Sienna Miller, the British model-actress known more for her celebrity romances than her resume, might seem an odd choice to star opposite Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s new movie about legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. It opens Friday. But there she is, her familiar blond hair turned brown, as the wife of the deadliest marksman in US history.
“American Sniper” is not Miller’s movie. It belongs to the bearded, bulked-up Cooper, whose performance as a sharpshooter revered for his 160 confirmed kills in Iraq could well earn him an Academy Award nomination. Still, Miller does more than merely show up as Taya Kyle, the spouse who stayed behind with two young children while her husband was perched on rooftops in Fallujah and Ramadi.
“Initially, the appeal of this for me was working with Clint and Bradley,” said Miller, 33, her tiny frame pulled up to a table in a conference room at the Four Seasons Hotel. “Any actress would be drawn to it for those reasons. But it was also an interesting part to take on because, culturally, it’s so far from what I grew up with.”
Indeed, Miller, whose careful elocution betrays her British private-school education, would seem to have little in common with the plain-talking Texan she plays. But that’s acting. Miller first met Taya Kyle via Skype, and then the two women got together in Los Angeles before filming began. They talked for hours, and Miller read the couple’s e-mails and watched family videos shot when Kyle returned from the war.
“I didn’t spend any time with other Army wives because Taya provided me everything I needed,” said Miller. “She was very open and willing to talk about all aspects of their relationship and how it was raising children on her own with her husband in active combat, not knowing every day if he’d survive.”
“American Sniper” is based on Kyle’s bestselling 2012 book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History.” Screenwriter Jason Hall had spoken to Kyle dozens of times, and begun work on the script, before the soldier’s death in 2013. (Kyle, who survived four tours of duty in Iraq, was shot in Texas by an addled Iraq war veteran he was trying to help.)
But, Hall said, it was the insights gleaned from marathon phone conversations with Kyle’s widow that helped him tell the story.
“Taya got really personal really fast,” said Hall, reached by phone in Los Angeles. “If you want to know a guy, you don’t ask the guy, you ask his wife. We don’t explain ourselves the way women do. Taya explained what Chris was like before the war — what a big heart he had — and what he lost over there. She helped make the arc of the story more pronounced and artful.”
Miller’s character gives the movie a measure of nuance. She makes her husband seem more human than superhero, which sets “American Sniper” apart from some other Iraq war movies, notably director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 Oscar winner, “The Hurt Locker,” whose sights are squarely set on events in the battlefield, not the broken psyche of soldiers or the effect of the war on their spouses.
Miller can’t predict how “American Sniper” will be received — as a paean to patriotism or an indictment of US involvement in Iraq — and she doesn’t really care.
“That’s completely out of my hands,” she said. “From my point of view, it’s a true and accurately documented story of a man who existed and is representative of men and families that exist. My job is to play this woman to the best of my ability and to tell a true story, and I feel like the film manages to do that and remain politically relatively impartial.
“For me, I had to try to get in the head space of that patriotism, that situation, and it was a real challenge because it was so foreign to me,” Miller said. “And, of course, the accent, which I hope is all right.”
The actress said there wasn’t a lot of waiting around on the set of “American Sniper,” which was shot in Los Angeles and Morocco in 40 days. A veteran director well known for working quickly, Eastwood remains indefatigable at 84, often shooting scenes in one or two takes and then moving on.
“Clint is in no way an octogenarian. He moves incredibly fast,” Miller said. “You shoot short days and you don’t rehearse. You have to know what you’re going to do because of the pace he works at. His theory is that the first time you say something, something’s going to happen because you’ve never said it before, whether it works or not.”
She said it was also a treat to work with Cooper, who’s nearly unrecognizable in the film, having put on more than 40 pounds of muscle to play Kyle.
“The transformation is amazing, isn’t it? He did it very quickly. You can’t believe that’s the guy from ‘The Hangover,’” said Miller. “I’ve just seen him [on Broadway] doing ‘The Elephant Man.’ I feel like there’s nothing he can’t do.”
This is a busy time for Miller, who is working more and showing up on gossip websites less. In her 20s, Miller was more famous for her flings with actors Jude Law and Balthazar Getty than for her performances in such films as “Alfie” and “Factory Girl.” In addition to “American Sniper,” she has a small role in director Bennett Miller’s critically acclaimed “Foxcatcher,” and she’ll appear later this year in “Black Mass,” as Whitey Bulger’s girlfriend Catherine Grieg, and next year in “Live by Night,” to be directed by Ben Affleck.
For now, though, she’s focused on finding an audience for “American Sniper.”
“It packs a punch,” she said. “It’s definitely sad, but it’s a portrait of a man who achieved an extraordinary amount in his short life.”
Watch the trailer for “American Sniper: