It’s elementary. Elementary, with 1.5 million viewers in Canada and a firm spot on the Top 20 list of the week’s most-watched primetime programs, is here to stay.
And Jonny Lee Miller, the Kingston-Upon-Thames native and former EastEnders star who played the drug-addicted punk Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting has “cleaned up real nice” as a present-day Sherlock Holmes in the revisionist, re-imagined TV version which airs Thursday nights on Global and CBS.
It wasn’t always a certainty that Miller would be able to pull off the high-wire act of following in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Persian slippers as fiction’s most famous detective, let alone the masters Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.
You poor, timid fools, Miller suggested to interviewers, this past summer in Los Angeles. How could one doubt the artistry of the man at work?
As the great Holmes himself once opined, as recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892′s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
“I love the work that Benedict has done with Sherlock,” Miller explained, more patient and understanding in person than the temperamental, intellectually demanding sleuth he plays on TV. “I called him up like a groupie after every episode came on, and talked to him about it. We had a discussion about this project. It was a private discussion — and that’s the way it will remain.
“Benedict has been very, very supportive, though. I wanted to reassure him how different this project is, and how different the scripts are.
Sherlock Holmes, again, as penned by Conan Doyle: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
“For me, there are two things about Sherlock Holmes,” Miller continued, patiently. “One, judging from the books, obviously, he is a genius. He has this ravenous hunger for all aspects of knowledge that might feed into his work.
“The main thing that distinguishes him, though, is his relationship with Watson. The books are written from Watson’s perspective. They’re about two people. It’s a relationship between two people, and a study of their friendship. For me, that side is more interesting than the genius.”
In the case of Elementary, Watson is a woman — played by Lucy Liu.
“I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.”
“Between man and woman, the friendship is core,” Miller said. “They become colleagues, partners. The other reason they have to be together is that she is the sober companion, the person who is burdened with the responsibility of making sure he doesn’t relapse into his petty addictions.
“I feel there are human issues going on with Watson and Holmes — timeless issues that everyone can relate to. They have some problems, but I think people really appreciate seeing their heroes deal with problems.
“That this is about a man and woman — it shouldn’t matter. It’s an element to the story, and people may wonder about it, but that’s all it is. Besides, asking questions is something you want your audience to do, isn’t it?”
“There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”
“Good writing makes the characters accessible to the audience,” Miller said, explaining what drew him to Elementary initially.
That, and the paycheque, of course. That part is elementary. (oop!)
“If as an actor, you’re just making leaps and wild assumptions about what the character is supposed to be, and there’s nothing to back it up in reality, that makes it harder for the actor. I can assure you it’s the writing that forms the connection. With this, it’s a very subtle connection, and that makes it much more fun as an actor to play, I find. We get to flesh (the characters) out, but it really starts with the writing.”
"You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”
In real life, Miller is covered in tattoos. Elementary’s brain trust found a way to incorporate Miller’s tattoos into the story, much to the actor’s relief, even though Holmes himself was disinclined to scar his skin with pen and ink. In some of his recent acting roles, he has had to spend long hours in the make-up chair to hide his tats.
“You know, I really don’t have many regrets in my life,” Miller said. “But some of the choices I made in the ’90s have made for some rather time-consuming makeup calls, and been rather frustrating for other people I work with. So, yeah, this has been a huge relief for everyone.
“It fits. It fits my interpretation of the character, absolutely. It’s a parallel that I share with this version of Sherlock.”
“Out of my last 53 cases, 49 have been given full credit to the police and the rest to me.”
Playing the lead role in a weekly, hour-long television drama is time-consuming work, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently, Miller says.
“It’s been a while since I’ve shot a network hour long drama. The amount of concentration and intensity you have to exert is very funny. I feel like we are constantly on, from the minute we get up to the minute we go to bed. That’s because, if you are not working, you are learning. So you try to stay two days ahead, always. You are trying to absorb all of this information. I’m using my brain constantly at the moment, which is a bit tricky because, really, I’m just not that smart.”
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Playing Sherlock Holmes is not the realization of a boyhood dream, Miller insists.
Where, in your wildest imaginings, did you ever come up with as foolish a notion as that?
“It is not a kid’s dream. It’s a challenge. It’s an actor’s dream to face various challenges and wonderful characters, and in that respect, yeah, it has been a dream. It’s not like a boyhood thing for me, though.
“I have discovered this character myself, through reading. I’ve almost finished all the literature. I haven’t quite finished it all yet, but I’m getting there. For me to discover it now, at this stage in my life, has been a wonderful experience. To have this vast reservoir of information and research available, by a terrific writer, is the dream.
“But it’s a challenge, too, you know. There’s pressure to do it properly and do it justice. At the same time, it is a fantastic character, and opportunities like this don’t come along as often as people might think.”
Elementary airs Thursdays on Global and CBS at 10 ET/PT, 8 MT.