Spoilers for Anatomy of a Scandal ahead.
Trigger warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.
“There were quite a few gasp moments when reading the script. I just didn’t see any of the twists coming,” Sienna Miller tells me of her introduction to Anatomy of a Scandal. The Netflix series is an adaptation of Sarah Vaughn’s bestselling political novel of the same name. Yet Miller and her co-star Rupert Friend were unfamiliar with the story ahead of being given the script. As such, they got to experience the twists and turns of the plot in real time.
A thrilling and, at times, uncomfortable watch, the series focuses on the public and private fallout of a political scandal when Tory MP James Whitehouse (Friend) is accused of rape by parliamentary researcher Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). To complicate matters, James and Olivia had engaged in a five-month-long affair, which ended days before he allegedly raped her in a lift in the Commons. James’ wife Sophie (Miller) is devastated by the affair, yet doesn’t hesitate in supporting her spouse and defending him against the allegations. An unrelenting trial ensues, both in court and in the newspapers. QC Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery) gives Whitehouse a grilling on the stand. The main subject being discussed? Consent.
Olivia says she actively tried to push James off her; meanwhile, he insists it was nothing more than a passionate, consensual sexual encounter between two former lovers. Things become more complicated when it’s uncovered, privately, that James and Olivia’s former Oxford classmate Holly had previously said she’d been raped by James. As the story progresses, we see that Holly is more than just a ghostly figure from the past. In fact, she’s very much involved in the current proceedings. Although we’re kept guessing, viewers find out in the latter part of the series that James did, in fact, rape both Holly and Olivia. And although the jury finds James not guilty of rape, he by no means ends the series as a winner. His wife Sophie makes sure some kind of justice is delivered, but more on that later.
Due to the public interest in the case, the Whitehouses are hounded by the press. This is something that is all too familiar for Miller and Friend, both 40. The pair rose to fame in the early ‘00s, and were each followed by the paparazzi as a result of their respective high-profile relationships. Friend dated his Pride & Prejudice co-star Keira Knightley from 2005 to 2010. Meanwhile, Miller had a much-talked-about relationship in her early 20s, as she was engaged to actor Jude Law. As such, the duo were able to approach their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Whitehouse with somewhat of an informed viewpoint in regards to the media whirlwind that plays out on-screen.
Below, Miller and Rupert talk about the important conversations on consent they had behind the scenes, the unpleasantness of having to relive the press intrusion they have each experienced, and the possibility of a second series of Anatomy of a Scandal.
There’s an eye-opening scene where Sophie is talking to James’ mum about the “the blurriness of consent” during her college days, and how the younger generation of women have a different outlook. The series undoubtedly prompts discussions around consent. Were you having those conversations behind the scenes during filming?
Sienna: When Sophie says that line, it was one of the moments when I realised I really wanted to play her. She’s going on a journey of discovery about the shifts that the world is making, like many women of my generation are. I can understand exactly what she’s saying. Things were different when we were growing up. The blurriness of consent… and sometimes it was just easier to act “yes.” Therefore, have we just enabled that entitled behaviour from men?
It’s really quite exciting that there’s such a hard line now between what is acceptable and what “no” means, and having that in your repertoire, which was a difficult world to navigate growing up. Talking to [my co-star] Naomi Scott, who’s 10 years younger, it is very different for her, so we did get into those conversations. I was fortunate [when I was younger], but I definitely felt uncomfortable and didn’t have the language to express that in those moments, which I’m sure many women have had as well.
Rupert: The whole series is a conversation-starter for so many different topics. We had conversations with friends and family. Everything felt so subjective, and [the conversation] was quite spirited.
It’s an uncomfortable watch at times, understandably so, as the series confronts unpleasant topics. I imagine it would be very intense acting out those storylines, and not a feeling you want to carry home with you. How did you unwind at the end of the day?
Sienna: It was COVID, so there wasn’t a lot of collegial hanging out post-filming. I was living in London, and I would just try to get home. I’d spend time with my daughter or have a bath. There wasn’t that much [down] time. Often we’d finish quite late and start extremely early. You know, at this point, we’re both used to leaving things behind at work and getting on with real life.
Rupert: Normally we would have been in a restaurant or something, shaking off the day. I went for a lot of runs, actually. Wintery hill runs and stroking of cows.
Sienna: That’s not a euphemism…
Rupert: Just stroking their noses.
Sophie’s going on a journey of discovery about the shifts that the world is making, like many women of my generation are. I can understand exactly what she’s saying. Things were different when we were growing up. The blurriness of consent… and sometimes it was just easier to act “yes.”
The press intrusion and scrutiny builds throughout the drama. The Whitehouses are hounded on their doorstep and outside the court by reporters. In reality, you both rose to fame at a time when the landscape and rules for tabloids were very different. Were you able to relate to the press intrusion aspect of the story?
Rupert: Yeah. With the taxis being surrounded by swarms of people… You don’t know what’s in their hands. That’s what I’ve always found kind of shocking. You might think, “Oh, it’s just a photographer.” Well, yeah, until it’s not. You don’t know what they’ve got in their hands, they’re just in the crowd. There was always a very real jeopardy about that for me.
Sienna: There’s something slightly triggering about being in that environment, having grown up experiencing it in real life. That being said, it’s a controlled environment on set and, in between takes, you have chats with the people who are playing those roles. It feels much less sinister, of course, than it does when it’s not pretend.
Does it make it easier acting out those things because you relate to it or does it make it harder as it’s so familiar?
Sienna: There’s something you understand about it innately. I don’t know if that was particularly useful for Sophie because she is really thrown into it quite rapidly. The circumstances are slightly different, but there is a physical response to that kind of attention for me, that I found interesting and mildly unpleasant, but also quite useful for those scenes. Rupert and I discussed how that wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to revisit.
Rupert: We had each other's backs.
To begin with, Sophie is adamant that James has been falsely accused. However, doubts start to creep in, especially when it’s uncovered that her old Oxford classmate, Holly, also accused James of rape. What do you think the turning point is for Sophie?
Sienna: In an interesting way, she starts to look at her own self before she looks at the possibility that he is culpable of anything. She starts to sense that maybe everything she believed in isn’t quite how it was. In that case, what is she left with? It’s quite a slow turn.
I think the Holly moment is terrifying and significant. Sophie thinks it can’t get any weirder, yet it does. When she’s in court hearing testimony from Olivia that she’s in love with James, and that he was in love with her, too, that’s a knock. Everything’s unravelling for her.
When Sophie eventually leaves James, she tells him that she has always defined herself through him, and that she doesn’t know who either of them are anymore. I wonder, do you see Sophie as another one of James’ victims?
Sienna: I think she’s complicit and she understands her complicity, and that’s the first step towards shifting quite a set personality to something that’s hopefully better. She’s not really able to self-analyse until she starts to realise her role in it. She thinks about the kids and her husband first: that’s her default setting. But I don’t think she sees herself as a victim.
Rupert: These are two people who are fundamentally not self-examined. When they do eventually start to take responsibility for the way they’ve been moving through the world, it starts to unravel. The hope is that Sophie will build on that and make a slightly less blinkered life for herself.
Sienna: Sophie starts to pivot away from James when she realises how lucky they’ve been and how everything has come so easy to them. Whatever magnetised them to each other [in the early stages of their relationship] is suddenly repelling her. As she starts to self-analyse, she leaves him behind in a place of absolute ignorance. Odious, lying, cheating, ignorance.
Even after James admits to Sophie that he did say “Don’t be such a pr*ck-tease” to Olivia, he still insists that he’d never force himself on a woman. Do you think James knows he’s a rapist and he’s pretending otherwise, or do you think he genuinely feels he’s innocent in that regard?
Rupert: I think that ambiguity is definitely part of the thing we were leaning into. There’s a hubris in these people who move through the world without accountability for their actions, and it’s strengthened every time they get away with something. We could all think of people in powerful positions who have that trait.
The circumstances are slightly different, but there is a physical response to that kind of attention for me, that I found interesting and mildly unpleasant, but also quite useful for those scenes. Rupert and I discussed how that wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to revisit.
This is a work of fiction, but it deals with very real topics. Did you feel a sense of responsibility in portraying a storyline that deals with such sensitive issues?
Sienna: Understandably, it could be triggering. These are deep and important issues that I think need to be talked about. I don’t think a story like this would have been told five years ago. It’s exciting that the world is pivoting to focus on these topics.
I feel a responsibility to tell the story well, and that’s where I draw the line. When you’re making a film [or series], you’re in so many other people’s hands. I’ve made pieces of work that have become something completely different after it’s edited. You don’t really know how something is going to end up. Our job is to focus on the script, and how we can tell that story the best we can.
In the closing moments of the series, we see James heading off in a police car, after Sophie divulges a ruinous secret from his past. How do you feel about where we leave Sophie and James?
Sienna: Hopefully Sophie’s right when she says, “Her Majesty’s government is about to implode.” She’s done some serious damage, she knows whoever she’s given this story to is going to really do a good job with it. I like to think that she succeeds in that.
It’s difficult to wrap something up in a way where you feel completely relieved. With these limited series, they sometimes leave a little door ajar in case there’s room for expansion. That’s not a conversation that any of us have had, but I wonder if there is a slight ambiguity, and if there could be another episode.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.