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20 Questions With…Jonny Lee Miller

Actor Jonny Lee Miller, who opens this week in the first West End revival of Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, recalls his own memories of the Beirut hostage crisis & how not getting a job with Martin Scorsese was a highlight.

By • West End


Though actor Jonny Lee Miller started out in theatre – as a member of the National Youth Music Theatre, where his peers included Jude Law and Matt Lucas – he’s become best known for his film credits.

Chief amongst those films is the 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, set in the Edinburgh drug scene, in which Miller played Sick Boy opposite Ewan McGregor’s addicted lead, Renton.

Miller’s other films include Hackers, Regeneration, Plunkett and Macleane, Complicity, Mansfield Park, The Escapist, Aeon Flux, Mindhunters, Afterglow, Love, Honour and Obey and, released last month in the UK, Woody Allen’s latest, Melinda and Melinda.

On television, Miller has been seen in, amongst other programmes, Canterbury’s Tale, Dead Man’s Walk, Byron, Rough Justice, Meat, Speaking in Tongues, Prime Suspect, Bad Company, Goodbye Cruel World and Between the Lines.

Miller returned triumphantly to the stage last year, originating the role of trouble brother Christian at the Almeida Theatre in David Eldridge’s award-winning stage adaptation of the Dogme film Festen, directed by Rufus Norris. His previous professional theatre credits have included Four Nights in Knaresborough (Tricycle), Democracy, Beautiful Thing (Bush) and guest appearances in the West End comedy, The Play What I Wrote.

Miller is back in the West End this month, appearing alongside Aidan Gillen and David Threlfall in the first major London revival of Frank McGuinness’ 1992 three-hander Someone Who'll Watch Over Me (See News, 17 Mar 2005). Inspired by the real-life political kidnapping of John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite in Lebanon, the play traces the shifting relationships between three hostages – an Irishman, an Englishman and an American, played by Miller.


Date & place of birth
Born 15 November 1972 in Kingston, Surrey.

Training
I trained with National Youth Music Theatre, putting on several productions over a good few years with them. That was undoubtedly helpful. Matt Lucas, Jude Law, Sally Hawkins, to name but a few, they all came out of NYMT, too. I have no idea why I wanted to be an actor to begin with. My family has always been involved in theatre in one way or other with stage management, acting and so on. I suppose I was encouraged by that and then went on to do school plays myself and enjoyed it.

First big break
It’s really weird that, thinking about breaks. I’d say your career is more like a snowball effect. You could say the first time I had a small part on the telly was a break or the first play I did at the Bush. I don’t know. For me, it’s always progressive. Each job gets a bit more exciting. Trainspotting probably brought me to the attention of more people. But before that, Hackers, which I did in America, was my first big film.

Career highlights to date
Can not getting a job be a highlight? Yes? Well then, one big highlight for me was when I didn’t get a job after having an audition with Martin Scorsese. It was between me and one other guy for a part. Scorsese went with the other guy, but afterwards he wrote me a letter telling me how great I was, which meant a lot to me. I probably shouldn’t say which film it was.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Festen was really amazing. There were so many nice people involved. It was a great experience all round. It’s definitely the favourite play I’ve worked on up until now, but I’ve had many many good experiences. In fact, I can’t really thinking of any bad ones.

Favourite co-stars
Let’s just say everyone. I don’t want to single people out.

Favourite directors
In terms of directors I’ve really enjoyed working with in the past, I’d say Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), Rufus Norris (Festen on stage) and Juliet Farino (TV’s Byron). I’m probably missing people out I can’t think of. A good director needs to have a good sense of humour and, obviously, the ability to communicate. I don’t think there’s a big difference between stage and screen directors. I’ve worked with really good screen directors who had theatre experience and really good ones without theatre experience. Any differences are mainly technical.

What roles would you most like to play still?
The parts I want to play probably haven’t been written yet. I have no real desire to play any classical roles.

You’ve worked more frequently in film & television than in theatre. Why do you like to return to the stage?
I find it easier to go in front of the camera if I’ve done a play recently. For an actor, theatre is a much more disciplined experience. The stage sharpens your skills a lot more than a camera does.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
This is a question you always think about, but it’s a kind of ‘who knows’. I’d set my mind completely on being an actor and that was that.

What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
The first thing would have been a pantomime at Richmond Theatre. The evil prince in Jack and the Beanstalk was so bad. He scared the crap out of me. I was pretty tiny. The last? Funnily enough, I went back to see Festen the other day. It was the anniversary of our first preview so a bunch of us from the original company went back to see it together. It was good to watch the show from the front, just to sit back, relax and enjoy it.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d like to be (footballer) Frank Lampard so I could score a goal for Chelsea.

Favourite books
I’m currently reading An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. Our play is based on his experiences as a hostage in Beirut. It’s an extraordinary book.

Favourite holiday destinations
There are none that I go back to a lot. I like to go places I’ve never been before. Somewhere remote. Right now, I’d like to go to Jordan and visit the lost city of Petra. I think they’re building a new tourist centre there. I’d like to go before they build it and the place gets overrun.

Favourite after-show haunts
I don’t have favourite places. I’ll go anywhere. I like to go with someone else in the play so we can decompress. It doesn’t take too long, usually about a pint.

Why did you want to accept your part in this particular production of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me?
I wanted to do it because the director, Dominic Dromgoole, asked me and I like him. The play took my breath away when I read it. I play Adam, the American hostage. My American accent is impeccable of course (laughs).

What are your own memories of the real-life hostage crisis on which Frank McGuinness’ play is based?
I was quite young, but I do remember the campaign waged by Jill Morrell, John McCarthy’s girlfriend. Years after Terry Waite had come home, there was still all that wondering about whether McCarthy was alive or not.

Why do you think now is a good time to revive Someone Who'll Watch Over Me?
This is the first major revival of the play. The time’s right now because there’s been a lot of new focus on captivity with what’s been happening in Iraq.

What research have you & the company done in preparation?
I’m reading Brian Keenan’s book as I mentioned. We’ve also had Frank McGuinness here working with us. So we have a huge encyclopaedia of information to draw on with him. We’ve all been picking his brains.

What are your plans for the future?
I don’t have any I’m afraid, but I’ll definitely keep returning to theatre.

- Jonny Lee Miller was speaking to Terri Paddock


Someone Who'll Watch Over Me opens on 19 April 2005 at the West End’s New Ambassadors Theatre, where it’s booking until 18 June 2005.


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