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Interview

Wentworth Miller: From Temp to Time

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Six years after graduating from Princeton University, Wentworth Miller came to Los Angeles to embark on a career in show business. "I graduated with my degree in English lit and came out here not to act but to be in development," said Miller. "I spent a year and a half working at a small company that made movies for television. It's funny, Princeton was an amazing place, but it is also where I got off track as far as the acting. I acted all the way up until Princeton. It was just one of my favorite extracurricular activities. Then I got to Princeton and had a really conservative vibe. All my friends were planning on law school, med school, or Wall Street, and suddenly acting seem like a really risky proposition."

Meanwhile, on the job in Los Angeles, Miller realized he had that "what if" question in the back of his mind and was unable to shake thoughts of a career as an actor. "I thought that if I didn't answer it, I'd probably be haunted by it," he said, "So, I decided I was going to quit." Coincidentally, his boss at the production company was hired at one of the networks as the director of Motion Pictures and offered Miller a job as her assistant. "It was going to pay, like, $40, 000 a year," he recalled. "It was the big corporate gig, the brass ring. I went back and forth trying to decide what I really wanted to do, which road I really wanted to take. I realized that if I took the corporate gig and was successful, that would be great, but I would always wonder about the acting. And if I did the acting and was successful, I would never ever wonder about the corporate gig. So I walked into her office and said, 'Thank you for the job offer, but I am going to quit and become an actor.'"

That former boss proclaimed that he was making a big mistake and would later live to regret his decision.

Soon after, Miller got into acting classes and did temp work to make ends meet. "Six months later I was temping for her at the network, in the job that I'd turned down," admitted Miller. "She had the grace not to say, 'I told you so,' but then two years later I was starring in a TV movie [Dinotopia] on that same network." How's that for irony?

The subsequent success of Dinotopia may account for the actor's big break in the minds of some industry folk, but for Miller all the jobs he booked were a big deal. "They all seem like the big breaks," he said. "The first thing I'd ever booked was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have to say, that's kind of when I started wishing I'd done a lot more with what Back Stage West had to offer, because I did do submissions but not nearly enough. When I booked Buffy, I'd never been on a set before. Suddenly it's 3 a.m., and I'm on some back lot doing fight choreography with David Boreanaz. I didn't know what a mark was. If I'd had some experience doing student films and doing little independents, I might have been more prepared and spent less time waiting for that knock on the trailer door telling me I'd been fired. I mean, it was an amazing experience, but I was terrified the entire time."

It's territory Miller will presumably never return to again as he is now fully involved in his career and is currently entertaining audiences in the Robert Benton film The Human Stain, with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins. Miller delivers the kind of raw, textured performance that is as clearly natural as it is broadly iconic. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Philip Roth's bestselling novel and centers on the story of Coleman Silk, who throughout his life has been a master of deception and self-reinvention. A promising young student (Miller), Coleman's first love is shattered by a secret. Years later, as an esteemed professor (Hopkins), his career is ruined by false accusations. Now he embarks on a scandalous affair with the mysterious Faunia (Kidman) and experiences a reawakening that carries him back to his past. The best scenes are the flashback scenes with Miller as the young Coleman. "There were a lot of things that I felt I understood about the character's struggle," said Miller. "But at first I didn't want to do it. I think as an actor all you have to work with is you—your personal history, your personal experience—and this was very close to home. The one thing I hate to hear from my agent is, 'You're perfect for it,' because if you're 'perfect' for it and you go in, do your best, and still don't get the job, what does that say about you? No one wants to be in that situation, right? So my first instinct was to flinch, but I got over that. I went in and had a great conversation with the casting director, Deborah Aquila. It was just one of those days when everything fell into place. When I was done she looked at me and said, 'I want you to meet [director] Robert Benson when he comes to town and have a screen test.'"

A month later, Miller went in for his screen test at yet another studio where he had temped on-and-off. Miller confessed, "It's intimidating, and I had known at this point that they had Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. I read through it once. When I was done Robert Benton got up, walked around the table, leaned over, and whispered an adjustment in my ear. And it seems like a small thing but because he didn't just yell at me from across the table; he made it so personal and private. That moment, which was the biggest audition of my life, became a workshop. The pressure disappeared. And the rest of the afternoon just passed like a dream. They actually told me the part was mine there at the screen test."

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