“It’s not like you’re doing Muhammad Ali,” says Jonny Lee Miller, speaking about his portrayal of British track-cycling star Graeme Obree. “It’s not like everyone knows who he is, or what he’s like.”
Indeed, even in his homeland, Obree—the subject of The Flying Scotsman—is hardly a household name. But in the 1990s, the Scottish bike messenger and family man broke world records on a bicycle he built from spare parts. And his controversial riding style and aerodynamic positioning had a huge impact on the sport.
“Graeme’s a fascinating figure, both for his accomplishments in cycling and for the problems that he had to overcome to get there,” says Miller. In The Flying Scotsman, which also stars Billy Boyd (Pippin the Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings), Brian Cox and Laura Fraser, those problems are addressed with delicacy and tact.
“Essentially, Graeme suffered from bipolar disorder,” explains Miller, who spent a good deal of time with Obree during the Scotsman shoot. “You get the highs as well as the lows, but you have to be careful never to go too far in one direction. ... You want to show people all sorts of aspects of the person, without going over the top.
“And I like the way the script dealt with that—it doesn’t bash you over the head.”
Miller, 34, even tried riding with Obree on velodrome tracks. “That was pretty amazing, because you’re going flat-out as hard as you can, and I could barely keep up with him for one lap. He was just sailing away.”
English born and bred, Miller is nevertheless best known for his role as another Scot: the Glaswegian Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s hugely successful 1996 indie hit, Trainspotting.
There is still talk, says the actor, of a sequel—but it’s only talk at this point. Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh did write a follow-up novel, Porno, but Miller says that Boyle is waiting until the cast gets “a lot older, much more screwed-up-looking,” before he’ll consider a screen reunion.
“Trainspotting the book is such a wild sort of collection of different voices, different perspectives. It’s nothing like the movie. You could have made 15 different films out of that book, whereas the book Porno, the sequel, is written much more like the film,” Miller notes. “I think it will come down to the script. If the script is any good, then we might do it.”
For the last few years, Miller—whose father is actor-turned-TV producer Alan Miller and whose grandfather was Bernard Lee, M in the old James Bond pics—has lived in Los Angeles. Miller—who’s also known in tabloid land as Angelina Jolie’s first husband—starred in the short-lived TV series Smith with Ray Liotta. Last winter, Miller shot a pilot for ABC called Eli Stone. He plays the title character, a lawyer who experiences strange visions. Natasha Henstridge plays his wife and colleague. He’ll find out in a few weeks whether the show will be picked up.
And yes, like Hugh Laurie in House, and a horde of other Anglos slumming around Hollywood doing TV, he plays an American. He’s one of those stealth Brits.
“There’s going to be a backlash, I’m sure,” Miller says with a smile. “We’ll be hunted down, and returned to the motherland.”
Over the years, Miller has worked with Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda) and Alan Rudolph (Afterglow) and starred in the haunting World War I post-traumatic-stress drama Regeneration. He says there are projects he’s cooking up with friends, but he’ll wait to see what happens with the TV pilot before looking for another film.
Meanwhile, when he’s not working, Miller can be spotted around L.A. in his bike “kit”—Lycra, helmet and whatnot—riding a bike. “I was a runner,” he says, “but since meeting Graeme and making The Flying Scotsman, I’ve become a bike rider. I’ve got two.”