Jonny Lee Miller on ‘Elementary’

The latest actor to play Sherlock Holmes talks about the success of “Elementary” and what’s coming up in the rest of the first season.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Against all expectations, CBS’ modern day Sherlock Holmes series, “Elementary” has become one of the fall’s breakout hits. This is thanks in no small part to Jonny Lee Miller’s performance as the Great Detective opposite Lucy Liu’s Dr. Joan Watson.

During the Television Critics Association press tour, we managed to track down Miller for a few minutes to get some one-on-one time before a few other reporters joined in on the impromptu interview.


CraveOnline: Have you lived in New York before?

Jonny Lee Miller: I lived in New York for four months doing Broadway in 2009.

CraveOnline: Does any of that inform your experience playing a New Yorker Sherlock Holmes?

Jonny Lee Miller: He’s not a New Yorker, so I actually probably am more comfortable in New York than our Sherlock is. I’ve shot a few movies there and spent some time in New York.

CraveOnline: Given that it was a modern day Sherlock Holmes in New York, was it ever on the table that he might have been an American?

Jonny Lee Miller: Not as far as I’m aware. I don’t believe so. You have to ask the higher ups.

CraveOnline: Does Sherlock talk faster than you ever have in a role before?

Jonny Lee Miller: Possibly. Possibly some of the fastest talking I’ve had to do. It’s a lot of stuff to learn and remember. We move at a fast pace on this job so it’s a challenge.

CraveOnline: Is it easier or harder to memorize that way, when you’re delivering it so rapidly?

Jonny Lee Miller: Oh, it’s hard to memorize, it always is, but you can always gauge how well something is written by how easy it is to learn. Good writing is much easier to learn than bad writing because it tends to make sense. If stuff makes sense, it goes in. You can make sense of it in your head, you can remember it.

CraveOnline: How does the prospect of Moriarty excite you?

Jonny Lee Miller: Oh, you know, it’s great. The wonderful thing about these characters and about the Sherlock Holmes stories is these wonderful characters that surround him in the literature. Any time one of those is to be brought in for us, that’s exciting. Especially such an arch criminal as Moriarty.

CraveOnline: Were you worried that season one might be too soon to build up to that?

Jonny Lee Miller: No, I don’t think so. I have absolute faith that Rob will do it in a clever way, that he will do it well. I have complete faith in him and his whole plan for the show.

CraveOnline: What were your thoughts when they originally brought up the idea of a female Watson?

Jonny Lee Miller: I thought it was a fascinating idea. I thought it brought up so many possibilities. I think their relationship, the sober companion thing is incredibly interesting and then you add gender, you mix gender up with that, you’ve got lots of points of friction maybe between them. I thought it was great, and especially so when Lucy was cast.

CraveOnline: Playing a Sherlock who’s just out of rehab, do you remember any of your Trainspotting research or anything you learned about addicts back then?

Jonny Lee Miller: Yeah, we worked a lot with an addict support group back then but it was very different. That was a sports based recovery group and just going through life, you pick up things here and there. Trainspotting was a long time ago and I’ve learned way more stuff about those kind of situations since then also.

CraveOnline: How do you look back on Hackers and how far we’ve come with technology?

Jonny Lee Miller: Oh, it’s hilarious. When we sat down and started doing that, the internet was super new. I remember we had computer lessons as part of our getting ready for that, carrying around these enormous boxers on our backs on roller blades and unfolding the [keyboards]. It’s amazing. It’s really amazing but all these kids still come up, techno geeks are all still into that movie. It’s hilarious.

CraveOnline: Do you still have time to do movies with the “Elementary” schedule?

Jonny Lee Miller: It depends how many we get to shoot, if there’s a hiatus and we do well, I’m going to try and cram as much work in as I can.

CraveOnline: What did you play in Byzantium?

Jonny Lee Miller: I am a really awful piece of work, really, really not nice at all. It was a tremendous amount of fun. It was great working with Neil Jordan, great working with Gemma Arterton, she’s a fantastic actress, Soiarse Ronan as well I worked with a little bit on it and Sam Riley is a terrific actor. I haven’t seen the film yet so I really can’t wait to see it actually because I had such a great time working on it.

CraveOnline: Did you do a “Doctor Who” when you were 10?

Jonny Lee Miller: I think I was seven years old. I was an extra. My mum used to do extra work, actually still does, and she took me along.

CraveOnline: What are your memories of that?

Jonny Lee Miller: We were playing jungle people so I had body makeup on. I was all brown and I remember turning the bath brown afterwards when I got home. It was so exciting because my dad worked at Television Center so I’d been there a bunch of times, but to be on the “Doctor Who” set was really amazing.

CraveOnline: Were you able to get any closure on “Eli Stone” from the two seasons you got to do?

Jonny Lee Miller: Well, you know, we didn’t get to end it like we wanted to really if we’d known the whole season was going to be there. So it was difficult, but I think they did a really good job of trying to fix those last few episodes. It was very, very sad. We had become a very, very tightly woven group of people, many of whom I’m still friends with. I’m still in contact with the craft service guys. We have the same fantasy football league that we do. We still do the “Eli Stone” fantasy football league.

CraveOnline: How should it have ended?

Jonny Lee Miller: Oh, I don’t know. That was something I didn’t know but I know that all of a sudden you’re cut short so you try and do the best you can for the audience.


At this point, we we joined by reporters from other outlets.

Q: When you even mention a character like Irene Adler, how much weight do you feel of the literary legacy of that character?

Jonny Lee Miller: I just treat it from a realistic perspective in our story. It’s kind of cool. It is what it is but I just treat it like another character as I would in any other drama. That’s what you have to do, otherwise you become a parody.

Q: What was your conversation with Vinnie Jones about how you played those scenes together?

Jonny Lee Miller: Oh, Vinnie’s a very straightforward guy so we just get on with it. There wasn’t really a conversation about how we were going to approach it. We’d just get on and do it. Vinnie’s a very instinctive actor like that. He’s a good guy to have around a set. He’s a great character.

Q: Do you have to modulate which people Sherlock finds remotely interesting as people and which he sees as just puzzle pieces?

Jonny Lee Miller: No, I think our version of Sherlock is more interested in people than maybe some others we’ve seen before. I found him quite a people person in the books strangely. I found he has quite a relationship with the man on the street and I wanted to bring that more into it. So I don’t really see him as looking at people like puzzle pieces really.

Q: Even though he’s sometimes rude to them?

Jonny Lee Miller: Even though he’s sometimes rude, yeah. He’s brash and he’s brusk if you like, but I think he understands people more than you think.

Q: Do you have a favorite episode or scene we’ve seen so far?

Jonny Lee Miller: I don’t actually. I mean, I like things from different episodes. I liked a lot of the stuff from the last episode that we had. I really thought there was some good stuff in there but I like stuff from a lot of different episodes to be honest. I think that’s a good sign really. Trying to flip through them all now as you ask me that question is kind of impossible.

Q: Have you ever been a part of something with as big a following as this? I don’t know how the Trainspotting fans are.

Jonny Lee Miller: Yeah, I don’t know. We stay away from that side of it really. We operate in a semi-enclosed environment and try not to expose ourselves to that too much because it would just be distracting. I guess I’m not really aware of any extent of that. I’m not really aware of that so hopefully the more people love watching the show and enjoy it, that’s the whole point of the exercise.

Q: Would you like to see Moriarty maybe be a woman to throw gender to the wind again?

Jonny Lee Miller: I trust Rob implicitly and I trust him to make the right decisions there and I believe that he does. I’m sure that he’ll make the right decision.

Q: How badly do you want to have a Moriarty to play off of?

Jonny Lee Miller: Well, I think it’s what people expect from a Sherlock Holmes story and at some point you have to address that. He has to be there. It’s part of it. There are some things you have to have even if you’re doing a new version, and Moriarty would be one of those things.

Q: Even other dramatists say Sherlock is only as good as his Moriarty, in general terms. Does that have any added value to you as an actor, to have a nemesis to play off of?

Jonny Lee Miller: He’s case by case, Sherlock, so we don’t say, “Here comes the nemesis.” It’s a case by case basis for him and that’s the way I have to approach it as well.