BEVERLY HILLS, California – I first heard the name Wentworth Miller (which is a bit hard to remember, isn’t it?) from Kris Aquino who mentioned that name in my “body talk” with her when, asked what she did in her free time, she said that she and her son Joshua watched a lot of TV, among them ‘Prison Break’ in which Miller played the role of Michael Scofield, a caring brother who created an elaborate scheme to help his brother escape death row after being found guilty of a crime he did not commit.
“Wow, he’s my crush”, Kris exclaimed when I told her that I just did an exclusive Conversation with Miller at, as usual, a suite at Four Seasons during the ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’ junket together with Milla Jovovich (who reprises her role as the deadly Alice) and Ali Larter. Written, directed and produced by Milla’s husband Paul W.S. Anderson, ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’ (the fourth installment of the franchise, produced by Screen Gems, Davis Films/Impact Picture and Constantin Films, released locally by Pioneer Films, now showing nationwide), inspired by the popular video game, is set in a burned-out Los Angeles overrun by thousands of the undead, and Alice finds herself facing a threat she has never anticipated.
As a refresher, Kris gave me a three-CD package containing ‘Prison Break’s first season and it helped me complete this story.
“I watched every single episode of ‘Prison Break’ and I bought a complete series DVD boxed set, all episodes”, added Kris.
I told Kris that as soon as I sat down to interview Miller, I told the “deep and mysterious actor” (as another WM fan described him) that Kris Aquino, daughter of iconic former Philippine President Cory Aquino, is a big fan of his and Miller smiled, “Nice to hear that, thank you!”.
I found Miller, 38 (June 2, 1972), prim and proper, very decent and, the WM fan was right, “deep and mysterious” and serious as well, his bright-blue eyes hardly betraying whatever “mystery” shrouded him.
In fact, while the movie’s production notes devoted long paragraphs to the bios of the other ‘Resident Evil’ stars, only this much was mentioned about Miller: He was born in the United Kingdom, raised in New York and graduated from Princeton University. Miller is a critically-acclaimed actor whose credit spans both television and feature film. In 2008, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series for his work in ‘Prison Break’.
Not mentioned were these: Miller’s father, Wentworth Earl Miller II, was a lawyer and his mother, Joy Marie Palm, a special education teacher. He went to Los Angeles in 1995 to pursue an acting career and it was a rocky road to stardom for him. After appearing in a few minor TV roles, he co-starred in the 2003 film ‘The Human Stain’ as the younger version of the Anthony Hopkins character. And then in 2005 came ‘Prison Break’.
During breaks in the TV interviews and the round-table-style presscon, I noticed that Miller seemed to retreat into himself. Somebody told me that Miller is demophobic (one who fears or gets dizzy in a crowd). But they were nonetheless pregnant breaks that eloquently spoke of the kind of person that he is, somebody you don’t kid around with.
I’m curious, did you play the video game before you were hired for the movie?
“No, I never did. But I know that ‘Resident Evil’ is looming large in the cultural landscape as an action-adventure franchise and it has a large following out there as a video game. And Milla as Alice has legions of fans. So when the opportunity came to be a part of that, I thought it was something that I had to take very seriously. I thought it must be fun to work with Milla”.
So how was it working with Milla?
“She’s great. She’s one of the touchstones of this entire franchise. She and Paul are the deadlock of the entire structure, so I was able to kind of take my cue as to what it would take and did my best to match it. Being on the set with her was a revelation for me. I only knew Milla as this gorgeous, kick-ass warrior. She’s so impressive on screen, the way she holds herself – the swords, the knives. Then I find that she’s a total cut-up. She’s really got this loud, loose, in-your-face laugh and a sense of humor that makes her seem like one of the guys. To find all of that in the same package with her beauty and intelligence and the acting chops is extraordinary”.
So you never played the ‘Resident Evil’ video game. But did you watch a lot of action movies as a kid?
“I did, I did! I’ve always been a fan of the genre. I’ve certainly spent my time on the show and it would always be for action-adventure. So doing ‘Resident Evil’ felt like home for me. Very familiar”.
How would you have reacted to ‘Resident Evil’ as a kid, what with all those mind-boggling special effects magnified on 3D?
(Laughs) “You mean back in 1983? I think I would have been blown away by the advances in technology. It’s so incredible these days. But I think it’s also important to pay attention to the story. You can’t just rely on the gadgets, you must have a good plot and good characters. Otherwise, it can be a hollow experience if it’s all about the technology”.
I agree. There must be heart in it.
What did you find fascinating about Chris Redfield, your character?
“I found him intriguing; he’s also humorous, especially in the context where you find the character. I think it’s a very distinct nod to my past work. If there are any fans in the audience who know me from ‘Prison Break’ they would be amused. But if you don’t know me from ‘Prison Break’, then it’s business as usual”.
Yes, from one prison to another.
“Chris Redfield and Michael Scofield are similar in some way. Chris had been working with a military unit that was using the prison as a staging post when the outbreak began. When the inmates were released to help fight the undead, they mistook him for a guard and left him in a high-security cell in the prison”.
What was your initial reaction when you got the script for ‘Resident Evil’?
(Laughs again) “Amused. When I read it, I thought they were playing a practical joke on me. You see, in the beginning my character is shown in prison an d the first things that he says is, ‘I know a way out of here’. As I said, if you follow Michael Scofield for 81 episodes in ‘Prison Break’, you will find that line very familiar, if not very funny. The part is great and the franchise is terrific even if I thought it felt too familiar. After a while, I developed a different perspective. I thought that this was my chance to lead that character to a different ending”.
How was the shift from ‘Prison Break’ to ‘Resident Evil’, character-wise?
“Pretty seamless. I think a major distinction for me, character-wise, is that Michael Scofield carried a gun but was never allowed to fire it. He had a clear idea of who he was and what he could do and could not do. For my character, firing a gun was unacceptable. In ‘Resident Evil’, my character is quite used to firearms. It’s a welcome change of pace”.
In ‘Prison Break’, your body was full of tattoos. For ‘Resident Evil’, did you take up martial arts as part of your training?
“No rigorous physical training, really; it was just cardio. I wanted to have stamina, I wanted to have endurance because I knew that some of the fight sequences would take a lot of time and energy and exertion, and I wanted to be ready to give everything I have”.
You have been selective as far as roles are concerned. Is it part of your career plan?
“I think at a certain point of my career it’s possible to strategize your way to the top, if you will, that it’s possible to kind of choose your jobs carefully and correctly so that you wind up, you know, accepting an award one day. I now know that to make it in this business, you must have a combination of talent, timing, luck and accident. There are a lot of things that you cannot control; I don’t try to control those things. I’d like to have a career that keeps a balance between big-budget action-adventure genre and smaller independent films, preferably drama. Thanks to ‘Prison Break’, I have the option of choosing”.
What else is included in your “career plan”?
“These days, my focus is not so much on acting as it is on life. I’m excited about where my potentials will lead me. Right now, I have a script called ‘Stoker’ which is a family/drama-suspense-thriller/twisted-love story. It’s meant to be a cross genre. I really enjoy the process of writing because it’s completely self-generated. I could lie in bed and hammer out a few pages on my computer. I’ve been writing short stories and I’m glad that my English-major mind is at work”.
Did you help perhaps write episodes for ‘Prison Break’?
“Well, in the course of ‘Prison Break’, I had the opportunity to tweet my dialogue from time to time. In fact, the writers came to rely on my input to a significant degree. Looking back, that was my training – writing”.
‘Prison Break’ has made you some kind of a sex symbol. How do you feel about that?
“I was surprised. I didn’t think of the character as being appealing in that way. I saw Michael Scofield as the engineer, more intellectual and someone with edge, not necessarily likeable and not necessarily sympathetic. He was a character who sometimes had to do bad things towards a positive end”.
How do you react to people who sidle up to you in a public place, for example in a restaurant, in a familiar manner?
“Sometimes it’s positive and flattering, and sometimes it’s a little unnerving. I once got a letter from a fan who said, ‘I was sitting behind you in a restaurant and I heard what you had to say about death penalty, and I agree a hundred percent with you’. That was a very unusual moment, it left a strange taste in my mouth. But I think that’s the nature of fame and celebrity. These are things that you have to deal with as best as you can and there’s no point in complaining about them. I am over that stage. I’m nearing 40, and it’s time to shut up or put up”.
So what’s your stand on the death penalty?
“Uhm… conversation for another time”. (Then he laughs)
As an actor, what’s your preference?
“Romantic comedies or suspense-thrillers or family dramas, something where I can dig into a role like what Jack Nicholson did in ‘The Shining’. That’s the kind of ideal part from my perspective where the character can easily make the audience relate to him. It’s a classic because it’s a horror but it’s got enough psychological meat on the bone so it continues to speak to generation after generation after generation. I wanna be a part of a story that speaks to the now but which people will still be watching 10, 20 or 30 years from now”.
You said earlier that you’re nearing 40. I wonder, aren’t you afraid of growing old?
“No, I don’t think so. The actors that I love most in the world tend to be a bit older and that’s because with life comes experience, and inevitably that shows up in your face. I think actors get more powerful and deeper as they get older, as life runs its course. That’s something I look forward to. I can’t wait for it to happen”.
Aside from Jack Nicholson, any other actors that you look up to?
“Helen Mirren. Denzel Washington. Meryl Streep. These are people who have intensity in their work and lack showiness that I find inspiring. I’m also inspired equally by how they handle themselves off screen, unlike the kids you see coming up now. Unfortunately, it seems all too easy to fall prey to certain things that Hollywood has to offer that might seem tasty and delicious on the surface but are actually a trap. So my role models are these older actors who know how to comport themselves both on and off screen”.