From director Jake Scott and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby, the indie drama American Woman tells the story of a single mother’s struggle to raise her young grandson when her teenage daughter mysteriously vanishes. When 31-year-old grocery clerk Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller) realizes that her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) has gone missing, it turns her world upside down, and over a 10-year life journey of ups and downs, she builds a new life for herself only to finally be faced with the truth of her daughter’s disappearance.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actress Sienna Miller about how grateful she was to play a character with such depth and range, the experience she shared with the film’s director, playing a grandmother before the age of 40, the importance of the sister dynamic, and how much she enjoyed working with Christina Hendricks. She also talked about her incredible transformation to play Roger Ailes’ wife in the Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice, opposite Russell Crowe, the experience of wearing so much prosthetics, and why she thinks it’s an important story to tell, along with why she wanted to be a part of the upcoming film 21 Bridges, and following her intuition when it comes to reading scripts and pursuing projects.
Collider: Really brilliant work in this.
SIENNA MILLER: Thank you.
It’s one of those things that seems like it must have been an intense nightmare while you were shooting it, but also rewarding, as an actor, when you finish it. Did it feel that way?
MILLER: You know, as you can imagine, it was a really hard thing to do, but I like hard work. I crave that. It was a relief to play somebody who was fully realized, and who begins as one woman and ends as another. It’s rare for women to have a role that has that depth and range, and I was just grateful for that opportunity.
And it’s such a long life journey of hers that we get to see too, in terms of years, which seems like something much more explored on TV than in film because there just isn’t the time.
MILLER: Yeah. This woman is knocked down so many times, and she gets back up. It felt really feminist. It really felt like a celebration of the resilience of women, and I know so many women who have that same strength. To see that in a film is rare, but it shouldn’t be. So, that was an exciting aspect.
Actors talk a lot about how they want to find roles that challenge and scare them, and this seems like it would be one of those roles. When you read this, what did you see as the challenges, and were there things that scared you about it?
MILLER: It’s funny, I read the script, and this happens rarely, but I had a total vision for her. I knew this woman. I knew exactly how to do it, and I was incredibly passionate about it. It was a very, very well written script, but I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself in the mind-set of confronting what it would be to lose a child. I was really on the fence for awhile, as far as whether or not I wanted to go through that. (Director) Jake Scott, when I met him, was just this loving and intuitive guy. In the wrong hands, this experience would have been torturous, but it was collaborative. I felt totally held, for lack of a better word, by my director. There are many directors out there that would’ve just tortured with it, but he didn’t. He was experiencing it, as I was. He was crying behind the monitor, when I had to cry. It was a very symbiotic, weird relationship that we had, but it was very, very close. I didn’t feel alone in it, but it was definitely hard.
When you explore a topic like this, it seems like even if you try to convince yourself that you could keep yourself separate from that mentality, it would also be impossible to keep yourself separate from it.
MILLER: These things just seep in, by osmosis. It’s important, when making a film that deals with loss, that it’s not just about that, but the loss has to be somewhere close to the surface, at all times. My experience with people who have lost children is that it’s always just there. So, I had to keep it close, which was sad.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d be playing a grandmother, before the age of 40?
MILLER: I loved it. I’m up for anything. It didn’t even cross my mind. What makes me laugh is that Sky Ferreira still calls me mum, which is funny. She’s older than she plays. No, I loved it. Also, that exists. I’m kind of envious. I wish I’d had my daughter younger, and I could have grandchildren now. I’d like more children at my age now, too. There’s something to be said for that dynamic. I was 30 when I had [my daughter]. It’s a horrible facing of mortality. So, I’m all for young babies.
Was the woman that we see now the same woman that was on the page from day one? Were there things that got developed or added, or is what we see pretty much what you first read?
MILLER: It was really realized, more than you’d expect, or more than I’ve experienced before. The script had a lot of the character work built in, but of course, you add things as you go. You make it your own. With the young Deb, we improvised certain aspects of it and I beefed up the humor or the goofiness, like jumping up on counters. That wasn’t scripted. I had freedom to be noisy, and I felt like she should never stop moving, in that first chapter. And then, she gradually becomes still, by the end. I mapped out all of those things. I had to really work very hard because it was a small film and we shot it in 28 days. Sometimes I’d be Chapter 1 Deb, and then the next day, I’d be Chapter 3 Deb. We were moving around, with no chronological filming. It just took a lot of research and a lot of work. I had different colored post-it notes on different days, and I had color association for the Deb that I was gonna be. It’s a labor of love, doing a little film like this, and it feels like a big movie, in some ways, to me.
I love the relationships between the women in this, whether it’s between mother and daughter, or between these sisters. Was that also a big part of the appeal?
MILLER: I grew up with a sister and a mother. That was my family, and I’m sure that resonated with me, on some level. I’m sure that was part of the appeal. That world was familiar. And I was probably the more reckless of the sisters. What I loved about this was that, without anything being hammered over the head, they’re in conflict a lot of the time, but there is this love that you feel between these two women. Really, the beating heart of the film is that sibling relationship. Having a sister who I feel like I share a heart with is something that I haven’t seen that often in film. I’m sure that was a really huge pull.
Because of the importance of that relationship, was it a bit nerve-wracking, waiting to find out who would be cast?
MILLER: It was essential, but that really comes from the director. He’s intuitive, and he cast it right. When I heard that Christina [Hendricks] was gonna play my sister, I said, “We just don’t look like sisters. How is that gonna work?” But then, she turned up, and we were sisters. I bought it completely. It was brilliantly cast, but Carmen Cuba is a brilliant casting director. We were fortunate because often that doesn’t happen, and you just have to act and get away with it. But when you feel the authenticity of a genuine connection, it definitely resonates with an audience more.
What was it like to take on playing Roger Ailes’ wife for Showtime’s The Loudest Voice? Is it fun to do something so transformative?
MILLER: It was really fun. It was very, very liberating, and also really arduous to sit in a make-up chair for four hours, every day, sometimes for just walking into a room. You could have an eighth of a page to shoot, and you’d be in the chair for four hours. But I just feel like that’s a story that I wanted to look at right now – the inception of Fox News, how that came to be, and the affect that it’s having now. To be a part of that story is riveting and fascinating. I love prosthetics. I loved having that mask and the freedom that it allows you. You’re just not yourself.