Sienna Miller: Anatomy of a Scandal actress on the 'ignorance' of privilege

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter

  • Published
Policeman and press photographers surrounding a man and womanImage source, Netflix
Image caption,
Sienna Miller plays politician's wife Sophie Whitehouse in Anatomy of a Scandal

Sienna Miller says her new Netflix drama highlights the "ignorance" of people who don't realise they have a head start in life and "don't think" about the struggles of those without the same privileges.

The British actress stars in Anatomy of a Scandal, an adaptation of Sarah Vaughan's novel from 2018 about a wealthy politician who is accused of raping his political researcher, who was also his lover.

Miller plays Sophie Whitehouse, the wife who stands by her husband, played by Rupert Friend.

Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery stars as prosecuting barrister Kate Woodcroft, and Aladdin's Naomi Scott plays Olivia, the young researcher.

'Perfect timing'

The series begins after a week that's seen fines issued over Downing Street parties during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and scrutiny over the financial affairs of Chancellor Rishi Sunak's wife, as the cost of living rises for many.

She says it is "perfect timing" because the political system "is now under a microscope - increasingly so this week".

"There are people who are born lucky, 1,000%, and they have a leg up in life that makes it much easier.

"I'm not saying that their life is not without complications, because I think it's hard to be a human being, but I do think the absolute ignorance about what's given you the step up makes me angry and deserves analysis," she says.

The series has flashbacks from James Whitehouse's time at Oxford University, where he was part of a private all-male dining club called The Libertine Club.

It is seemingly inspired by the real-life Bullingdon Club, which both Boris Johnson and former PM David Cameron were members of in the 1980s.

"From the series flashbacks, you understand why some people are the way they are because they've never been told they're not capable of achieving whatever they've dreamed of," Miller explains.

"I don't think they ever spend time sitting around thinking about what it must be like for people who have to claw their way just to get to the starting line, you know. And it's that blinkered behaviour - and it's really unconscious - that this show really lays out."

Miller's own father was an investment banker and art dealer, and her mother was a model and assistant to David Bowie.

She goes on: "It raises questions, but it's not a social commentary, it's an entertaining drama. At least it should begin a discussion about James Whitehead's culpability, or lack of it. People are quite polarised around that, which is astounding to me."

Image source, Netflix

Anatomy of a Scandal also shows the media circus surrounding someone who makes the headlines, which Miller knows well from her own life.

The actress experienced paparazzi intrusion when she herself became the 'wronged woman' in 2005, when her then-fiancé Jude Law admitted he'd been having an affair with his children's nanny.

Nevertheless, Miller says she wanted to take on the role of the political wife who is trying to be loyal to her cheating husband.

"There was definite hesitancy, or just more self-questioning - why am I curious about doing this? But in many ways, it feels like such a lifetime ago, that version of my life," she says.

"To go back in with the more mature lens, playing someone else, and back into a world I know an awful lot about was interesting.

"There's muscle memory around the experiences Sophie goes through. That experience of a story about to break, that you absolutely cannot stop, that's intensely personal - that's one of the worst feelings I've had in my life," the actress adds.

"It doesn't sound so serious but it's terrifying. And in those scenes that Sophie knows the story is about to break, my heart would accelerate.

"I don't say it in order to elicit any sympathy from anyone, it's more fascinating to me that there is a physical memory to something, and using that feels there's some value in having had that experience, and to be able to use it in my work."

Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Naomi Scott plays researcher Olivia

Directed by the female film-maker who made TV's Jessica Jones, SJ Clarkson, the series is mainly set in the courtroom.

The number of rape prosecutions in England and Wales has dropped by 70% in the past four years, according to a recent parliamentary committee report. Naomi Scott, who as Olivia gives evidence in the fictional trial, says she now has some understanding of why the figure is so low.

"I was just feeling nervous at the thought of walking out onto the fake film set of a courtroom," she recalls. "So I also felt how terrifying it must be to put yourself out there and re-tell your trauma. It really opened up my eyes about how brave it is for people to come forward and why they don't.

"Olivia is intelligent and confident, she thinks she knows how to control a narrative, but the reality is of re-telling your trauma amongst all these people who are deciding whether you are telling the truth. I think the show places the audience as the jury, I also think it's good at showing fragmentation of memory, which is sometimes why these cases are so hard to prosecute."

Scott adds: "It's surprising how many people still don't understand the idea of sexual consent.

"We had an amazing intimacy co-ordinator to work with on some of our scenes, and she spoke about the 'Tea' Consent illustration, and I'll always point them to that now. This is so simple, a child can understand it."

'Nothing new'

Despite its attempts at shedding light on such scenarios, entertainment website Indiewire said Anatomy of a Scandal had failed "to add anything new to a complicated subject", adding: "Other series like I May Destroy You have dealt more thoughtfully with consent than Anatomy of a Scandal."

The Hollywood Reporter said that although the series seems "ideal for a weekend binge... Anatomy of a Scandal often seems to think it's a completely different kind of show, a searing, sobering examination of rape, consent, and privilege".

But Miller points out that the themes the show explores have only recently been given a platform, saying "we're having a conversation about all of this when five years ago, we wouldn't have been".

The actress also believes female self-confidence has increased over the last few years, including her own, while male attitudes are also changing.

"There is a male, a certain type of man - their confidence is built in them as much as their education," the actress believes.

"But it's starting to shift, I see it in younger generations of men, it's quite inspiring to see that inbuilt misogyny or superiority is slightly dissolving.

"I certainly won't take things like I used to. I used to walk into a room with only men and feel very intimidated and now I don't. There's a strength in the unity of women right now."

Anatomy of a Scandal is on Netflix from Friday, 15 April.