cinematic alter-egos in this celluloid approximation of Michael Chabon's debut novel Mysteries of Pittsburg. While novice director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes a valiant, though flawed, attempt to render this story of just-graduated college student Art Bechstein--played by Jon Foster [who wasn't available for this interview]--son of gangland boss Joe The Egg Bechstein (Nick Nolte), who struggles to break away from his father's suffocating demands before he's forced into a job he doesn't want. during that summer in 1983, he works in a bookstore, repeatedly screws his attractive but clingy boss Phlox (Mena Suvari) and then meets provocative Jane and Cleveland in this coming-of-age story set in Pittsburgh--all against his dad's wishes.
Thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chabon's support, Thurber (who wrote Dodgeball) fulfilled a 10-year obsession to get this novel adapted as a film. For Sarsgaard, he got to play the meaty role of a doomed, off-beat provocateur; he understands such parts. After all, the 38-year-old Illinois-born actor has tackled such difficult, or even nasty, characters in Jarhead, Rendition and Boys Don't Cry.
For Miller, this film's release adds to a cycle of films she made one after another (from Alfie, to Layer Cake, to Factory Girl and more), that she hopes, will deflect attention away from her celeb status and place it squarely on her career efforts.
And in a world fraught with such dire events as the Taliban executing a couple for trying to elope, a film that offers a touch of enlightenment is worth talking about (with a small crew of journos) and writing about as well.
Q: Peter, you have your beard--but this was shot more than two years ago.
PS: This is [because] I just went canoeing in the Everglades and just got back and I didn't shave down there.
Q: Does canoeing in the Everglades save the Everglades?
PS: Do you think it saves the Everglades if I canoe in them and talk about it?
Q: Did you see tons of alligators...
PS: And crocodiles and sharks and dolphins and bald eagles and spoonbills and flamingos. I saw two bald eagles.
Q: Have you been to the Everglades as well?
SM: I have not been to the Everglades, no. It sounds amazing, but I've been to Pittsburgh. We both have.
Q: What was it like shooting in Pittsburgh?
SM: It was great.
PS: Totally great. Pittsburgh is obviously a city that's undergoing huge changes in the last couple of years since the mills closed. It's really become this extraordinary city. It's so clean. I was never there when the air was not clean, but it's just this gorgeous city if you love green and rivers...
SM: The bridge when you go in is stunning.
PS: It's fantastic. It kind of opens up this whole thing.
Q: Can you explain about your characters' relationship in this film; is it doomed even before one of you is doomed?
PS: Well, it's only doomed if you have expectations for what it might be, I guess. They're doomed to get married...
SM: It's a destructive relationship.
PS: Oh, it's not that destructive.
SM: No, but the character of Cleveland is one of those people that's very magnetic and very drawn to you, but ultimately can't be tamed in a way.
Q: Was your character conscious of that and just couldn't let go?
SM: Well, she talks about it.
Q: But was she honest with herself about it?
SM: I think she was very in love and very blinded by that.
Q: What about his bisexuality. do you think it really matters in their relationship--is she bisexual, too?
SM: I don't think she is. I think from the scene where she discovers it, it's obvious that she was hurt. I don't think that I alluded to being bisexual in the film as a character or in life, but hopefully that scene says it all. Her reaction to seeing that is one of hurt.
PS: Cleveland's bisexuality, it even seems like a funny word to call it that, but it is.
Q: Peter, you can call it something else?
PS: It's like he's an omnivore. If someone else went and filled up my plate and put whatever they wanted on it, I would eat the entire thing. It's about appetite. And the beautiful thing about him is that he doesn't have any shame about any of it. It's just the way he is and it's just the way he wants to live.
In his head, he might even think that all of his behavior, including his bisexuality, is pretty mythic, pretty awesome, pretty rock-and-roll because he's living in his own fantasy of a thing. It's like, did his heroes have bisexual relationships? Sure. Did they have heterosexual ones? Sure. They did all those things.
Q: Sienna, was your character aware that he was bisexual prior to seeing him with another man?
SM: I don't think she was or if she was I don't think she chose to acknowledge it.
Q: She's trying to warn the other friend, Art, though, that he has an explosive persona.
SM: Yeah, I think she warns him that you can't change him, that this is who he is and he's very much staying with his own personality. But again, when the image she's confronted with, that image of them in bed is, I think, [is of] massive hurt. Not necessarily because he's with a guy, but [it's] hurt because the two people she loves the most in the world have betrayed her. Also, he sleeps with other women. I think she's not naïve [about that].
PS: If it had been another woman would Jane have been upset the same amount or more upset?
SM: Well, there was also the scene where you [Cleveland] is sleeping with another women. I don't think it was necessarily about--I'm sure she was probably shocked that you two were in bed together--but it was more the betrayal of the two people she loved and trusted most [who] had done this to her.
Q: Do you think we're living in a time when it's impossible to be shocked at anything we see onscreen anymore?
PS: Oh, if your goal is to shock people with your movie then, you know…like [see] I Stand Alone. Did you ever see that movie? I found it pretty harrowing and shocking.
SM: Or Irreversible.
PS: Irreversible. That's by the same director [Gaspar Noe], I think.
SM: Yes, exactly. Oh, my God. I couldn't watch it. I was traumatized. I think that people like to feign shock because it's what you're supposed to do, but actually deep down it's not that shocking. Irreversible and I Stand Alone is shocking, brutal and brilliant. But two men in a scene is actually not shocking.
Q: Did you find that you guys used the [Michael] Chabon book or that you wanted to stay away with it?
PS: My character had been so combined between two characters that the book was confusing to me. I read the book out of curiosity, but I read it after I'd read the script and decided to do the movie. So it was like, "Oh, I wonder if there is anything in there."
But sometimes I would think, "Oh well, I guess anything is okay to use." But if you read the book, it's unclear who Cleveland is exactly in [it].
SM: After I'd agreed to do the film, I read the book again, and I loved it and I actually did get some more insight into who [Jane] was from Chabon's point of view. But then he was very much involved in the film process and the script. So any evolutions that it made he'd approved and was content with.
Q: What did you get out of playing this character? What was the appeal? Aren't you doing a big summer movie like Gi Joe: The Rise of Cobra too?
SM: I've historically always been drawn towards and gravitated to the smaller movies, independent films. That's kind of where I've always been and that's my comfort zone. Doing something like GI Joe was just a new experience and after that I'm going on Broadway in the fall.
I think for me it's the ability to hop between all different types of genres to figure out what I love. I think honestly I'm more comfortable doing these roles and that they tend to be the films that I prefer watching personally, but the experience of making a film like GI Joe is so different and fun in it's own way.
Q: Do you play a soldier in that?
SM: No. I play a villain.
Q: So you're a bad girl?
SM: Well, I'm a villain with guns, rifles, black leather, black wigs and gadgets.
PS: I'm first [one] in line!
Q: Did you work out your characters together before each scene or did that happen more spontaneously?
PS: There was no working out of anything.
SM: We tend to approach [it] the same way. Show up and jump.
Q: There's a fourth character in the book. Did you find that the movie changed a lot by not having that character?
PS: To be honest with you the book is kind of a distant memory for me. Rawson [Marshall Thurber, the director] took liberties with the book. Michael Chabon, it's huge of him; [he] was very agreeable to that. It really was about the script and not the book.
SM: But in essence you come away from the film and the book with the same feeling.
Q: Which is... sadness or astonishment?
SM: Which is a nostalgia and sadness, yeah. I cried at the end of the book. I haven't [yet] seen the film.
PS: I was about to go into a reverie that no one would find very interesting [laughs].
Q: Peter, your character is described at the very onset as a lunatic and you've just referred to him as a omnivore. Did you take the hint that he's kind of crazy and self-destructive?
PS: I didn't take any of it that literally at all. To be honest with you, when I thought about playing this character the things that came to mind were like the image of Julian Schnabel holding onto like a big piece of chicken and sitting in front of a huge fireplace.
SM: In like his dressing gown.
PS: In his dressing gown. The jazz musician Ornette Coleman wears these blazers that always have primary colors on them. He just has this style that I've always been fascinated with. I don't wear things like that in the movie though I did wear one blazer in honor of that.
But I was searching for this guy that had transcended even what it meant to live in Pittsburgh, that there was no relationship between him and that time. The way that I look in the movie came from something that he had really dreamed up, that he was trying to become something that was in his mind.
There have been a lot of great artists like that. It's too bad he didn't play an instrument or something because a lot of great artists are like that. Like Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh, but where did he get the whole thing? It came from him mind.
SM: Do you know actually, about Warhol, that his mother used to feed him on Heinz baked beans and in every cupboard there were rows and rows of beans. This is true. I've studied a lot [about] Andy Warhol. He got inspiration from the mundane.
PS: His hair. Where did he come up with the style and the whole thing? That's from his mind.
Q: You've both played bohemian characters before. What's your attraction to that type of character?
SM: I don't know if Jane was that bohemian in this film. I think she's in love with someone who's very bohemian and she's experimenting as people do when they're growing up and discovering things about themselves. But in essence she plays the violin. She wants to go to college. She's trying to setup her own life and isn't a bohemian. I have played bohemians.
PS: I wouldn't call her bohemian at all.
SM: No, I wouldn't either, but maybe we just bring an element of being bohemian into our characters because we are.
Q: Your bohemian-ism seems to inform the characters.
PS: With internet isn't everyone bohemian now? Everyone knows everything. I mean, my dad grew up in West Point, Mississippi, a town of just a few thousand people on the border of Alabama and my dad has been doing this photo project of people in the East Village that he calls bohemians. So my dad says, "I'm photographing bohemians." To him it's like going to the zoo. It's like amazing. It's like, "A bohemian. A poet. Look at this person."
You would have to be that sheltered to not have ever been exposed to that stuff and think that it was other. I think it's been so incorporated into the way that we live that every kid knows of Allen Ginsberg if they want to. But it's not even Allen Ginsberg. Look at their heroes, they're all bohemians.
Q: What was your attraction to this role?
SM: I went through this year of working back to back to back and I didn't want to stop.
Q: What did you start that year with?
SM: I started that year with… Oh, God, I can't even remember. I just know that I think I'd done, or no Factory Girl was done.
PS: You'd just done Factory Girl or it was just being cut as we were filming.
SM: Was it? Oh, yes. I'd done Factory Girl, Interview, something else I don't remember, this and it was just this crazy year of work and I just wanted to keep on working. I'd always really admired Peter. I had actually read an interview with Peter in The New York Times Magazine and thought that he was extraordinary as an actor and as a person. So I really wanted the opportunity to work with him.
PS: And I respond extremely well to that kind of flattery.
Q: What about the erotically-charged film you did with Keira Knightley?
SM: That was after, yeah. I think that I did something after this. The Edge of Love was a year and a half ago. This was two and a half years ago.
Q: Was Casanova before Gi Joe your lastest...
SM: It goes... Layer Cake, Alfie, Casanova and then Factory Girl into something else, this [I think]. I'm just trying to work it out. I can't remember. It's awful.
PS: It's not awful. Nobody remembers anything.
Q: Do you feel like you've gotten the focus back on you, Sienna Miller, The Actress, rather than the tabloid stuff?
SM: It's very hard for people. I think the media comes up with what they want you to be and there's very little you can do to change that. I can do several other things in my life that won't be documented because it doesn't sell newspapers. So they will document or create [what they want].
PS: They won't take pictures of me being an ass. They just won't print them. It doesn't matter. I can walk down the street, pushing the baby carriage, smoking a cigarette, propositioning a hooker and no one takes a picture of it.
SM: Your irony or sarcasm will actually translate to print. Mine somehow gets very lost in translation.
Q: To change the subject, both of you have done theater. Do you have a ritual before going onstage that you're superstitiously do?
PS: No. I have a practical one. I use the toilet, but every actor does that.
SM: I generally just sort of quiver and shake going into a complete, "Why have I done this? I can't do this" moment.
Q: Do you cry every performance or just on opening night?
SM: I get incredibly nervous, but that's something, a quality in some actors that you like putting yourself through hell like that.
Q: Peter, you're going to do a benefit for an organization that works with children who stutter?
PS: I am because I just worked with Austin Pendelton who's a stutterer and has used it to fabulous effect in his career. He talks about getting jammed on a word and how freeing that can be. Do you know his work? He's an incredible, incredible, incredible actor and director. Just a ferocious director.
Honest, [Sienna] you would love acting with this guy. I'm going to it, honestly, because he asked me to. He directed Uncle Vanya. And he teaches acting.
Q: And what about Broadway?
SM: I'm doing a Patrick Marber play in the fall with The Roundabout Theater. After Miss Julie. The adaptation is from [August] Strindberg's Miss Julie that's been done at The Donmar in London. Me and Johnny Lee Miller at the moment. It's [just] three people in the cast. I'm playing Miss Julie in that.
Q: The dominatrix?
SM: The dominatrix? No. I think it's far more complicated than that. She's absolutely not a dominatrix.
PS: She's a dominatrix. He's bisexual.
Q: When do you start the run?
SM: We start rehearsals the 20th of August. We open the 22nd of October and I'm doing it until the 14th of December, but I think just extended.
Q: What characters have you not played that you would like to play?
SM: There's nothing specific. I don't have a list of things. There are eras that I'm fascinated with. I know when I'm doing a film I really research the time. I'd love to do something in the '20s around Scott and Zelda [Fitzgerald]. All of that I'm fascinated by. I'd love to do a real period [film], but way back, a medieval type thing. I'm a big fan of history.
PS: When I'm a little older, I really want to play Col. Vershinin from Three Sisters by [Anton] Chekhov. Maggie [Gyllenhaal, Peter's wife] and I did Uncle Vanya this year and we're talking about it. It was so nice performing together in a theater that only has two hundred people max, one hundred ninety nine that there's no effort to sell.
It will never be something that transfers. It will never be a commercial product and we've always wanted to act together, but it's hard to do a movie together as a couple and then watch it bomb. How many couples have you seen do that and how horrible that must feel for them.
For us, we didn't know whether people loved it or hated it. We just knew that it was filled every night and they clapped and we didn't read the reviews. We just went home and we felt fantastic and we just want to do that as much as possible.
Q: Do you prefer the stage more than film?
PS: I do like acting onstage more, but there's a craft to acting on film and it's very cool. I really like acting. So when you're doing a stage play you do tons of acting. Every night you act straight for two hours straight, plus and then you do it again. It feels good.
SM: I think there's nothing like the feeling of live theater, but people then, if you do a play, say, "Oh, that's real acting." And I've done work in film where it felt very much like real acting. It's just a different technique. But the buzz of being onstage with a live audience is kind of unbeatable. Anything can go wrong.
I've gotten terrible giggles onstage and incorporated it somehow into a Shakespeare heavy scene and it worked. You just have to absolutely jump and go with your instincts. Anything can happen and I get a kick out of that.
Q: What happened to you playing Maid Marian in Robin Hood?
SM: The script has been evolving and changing and it often happens in films. They've been trying to make this for a couple of years. They've rewritten the script and needed someone who was older. I think now the husband, the person who plays the husband has been away for 10 years at war and comes back and it's feasible.
So Cate Blanchett is doing it. But this happens everyday. It's just the media doesn't make quite as much of a meal of it as they do when it happens to me, but this happens all the time. I'm sure it'll be a wonderful project and this is not an absolutely shocking thing to happen in the movie industry when scripts evolve. Casts change. Other people have also been changed in that cast, but they just were not documented.
Q: Were you disappointed?
SM: No. It happens everyday. I would obviously love to work with Ridley [Scott], but I hope to in the future.
Q: Peter, In the Electric Mist only came out in English as a DVD?
PS: In The Electric Mist has two versions. It does. It has the European version and the American version. The European version is the one that Betrand Tavernier, the director, wants everyone to know is his version. It is one that would not appeal to most American audiences, or might not. Who knows. But there are two versions of the film. I've seen neither.
Q: You're good as the alcoholic movie star, Peter. You're poking fun...
SM: See, with him it's good. With me it wouldn't be poking fun.
Q: Of all those movies what's your favorite role that you've done in this period?
SM: I loved doing Edie [Sedgwick].
Q: Is there a place in the world that you want to visit?
SM: So, so many. Easter Island--I'd like to go see it before I die.