Debut novelist she might be, but – as befitting someone with her lineage – there is no trace of the naif about Rebecca Miller’s approach to the interviewing process. Before this interview takes place, certain ground rules have been specified. The publicist will sit with the door open in an adjoining room for the hour. There are to be no questions about Miller’s brother Daniel, who has Down syndrome, and his controversial upbringing. Queries about her husband, the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis are discouraged.
Questions about her late father, legendary Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller, once married to Marilyn Monroe, are, while not out of the question, also less than welcome. It’s a list of requirements that would make any journalist sniff into their notepad. ‘‘All the interesting stuff – just gone?’’ gasps a friend before the interview. But happily this isn’t quite true.
Strikingly beautiful at 45,with cheekbones sharper than Daniel’s, a ready laugh and a strong air of self-possession and independence, Miller makes for intriguing company whether she’s talking about her family or not. Besides, her novel is the kind of book that can generate attention all on its own.
Fashioned with assiduous care, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a compelling and ambitious work that examines what happens to women when their sense of identity and self becomes subsumed into the needs of their families.
At the beginning of the book, Pippa Lee is a 50-year-old woman who is described as being ‘‘a happily married, well off woman, a dedicated mother, generous hostess, a woman who seemed to those who knew her to be among the most gracious, the kindest, the loveliest, the most unpretentious and most reassuring ladies they had ever met.”
Pippa lives for ‘‘giving pleasure’’. So when her husband Herb, a renowned but physically frail publisher 30 years her senior, suggests they move into a gated retirement community, Pippa readily agrees, seeing it as no less than her duty. But shortly after she arrives, Pippa begins sleepwalking – and waking up to find that she has smoked cigarettes and scoffed scrambled eggs and chocolates.
While she wonders if she’s having a nervous breakdown, the novel flashes back to Pippa’s past, in the process providing a revelation. The youthful Pippa was a rebel who ran away from home, had an affair with one of her teachers and would happily say yes to just about anything that seemed dangerous. She might as well be a different person – which is exactly Miller’s point.
‘‘The book is about how changeable identity is and the extent to which anyone person is consistent,’’ Miller says, as she perches elegantly on the sofa of a private suite in a plush Dublin hotel. ‘‘The lead character, Pippa, is based on someone I met up with who I hadn’t met in a long time. She was a girl who was wild in her youth.
‘‘And when I met her – it wasn’t that she was unrecognisable, but she was so much more placid. She had two kids and she was very much just the wife of this fellow. I was puzzled and amazed, thinking, ‘how did this happen?’ Every time I say this to someone, they say, ‘Oh, I know someone just like that.’ Or it happened to them – there are chapters of their lives that are just closed.”
Although Miller would dispute the notion of the book as autobiographical, it’s clear that these are themes that are close to her. Her own mother, the Austrian Magnum photographer Inge Morath was the kind of parent who, despite also being an artist, was a facilitator for her husband’s career. ‘‘She still did that thing of making a lovely home, cooking, arranging social activities,’’ Miller has said. ‘‘It’s a dying breed and I’m not of that breed myself.”
Constantly branded a Renaissance woman, Miller has worked as a visual artist, actress, director, screenplay writer and author. Yet inevitably – with a husband as famous and well-regarded as Daniel Day Lewis – you can sense that she has to battle against playing second fiddle.
Throughout the interview, you form an impression of someone who is very much in love with her husband, but fiercely unwilling to allow her identity – as with Pippa Lee – be subordinated to his.
Miller has a tendency to shut down – and talk at half the volume – when the subject of Day-Lewis arises, but she does admit with a smile that the attraction between them when they met around the time of the filming of The Crucible, the 1996 movie adaptation of her father’s play, was ‘‘instantaneous’’. What are the secrets to a happy marriage? ‘‘I think just keep laughing. If you can amuse each other and be interested in each other, that’s the main thing.”
Together for more than 11 years, Miller and Day-Lewis have long ago ducked out of the A-list spotlight, investing their time and passion in their respective artistic projects rather than the likes of dinner at the Ivy. For three years, they have been living in Wicklow, sending their two sons, Ronan and Cashel, to the local school.
“[The paparazzi] are just not really part of our lives,’’ Miller says. ‘‘Occasionally someone will catch you wherever you are. But I would have to be with my husband. It’s a very small part of my life.”
Miller cherishes the fact that she has a diverse group of friends. ‘‘I definitely have a lot of dear friends who are actors, writers or academics. But for me, if I lost touch with the people who do so-called regular jobs, I would be lost. I’m just not that interested in fame.
Miller and Day-Lewis have done such a good job of keeping their children away from the celebrity bubble that it was only three years ago – aged seven – that their eldest son Ronan realised what his father did for a living.
‘‘Because it wasn’t emphasised and nobody mentioned it, he assumed that his dad was in construction – Daniel helped on the set of my film [The Ballad of Jack and Rose]. We figure that they’ll have to deal with it, but it’s better to let their personalities form without that stuff.”
As the daughter of Arthur Miller and Inge Morath, Miller grew up in the shadow of her parents’, and particularly her father’s, talent. Born in Roxbury, Connecticut, a month after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 (Rebecca’s father left Monroe for Morath), Rebecca was a dreamy child, obsessed with the topics that interested her, but otherwise prone to staring out the window at school.
‘‘My school reports said, ‘Rebecca is not living up to her potential,’’ Miller smiles. “ ‘She’s way too dreamy. She’s always in a trance.’ “
Miller always wrote, but she never considered the possibility that she would become a writer. ‘‘It just didn’t occur tome. I didn’t try to publish my work until much later in life.” Instead Miller started out as a painter – she studied art at Yale – before falling into acting, winning roles in the films Regarding Henry (1991) and Consenting Adults (1992).
In 1995,Miller wrote and directed her first film Angela, which received positive notices, but failed to make any commercial impact. With her record working against her and funding proving almost impossible to find for her second film, Miller was stuck – wheels spinning uselessly – in a creative cul-de-sac.
‘‘I was so frustrated,” she says. ‘‘And that’s when I wrote Personal Velocity.” The book, a collection of short stories, was published to considerable acclaim in 2001, perhaps making Miller see that she was more her father’s child than she thought.
At this point in the interview, it would make sense to talk to Miller about her father and their relationship, but it’s difficult. Last year an article in Vanity Fair revealed that Arthur Miller had put his son Daniel, now 41, into an institution shortly after he was born because he had Down syndrome and was apparently, in Miller’s perspective, ‘‘a mongoloid’’. The article generated reams of newsprint and horrified speculation. As a result, any question about Miller’s father meets with a certain steely appraisal.
Miller will comment on him with regard to certain topics, but she won’t say much. Did she feel that she has been influenced much, style-wise, by her father’s writing? ‘‘I look back now and see the similarities, but at the time I don’t think I thought about it much,’’ Miller says.
‘‘I think I have been influenced by his work – by his aesthetic, by the economy of his style and his way of catching emotion in very tight language. But I wasn’t conscious of it. In a funny way, I think I only survived by being so oblivious. I was just interested in what I was doing.”
Mostly by 2001, what Miller was interested in was writing and directing. Given a surprise commission to write and direct a low-budget digital feature, Miller refashioned Personal Velocity for the cinema in 2002.Released to strong reviews, it was the boost Miller needed to get her film career back on track.
Her next project brought her into even more commercial territory. In 2005,DayLewis starred as terminally ill father Jack Slavin in Miller’s film The Ballad of Jack and Rose. ‘‘It was a risk,’’ Miller reflects.
‘‘It’s always a risk for any husband and wife to work on something that’s very intense and high risk, where it means so much to both of them. [But] it was a very good experience.”
Miller is a rarity in Hollywood – a female director in a career bracket packed with males. Does she feel that women continue to be discriminated against in film? ‘‘Statistically in Hollywood, female directors are under 5 per cent. I think the problem is a combination of things – women don’t tend to write genre films that are easy to describe in a sentence. I think there’s also sexism. I think they don’t want to give women all that money. There is a deep seated mistrust of women as directors.”
Not that Miller will allow that to stop her. In the next year, she plans to adapt The Private Lives of Pippa Lee for the cinema. Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Julianne Moore have all been tipped to play roles in the film.
As a final question, I wonder how hard it is for Miller to tackle the same subjects again. Isn’t there a possibility of fatigue setting in?
‘‘If it was just a question of me taking the book and turning it into a film, then I would rather have someone else do it,” she says. ‘‘But the way I look at it is not that I’m turning it into a film. Rather I’m reinventing it.
‘‘I’m so curious about these characters, I have the energy to look at them all over again.”
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is published by Canongate.