Michael Sheen: 'You can never be certain you have got it right’


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The Independent Culture

As Michael Sheen takes the role of Hamlet, he and other leading actors talk about their biggest – and most challenging – roles.

Michael Sheen

"There have been a couple of particularly daunting roles. One was Look Back in Anger, because it's such a well-known play [Sheen played Jimmy Porter in 1999]. There's so much history and baggage – it's seen as the play that changed not just theatre, but the whole culture of Britain. And there's a thing of 'why do you want to do that now?' When something is seen as seminal, it's hard to rediscover it.

"You can never be certain that you've got it right till there's an audience there. That was the case with Frost/Nixon; once it was in front of an audience it became clear that it really worked. We had hoped it would have a thriller-like suspense, but we weren't sure whether we'd got that until the audience was there.

"Playing a real person is certainly daunting – it's again both the challenge and the excitement. But yes, it is quite scary to know that the audience will either accept you as that person that they have all these preconceived ideas and opinions about – or they won't. It certainly doesn't make it easier."

Michael Sheen stars in 'Hamlet' at the Young Vic, London, till 21 Jan

Ciaran Hinds

"I was asked maybe 20 years ago if I could take on Richard III, and in little more than a week. Simon Russell Beale had been playing the role for the RSC, directed by Sam Mendes, and he had a slipped disc and had to have an operation on his back. So I got a phone call from Sam: could I do it?

"When I finally got through on the first night, I thought I'd done it. Then the second night it nearly fell apart – I realised it was built on sand, not bricks and mortar. That was probably my most terrifying night on stage.

"Everybody has a different technique, depending on which drama school they went to. But I didn't have that training so I just have to wrestle with it – I wrestle the life out of it!"

Ciaran Hinds is starring in 'Juno and the Paycock' at the National Theatre, London, 11 Nov to 3 Jan

Imogen Stubbs

"Amanda in The Glass Menagerie was a challenging role. It was with [theatre company] Shared Experience and they're very physical. And there's the strong [American] Southern accent to master. When it came to opening I felt like 'Oh, I've hardly done the text'.

"People kept saying 'she doesn't look old enough to be anyone's mother'! So we had to think, how do we make me look older without looking ridiculous? I beat myself up about it, but [director] Polly Teale was unfazed. As we toured, we found out how we could make it work, so in the second half she goes all sort of Scarlett O'Hara – and I loved it by the end.

"With contemporary writers, the major problem is they're often there. It's nerve-wracking. With Chekhov or Ibsen you can twist it, but if you were doing Pinter and he's in the rehearsal room, you had to make sure you got the semi-colon in the right place ..."

Imogen Stubbs is starring in 'Salt, Root and Roe', part of the Donmar Trafalgar season at Trafalgar Studio 2, London, 10 Nov to 3 Dec

Steven Berkoff

"Many years ago, when I decided not to wait for people to call me, I thought instead, 'What play would I like to do?'. I was in my twenties and I didn't want to do another Osborne or Pinter: modern, tedious – to my mind then – plays. I wanted theatre to be an experience, an event, something magical and totally bizarre.

"I decided to do Kafka's Metamorphosis, where a man turns into a beetle. This is what I wanted to do – to stage the unstageable.

"I worked with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who showed how to create an animal: by creating the smallest movement. The audience doesn't say, 'This is a man with hands that look like they have arthritis. It says, 'These are the claws of a beetle.'

"I was terrified – but I got a team of actors together and we opened in 1968 at the little Lamda theatre. We went on to the Roundhouse. It was titanic. I was barely 30 and getting wonderful reviews and I was so proud. Somehow I had hit the spot with it – it's been downhill ever since ...."

Steven Berkoff's book, 'Tales of an Actor's Life', is published on 7 Nov

Antony Sher

"The curse of Macbeth is simply that it is very difficult to do. It is rare that there's a successful production of it. Luckily ours did turn out to be, but I found the role to be the hardest I've ever done.

"It's something about the early stretch of the title role, when he has strange little soliloquies where the idea of murder floats into his mind. Then when he's actually in a discussion with Lady Macbeth, he doesn't want to do it. So it's very hard to resolve at first. Macbeth is a particularly violent soldier – yet he has enormous difficulty killing one old man in his bed. All of these are marvellous contradictions that Shakespeare created, but they defeated me for quite a long time.

"The best acting somehow settles into you and just comes out. You just go with the strange twists and turns of the character, and if you trust them – because you have a good writer behind you! – it will come out good."

Antony Sher is starring in 'Broken Glass' at the Vaudeville Theatre, London (londontheatredirect.com) till 10 Dec

Sinead Cusack

"Possibly most frightening was Cleopatra, because of the legend that surrounds her. I found the clue was in the very first line. I was reading masses about the actual woman, and finally I went back to the play. Her first line is, 'If it be love indeed, tell me how much.' It was the cry of the mistress, not the wife, who feels her hold on Antony is weakening and needs to hear how much he loves her.

"The other one was Sebastian Barry's Our Lady of Sligo, where I played a woman dying of cancer who lies in bed through the night. I thought, 'This can't be done, it's not theatrical'; but then I found layers and layers, and peeled them back until I found the woman: you're always searching for the human being."

Sinead Cusack is starring in 'Juno and the Paycock' is at the National Theatre, London, 11 Nov to 3 Jan

Celia Imrie

"Someone like Edward Bond – I did his play The Sea – is quite dense in his writing. But then I had the most glorious light relief in playing the downtrodden sidekick character to Judi Dench. It's very hard to un-see or un-hear a role, so I try not to watch other people's performances. I played Judith in [Noel Coward's] Hay Fever, and Dame Judi had done it in the West End and I was very glad I hadn't seen it, because it would have been hard to follow."

Celia Imrie's autobiography, 'The Happy Hoofer', is out in paperback on 24 Nov. She stars in 'Noises Off' at London's Old Vic, 3 Dec to 25 Feb