Michael Sheen: 'I am officially the king of Hollywood'
On stage and screen, Michael Sheen has made his mark by breathing new life into cultural icons; now he's turning his gaze away from real life and towards fantasy.
Friday 13 November 2009
If life begins at 40, Michael Sheen has certainly begun a very different one since hitting the landmark in February.
In January, Frost/Nixon opened worldwide and garnered award nods aplenty for Frank Langella, but none for Sheen's Frost (bar Best Actor awards from the Evening Standard and the Los Angeles Film Critics). In March, The Damned United opened in the UK. Award season response is still to be determined, but reviews for his performance of the irascible Brian Clough earned Sheen some of the best reviews of his career on both sides of the Atlantic. And there is no showier role this time (like Langella's Nixon tell-all and Helen Mirren in The Queen) to deflect the spotlight from him.
Yet the most delicious moments of Sheen's 41st year are by-products of his strangely two-toned career arc, one which sees him playing either reality or fantasy with little in-between bar an animated film here, a romantic comedy there. First was his OBE which saw the actual Queen honouring Sheen for his eclectic body of British work and perhaps mostly for playing Tony Blair in a film about her. Second was his securing a role in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the most anticipated film of 2009 among young girls, young women, mothers and grandmothers.
"Look, I really am the last British actor who's not in any of the Harry Potter films. I was looking for something I could do that would make me cool in the eyes of my daughter."
A besuited Sheen isn't far from the LA home he often shares with his 10-year-old daughter, Lily, whose mother is Kate Beckinsale. He moved to LA because he missed his daughter, but New Moon was filming in Vancouver, a short hop up the coast. He sounds genuinely thrilled that Twilight's producers approached him to play Aro, leader of the Volturi vampire collective.
"I had to say to my daughter, 'I heard someone talking about this character Aro in these books. Do you know anything about that?' And she said, 'Yes, he's the leader of the Volturi and he reads people's minds. Are you playing him?' Of course I said, 'no, no, no'. When it was all worked out, she cried. Then she hit me."
The timing for Sheen's career couldn't be better. American critics loved The Damned United while having little interest in and no knowledge whatsoever of football. They appreciated the sport off-field, and the performances. American audiences, meanwhile, embrace the sort of roles Sheen ferrets out when not playing real, illustrious figures. He recently completed the Disney sci-fi extravaganza Tron Legacy with Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and House's Olivia Wilde, has made three Underworld films in which he plays a werewolf and is now, thanks to The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the coolest dad at Lily's school by several American football pitch lengths.
"There's a huge amount of snobbishness," he says, forcefully but not angrily. "This ridiculous patronising way of looking at some things that are called "genre films". I think some of the most inventive, moving, powerful work has been written in science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and certainly films that have been written for young adults. These Twilight books and films take the emotions and experiences of young people seriously."
At 12, Sheen was offered a trial with Arsenal which his Jack Nicholson-impersonating father turned down. Success would have necessitated a move to London and the family was happy to stay put in Port Talbot. Shortly afterwards, Sheen joined the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre, then the National Youth Theatre and finally RADA. In his second year there he won a stage role opposite Vanessa Redgrave in When She Danced and never went back. He won louder plaudits for his Mozart at the Old Vic in London, and later transferred with the play to Broadway. Much later he originated his David Frost in the stage version of Frost/Nixon, first in London and then on Broadway, to massive acclaim. But Twilight takes him way back.
And if he sounds star struck by Stephenie Meyer, author of the book series, well, he is, comparing her to the Brontës and Jane Austen. "The utter desolation she is able to capture in New Moon, I experienced it. She really gets to the heart of the devastation of losing a first love. As we get older we all tend to maybe trivialise our own feelings and experiences at that age because society and culture does that to us. But I remember it. I remember people saying, 'Oh, he's just a 13-or 14-year-old boy. What does he know? He'll grow up and grow out of it'."
Given Vancouver's proximity to LA, by air anyway, it seems refreshing that Sheen's daughter did not visit her father's set, though she must have been dying to. "No, she was in school," he says firmly. "There were more important things. But she's coming to the premiere."
She and 20 friends?
"We couldn't get many tickets so it's just me and her. But apparently Lily's street credit in school has gone up enormously."
Sheen will not appear in the third film, Eclipse. "I'm not in the book so I don't make it into the film. I compared this all recently to what it's like to be a grandparent, apparently. You get to have the baby, you get to play with the baby then give the baby back. I come onto this huge phenomenon, enjoy it a bit and then get outta Dodge."
All of Hollywood of course has seen Frost/Nixon and much The Damned United. Despite its across-the-board raves by American critics it is playing in only one small Los Angeles cinema a month after release. There is, it seems, only one kind of football allowed in America. Fortunately for Sheen there is more leeway for foreign actors. He is quick to joke about New Moon's telegenic factor.
"Stephenie says in the book that the Cullens are so beautiful because that's a way of mesmerising their prey. So of course everyone is young and gorgeous which is really clever and, from a psychological point of view, brilliant. I remember when I was the youngest person in the theatre company or the film and then suddenly there I am in this, the old fogey. I dispensed wisdom and would do little acting workshops on my own because no one turned up for them. You try and hide behind the fact you have all this experience but unfortunately no one was interested in that either so I just used to cry my vampire tears in the corner. And not being a gorgeous vampire, I decided the voice would be the thing that lulls people. The voice and the contact lenses which have a tiny hole in the middle. You can kind of see out but there's a blurry bit in the middle. Dakota [Fanning, mean Volturi member Jane] looks really scary with red eyes and I look like a rabbit."
Perfect for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland then, out next year and in which Sheen plays the White Rabbit.
Does he have any sort of plan for Hollywood now he's made his base there?
"I am officially the king of Hollywood now. I've managed to do everything. I just feel really happy that I'm able to do something like this, a big huge franchise phenomenon and I'm still able to do small independent films and some theatre. I feel really excited about the way my career is at the moment, partly because I've never had much of a career plan. I'm sure the New Moon cast have armies of people who sit down every morning and work out every step they take but I've never really thought about it. I've just done what I've connected with."
Sheen is hoping that this particular connection will lead to a little more wall space. "My daughter's whole wall is covered with Twilight posters and then there's a tiny little picture of me in the corner. I said to her last night, 'People ask me about you and what you feel about these films. And there's a tiny little picture of me you put up out of pity.' And she said, 'No, it's not out of pity Dad. I think you're cool'."
Sheen's street cred has gone up too, then. "I did have one little moment. I was buying a pair of jeans here in LA and I went into the little cubicle to try them on. I came out quite tentatively to have a look in the mirror, you know, worried about that moment. And as I pulled back the curtain there was a woman on the other side, holding various items of clothing, shaking, and saying, 'You're Aro, aren't you?' So I went back in my cubicle and hid.
"If that's anything like what's about to come, I might have to go around with a bag over my head."
The Twilight Saga: New Moon opens on 20 November
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