Claudia Leisinger


March 21-27 2005

Once a darling of the tabloids thanks to his roles in big films and romances with well-known ladies, Jonny Lee Miller is now enjoying a quieter, more mature life on and off screen. Leigh Singer finds a reserved man happy to concentrate on work and his new film with Woody Allen.

Where did Jonny Lee Miller go? One can imagine the question going around the paparazzi and tabloid hacks who used to do very nicely thank you from the Londoner’s ‘Brit Pack’ profile. Of all the bright young thesps who emerged from the mid-1990s ‘Cool Britannia’ assault, specifically through the adrenalized battering ram that was Trainspotting, even then Lee Miller retained a special fascination. After all he’d not only already experienced a successful Hollywood debut in cyber-thriller Hackers; his marriage to unabashedly quotable co-star Angelina Jolie (favourite sample revelation: her wearing a shirt with his name written in blood to their wedding ceremony) meant they attracted more column inches in gossip rags than movie mags.

Though he and Jolie divorced in 1999, further celebrity couplings, including ex-All Saint Natalie Appleton and actress Lisa Faulkner, continued to keep the tabloids happy. For a while the film roles kept pace – dandy highwaymen romp Plunkett and Macleane, somber First World War drama Regeneration – but ever so gradually, Lee Miller, now 32, seems to have edged out of the limelight. Not that he ever was entirely comfortable with publicity. Even today, though early for our interview, he needs to be hurriedly accosted before he slips away out of the museum café where we’re scheduled to meet.

Over a pot of tea, he remains unfailingly polite, genial company. But his self-effacing reserve does make you wonder if the retreat from the public eye was a deliberate move. ‘No, far from it,’ he replies. ‘I did a few films that went straight to DVD and a couple of movies all set to go suddenly didn't happen. That seems to have happened to me quite a lot in the past few years. The film industry here is not really in a very good state.’

If professionally recent developments haven’t been entirely to his liking, you’d imagine that a lower media profile was a welcome side effect, but Lee Miller stays surprisingly sanguine about that too. ‘All that press stuff was never anything to do with me,’ he insists. ‘If you've got a girlfriend in the public eye it's going to happen obviously but I never went looking for it. I lead a much quieter life now. I don't really go clubbing, I’m more likely to take a few bottles of wine around a mate's house.’

Perhaps the more settled lifestyle he’s leading is reflected in his new, somewhat more mature screen role in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. The film loops the same basic premise – flighty friend arrives on the doorstep of troubled Manhattan couple and instigates emotional turmoil – once as tragedy, the other as farce, both orbiting the dazzling Radha Mitchell’s titular character(s). Jonny features in the more melancholy tale, a struggling actor bitter that his wife (Chloe Sevigny) seems to neglect him for her desperate pal.

Despite Allen’s recent lack of quality control, Melinda and Melinda, while no Annie Hall, is probably his best of the millennium so far. And his reputation remains such that to ‘do a Woody Allen movie’ still seems to be a box every actor wants to be able to tick off. ‘Yeah, pretty much that's the way it goes,’ Lee Miller admits. ‘I mean, it wouldn't really matter what the part was almost. The first time I watched it I was a bit too nervous to be objective. I got a group of friends together and we had a few drinks. But I did really enjoy it because thankfully I'm not in it too much. I thought it was very funny.’

The disenchanted husband roles that both Lee Miller and, in the comic version, Will Ferrell play, are parts that Allen might well have essayed himself a few years ago. ‘People say to you, “Are you playing the Woody Allen role?”’ he nods. ‘And I say, “I didn't think I was but maybe I am, I don't know…” Then you become really conscious about trying not to be like him.’

Not that Allen’s overtly neurotic screen persona is easily confused with his on-set working methods. ‘He doesn't interfere too much, which can lead to a certain state of paranoia,’ Lee Miller relates. ‘I think actors, myself included, generally need a small amount of ego massage because you can take what you’re doing a bit seriously, but he's just not that kind of guy.’ Then, he quickly, almost apologetically, adds, ‘Still it was absolutely enjoyable - living in New York and working on a Woody Allen film!’

Despite some work-related setbacks, Lee Miller’s modest enthusiasm negates the obvious ‘comeback story’ angle. It’s true that the production company Natural Nylon, set up in 1997 with friends Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee and Ewan McGregor, disbanded amid financial frustrations and diverging career paths; but when pushed, he doesn’t appear to have too many regrets. ‘I think we probably wanted a bit too much control,’ he shrugs philosophically, ‘and that's why we couldn't raise the money for certain things. But it was a good idea. To be honest, I'm not business-minded in the slightest. I’d much rather concentrate on my job at the moment. It's taken me a while to get comfortable with all of that.’

For now he’s away from the media hassles – though also the equivalent job offers - of McGregor or Law, though a healthy slate of work ahead may change that. Long-delayed serial killer movie Mindhunters is due soon, with sci-fi epic Aeon Flux opposite Charlize Theron to follow. And after last year’s acclaimed West End run in Festen, he ‘can’t wait to start’ rehearsing the Frank McGuinness play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, based on Brian Keenan and John McCarthy’s hostage ordeal.

‘To be able to do a play once or twice a year, peppered with movies for the rest of the time, that's me a happy man,’ he professes. A generous offer to pay for the tea, a firm handshake and he’s gone, looking exactly as he describes himself, slipping away far more quietly than you’d have expected.

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