What hasn’t been written about Sarah Miles? The high profile actress has led a life littered with talking points and controversy, from Oscar-nominated highs to the lows of a body being found in her hotel room. And at each step of the way she has been followed by press waiting to get their teeth into her. It was a surprise, then, that she would agree to an interview; she rarely speaks to journalists any more. But with her return to the stage in the European premiere of Well imminent, she has made an exception for Matthew Amer.
“I’ve been so damaged by the press,” she tells me as we sit in the corner of a compact, bustling café in Bethnal Green, opposite the studios at which the cast are rehearsing Lisa Kron’s Well. “They’ve given me a brutal time and I’ve come to the point where I just like to stick to the job in hand. I don’t want fame and glory any more, all I want is just to do the work.” It is a phrase which guides my questions directly to the new play.
Miles has stayed away from acting in recent years, preferring instead to pursue her second career as a writer. This is not from lack of offers, there have been a number of scripts that have fallen on her doormat, but none of them have sparked a passion that would entice her back to the theatre. Well, Kron’s tale of a performance artist and her mother, had something special about for Miles, not least the part of Ann Kron, the role she plays. “I do believe it is one of the most wonderful characters I’ve ever read for the theatre,” she exclaims, “she is such a wonderful woman and I love her.”
The piece as a whole also comes in for a hefty dollop of praise, being described as “very multi-layered and very thought-provoking and very funny. I think the audience is going to have to use all their grey matter, or ‘little grey cells’ as Poirot says, in order to keep up with it.” She adopts the accent of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective to deliver his famous lines, bringing a soft smile to both our faces.
"I’ve had John Gielgud directing me, I’ve had Laurence Olivier directing me, I’ve had Noël Coward directing me, but I prefer Eve"
This, though, is what Sarah Miles is like. She is playful in the utmost, with an energy and an exuberance that belies her age. On the way to the café, she charges past buses into the middle of a busy road, leaving me timidly looking both ways before following in her wake. If it had come to it, she could probably have stopped the oncoming traffic with sheer force of character. Once in the café she chats to the young boy finishing his chocolate sponge and custard with not a hint of pretension or over-inflated ego. This is the woman who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Ryan’s Daughter, who has worked with everyone who was anyone in the history of British acting, and who now blends into an East London café as though she was a regular. Only the Dictaphone sitting between us gives away anything about her status.
But then, Miles prefers it here. She is in the process of buying a flat in Bethnal Green, which she describes as “edgy”. She is not a fan of the smoothing out of roughness or the poshing-up of Notting Hill Gate, where she used to live. There is a need for down and dirty reality that makes her feel alive.
Miles has rarely been happier in a work environment than she is with the cast of Well, which also includes Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps’s Natalie Casey. The only situation that compares was the time spent at Worthing Rep at the outset of her career. “I thought I would never be able to find that again,” she muses, before lifting the spirits, and her voice, with a call of “Who’s a lucky girl?”
The quality of the writing, the camaraderie of the cast, the situation of the rehearsal studios; they have all combined to create Miles’s happiness. So has the direction of Eve Leigh, who is taking charge of only her second professional play, her first in the West End. “I’ve had John Gielgud directing me, I’ve had Laurence Olivier directing me, I’ve had Noël Coward directing me, but I prefer Eve,” Miles laughs. “I don’t quite know what it is really with Eve. She’s able to tell you what she feels would be better, which, of course, usually is better. And I find that often directors don’t tell you a damn thing.”
"It got absolutely wee wee’d all over when it came out. Complete unanimous pissing"
One of those lesser directors, Sir John Gielgud, actually directed Miles in her first professional production, the play Dazzling Prospect in which she starred opposite Margaret Rutherford. Miles was making theatrical history at the very outset of her acting career; Dazzling Prospect, which was staged at the Gielgud theatre, then the Globe, was the last play at which the throwing of food from the Gods was permitted: “We did the first act and there was a really weird atmosphere out there, so I went into Margaret’s dressing room. ‘You think it’s funny now, you wait for the curtain call.’ I spent the second act terrified,” Miles explains, adding in a wonderful matronly accent for the part of Rutherford. “We came to the curtain call, we were all standing there and the curtains open. There were these boos, very loud, coming from the theatre. Then a tomato hit Margaret on the forehead. The stage manager, who was at the curtain, says ‘Shall I bring in the curtain?’ and Margaret says ‘No, we shall stand here until they run out of ammunition.’ That line echoes in my mind all the time. She just stood there as they all came at her, like a soldier in the war.” It was a baptism of fire into a career which would treat her to incredible highs and equally devastating lows.
The scars of Miles’s life are there to see. She is delightful to chat to, happy, joking, stealing chips from unsuspecting customers, but looking too lovely for them to complain about it. She is full of life and verve, yet there are more than a couple of regrets. She doesn’t think, for example, that she ever fulfilled her potential as an actress. Life got in the way, both personal – which includes well-documented relationships with a collection of Hollywood’s most influential artists – and professional. When she was cast opposite Laurence Olivier in the film Term Of Trial, it was in a role that called for her to be the onscreen titillation and, though it was an incredible opportunity, it had long-lasting type-casting ramifications: “Once you’ve been stuck with a ‘sexy young girl’, forget it love, there’s nowhere to go after that but downhill.” During her time at RADA she had excelled at comedy, but never really had the opportunity to flex that muscle professionally. It still hurts.
Even her most lauded success came with its issues. The 1970 David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter was nominated for four Oscars, including Miles for Best Actress in a Leading Role, but the love story set in Ireland during the First World War was less well received than this would suggest. “It got absolutely wee wee’d all over when it came out,” Miles explains. “Complete unanimous pissing.” So tough was the reception that director Lean did not work on film again for a decade. Yet the American Academy saw something in it that the critics missed, particularly in the performance of John Mills, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Miles has a theory about the win: “It was because he was wearing a big nose.”
The importance of the prosthetic appendage followed Miles onto her next film project, Lady Caroline Lamb in which she was cast in the title role, Ralph Richardson was cast as King George IV and writer/director/Miles’s husband Robert Bolt wanted Olivier to play the Duke of Wellington. “Larry thought he couldn’t shine over him,” Miles says of Olivier’s initial disinterest about appearing on celluloid opposite Richardson. “So I rang him back and I said ‘Larry, look, Robert really wants you as the Duke of Wellington. Nobody can do it better. And I’ll tell you what, you can wear a wooden nose.’ He said ‘Can I?’ like a schoolboy. ‘Oh well then, I’m cast!’ They all think that’s where the Oscar lay, in that nose.”
"On my gravestone will be written ‘She never had a website’"
The effects of Ryan’s Daughter are wider spread than an increase in nose-wearing among Oscar hopefuls. Miles recently returned to Dingle, where the film was set. The trip proved to be: “the most deeply touching experience of my life, because I wasn’t expecting any of it. It has gone totally into mythology; little kids coming up to kiss me, to touch my skirt, to touch my feet, photographs in every single shop there. It was like being Lady Diana.
“It is still a film that has passed the test of time,” she continues. “It was timeless at the time, that’s why they knocked it, because it wasn’t fashionable. That’s what’s so dangerous about fashion – fashion changes.”
Change upsets Miles; not just any change, but an alteration for the worst as she sees it. She is concerned for a theatre industry she has seen “dumbing down” in recent years. “Why aren’t we rising up?” she asks. She is worried about the rise of the celebrity: “When I was young, we used to pay people to keep you out of the paper. Now you pay them to keep you in. On my gravestone will be written ‘She never had a website.’ I will be the only one in the world without a website!” She punctuates the assertion, which the whole café hears but no-one bats an eyelid at, with a triumphant lifting of her hands and an ear-to-ear grin. “Even the clothes are ugly. I don’t see any beauty on the streets any more, any elegantly dressed people. I just see a lot of flesh and jeans and tops that don’t fit or match.”
Miles certainly stand out in the café. While everyone else seems to be in jeans, she wears a flowing blue dress and matching head scarf, displaying an understated glamour that sets her apart. She orders a cup of hot water and adds her own infusion. She is a one off, a character; she brightens a room with her presence, but can also fade into the wallpaper (as long as it is beautiful wallpaper).
For a total of 21 years Miles was married to writer Robert Bolt. It was a relationship of two halves; the first for seven years, followed by seven years of separation, and then another 14 together. The second period followed Bolt’s heart attack and stroke, which left him paralysed. “The best years of my life,” is how Miles describes the second period with Bolt. “It’s the most wonderful thing to be in service to another human being. It gives you everything that you possibly need. It’s so much more rewarding to give somebody a cup of tea than to receive a cup of tea. I learned so much about patience, about devotion, about a deeper sense of what love’s all about. Here was a man who was more eloquent than anybody on earth, and to have all this removed from you… yet he never once complained, never once said ‘Why me?’ I don’t think that’s a bad thing to serve somebody like that.”
"It’s the most wonderful thing to be in service to another human being. It gives you everything that you possibly need"
Hearing Miles speak about her experience lifts the soul. Never once does she describe it as a chore or hard work to nurse someone for a decade and a half; never once does she describe seeing the person you love become a fraction of their former self as depressing. She finds the good, and sings the praises of “the most wonderful patient”. That seems to be Miles’s life. There are umpteen things she can, should, and maybe is upset about. There are certainly concerns. But they don’t weigh her down. She stands tall with a happiness and a joie de vivre that is infectious. She also has, I think, more ambition and drive than anyone will ever truly realise. It all seems to come from a belief in herself and the courage to stick to her beliefs.
“My career is not as important to me as my integrity,” she smiles. “I made that choice and I’m very happy. I’m a very happy person. That’s because I have never fallen short of what I think or what I believe to be justice.”
Part of me feels ashamed for making compromises that Miles might not have done, part of me feels ready to take on the world afresh.
I walk back to the rehearsal studio with Miles, wondering whether I should have asked more questions about the famous relationships and ‘scandalous’ events of her life. But that has all been reported in outrageous detail in the past. The Sarah Miles of 2008, a touch like a fabulous mad aunt with a heart of gold and an abundance of stories to tell, is far more interesting and real than the Sarah Miles of the ancient tabloids.