JONNY LEE MILLER “ELEMENTARY” INTERVIEW
By Abbie Bernstein
ELEMENTARY, starring Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, has been a hit for CBS in its first season and it will be back in the fall. Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective has been brought to the screen many times, including the BBC SHERLOCK, which will be back for a third season, and two recent films starring Robert Downey Jr., but the U.S. network version by Robert Doherty boasts a few idiosyncratic elements. For one thing, while Sherlock Holmes remains indubitably British, he is doing his deducing in present-day New York. For another, Watson initially is on hand not because she wants to solve crimes, but because Sherlock’s father has hired her as a sober living companion while Sherlock recovers from addiction.
Miller, a native of Surrey, England, has had an acting career that’s encompassed stage, film and television. He was in MANSFIELD PARK in two different mediums – as Charles Price in a 1983 British TV version and as Edmund Bertram in the 1999 feature film. He was also one of the stars on 1996’s TRAINSPOTTING (which also shot Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Ewen Bremner and Kelly Macdonald to international attention – people already knew who Robert Carlyle was). Other bigscreen credits include Woody Allen’s MELINDA AND MELINDA, ENDGAME and last year’s DARK SHADOWS. He recently completed work in director Neil Jordan’s upcoming feature BYZANTIUM.
ELEMENTARY isn’t Miller’s first foray into American television – he was one of the leads in the short-lived crime thriller SMITH and the eponymous hero of the well-loved, idiosyncratic legal musical series ELI STONE, as well as the season-long villain on year five of DEXTER. However, ELEMENTARY is undoubtedly his widest-viewed U.S. show.
In an interesting bit of crossover, Miller is good friends with Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock in the BBC SHERLOCK. In 2011, Miller and Cumberbatch starred together in England’s National Theatre production of FRANKENSTEIN. The two actors switched off in playing Victor Frankenstein and his Creature (the production was recorded for release in film theatres).
At a party thrown by CBS for the Television Critics Association, Miller makes himself available to talk about ELEMENTARY, as well as his other projects, including FRANKENSTEIN, which sounds as though it must have been a pretty intense experience.
Miller says, “The technical difficulties of rehearsing a play two ways round, because not only have you got to rehearse two people into the lead, but then the entire cast, they’re learning really four versions of the play, because I might not want to pick that [prop] up over there, so it was technically very difficult, but the wonderful thing about the sharing of the roles was, we set out to be very, very different from each other, but we ended up sharing a lot of ideas, so there was a real loss of ego, which was wonderful. Because as an actor, you don’t really get to share ideas in the same role with another actor very often, so that’s what we did.”
Miller says he and Cumberbatch got over second-guessing themselves due to watching each play the other’s part during rehearsal. “Well, that’s what weeks of rehearsal are about – practice, practice, practice.” He adds that he hasn’t seen either of the filmed versions, with him playing Victor or the Creature. “I declined to watch those, because they just would be too strange for me, the mixing of the immediate – it’s hard enough to watch yourself in films. To watch yourself on stage is a horrendous idea.”
What were his feelings about playing the two different characters? “The Creature was very physical to play, so it was very satisfying in that regard. Victor Frankenstein was much harder to discover, personally, for me, but you also get a break – you wouldn’t have to do three hours of makeup before each show, and beat yourself up so much. But the Creature was really a sort of larger departure, which was fun.”
And now there’s Sherlock. Did Miller have any hesitations about doing a new version of a character who has been interpreted so many times already? “Yeah, of course. For obvious reasons, I was hesitant about it, but after reading it, I felt it was a really different project, a very different take on it, and we’re making it in another country, for a different audience as well.”
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most intelligent characters ever conceived. Is there a difference in playing someone that perceptive, versus someone with a more normal I.Q.? “Yeah, there’s a difference in playing him – this character is so advanced, so he has to be very different from everyone else. All characters that you play are different – you choose those roles based on differences and based on, you don’t really want to do the same thing that you did last time. [The intelligence] is really in the writing. The clues are in there. At the end of the day, what’s coming out of your mouth is going to display that, and all the other stuff is – it’s too complicated to describe how a performance works,” he laughs, “but it’s basically the writing.”
Although Victor Frankenstein is accused of playing God with bringing his Creature to life, Sherlock seems to have an even bigger ego than the good doctor, Miller acknowledges. “Yeah. Sherlock – to a certain extent, I guess you could say he’s arrogant. I think he has a slight problem communicating with people and he’s not the most sensitive guy, and he struggles with his own genius, if you like, so that can come across as arrogant sometimes.”
Does Miller modulate his performance based on which characters Sherlock finds remotely interesting as people and which ones he sees as mere puzzle pieces? “I don’t know,” Miller replies. “I think our version of Sherlock is more interested in people than maybe some other versions we’ve seen before, I like to think. I found him quite a people person in the books, strangely. He has quite a relationship with the man on the street, and I wanted to bring that more into it, so I don’t really see him as looking at people like puzzle pieces. Even though he’s sometimes rude, he’s brash, he’s brusque, if you like, but I think he really understands people more than you’d think.”
With Rob Doherty as show runner, the ELEMENTARY scripts pose a lot of brain-teasers. As he reads them, does Miller ever find himself caught up in wondering what’s happening in each episode before culprit and motive are revealed? “Oh, yeah. We just try and put some reality and try to make it as real as possible. The whole show is like an inch off the ground, and I’m trying to make sense of it and make it as real and as connected to the audience as possible, so yeah.”
ELEMENTARY’s Sherlock has a very particular point of view about society and isn’t shy about expressing himself. Does Miller enjoy playing those speeches? “Most of his stuff – he can be quite opinionated. I guess it’s not really my favorite thing. I really like it when he’s talking about subjects that he loves, whether it be lock-picking or beekeeping, stuff like that. I really like the hobby side of him. The political stuff – I think he finds it a little bit tedious, really, and he’s not so wrapped up in such things.”
Has Miller investigated any of Sherlock’s hobbies? “Well, I really don’t have time for any hobbies,” Miller laughs, “but yeah, it’s fascinating. We get to bring single stick into an episode and it’s wonderful having the bees around, when we get to have the bees around. You learn a little more about bees every time there’s a beehive on set. That’s a good thing about this job.”
There are aspects of setting ELEMENTARY in the present that Miller particularly likes. “It allows us to bring a whole set of issues people don’t necessarily associate with back then [when the Sherlock stories originally took place]. But I tend to think that a lot of those issues would have been around anyway and people aren’t that different to how they used to be. It’s just our surroundings. The time that it’s set doesn’t usually feed into how much fun something is. One thing I do feel is that New York is a wonderful city to replicate sort of Victorian London in its general atmosphere.”
During his years in the U.S., Miller says he’s become a fan of American football. “When Channel Four was created in the U.K., one of the first things they had, back in the early Eighties, was American football, and they used to show that, so as kids, we got to see that. So I liked it a bit then. And when I moved back to the States, the crew on ELI STONE started a fantasy league, so they asked me if I’d like to play, and I got totally hooked by playing fantasy football whilst looking after my baby boy on a Sunday. So yeah, I just adore the game. I’m a big sports fan in general. I had the most dreadful fantasy season – I let the computer do my draft and I won’t be doing that again.”
Of course, Miller is also a fan of English football (called “soccer” in the U.S.). “Oh, I am, yes. I’m a huge Chelsea fan.”
Being able to make Sherlock English is a plus for Miller. “I take accents very, very seriously and if they’re not right, I feel it ruins my enjoyment of watching something when an accent is even slightly off, so I take them very, very seriously, I work very hard on it. So not having to take the time to do that is obviously a bonus for me.”
Fellow Englishman Vinnie Jones has guest-starred on ELEMENTARY, much to Miller’s enjoyment. “Vinnie’s a very straightforward guy, so we just get on with it. There wasn’t really a conversation about how we were going to approach [scenes], we just go on and do it. Vinnie’s a very instinctive actor like that, he’s a neat guy to have around the set.”
Almost no television production schedule is described as leisurely, but U.S. TV shooting is famously fast. “It takes getting used to,” Miller relates. “To a certain extent, it’s nice to work at a certain pace. You don’t get to linger. There’s a real bonus to not having to linger on the work that you’re doing, and when you get that pace going, and the crew gets into it and you get that momentum, you can really, really benefit, so it’s nice to be moving through stuff. A volume of work is always a challenge, a volume of material, but it’s nice to work at a fast pace sometimes.”
Regarding ELI STONE, given that it was canceled before its planned storyline got to play out in full, is Miller satisfied with the way the series was wrapped up? “Yeah. I was. I think they did a tremendous job, considering that you have a plan for a show and obviously, it’s cut and you have to sew it up in a few episodes when you weren’t expecting to do that. I think there were some interesting things done with that. To answer it in any more detail, I’d have to revisit it, to be honest with you.”
Did singing on ELI STONE give Miller an appetite to do a full-scale musical at some point? “I would probably have to learn to sing a lot better. I can’t do that to a professional standard.”
Miller has played characters that are very open and vulnerable, like Eli Stone, and characters who are much more contained, like Sherlock. Is it easier to play one than the other? “I don’t know. It’s interesting. It’s easier to play people who are well-written, whether that be emotionally engaged or emotionally detached. If the character’s well-written, it’ll be easier to play.”
Does Miller have a favorite ELEMENTARY episode or scene thus far? “I don’t, actually,” Miller says. “I mean, I like things from a lot of different episodes. So that’s a good sign, really.”
As for series creator Doherty, it sounds like Miller finds working with him a happy collaboration. I trust Rob implicitly and I trust him to make the right decisions there and I fully think he does.”
Miller is also very happy with ELEMENTARY’s enthusiastic audience. “The more people that watch our show and enjoy it – that’s the whole point.”
Interview by Abbie Bernstein