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Michael Sheen

Published 17 April 2008

Sci-fi fans may know him as the werewolf Lucian in the Underworld films, others recognise him as the ex-boyfriend of Underworld co-star Kate Beckinsale, with whom he has a daughter; many saw him playing Tony Blair in the much-publicised TV drama The Deal and again in this summer’s film The Queen. However it’s in Theatreland where Sheen is currently hot property, thanks to his performance as David Frost in one of the year’s most acclaimed plays, Frost/Nixon. Caroline Bishop grabbed a chat with Michael Sheen…

When I catch up with him in his dressing room at the Gielgud, Michael Sheen has just been nominated for an Evening Standard Award. Not long after, he’s at the party for the Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, where he is again nominated for Best Actor. It is only the beginning of the awards season, and more nominations will surely follow, as 37-year-old Sheen is very much the man of the moment, and the play he is currently in, Frost/Nixon, is one of the success stories of the year, flourishing where other straight plays have struggled in a West End flooded with musicals.

But the man of the moment has his boot-clad feet firmly on the ground. Though 2006 has seen his profile soar, here and in the US, where The Queen was a surprise hit and next spring’s Broadway transfer of Frost/Nixon is creating a buzz, Sheen is just happy to be doing the work he is, rather than harbouring any heady notions of superstardom. “I think inevitably doors have opened in terms of interest,” he says in his gentle Welsh lilt. “It is exciting. But I can’t imagine doing any better work than I’ve been doing the last few years, so I don’t really care as long as I can work on things like I have been doing. I don’t really care whether it’s seen by 10 people or a hundred people in that respect, it’s the quality of the work that’s important.”

Sheen has certainly found himself a quality piece of work in Frost/Nixon. It opened at the Gielgud last month, transferring after its initial, sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, where Peter Morgan’s play was developed by director Michael Grandage. For Sheen, this combination was something of a dream team. The Donmar is his “favourite theatre in the world”; Morgan, he says at one point, is “the best writer working in the world today”; while his relationship with Grandage, with whom he worked on 2003’s Caligula (which earned Sheen his third Laurence Olivier Award nomination, plus Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Award wins) is “terrific. As an actor I feel very safe with Michael.” All in all, the decision that Grandage would direct Morgan’s Frost/Nixon at the Donmar with Sheen playing David Frost, was “perfect”, says Sheen. “It was a meeting of two worlds, it was fantastic for me.”

"People were very mistrustful of him because he was the first proper TV star"

Morgan told Sheen he wrote the part of real-life TV interviewer Frost with him in mind, having previously worked with him on the TV drama he penned about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, The Deal. According to Sheen, Morgan decided to write Frost/Nixon, his first stage play, when he was “at a bit of a loose end” while waiting for Stephen Frears to become available to direct his screenplay for The Queen. For something that started as a gap-filler, Frost/Nixon has become a raging success.

The play is a dramatisation of the events leading up to, and including, the series of interviews given by disgraced US President Richard Nixon to British playboy interviewer David Frost in 1977, following the 1972 Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. Funny, fast-paced and surprisingly dramatic given we know the outcome, the play sees Frost and Nixon (played by American actor Frank Langella) go head to head as each tries to use the interviews to their own advantage, culminating in Nixon’s admission of culpability.

Sheen’s journey as Frost started 18 months ago when he read the role in a workshop at the Donmar. Having already played Blair in The Deal, Sheen was once again to play a real person very well known by the public. Preparing for such a role, he tells me, involves “all the same basics of acting, but you also have to have done this extra thing, which is to do a lot of work on being very specific about who this person is, how you tell the story through this particular character’s personality”. It goes much further than an impersonation – Sheen works to get the mannerisms and voice down pat beforehand so that in the performance itself, he can concentrate on acting. He explains: “You can’t be doing this play or Kenneth Williams [whom he also played in a TV drama] or Blair or whoever and as you are in the moment of acting you’re thinking ‘am I sounding like him?’ You have to have done that work already, because in the moment of acting you just have to do what you’d normally do when you’re acting, which is listen and react and know what you want.”

In researching him – an intense month-long process where he viewed television footage of interviews conducted by Frost – Sheen formed his own ideas about the man. “People were very mistrustful of him because he was the first proper TV star. So in the way that people were mistrustful of television as a medium, they were equally if not more so mistrustful of him because he seemed to be the symbol of television.” Watching interviews from Frost’s early career hosting news satire That Was The Week That Was through to the present, Sheen found many occasions where the “celebrity soft” accusation levelled at him was unfair. “Every now and again there’s something that’s really intense and hard hitting, really extraordinary interviews,” says Sheen. “Frost has always been someone who has mixed and matched different careers, as producer, a performer, a celebrity interviewer and political interviewer. I think that makes people mistrustful in this country – how can we take you seriously and respect you as a political journalist at the same time as you are interviewing the Bee Gees? I found all that very interesting.”

As, says Sheen, with Blair, there is a certain ambiguity about Frost. Watching the play, you are initially unsure if Frost will step up to the plate, if he really comprehends the importance of the task he’s set himself, or if he’s more concerned with the personal benefits a successful Nixon interview will bring. This is something Sheen finds fascinating. “I like these characters where there’s a lot of ambiguity there, where people think they have this person pegged in a two-dimensional way but the more and more you find out about them and the more three-dimensional they become, the more little facets there are and the more surprise there can be for an audience.”

"Everyone was on tenterhooks which made it an awful performance"

This ambiguity is crucial to the dramatic nature of Frost/Nixon, as people initially underestimate the interviewer, only to then see him snare his prey. Sheen then, emphasises this aspect of Frost – he is, after all, an actor in a play which, though based on real-life events, is a fictitious dramatisation. “That comes to the heart of playing real-life characters. You’re not finding out about them and then improvising as them, you’re working within the context of a story which has been written by a writer who has a particular agenda. So the writer is going to see this person in a particular context, and obviously the things as an actor you look to lean on more in their personality are things that are going to help that particular story.”

Nevertheless, he still has to give an accurate portrayal of his subject in order to convince the viewing public, who are so familiar with Frost themselves. “It’s quite daunting because you feel like you’re not just playing a real-life person, you’re playing someone who’s really embedded in people’s psyches. But that’s the challenge of it,” says Sheen.

There was an increased pressure on him when one particular individual was in the audience at the Donmar. Sheen hadn’t met Frost while preparing the role, so as not to be influenced one way or the other by the man he describes (they have now met) as “incredibly charming and generous”. Frost had read the play and was perfectly prepared for the content; the audience though, was not prepared for him: “The nights that David was there at the Donmar everyone was very aware that he was there and consequently it was a very bizarre performance where the audience were more nervous than the actors on stage,” smiles Sheen. “Nobody laughed at anything because they thought that might be insulting to David. Everyone was on tenterhooks which made it an awful performance.” Thankfully, Frost liked Sheen’s portrayal, “so that’s handy”.

Having played Blair twice, Williams and Frost, Sheen is carving a bit of a niche for himself, something he’s perfectly happy about. Playing real-life characters “really pushes you as an actor” he says. Plus, the people who warrant a play or a film written about them are inevitably extraordinary characters with an interesting story to tell. “It’s not like you go ‘Oh I want to play this character’, it’s more that you want to tell that story. Everyone has their story, any human being is fascinating once you look properly and so it’s not so much that there are people that I want to play, as long as the story is right.” He adds: “People say are you worried about being typecast as a real-life character actor, but in a way it can’t be typecast. Being typecast is playing the same character all the time. When you play real-life characters they are all very, very different. So I can’t really see a problem with it.” He admits that the main reason his career has slid in this direction is because he enjoys working with Morgan and Morgan enjoys writing about real people. They will probably collaborate again on something next year, he says.

It’s not a niche that he ever thought he’d get into when he started acting (despite his dad’s job as a Jack Nicholson lookalike), more he sees it as a natural progression his career has taken. In 2004 he appeared in TV drama Dirty Filthy Love, which gained him a BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of a (fictional) man with Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. “In the same way that you’d have to research someone’s life, I had to do just as much research and be just as specific about what I was doing with someone suffering from those two illnesses,” he says. “So in a way I see that as being part of the same genre as the real-life characters.”

"Everyone has their story, any human being is fascinating once you look properly"

Similarly, he recently shot a film called Music Within, in which he plays another real person, Arthur Honeyman, a poet in his late sixties who has cerebral palsy. Unlike Frost and Blair, who he also didn’t meet before playing (he still hasn’t met Blair, though he did once chat to his daughter about what her father wore in bed), Sheen spent a lot of time with Honeyman in order to understand his cerebral palsy. “Even though that seems to be the main thing about him as a person, in fact it’s not, it’s just one element of him and it’s all his other qualities that are the main things. So I needed to get the cerebral palsy aspect of it as specific as possible so I could act everything through that, rather than let that be the main thing,” he says. Spending time with Honeyman was “not just a fascinating experience, it was a privilege to be with him, because he’s an extraordinary man”.

With interesting experiences like this, it’s no wonder Sheen is content to continue playing real-life characters. He says he’d love to reprise the role of Frost on screen – the film rights have been bought by Universal and the director, Ron Howard, assigned, though neither Sheen nor Langella are as yet cast – and with another Morgan/Sheen project in the pipeline, more real-life roles are no doubt on the cards. But who would he choose to play him if the situation was reversed? “Well I’d like to play me obviously!” he says, looking uncomfortable at the idea. “I think it would have to be an animated film and then I could do the voice. I don’t mind playing other people but I wouldn’t like someone to do that to me!”

CB

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