Sienna Miller and Naomi Scott on Netflix series Anatomy of a Scandal

The scandal of the title involves Miller’s on-screen husband, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a Tory Cabinet minister and product of Eton, Oxford and a distinctly Bullingdon-esque drinking society, who is accused of rape by a parliamentary aide with whom he had been having an affair. No sooner has Sophie found out about his infidelity than she is forced into the role of dutiful wife, standing by her man, keeping up appearances in court, protecting family and party at all costs.

“What Sophie deals with is public humiliation and betrayal – things that are not unfamiliar to me,” says Miller. “But her response to them was so different to my own.”

Now 40, Miller spent much of her 20s under the intense glare of the then all-powerful tabloids, who touted her as an It Girl, hunted her down like prey and reported on every “scandal” in her private life, the biggest of which came in 2005 when her then fiancé, Jude Law, publically admitted to cheating on her with his children’s nanny. In 2008 she came out fighting and successfully sued various news agencies in the courts; last year she accepted “substantial” damages from Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers over phone hacking.

She is familiar, too, with the privileged world depicted in the drama. The girls’ boarding school that she attended near Ascot (on a bursary, she’s quick to point out) wasn’t too far from Eton. The only newspapers in the common room were the Tory-supporting Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Plenty of young Tory hatchlings came a-courting and many of her schoolmates aspired to an advantageous marriage to one of them, such as young Sophie sets her heart on in the drama. “Sophie did a version of life that I could’ve had and really was very against,” says Miller. “I’m not trashing it, but it was such a blinkered view of the world that I went on a soul-searching quest to find who I really was, not who I was prescribed to be.”

The fact that Sienna Miller’s life didn’t go that way – and couldn’t have gone that way, given her force of character – is fairly evident from her immediate surroundings. We are speaking over Zoom with an eight-hour time difference, Miller having just woken up in her hotel room in LA.

Naturally, she looks immaculate – and proves warm and ebullient, as she sips room-service coffee. The name on her screen is “Oli Green”, so I assume the laptop is borrowed from the 25-year-old Burberry model with whom she’s in a relationship – and that he is the figure padding around in the background in his boxer shorts.

Home is usually New York, where Miller’s nine-year-old daughter Marlowe is at school – but it’s awards season and Miller has a diary full of Hollywood meetings. She’s currently in a “plotting” phase, she says, “everything in flux”. Which is, I sense, how she likes it.

The fact that Miller was initially best known for her “boho chic” fashion sense and her relationships with actors Jude Law and Tom Sturridge (Marlowe’s father) has tended to overshadow her work. Reading back through reviews of The Edge of Love (2008), American Woman (2018), or the miniseries The Loudest Voice (2019) – in which she played the wife of Fox News founder Roger Ailes – reviewers seem perpetually obliged to point out that yes, she can really act! And Anatomy of a Scandal is precisely the sort of role that she loves.

Among the series’ producers is David E Kelley, the former lawyer who was behind Ally McBeal and recent hits Big Little Lies and The Undoing – both of which Miller loved, for their brevity as much as their twists and turns. Six episodes is about right, she feels: “I don’t really have the attention span for a long-format thing…” she laughs.

With the upper-class English version of the ludicrously luxxy interiors in Big Little Lies, Anatomy of a Scandal also has that signature combination of psychological and legal intrigue.

Miller is good friends with the director, SJ Clarkson, and they had been looking for a collaboration project for some time. “For me there’s no way a man could’ve directed this story. Not to say that there weren’t capable male directors who have the sensitivity, but it just felt right that it was a woman because the show really is about women.”

It’s all based on Sarah Vaughan’s bestselling novel of 2018 and is part of a post-#MeToo wave of works that probe society’s notions of consent and privilege. “I think what’s clever about it is that it doesn’t spoon-feed solutions in any way,” Miller says.

At the beginning, her husband James is convinced that he’s done nothing wrong – beyond having an extra-marital affair, of course – and as the snakish Tory advisor tells him, that sort of thing can actually boost a politician’s popularity these days. Sophie at first feels she has no choice but to play along with her assigned narrative – “She’s very stoic and English in a way that I never quite managed to be,” says Miller – but by the end of the series, she has reassessed.

It’s really about the sort of entitlement that’s so deep-rooted that the entitled person doesn’t even consider themselves capable of bad deeds. “Sophie has an honest look at privilege and things that were given to her and the choices she’s made and how she might have enabled certain things just because that was how she was raised,” explains Miller.

One of the best scenes comes when Sophie visits James’s parents in their vast country pile. Sophie's mother-in-law (Phoebe Nicholls) tells her how James always used to cheat at Monopoly and Cluedo and naturally, she indulged him – because a bit of dishonesty is useful for a career in politics isn’t it?

In what might be a meta-fictional first, Phoebe Nicholls is in fact the mother of Tom Sturridge, the father of Miller’s daughter… and therefore, sort of Miller’s mother-in-law, right?

“We call her the mother-out-of-law,” she confirms. Yes, she did suggest Nicholls for the part; but no, she’s nothing like that. “She’s extraordinary and she’s such an incredible actor – I was excited to read those scripts and see that she would be perfect for that part.” It’s the scene that most viewers have singled out.

“I think it’s sort of perfect in terms of what it represents and says and doesn’t say.”

The issues of the drama are, alas, perpetually relevant. “In terms of consent, it’s still a really very complicated and important thing to look at,” Miller says. “It’s very, very difficult to prosecute a rape case of this nature. It’s just impossible. There’s an alarming statistic which I’m going to get wrong, but I think only 3 per cent of cases will end up in trial or prosecution.” (Actually, it’s even lower than that: according to Rape Crisis, only one in a hundred rapes reported to police result in a charge). “Women often don’t report things that they know are wrong because why put yourself through something like that to end up with nothing?”

Likewise, the politics of privilege are also ever-present. Watching the scenes of Bullingdon Club excess, I initially thought: “How very David Cameron-era!” before remembering that the current prime minister was a member of this fabled society, too.

“They all went to Eton, they all went to Oxford!” Miller points out. “I’m trying not to get too political, but I really can’t help myself when I’m talking about this. There are these things happening in Government which are really relevant – the idea that there is a certain set of rules for a certain type of person. It’s the conviction within that, that we are just seeing. It’s staggering.”

It hopefully puts the sort of romantic “scandals” that Miller was involved in back in the early 2000s into their proper context. “Another person, another life…” she says. It’s also a period of her life that she fought to reclaim.

In 2011, she testified at the Leveson inquiry, describing how at 21, she was followed everywhere she went by ten or 15 male photographers, who would do anything to get an “emotional reaction” from her.

“I feel so disconnected from that person because I was also in such a frenzy and such chaos. But through incredibly litigious behaviour on my part and many fights with incredibly powerful corporations, I’ve managed to carve out some genuine privacy and quiet in my life which is remarkable and lovely.”

It’s what has made her the sunny, self-possessed person she is today. Clearly, you underestimate Sienna Miller at your peril. “Advocating for myself was really not easy,” she says. “Making a stand, fighting it in courts, not settling out of court – those decisions changed me. My identity had been completely swallowed up by something that was way more powerful and completely out of my control.”

The more paranoid she became, the more erratically she behaved, the more the paparazzi had to photograph her, creating “a horrible ouroboros of s**t” as she describes it. “To have survived that – which I know is a really strong word but it’s actually the truth – and to still be working and to have the same friends I’ve always had and a few degrees of sanity is something that I am proud of. I would love to be able to go back and do it differently, if I’m honest. But at the same time I’ve got many great stories from it. It’s just that my character somehow attracts a bit of chaos.”

Mostly good chaos these days. Miller has a number of intriguing projects coming up. She’s starring in Kristin Scott Thomas’s soon-to-be-announced debut as writer/director, and will soon appear opposite Geoffrey Rush in Oren Moverman’s film about the last years of Groucho Marx. “I’m very excited about that. And then hopefully a play – I miss doing plays!” A small theatre, the Almeida or Donmar Warehouse in London, would be ideal, she says. A move back to England might then be on the cards, once Marlowe has finished her current phase of US education.

New York has been galvanising and exciting but she’s ready for another move. “It’s quite a nomadic existence being an actor. But I think when Marlowe gets to 11, I’ll probably come back to England just to give her that English thing, the irreverence and the humour.”

She has described herself as “soul-searching” when she left school. Does this mean she found herself, or is this a never-ending quest?

“I mean that I’m pretty clearly set on what I believe,” Miller says. “Morally, and politically. But no, I think it’s a never-ending quest. Life for me is never going to be dull or uneventful.”

Naomi Scott

Playing the role of James Whitehouse’s accuser, young parliamentary researcher Olivia Lytton, was a heavy weight of responsibility for actor Naomi Scott, who is best known for playing Princess Jasmine in the 2019 Disney film Aladdin. Aware that only a tiny proportion of rape victims report the crime to the police, Scott wanted to get into the mindset of a woman who is brave enough to take the stand against her powerful boss.

Scott says she took the issues of consent and privilege raised in the series incredibly seriously. She believes it is vital to understand the reasons Olivia chose to go to court, knowing how much Whitehouse’s defence barrister would make of the grey areas of the case: namely, that Olivia was in love with Whitehouse and did not say “no” as he had sex with her in a lift.

“Even as an actor, walking into a court room was terrifying”, says Scott. “You have to relay the biggest, most traumatic moment of your life in front of all these people: that blew my mind. It’s incredibly brave to go down that path.

“When people think of sexual assault, they think of the man lurking behind the bush. This isn’t that. Olivia was in love with him. The viewer almost becomes the jury. You’re given the fragmented version, each person’s memory of that event, and you’re left to deal with that yourself.

“It asks questions of us as an audience member: how we bring our own biases to what we’re seeing. As entertaining as the show is – and it is a thriller – I’d like to think that it’ll spark some discussions about consent and privilege.”

Playing Olivia – a bright, ambitious and keen worker – involved many intimate scenes with Rupert Friend, who plays Whitehouse. The themes of Anatomy of a Scandal draw inevitable parallels with the film and TV industry. The #MeToo movement revealed horrific stories of privileged men abusing female actors in the workplace: an irony that wasn’t lost on Scott.

“We had an amazing intimacy coordinator who did a great job of creating an atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable,” she says. “That was a real privilege. It hasn’t always been the case; I’ve heard so many stories. In that environment you are incredibly vulnerable and you need protecting.

“It makes me really grateful, especially to the women who have come forward, the dambusters who have spoken about their experiences, who have changed the way we think about the workplace and the privilege and power dynamics within our industry. I’m aware those women opened doors for me to feel safe on set and it’s something I don’t take lightly.”

Having broken into acting without any formal training, Hounslow-born Scott, 28, originally dreamed of being a singer, before landing a series of bit-parts and calling herself the “nearly girl” before hitting the big time in Aladdin.

Other roles then followed, including 2019’s Charlie’s Angels reboot, and she now runs her own production company with former West Ham footballer husband Jordan Spence.

When we speak, she is in Los Angeles, preparing to present an Oscar. Yet, she still takes every opportunity to learn her craft from people around her: including her Anatomy co-stars Sienna Miller and Michelle Dockery.

“It was truly wonderful,” she says. “It was kind of a great sponge moment, watching how they work. Sienna is – you just root for that woman on screen. And Michelle is so fantastically believable and she has the ability to say so much with doing so little.

“It was funny, there were so many Essex girls: me, Michelle and SJ [Clarkson], the director. There was a feeling of all these wonderful women in front of and behind the camera, working together.”

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There are more parallels between the show’s theme and Scott’s own experiences of trying to break into acting as not only someone who is untrained but also of mixed heritage (her mother is Gujarati-Indian).

She says it’s a subject she and husband Spence talk about a lot; they are keen to find underprivileged new talent who haven’t had opportunities to break into the entertainment world.

“When you don’t see yourself represented, you have to knock down the wall,” she says. “That’s really important to us, because I didn’t go to drama school. We have to create more seats at the table. I think everyone has a different part to play – to say, ‘I’m going to run my business a bit differently’, or ‘I’m going to set a culture of inclusivity’, not only because I think that’s right, but actually, it makes your business better to have different voices in the room.

“It’s not always easy for young girls to feel they belong in this world or that that path is possible, so my husband and I really wanted to make that a priority when we started producing.

“You know, when I see those beautiful South Asian girls in Bridgerton I feel so excited. It gives me goosebumps. I want to bring everyone in.”

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Anatomy of a Scandal premieres on Netflix on Friday 15th April. Check out our Drama hub for all the latest news. If you’re looking for something to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.