Penelope Ann Miller likes to take on projects other actresses might not have the courage to. She recently completed a recurring role as Sonia, the ex-wife of Ray Romano’s character Joe, on TNT’s critically acclaimed Men of a Certain Age.
After representing that underappreciated demographic, she moved on to The Artist – a film that’s a throwback to the days of silent movies and is set to arrive in theatres later this month. You can view the trailer to the left of this interview.
I recently sat down with Penelope to discuss both projects and what draws her to such unique ideas.
The Artist is such an intriguing piece of work. For one, it’s a silent movie. Was it more difficult for you to create a character within that format?
We do have dialogue, you just can’t hear it. (laughs) It’s filmed like a silent movie, like a Chaplin or a Buster Keaton, or any of those films. You’re filming like you would a movie, they have those little title cards that come up. You kind of can see what’s going on. You kind of read the lips and get a sense of the scene despite not being able to hear.
What’s so interesting about the reaction to this movie is that people are realizing that’s not the most important thing in watching a film. It’s getting caught up in the story and the visuals. People are laughing, people are moved.
Did you have a sense that it was going to be received as well as it has been so far? It would seem like a particularly risky project to tackle.
It’s a real surprise for all of us. Obviously it was really daring, and it took a lot of courage to make this kind of movie. I love nostalgia, I love black and white, so my wanting to do it had to do with the fact that I just wanted to pretend I was a woman from that era, because I love that era. I thought it was a really cool interesting idea and something worth trying.
I felt like either this was going to be a complete miss and people won’t respond to it, or this could be something really cool, more in an art house kind of way. The real film buffs or people who really study film history. I felt like it would have a niche. But there was no way to predict.
The kind of response that we’re getting is so huge. Audiences are kind of craving going back to the beginning because we’re so assaulted with noise and sound and special effects and 3D. This movie is a real love letter to making films. This movie sort of allows you to become part of the movie. You can interpret it, you can have feelings about it.
You’re one of the many actors and actresses who have worked in film and then moved into doing more television series. What attracted you to making the jump?
To me, it’s really about the quality and roles. The film business has changed so dramatically from when I started. There’s fewer films being made and fewer roles for women of my age. When I started out, people that did movies didn’t really do television and vice versa. Although there are so many great actors who started in television. There was a certain sense that you certainly didn’t go back to television if you made the transition into film.
If there’s something decent going in television, the mediums now are kind of equal. Television has become much higher quality. There are great characters on television. I’m just looking for a kind of project that will have a decent role and is something that I’ll really enjoy doing. There are a lot more opportunities in television.
You had a great recurring role on Men of a Certain Age as Joe’s (Ray Romano) ex-wife. From your standpoint, what do you think made that show so well received?
A lot of people really related to that show. Not even just from the male point of view. I think it was so based in reality. The stories were very, very real. We really knew these people, whether it was somebody in your life or somebody you know. It wasn’t gimmicky or made up. It was really based on truth.
They were telling stories that they all had at one point or another. A lot of Ray’s character was based on himself. When you’re writing a show that’s really truthful, it resonated with a lot of people. People come up to me all the time and tell me how in love they were with the show. It was funny but it was poignant and deep and well-acted and well-told. It’s sad that it’s over.
You’ve played quite a few TV spouses (in Men of a Certain Age, Vanished, A Minute With Stan Hooper). Would you ever consider being the lead of your own series?
It’s funny that you ask me that. When I looked at doing television, one of the things I think about is how much of a commitment it’s going to be. The difference between the lead in a film, you shoot it for several months and you’re done. It’s not ongoing. You can kind of work crazy hours knowing that there’s an end in sight.
But I have two kids. I kind of think I want to be there for my kids, and I know that if I were having a show, especially a one-hour, it’s a lot of hours. I’d be able to go home, but I wouldn’t be home that much, and I kind of want to be able to be a mom and have a balance in my life.
Ray was smart too; Ray was playing in an ensemble, even though he wore many hats [and] he was constantly involved with the show 24/7. I think it was helpful that he wasn’t carrying the show. I don’t mind being part of an ensemble, but of course, never say never.
What’s the project or performance that you’re most proud of in your career?
To be honest, I think there’s two. The play that I did on Broadway, Our Town, was a big turning point in my career. I was nominated for a Tony and I think it kind of had people look at me in a different way as an actress – [with] the depth of that role and what I could bring to it. It was a great role and it was a great production.
Also, Carlito’s Way, I think when people saw my work in that movie. And just for me, it was a really good part. I loved working on that film.
Is there a dream role or project that you’d love to tackle someday?
There’s a director who did My Week With Marilyn, Simon Curtis, his wife is in Downtown Abbey. I love those [period pieces]. I kind of devour them. I can watch them over and over. I love that time and that sort of English miniseries. I’d love to be a part of one. That’s always been a dream of mine.
I just played Mary Todd Lincoln in this Abraham Lincoln movie called Saving Lincoln. That was a very interesting role. She was a verycomplex and controversial character. Hopefully something will happen with that. They did something interesting with that; they’re using vintage photographs in 3D [as backdrops]. It’s called cine-collage and it’s never been done before. It’s so cool looking.
What’s next for you?
I have another film coming out really soon. It’s called Saving Grace. I think it’s coming out before the end of the year. It’s a 60’s melodrama based on a true story. It’s kind of a tragic story. I was really proud of my role in it. And then I did this family adventure movie called Robosapien that’s supposed to come out soon. That would probably be next year.
Give a recommendation to our readers. What do you watch or what have you seen recently?
I do love Mad Men. I would love to be in that show. I really love a lot of comedies; I love Modern Family, I love The Office, I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I do watch some reality; I like Project Runway and Amazing Race and Survivor. And Boardwalk Empire. There’s a mix there. I try to mix it up.
My thanks to Penelope for this interview! To check out the trailer for The Artist, you can click here. The film opens on November 23.
(c)2011 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.