From Princeton to Primetime
Wentworth Miller '95 has played a younger version of Anthony Hopkins and convinced Mariah Carey to leave her fiancé at the altar. Time Magazine has called him "quietly virtuosic"; People Magazine named him one of TV's sexiest men. But the star of the hit FOX series "Prison Break" still gets just as excited talking about his senior thesis as he does when expressing the thrill of being in front of the camera.
The way he describes it, hobnobbing with the women of "The View" hardly compares to singing with the Tigertones or acting on the Intime stage. "I wouldn't be the man I am, or the actor I am, had I not had my Princeton experience," Miller said in a telephone interview. "I had exposure to the finest minds and resources available. I traveled the world and saw cultures that I never would have otherwise."
Miller was already exceptionally worldly upon matriculation, though. Born in the United Kingdom to American parents, he moved to the United States as a child, was raised in Brooklyn and attended high school in Pennsylvania. He first visited Princeton as a senior in high school, and ultimately chose to attend the University because "the whole thing looked like a postcard. It fit my fantasies of what a college should look like." His parents, both teachers, had always emphasized the importance of an education, and Princeton simply "had one of the best to offer." Besides, Miller added, "My mom always liked the idea of a Princeton man."
Even as a freshman, he knew that he eventually wanted to pursue a professional acting career. While he concedes that it might have been easier to break into Hollywood had he moved there immediately after high school, he has never regretted his four years at Princeton. "The only thing an actor has to bring to the table is his experience," Miller said. "All [my college experiences] go into my work as an actor. Princeton is very responsible for everything I have achieved today."
Though he said Princeton "derailed me momentarily," Miller was still able to participate in many of the activities that would later allow him to navigate the entertainment industry. He performed in the play "Amadeus" at Theatre Intime his freshman year, but after The Daily Princetonian mentioned every actor in the play's review except for him (which Miller called "generous"), he decided to take a break from theatre to focus on his studies.
"I acted all through elementary school, but I didn't realize that acting was more than memorizing lines," he recalled of his experience at Intime. "The rest of the cast was classically trained, and had attended Juilliard and Summerstock. I discovered that something I'd always loved was written in a foreign language. I thought maybe this was not for me."
Other than a stint with the Triangle Club during his senior year, Miller dedicated most of his time to the Tigertones, memberships in first Quadrangle Club and later Colonial Club and his coursework. Though he plays a structural engineer on "Prison Break," Miller admitted that he "stayed as far away from the E-quad as possible. The closest I got was a late night at the Street." Instead, as an English major, he cites literature and art classes as some of those he remembers most fondly.
Miller considers his experiences singing with the Tigertones as those that primarily shaped his nonacademic life at Princeton. But his baritone voice was just part of the reason he was a popular soloist. "He was our secret weapon," Yungbin Kim '95 said. "He was one of those guys who has that type of presence that draws in an audience." Eric Sullivan '95 agreed: "The group always said he possessed an X-factor, the quality that makes some people stand out among others. I'm very excited for him but not really all that surprised at his success."
His junior year, Miller published a cartoon in the 'Prince' that a number of people labeled racist, but Miller insists this was "specifically not my intent." The cartoon, which dealt with Cornel West's Introduction to African-American Studies course, "was a bad business, and was easily misinterpreted," he added. When Miller was cast as an African-American in the 2003 film "The Human Stain," he and West were able to rectify the misunderstanding.
That movie, Miller's first with a leading role, came after an arduous process of auditioning, taking acting classes and holding temp jobs. As a Princeton senior, Miller, "unlike the rest of [his] class, didn't want to go to Wall Street or medical school or law school."
"Everyone else knew what they wanted to do," he said. "I went to Career Services and asked them what they had in entertainment. They handed me a slim folder with a list of alumnae who had gone off into the business." While he found this "dispiriting," it did not deter him from moving to Los Angeles, where he went through the "long, slow climb" to the top.
He is grateful even for those years as a struggling actor, which he said taught him "how much time, energy and money it takes to put a television show or movie together." And though a steady paycheck was sometimes elusive in an industry he characterizes as a "crapshoot," Miller always knew that what he really wanted was to be in front of the camera.
Since landing the role of Michael Scofield on "Prison Break," Miller has not had to worry about the volatility of a Hollywood lifestyle. The show has received practically unanimous critical accolades, and it has generated the kind of watercooler buzz that accompanies only the most suspenseful shows. It has already been picked up by the FOX network for a second season.
Miller has only positive things to say about his experiences on set. "I work with a great group of people both in front of the camera and behind," he said. "They keep the mood as light as possible," a considerable feat given that the series is filmed at an actual prison in Joliet, Ill.
Aside from the strange filming location, Miller also had some stories to tell about the strange measures sometimes needed to maintain continuity in a TV series. When one actor, Silas Mitchell, returned after a period of time to reshoot some scenes, he had shaved off his beard. "So they shaved the head of one of the AV's and just pasted his hair on Mitchell's face," Miller said.
Miller has also found ways to contribute to the creative process that takes place before the cameras roll. "Because we are limited by time and money, there is no such thing as rehearsal," he said. "But if a line doesn't feel right, nine times out of ten they will allow me to tweak it." He even sees a correlation between what he does for a living and what he spent his senior year working on.
His thesis, which Miller calls the "culmination of everything I had learned," investigated depictions of identity in works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jean Rhys, and Charlotte Bronte. This may sound like a far cry from playing a convict every week, but according to Miller, both involve an understanding of how others define us. "I have always been fascinated by the ways in which we can only see ourselves through the eyes of other people," he said, which he must constantly consider as an actor and now as a celebrity. "Now, that is the underlying exchange every time you enter a casting office ... 'How do you see me? Can I get paid for it?' "
There have been dozens of requests for artifacts from his time at Princeton, including Tigertones recordings he contributed to. He acknowledges that "the main challenge for an actor today is that you are expected to feed the P.R. beast with pieces of your personal life." Though he has had to deal with a sudden interest in "what I wear and where I'm going," Miller describes his fans as "very polite and appreciative of the show." The strangest reaction he has encountered occurred when he stumbled upon a website where "someone wrote, 'I just found out Wentworth is British. I guess that explains his crappy American accent.' "
Criticism, even of a perfectly naturalized accent, is perhaps unavoidable in the relentless glare of the media spotlight. But Miller never complains about this attention. Instead, he says that if he could change anything about Hollywood, he would make it more like his undergraduate experience. Miller moved to Los Angeles "used to a structure where you go to class, write papers, ace your finals and you get an A. Working hard [in the entertainment industry] is no guarantee of success. There is a ladder, but moving up from one step to the next is not guaranteed. There are many very driven, talented people who, despite their best efforts, will not make it." And there are people whom he compares to the students who "never go to class, but still ace the test."
Miller uses the same terms to describe his experience on campus and in front of the camera — both require "discipline and drive." In both places, without those qualities, "you are not going to make it."
Miller has also learned how to ground his life and ambitions in reality. "When someone asks me what it takes to make it, I tell them you have to have the soul of an artist and the spirit of a bureaucrat. I'm in the job of fantasy." But more than anything, Miller said, "I'm just happy to have a steady job."