It was the spring of 1996, and Jonny Lee Miller had gone to Hollywood. Trainspotting was about to anoint him the peroxide prince of Cool Britannia, and the box-office calamity of the previous year’s Hackers, his ghastly-slash-masterful cyber-thriller co-starring a young Angelina Jolie, had been comfortably weathered. By this point, he’d also married Jolie in a ramshackle ceremony involving blood and leather, and had found himself one evening at a party, some industry affair filled with carnivorous power players promising big things. One such man, a studio executive with expensive shades and lots of ideas, cornered him by the hors d’oeuvre.
“He told me he was gonna make me an action star, and asked me how that sounded,” Miller recalls. “I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then he asked me, ‘How does $20m sound?’ I remember just saying, ‘Who the f*** is this guy?’” Miller lets out a big, lairy laugh. “I could have been a little more gracious, but I think it’s a good indication of me just not understanding the game back then. Or that I thought I was Al Pacino, you know?” We’re sitting in the freezing basement of a London church – palm trees and table service a distant memory – where Miller is rehearsing for the West End run of A Mirror, Sam Holcroft’s thought-provoking play about theatre under a politically repressive regime. Back in LA, though, “Lo and behold,” the 51-year-old grimaces, “my phone didn’t start ringing off the hook.”
I say it’s perfectly acceptable to think you’re Al Pacino when you’re a 22-year-old movie star. “Yeah, but I was a nightmare!” he shoots back. “I got sent on all these meetings and auditions, and I was just not good at any of it.” He wraps his arm around himself in a hug. “God, I had a very embarrassing audition for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I didn’t get that I was supposed to be, like, prepared about Shakespeare.” He laughs again, before composing himself. “It still makes me cringe. It’s just the way it went down. But here we are. F*** it! It’s whatever, man.”
For Miller, lots of things are whatever, man. It’s his conversational go-to, a surfer-dude nod to the country he’s called home for most of his adult life – his sentences end with a slight American twang, by the way – and a reliable answer to the career questions he’ll inevitably get asked. We know Ewan McGregor played with lightsabers after Trainspotting. We know Robert Carlyle stripped off to Hot Chocolate. Miller – handsome, good actor, great hair – seemed to flail around a little. Even he probably can’t remember which member of All Saints he dated.
“I was young and foolish,” he shrugs. “I suppose I had a certain amount of arrogance, where I was like... ‘This is bulls***!’ So I ran away from my life and hid in LA for a couple of years, not taking advantage of career opportunities. But that’s just how life is sometimes. I wasn’t really smart about stuff.”
What’s interesting, though, is that he always seemed to have a strong moral backbone – even when he was being arsey to studio executives or being twentysomething and chaotic. In 2021, Jolie – with whom he’s remained friendly since their split in 1997 – talked about him in an interview with The Guardian, praising him for his response to her alleged assault by the sex offender and now former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. “I had to escape [Weinstein],” Jolie said. “I stayed away and warned people about him. I remember telling Jonny, my first husband, who was great about it, to spread the word to other guys – don’t let girls go alone with him.”
I know there were worries about it because we were rolling around butt naked – Benedict Cumberbatch had brought that up
I tell Miller that the quote stuck with me because famous men have tended not to be mentioned in the testimonials of Weinstein’s victims. Men sometimes orbited, aware of what was happening, but rarely seemed to get themselves involved. Miller at least tried to do something about it.
“My memory is a bit hazy, but I remember feeling fury,” he says. “I actually wanted to be more proactive about it, but it was 100 per cent her decision and you have to swallow your male bulls***. I was gonna hire someone to f***ing...” He trails off. “But I didn’t. I had some connections.” I laugh, nervously. Miller does not. And Jolie told him not to? “Yeah. Because it would mean it becomes about you, right? And you wanting to prove how much you care – ‘No one’s going to f***ing do that to my people.’ But what you need to do is listen to your partner.” He smiles, warmly now. “Amazingly, that was the one thing I was able to get right. You know, I was raised by women. I have three sisters. And [Jolie] is a very smart lady. She knows what’s best for her.”
After his self-imposed exile in LA, Miller kicked around the American film and television industry, most notably spending seven years as a contemporary Sherlock Holmes on the crime drama Elementary. He’s also worked with the likes of Tim Burton, Neil Jordan and Guy Ritchie, and in 2022 he played John Major in The Crown, perhaps a tad too attractively. And now he’s come back home, for the West End run of a trippy, fourth-wall-breaking play about art, censorship and the political psyche.
It’s why we’re meeting in an old church turned rehearsal space, our conversation serenaded by a distracting radio station playing nothing but Noughties pop. Miller is warm, earnest, and pleasingly ordinary, dressed in black sweats decorated with shimmering skulls. I may miss the ice-blond mop from Trainspotting, but Miller also pulls off the shaven-headed look – it seems to accentuate the sharpness of his features.
A Mirror, which is transferring to the Trafalgar Theatre in Whitehall after a successful run at the Almeida at the end of last summer, marks Miller’s first foray onto the London stage since 2011, when he led Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein alongside Benedict Cumberbatch. It was a phenomenon, partly because it arrived smack in the middle of Elementary mania. Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts each night – one played Frankenstein, the other his monster – and whichever of them was playing the monster had to slither naked out of a gooey cocoon in front of some either very satisfied or very disappointed Cumberbitches (remember them?).
Much has been made in recent years of actors being illicitly photographed on stage while performing nude – most recently James Norton in the West End production of A Little Life. Did Miller or Cumberbatch ever experience that?
“I don’t think so, but social media was nowhere near as big then,” he says. “I know there were worries about it because we were rolling around butt naked – Ben had brought that up. But I didn’t care, to be honest. People taking pictures, it’s one of those things that’s not in your control. You’ve really gotta focus on your job and doing that. The other s*** – whatever, man.”
A Mirror takes place in a near-future dystopia, where all art is vetted by the Ministry of Culture, embodied by Miller’s sinister state censor Äelik. Works of creativity must be “hopeful” and “inspiring”, Äelik insists to a young playwright (Samuel Adewunmi). “If the audience wanted reality, they could sit on their own stairwells and listen to their neighbours,” he sneers. What unfolds is a genre-bending piece of theatre that consistently experiments with form and expectation – plays inside plays inside plays.
Ask Miller about A Mirror’s themes – how much the state should intervene in the arts, say – and he blanches. He rubs his temples, stumbles over his sentences, and takes big glugs of water from a glass. “There appears to be a broad theme of censorship,” he says, “but really it becomes more about artistic expression, and truth or fiction and, um, the importance of either one.” He apologises. “It’s very hard for me to explain or talk about it because I sound like I don’t know what it’s about, do you know what I mean?” I do, I tell him. “OK, good. All the play asks is for you to come out of it asking yourself a few questions, and...” He pauses again. “I think the play does that really nicely.”
He seems out of breath. Does he like talking about... “No,” he interrupts, then laughs. “Honestly, I’m not the most eloquent individual in the world. The more I sit here wangin’ on about stuff, the more I feel like ‘How is this gonna help?’ But then, you really need to get people to come and see the play...” He trails off. Then apologises again. “I worry. I don’t find these things very comfortable, but I’m also like, cool – let’s do it, this helps.”
It’s fair to say that Miller has always had an erratic relationship with fame. As a child, he got a kick out of it, winning a place at the National Youth Theatre and doing the rounds of classic British TV (The Bill, EastEnders and Casualty all pop up on his early CV). Leaving school at 16, he spent a few years bouncing between auditions before moving into a flat above a chip shop in London’s Kentish Town with another aspiring actor, a kid called Jude Law.
He says he was the messier of the two – he remembers Law being an early “nester”, someone stylish and resourceful, while he was more scatterbrained. When Miller got Hackers and the pair moved to nicer digs in Primrose Hill, it was Law who carefully boxed up all of his belongings for him while he was overseas filming.
Miller was the first among his peers to become successful – you can probably sketch the Trainspotting poster from memory – but he says today that he’s never felt particularly creative. “I’m imaginative, but I’m not creative,” he insists. “My sisters are creative. They can draw and paint. But I don’t, and can’t, and don’t have a desire to. Acting is more observational, I suppose. You’re fulfilling someone else’s vision, so you’re just a small part of it.”
But there must have been times when he did feel like he wanted to be a bigger part of it – didn’t he and Law have a production company at one point? “Oh, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he laughs. I suggest he’s putting himself down too much. Especially for things he did when he was just a kid. “I wasn’t that young,” he says. “Maybe 22 or 23?” That’s a baby, I tell him. “Well, I think I was a bit of an extra baby.”
These days, he has a son of his own, 15-year-old Buster. We talk about how he co-parents with his ex-wife, the actor Michele Hicks. “Again, it comes back to swallowing your pride,” he says. “You’ve got to remember who the most important person in any given situation is.” He’s relieved that his son appears to have absolutely no interest in acting. “I think that might be quite healthy. I feel like wanting to express yourself when you’re little might be to do with things not being great at home. You’re wanting to be heard. And mine and Michele’s whole f***ing vibe is that he’s heard.”
He says he tries not to talk too much about his family, always weighing up how much of his private life he should publicise. It’s partly why he kept quiet for years about his struggles with addiction. “It’s been over 12 years since I was intoxicated,” he wrote on his Instagram last September. “I discovered more about myself in those 12 years than my entire life beforehand. I remember every day what the struggle was like, and if you are struggling, I want you to know that there is help nearby and a life beyond your dreams.”
During a podcast appearance in December, he said he had spent much of the aftermath of Trainspotting in a haze: he was addicted to heroin for several years, before replacing it with alcohol and cocaine. In 2012, he got sober. “I’d never talked about it for a number of reasons, partly out of worry about getting insured for work,” he says. “But f*** that, you know? You never know who needs to hear a positive story.” He tells me he’s reluctant to go into too much detail about his struggles today, having already “spilled his guts” on the aforementioned podcast. “But getting sober was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
I ask if it was ever difficult when his personal life and his professional life became blurred: in Trainspotting and its belated 2017 sequel, of course, but even his Sherlock on Elementary was in recovery from heroin addiction. “Oddly,” he says, “Elementary came along when I’d been sober for about six months. And honestly it was a gift.” He says his sobriety wasn’t a secret on the show’s set, and that he and the show’s creator, Robert Doherty, would collaborate on the accuracy of Sherlock’s own recovery. “Rob was so receptive to my input, and to making that story feel real. It was a real joint effort, and we were able to bring that to this f***ing cop show, which I think is amazing.”
Acting out scenes of inebriation or relapses never bothered him, either. “You have more of a problem walking home from set down Second Avenue, you know? Just going past bars. That’s harder than making a piece of telly.”
It’s a typical Miller reaction. Unaffected. Practical. Whatever, man.
‘A Mirror’ is running at London’s Trafalgar Theatre until 20 April