Wentworth Miller came to Denver to promote The Human Stain, which kicked off the 26th Denver International Film Festival. He was only in town for 24 hours, but he did a lot in that time, appearing at the screening for his movie, then schmoozing at the opening night gala party. Friendly, jovial, and well spoken, Miller is the kind of person who might make it big on personality alone.
Movie Habit's coverage of the Denver International Film Festival 2003
In The Human Stain, Miller and Sir Anthony Hopkins share the same character, Miller playing a younger version of the same man. I mentioned that these were some pretty big shoes to fill.
|In spite of his Princeton pals’ advice, Miller pursued a career in the arts. |
“And the hugely flattering thing is that he tailored his performance to me. They gave him the green contacts, they had a little mole that they added on his temple. And we shot my part of the movie first so he was able to watch that footage when he finally came on set — was then able to pick and choose things from my performance to layer into his. So when I finally got to see the whole thing put together there were so many moments where I thought ‘That’s me! That’s Anthony Hopkins doing me!’ It was a thrill, of course.
“The good news as far as the challenge of two people playing the same role was that our character is very much a man in transformation, trying on this mask, so I did not have to do a dead-on Anthony Hopkins impersonation. To be honest, aside from speech and inflection and a gesture here and there, I was really hoping to capture the essence of Hopkins, what he brings to each and every role, which I think is a combination of authority and passion and integrity. The man has presence to burn. So if I was lucky enough to capture a bit of that I consider my job done.
“Cate Blanchett had a quote I read recently in light of her role in Veronica Guerin, that she’s an actor, not a mimic. And I feel very much the same way.”
I asked Miller what made him decide to act. From what little information I had read, it appeared that he only began acting after college. It turns out I was wrong.
“Acting has always been a passion, and I did it all the way up until college. And then I went to Princeton and allowed myself to get derailed because Princeton is an amazing school. It’s also conservative and all my friends were looking forward to Wall Street or law school or med school, and if you said that you were going into the arts, that was something you did in college as an extracurricular activity; it wasn’t something that you built a whole career on. Suddenly the idea of not having a steady paycheck seemed crazy.”
So why go to college at all?
“It was just expected that I would go to college. Both my parents are teachers and they tolerated acting, but I was going to go to a school of quality or bust. Which made my downshifting back to acting afterward a little difficult. My parents have always been incredibly supportive, but they come from academic backgrounds, and they don’t know anything about an actor’s life. All my father knew was that I had a hell of a lot of free time on my hands, and that’s never a good thing. They had their concerns.
“So I graduated with my degree in English and I moved out to Los Angeles because I didn’t want to teach, and I was still in love with TV and film, and I thought ‘Well, I’ll be behind the scenes, then.’ [I] started working in development for a little company that made movies for television. Development translated into faxing and filing and walking the boss’ dog and going to Subway with the order for the boss’ lunch and all kinds of glamorous stuff.
“But every weekend I would go in to the office because I didn’t have air conditioning and it was hot, and I would hang out in the conference room and kinda set up camp (laughs) and raid the company kitchen. [I would] just watch all our footage that we had on video coming back from various production sites. And the juices started flowing, and I realized I still had this ‘what if’ question to answer, and I decided to quit.
“It was scary. I walked into my boss’ office, and I said ‘You know, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna be an actor,’ and she said ‘Well, I’ve just been hired at one of the networks as their director of motion pictures and I want you to come with me as my assistant.’ And that was like forty thousand dollars a year, that was like a corporate gig, that was the brass ring, as far as I was concerned.
“I went back and forth. What was I gonna do, what wasn’t I gonna do? It was very after-school-special. And I eventually realized that If I went and did the corporate gig, that would be great if I was successful, but I would always wonder about the acting. And if I did the acting and was successful I would never wonder about that corporate gig.
“So I had to tell my boss that I was not gonna come with her. And she said ‘I think you’re making a mistake. I think you’ll live to regret it.’ But I quit anyway and started temping to make ends meet. And six months later wound up temping for her at the network. And she had the grace not to say ‘I told you so.’ But two years later I wound up starring in a TV movie on that network so it all came full circle.”
I wondered aloud at the patience he had shown. How many of us would temp for two years while we waited for the perfect job to come along? Most of us, I believe, would choose security over passion. That’s when Miller corrected me again.
“Actually I think it might have been longer than two years. It might have been three or four. I was lucky enough to get guest star roles on Buffy and E.R. and a show called Popular — enough to keep me going, but it was sporadic, so I still had to temp to make ends meet. I was not able to stop temping until maybe five or six years after deciding to become an actor.
“I have people coming up to me now at film festivals and screenings who are like, ‘Weren’t you the one used to stand by the Xerox machine?’ I mean I temped for a lot of people in the entertainment industry. I spent three months writing up contracts for other actors working at a huge agency, which was tough, but I’m glad I have that perspective. Because now that I’m at the point where big shot so-and-so is laughing at all my jokes and schmoozing, I think ‘You know I got coffee for people like you for six years,’ so I know what’s what as much as I can, because I’ve seen the other side.”
I asked Miller what particular skill he offered as a temp. Was it the Xeroxing or the filing?
“Becoming invisible. There were some people who expected you to jump right in and do exactly what their assistant did, but by and large most people simply wanted you sitting there warming a chair. And so I did a lot of reading and kinda blended in with the wallpaper. That was my main quality as a temp, which was appreciated. They don’t want someone in there making waves, doing cartwheels. I sometimes think I should have been online getting a law degree. I wasted all that time (laughs).”
I asked when he was offered the corporate gig, if there was an amount of money he might have said yes to.
“It was never about the money. Because acting for me, at its best, you’re working on a project that touches you in some way. And that allows you to touch a bunch of strangers, whether they’re sitting there with you — you’re doing a play — or they’re in an audience watching you on the screen. There’s a kind of thrill that comes along with that that I have not been able to find anywhere else. So even if I had to go back to temping, even if this is not the beginning of an amazing career, I would not regret making that jump.”
I had a few extra minutes, so I asked about meeting Hopkins, about working with Oscar winner Robert Benton, about his favorite movies (see sidebar) and about life at Princeton while I snapped digital pictures, hoping for one to turn out usably clear.
As he wrapped up, he said he doesn’t regret that he went to Princeton, even if it proves to be a detour in a life devoted to acting.
“The road has been what it’s been and it’s taken me as long as it’s taken to get here and I don’t regret a second. It doesn’t get any better than this.”