The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
Sienna Miller is noticeably changing the arc of her career. After doing the best work of her life so far in HBO’s excellent “The Girl,” she switched focus, taking smaller parts in bigger films like Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” opening Christmas Day. Starring opposite a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Cooper, Miller plays Taya Kyle, the wife of the most accomplished sniper in the history of the U.S. Navy. Miller recently sat down with us in Chicago, and she’s just as delightful and clever as one would expect, recognizing that she’s right in the middle of a major chapter of her career.
How is your artistic process different when you’re playing a real person?
SIENNA MILLER: Obviously, there’s source material to investigate, which is really useful. In this case, I got to spend time with Taya Kyle, who I play, which proved invaluable. A lot of the scenes were real things that happened and I could talk to her about things that happened at the time. For the first of the film [in which she meets Chris at a bar], I knew she was in a bad mood. I think it’s an interesting way to introduce the character. To meet someone in that frame of mind and do a 180 is really lovely, and an interesting introduction. It’s just useful. Also, you feel an immense sense of responsibility because this person will eventually see you playing them and that’s terrifying.
In terms of films based on true stories, where do you fall on the debate between creative license and responsibility to what “really happened”?
With something like this, I try as much as possible to be true to the story. Ultimately, to make a film you’re condensing years into two hours. So there are going to be compromises and sacrifices along the way. Also, it’s Chris’ film. She’s an important, rounding part of it, but her role and her purpose is to represent the home. Something that I really wanted to get across and I hope we achieved it was how much they really loved each other. There’s a 90% divorce rate among Navy SEALS. It’s really hard to sustain a relationship in that environment. And they managed. So I hope there are parts of it that are a testament to their love and that relationship.
So you say you really wanted to get that across—how do you do that? How do you focus on that? Do you have a lot of personal time with Bradley to develop that believable chemistry?
Clint doesn’t rehearse. (Laughs.) Yeah, so that was really daunting. Luckily, Bradley and I instantly got along very well. I think both of us have the same kind of working process. We spent a lot of time on Skype before I got to LA to start shooting. He’s incredibly open, and I’m quite open as well. Somehow, it aligned and it worked. We trusted each other instantly, creatively, and so it felt very organic.
There’s a lot of stuff that has to be read between the lines in the scenes you share with Bradley because the story takes place over SO many years. Did you two try to fill any of the gaps—the relationship beats we just didn’t have time to see in the film to enhance the realism of what we DO see?
We didn’t have conversations like that because I think we were both familiar enough with the story and where Chris was on the tours and the timeline…to be honest, it didn’t particularly change. Every single day, she was dealing with the worry over whether or not he’d survive. And then when he was home, he was wracked with guilt over the lives that he could potentially be saving and wasn’t because he was at home. Wherever they were at in their relationship, the problems were the same. I just tried to kind of respond to what I was seeing.
A lot has been written about Clint’s process—few takes, no rehearsals, quick shoots. How did you take to it? Was it difficult to adjust?
I prepared myself for it psychologically before. (Laughs.) I had spoken to a couple of friends who had made films with him, and so I knew what to expect. You just have to make sure that you show up with whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. At the same, he’s completely malleable. If you haven’t gotten something, we will find it. It’s not AS rigid as I think it sounds. He was so invested in this story, if I had asked for five [takes], I would have gotten them. We all were searching for the same goal—to make the best film we could.
Do you still have any awe as in “That’s Clint Eastwood, Living Legend,” at least on the first day?
(Laughs). Every single day. Every single day. I would turn up and see Clint Eastwood and it was amazing. It still doesn’t really feel real. It was so fast. He’s an icon of cinema that I grew up loving, and his films I’ve loved. To turn up every day and see that man…I still can’t quite believe it’s happened.
What does Bradley bring to this part that other actors wouldn’t?
He’s different in that there’s not one hint of hierarchy or ego. Sometimes you’re aware of a sense of where you lie in the pecking order. He’s a huge movie star and this was his project, but he’s so instantly warm and embracing. He’s a real team player. There’s no seclusion. He’s really a regular guy from Philly who can’t believe he’s doing this. There’s something so charming about that. He’s so brilliant. I met Chris Kyle before I met Bradley because he was pretty much in character the whole time and he didn’t look anything like the Bradley Cooper I had imagined. He was 40 pounds heavier and speaking in a thick Texan drawl.
All the time?
All the time. It made sense. He really wanted to do it justice.
Did you speak to wives of vets with PTSD? What kind of research did you do?
I spoke to Taya—although that’s not something that we really acknowledge in the film [the arguable PTSD of Chris]—and I definitely got the sense from her that Chris had done things that they were struggling with. And there are a lot of documentaries on PTSD that I did also watch. Again, Clint doesn’t particularly encourage that. While I tend to be somebody who researches in great depth, I wanted to be respectful of his way of making the film, which is to not worry about it. Don’t go too far. Be very present.
He openly says that—that he wants more in the moment than heavily researched?
But you’re generally a back story actress?
Yeah, I really enjoy that process. When I read a script, if it’s something I respond to, wherever I go [in terms of research], I’ll often come back to the way I first read it in my head. So, Clint was a perfect director for me. I think I do act upon instinct. Otherwise, it’s just too complicated. I’m definitely not a technically perfect actor. But I do enjoy a bit of research. I remember reading about “Million Dollar Baby,” and him not even encouraging her to learn how to box. That wasn’t even important to him.
What was your great takeaway from this filmmaking experience? What did you learn?
Specifically, I have a much greater understanding of what it’s like to be with someone who is with someone in the military. I have a greater understanding of what combat is like; dealing with PTSD. Wives and husbands left behind. You learn an awful lot from working with someone like Bradley, who’s so committed and dedicated. And also that maybe I can be a little bit anxious and overthink things.
That’s interesting. Is that something you’ll carry to your next work—more instinctive approach?
I think so. Everything in life has an impact. I became a mother and that changed me. We are the sum of our experiences. And this was a great experience. And that has made me more enthusiastic about what I do.
How important is it at this phase in your career to be mindful of who you work with? Going from “Foxcatcher” to this, you seem to be really picking parts that are going to surround you with talented people. Are you at a phase where that might be more important than anything else?
YES. You’ve really hit the nail on the head.
Why is that? How did you reach that place?
When I started, I was really drawn to the role. I had a strong idea of the characters I found interesting. And I was really proud of some of the work I did but it was often in the hands of other people and the end product was disappointing. And you give so much and it’s not how you imagined it would be. I have a real sense of how I like to work, but I did consciously realize it’s not about the size of the role or the character as much as I want to be on the set with those people—to learn from those great directors: Bennett Miller, Clint Eastwood, and I’m about to work with James Gray and Ben Affleck. These are the best filmmakers in the world. Being around them, even in a small part, you absorb some of that brilliance. Also, to be a part of that energy that creates a film like “Foxcatcher” or “American Sniper,” brilliant films, I would make the tea on those sets.
If someone like Clint or Ben Affleck say “I have a part for you but it’s a very small part,” do you even need to read the script?
No. No, no, no. (Laughs.) It’s funny. Often you’re encouraged not to do the supporting roles. I have no qualms. I did “Black Mass” with Johnny Depp, a Scott Cooper movie, and I had four scenes. "This is not a female film, but do you want to come speak like you’re from Boston, work with Johnny Depp on a Scott Cooper movie for two weeks?" YES. Of course, I do. I had no qualms about it. I do this job because I love the experience of being on a set. I love making films. The more people I can be around, the more experiences I can have, the better, the happier I am.
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