Emmys: 'Elementary's' Jonny Lee Miller Revels in the Idiosyncrasies of Sherlock Holmes
For Miller, Watson as Sherlock's equal -- and not a love interest -- was a relief. "You can play with certain things, and you can bend and shape characters to a certain extent, but if you bend them too far, they’re going to break," he tells THR.
Sherlock Holmes has never been so prevalent.
With a Sherlock Holmes film franchised led by Robert Downey Jr. and BBC's Sherlock TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, CBS took a small gamble when it greenlighted its one-hour drama Elementary. Centered on the private eye, flanked by a female Watson, the show is set in contemporary New York City. The changes have certainly paid off. So much so that THR's chief TV critic Tim Goodman, in his review of the pilot, declared Jonny Lee Miller "superb and compelling as Sherlock."
For Miller, who previously starred in Eli Stone and Dexter, going back to the original texts by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was crucial to developing a character already so fully ingrained in the pop culture psyche. "I think the important thing to do was to go back to the basics, back to the books," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. What piqued Miller's interest was how "understanding" and "helpful" Sherlock -- his a recovering addict -- was, traits the actor believes were rarely communicated.
THR caught up with Miller to discuss tackling an iconic character like Sherlock, how he made sure his iteration was unique and playing the crucial Moriarty/Irene Adler twist.
The Hollywood Reporter: Playing a well-established character like Sherlock Holmes sometimes has its baggage. How did you make sure that your portrayal was unique?
Jonny Lee Miller: I think the important thing to do was to go back to the basics, back to the books. I feel that [creator] Rob [Doherty] did a terrific job in his initial script with bringing up certain themes to the forefront: the recovery, all that stuff was a great idea, and the new relationship between Holmes and Watson. The way they are thrown together in life, that was a great starting point. But for me to make the character, I had to go back to the books and see what interested me about the man that I hadn’t necessarily seen much of recently, or ever, and rebuild him using the original material.
THR: Can you speak to specific traits that you noticed from the books that haven’t been so prominent in past iterations, like BBC’s Sherlock or the Sherlock Holmes film franchise?
Miller: In the books, I found him to be a much more understanding guy. I feel that he really likes people a little bit more than I had seen recently -- not that he can necessarily communicate that very well. He likes the underdog, and he likes people who are downtrodden, who are having a hard time. He generally wants to help. I found him to be a much more helpful person, so I tried to put a bit of that in, even though he doesn’t quite pull it off.
THR: I noticed that you incorporated physical ticks and habits. How did you physicalize that aspect of the role?
Miller: It’s very difficult to describe how that happens. I use things from the work that I’ve done that I feel would match; I’ll take one thing from another tiny character and I’ll put that in. I wanted him to be quite wild and erratic physically. I felt that that matched his brain; it’s almost what you see in people whose brains are moving very fast, and who are struggling [at the same time]. They often have those characteristics, physically. You don’t want to overdo it, but if you do it regularly, then it seeps subconsciously into the character, and people recognize things.
THR: You’ve done several television shows prior to Elementary, like ABC's Eli Stone and CBS' Smith. What did you take from those experiences that helped you for this particular project?
Miller: Just a year or so ago, I had worked on stage [2011's Frankenstein]. I had done more physical work than I ever had before, and that really opened me up to being able to do that in a relaxed way. It’s like a dance really, and you start to understand a bit more about how this character can work without being over the top. It’s something I’ve become a lot more interested in.
THR: This show certainly lends itself to theater. The majority of the time, you're talking to people in rooms.
Miller: I think a television show allows you to do that. We’re in this different kind of reality. We’re not doing a gritty, realism film where stuff like that wouldn’t work because it’s not natural. I’m playing quite a strange character, so I feel like there’s room for it, and on television you can get away with that a bit more.
THR: As with any new show, it must have taken a few weeks to get your sea legs under you. Was there a specific episode or moment where you felt you had a firm grasp on the role and where the show was going?
Miller: Oh goodness, I don’t know about specifics, but what’s interesting is when you do a character five days a week for nine months you get to work on it unlike anything else. It’s a mixture between theater and film in that respect, in that you get to go back and revisit the character day after day after day, but you’re using different material. You get to try and perfect him. That’s a real bonus, an interesting part about doing network television.
THR: What did you discover about this character that you weren’t expecting?
Miller: I don’t know about that, I’m a pretty open-minded person. It takes a lot to shock me. I certainly didn’t want the addiction problem to go away. From the knowledge that I gathered, I felt [addiction] didn’t go away in people’s lives, and needed to be there and dealt with. Rob [and the writers] took it very seriously and did a lot of research; we’ve tweaked a lot of things to try to be very genuine about it. I was very pleased about that. I didn’t want it to be like that’s a problem he had, now that’s gone away, let’s get on with solving crimes. We handled it in a respectful way, I feel.
THR: A big point was made early on about Watson being a woman, and Rob said their relationship would remain strictly platonic. Did you view that as a relief?
Miller: Yeah. I mean, say we’re going to hook up, then it wouldn’t be Holmes and Watson because that just doesn’t happen. You can play with certain things, and you can bend and shape characters to a certain extent, but if you bend them too far, they’re going to break and they’d be something else. I think there are some things that are sacred and need to remain solid -- and their relationship is absolutely sacred.
THR: How has your working relationship with Lucy Liu evolved as the series went on?
Miller: It’s something that you can’t ever account for. It either works or it doesn’t with someone, and thankfully from day one, Lucy and I worked fantastically together and really get on. We have the same sense of humor, we laugh a lot, we try and support each other, and you go through real ups and downs. We’re in each others’ pockets for long periods of time, and you better get on with each other or you’re done. Aside from that, professionally we click. I think she’s a fabulous actor to work with. She’s really subtle, and I’ve learned a lot from her.
THR: What do you hope to see for Holmes and Watson in season two?
Miller: It’s something I’m excited about because I trust our showrunner. I trust [Rob and] those guys. You can relax, and you can know that you’re going to have good material. They do that job much better than I could. I know they’ve got characters up their sleeves, that they’ve done good groundwork with bringing characters in and I think we have a solid foundation.
THR: One of the arcs for the series was the mystery of Moriarty. How much did you know in advance about M’s identity or Rob’s grand plan?
Miller: Rob's always like, "Do you want to know what’s going on?" And I’m like, "No, I don’t." I really like to go script by script because what’s the point of having that information? If Sherlock’s not discovering it, then I don’t really want to know. There are certain things you want to know -- you get excited to hear about actors coming in to play different roles. I know a couple of characters that are coming on next season, and you’re like, "Oh yeah, that’s a really good idea!" But I like to, generally, be in the dark until the last minute.
THR: So you didn’t know about the M reveal until you got the script for that episode?
Miller: Maybe about a week before. But yeah, I knew about that one a bit earlier than I would have normally known a storyline, for sure -- but not much.
THR: In "Risk Management," when Sherlock sees Irene Adler alive after believing she was dead all this time, how did you get into that headspace?
Miller: It’s difficult. You just put yourself there. You really want to know exactly when you’re shooting that shot that’s going to be used. We could do that a lot of times actually, but I was like, "OK, you’re only going to get like one or two where it’s going to be good. So would you like it on the wide shot or close-up?" I can only probably do that a couple of times well. The more you repeat it, the less genuine it becomes. So you take yourself off to a corner, and you use whatever it takes to prepare yourself for that moment. And our crew is really good at giving you the room to do that.
THR: You're active on Twitter. What has feedback been like?
Miller: Fascinating. It’s a fine line; I started up on Twitter for a very specific reason, and now I’m getting into it. I think it’s nice to see people all over the world’s appreciation of the things they find interesting. But it’s really nice and I have a bit of fun with it. But you’ve got to keep that at an arm’s length.
THR: What’s the best part of filming in New York City?
Miller: Wow, goodness me. We film all over the city, which is phenomenal. We’re in a studio four days out of the episode and then the other four we’ll be out and about. I get to see neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island. We might find ourselves up in one of the World Trade Center buildings. You can find yourself up in Harlem or in the Bronx. One of the wonderful things about this job is you get to go to places you wouldn’t normally go to. I was up on top of the crane on red hook in Brooklyn on the last day of shooting, and you don’t get to go to these places very often. It’s New York! Are you kidding me?
THR: What were the most difficult scenes for you to film?
Miller: The scene with Irene when he finds out she’s Moriarty, that was difficult for us [Miller and Natalie Dormer, who plays Irene/Moriarty], because we really wanted it to be real. When you’re trying to juggle all of that, you want to do things realistically. So that was challenging. And also, it was a long scene, but Natalie is fantastic so that made it a lot easier for me.
Elementary returns for season two this fall.