Abby Miller Actor
, 2002Abby Miller is today living the life she once only dreamed about – as a fast-rising Hollywood television performer whose recent credits include high-profile appearances on such smash-hit productions as "Mad Men" and "Justified."
So what's it like to make the huge leap from small-town Nebraska to the giant studios of Tinsel Town, where the struggle to craft the next showbiz blockbuster never lets up?
"Sometimes it's hard for me to believe I'm actually doing this," said the youthful actress, who's also starred in several commercials for such blue-chip clients as McDonald's, Target, State Farm and American Express. "Trying to make a living in LA as an actress is an enormous challenge and you have to really want it, if you're going to have any hope of success out here.
"But you know what? I like a challenge. And if you tell me something's impossible for me, I'm really gonna try hard to do it. My life isn't always easy – but I truly love it, because I'm doing what I've always wanted to do."
Silence, first, for two or three seconds. And then the TV screen lights up ... and all at once a tall man in a great big slanted cowboy hat is reaching for his gun ... and soon the wailing guitars of "Gangstagrass" are pounding across the speakers, as the take-no-prisoners rap group thunders through its recent hit, "Long Hard Times to Come."
On this lonely road, tryin' to make it home,
Doin' it by my lonesome... .
Tryin' to make it home –
I see them long hard times to come.
The show is called "Justified," and it is all about a U.S. deputy marshal named Raylan Givens, who will stop at nothing to bring law and order to the drug-soaked, violence-scarred, hardscrabble world of eastern Kentucky's battered coal-mining region.
Fun? You bet this shoot-em-up melodrama is fun ... and nobody on the daily set of "Justified" is having a better time, these days, than a former UNL theatre arts major named Abby Miller (BFA '02), who plays "Ellen May" – a drug-addicted, down-and-out prostitute with huge begging eyes, massive auburn-reddish curls pouring in endless cascades over her lovely shoulders, and a poutingly seductive smile that would stop King Kong dead in his tracks.
To understand exactly how much fun Miller (born and raised in tiny Clay Center, Nebraska, pop. 800) is having in the wild and woolly world of Los Angeles, all you have to do is watch her light up the set in a recent scene from "Justified." At the start of that remarkable scene, the drawling and laconic deputy marshal, the wonderfully named Raylan Givens, has dropped by Ellen May's booze-and-drug-soaked trailer in search of a Nasty Bad Guy who killed one of his relatives.
RAYLAN: Ellen May, I just came by for a little information about a client of yours named Dickie Bennett.
ELLEN MAY (huge-eyed; she knows what will happen to her if she fingers the notorious killer): You know, Raylan, I woke up this mornin' and I knew I had a problem. I couldn't pay my rent, and I've got a sick dog, and I can't find a man to save my life.
And you ... you're gonna solve all my problems! Because if I just tell you about Dickie Bennett, he's gonna come over here and he's gonna kill me... .
It's a knockout moment in "Justified," for sure. Within the space of about 30 seconds, the sloe-eyed Ellen May has the TV audience eating out of her hand and ready to weep for this poor, lost creature – why, even her dog is sick! (To watch the scene for yourself: http://vimeo.com/32674912.)
So how did she pull it off? What strategy did Miller use – as a disciplined and dedicated actress who never stops thinking about the intricacies of her complicated craft?
Ask the hard-charging Abby Miller those questions, and her response will surprise you. "That particular scene is less than two minutes long," the actress explained over breakfast at a North Hollywood coffee shop one day, "but I actually put many hours of work – and many hours of thought – into the part I played during it.
"At first, when I looked at the script, I figured that Ellen May didn't really mean what she was saying. She didn't really want Dickie Bennett to murder her. I mean, that isn't rational, you know?
"So I figured ... the approach I came up with at first was that she would say those things ironically, sarcastically... ."
Miller tried to play the scene that way a few times, and it didn't work.
Somehow, having Ellen May joke sarcastically about being murdered didn't have the emotional power that Miller wanted to project.
But then came a moment of "pure magic" on the set – as she discussed the scene with famed TV actor Timothy Olyphant, who plays the lead role (Givens) in the series.
"Tim Olyphant is a wonderful actor, and he was very giving that day," Miller said over an early-morning plate of her favorite brioche with bourbon-pecan sauce and whipped cream. "And we started talking about Ellen May's motivation in that scene, and he asked me what would happen if I played it straight – played it so that Ellen May really does want to die, because her life is so empty and so painful?
"Tim looked at me and said: ‘Abby, have you ever been driving on the highway, driving along a cliff, and all at once you start thinking about what would happen if you just grabbed that steering wheel and gave it a sharp turn, just yanked it hard to the right, and down you would go over the cliff and into the ocean far below?'"
All at once, thanks to the dialogue with her fellow-actor, Miller saw a much better way to play Ellen May in this pivotal scene.
"I sat there and I asked myself," she recalled, "what if Ellen May really doesn't want to live – and this is her way, by doing something that will make Dickie kill her, of grabbing the steering wheel and going right over the cliff?"
For the astonished Miller, that moment of discovery was a thrilling example of how actors develop their craft.
"Can you see why I love this kind of work?" she asked between sips of coffee at the fabled Square One Dining coffee shop, a major watering hole for TV and film actors located only a few blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. "Developing character and asking questions about motivation is at the heart of our craft, and the intellectual challenge is endlessly fascinating."
But it can also be painful at times.
Push Miller to remember a time when she had to struggle hard to build her skills as a stage performer, and she'll provide a startling flashback – to a brutally difficult moment during her UNL years when she found herself "challenged to the absolute max."
It happened during rehearsals for "The Philadelphia Story," back in the winter of 2001, as Miller and a cast assembled from the UNL Theatre Arts Department prepared under the direction of Professor Virginia Smith to launch their version of the famous drawing-room comedy.
"I remember I was playing the role of Dinah – the comical younger sister of the female lead, Tracy Lord – and I was having a lot of trouble focusing," she recalled. "I was only a junior at that point, and I don't think I was really committed yet to an acting career. So I was kind of wandering around onstage ... and I was thinking about a lot of other stuff, like exams and boyfriends, and finally Professor Smith decided that she'd seen enough."
Miller said she's never forgotten the moment when the director stopped the rehearsal and bluntly challenged her to improve her performance.
"She didn't mince words," said the actress with the groan of painful nostalgia. "She stood right there in the center of the stage and she actually shouted: ‘Abby, your performance sucks!'
"That was a tough moment for me, a real moment of truth. But you know what? She was right! And all at once I began to realize: if I'm going to take myself seriously ... if I'm really thinking about a career as an actress, I'm gonna have to learn how to focus onstage."
And she did.
"I'm actually very grateful to Professor Smith," she said with a warm smile, "and I told her that, when I went back to the UNL campus to give a Master Class on the art of acting. Virginia told me exactly what I needed to hear that day – and that was a huge gift. For me, it was the first step down a successful career path I've been walking ever since."
Helped By ‘Amazing Good Luck' in Hollywood?
Born and raised in the south-central Nebraska hamlet of Clay Center (about 20 miles south of Hastings), where her father was a community college administrator and her mother taught for many years in the public schools, Abby Miller knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career "on the boards."
As a 12-year-old actress wannabe, she landed a high-profile singing part in a local community-theater production of "The Sound of Music" ... and the thespian dice were cast. "I think I was very lucky," she said, "that I knew right from day-one what I wanted to be. I mean, in a little place like Clay Center, half the people in town take part in local theater productions, and their enthusiasm is just infectious.
"I remember the curtain calls after "Sound of Music," and the thrilling realization that I loved being onstage. I really liked having people tell me how much they'd enjoyed my performance, and I decided then that I was going to try and make a living as an actress one way or another."
Having determined that she wanted to study theatre arts at a large public university where "the tuition would be manageable," Miller landed in Smith Hall on the UNL campus back in the fall of 1998.
"I was very fortunate right away," she remembered, "because I got a great deal of attention and support from some terrific teachers like Paul Steger [now the director of the UNL Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and the executive director of the Nebraska Repertory Theatre], and [Theatre Arts Professor] Harris Smith, both of whom went out of their way to help me develop the skills I needed."
In between playing several award-winning roles in UNL productions (including "Inherit the Wind," "Hamlet" and "The Philadelphia Story"), Miller took time out for a semester of study abroad at Middlesex University in London, where she was able to "stop worrying so much about secondary issues like grades and social life and start really focusing on learning the craft of acting."
By the late summer of 2003, with her UNL sheepskin firmly in hand, Miller was headed for Los Angeles and the start of what has been a rapid rise from "unemployed actress wannabe" to restaurant waitress (about two years) to gradually landing the small parts and "extra" gigs that gradually led toward her recent acting jobs on "Mad Men" and "Justified."
Describing her amazing odyssey from rural Nebraska to the sound stages of Sony Pictures Television (the producers, along with FX cable network, of "Justified"), Miller is quick to suggest that "some amazing good luck" actually played a major part in her undeniable success.
Example: Soon after settling into a tiny apartment in Burbank, she managed to land a mini-role in an independently produced film.. and then wound up being given a single on-camera line.
"It was really amazing," she remembered. "I mean, I was on camera for all of ten seconds, and the only line I had was shouting four words as loud as I could: "Time out! Time out!"
"But because of that line, my professional status changed completely. Some friends told me, 'Abby, you gotta call SAG [the Screen Actors Guild union], and when I did, the union brass told me that because I'd spoken a line in the picture, I was entitled to full union membership.
"Getting into SAG is notoriously difficult for new actors in Hollywood... and so that was really a huge step for me. Really, I do feel quite blessed; all along the way, my luck seems to have held and I've been quite fortunate to always find the help I needed.
"I think I've changed a whole lot over the past few years," she said with a thoughtful smile. "I'm calmer now, and more settled, and far less impatient than I was when I first arrived in California as a scared young kid. Mostly, I'm having fun. I'm trusting my gut, and I'm telling myself: 'Take it easy; you're gonna be okay.' And that's a very good feeling, you know?
"I'm very thankful, too, very grateful, because I know how fortunate I am to be able to earn a living doing what I love."