Michael Sheen: Premier league

Michael Sheen is playing Tony Blair in Channel 4's dramatisation of the historic pact between Blair and Brown. James Rampton meets an actor of - in the words of Stephen Fry - 'damnable charm'
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As they gather this weekend for their annual conference in Bournemouth, every self-respecting New Labourite is likely to eschew the party circuit on Sunday evening between 9pm and 10.30pm and remain holed up in the hotel-room with the phone off the hook . They will all be glued to The Deal, a fascinating one-off Channel 4 drama which invites us to be flies on the wall at the now notorious occasion in 1994 when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown met at the Granita restaurant in Islington, after the death of John Smith, to carve up the leadership of the Labour Party. Thanks to the continuing centrality of their relationship to British politics and the relentless speculation about the ongoing feud between Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, the drama has a piquant topicality about it.

For all that, The Deal may well have the watching New Labour loyalists choking on their polenta. Directed by Stephen Frears and based on James Naughtie's 2001 book The Rivals, the film certainly provoked some lively reactions at last week's press screening. A sharp intake of breath was clearly audible, for instance, during a scene set on the day Smith died. Blair (played with rare panache by Michael Sheen) is seen discussing with his wife, Cherie (Elizabeth Berrington), whether he should challenge his old mentor Brown (David Morrissey) for the suddenly vacant Labour leadership.

She urges him to go for it, but he is still hesitant, remembering his loyalty to the man who taught him all he knows about politics. "What about Gordon?" Blair asks his wife, plaintively.

"He had his chance," Cherie snaps back, quick as a flash, "and he bottled."

A later scene - when, in the aftermath of the Tories' surprise general-election victory in 1992, an utterly dejected Blair tries to cheer himself up by picking out a tune on his faithful guitar - was greeted with huge guffaws. But perhaps the biggest roar of the evening was reserved for a moment in which Blair tells a make-up artist: "I always wanted to be an actor." The remark was apparently gleaned from a make-up artist who has frequently worked with (the real) Blair.

Away from the hullabaloo of the press screening, Sheen and I are ensconced in comfortable leather sofas at a swish private members' club in central London. Mainlining coffee and fags, the Welsh actor is just starting to recover after an exhausting schedule which saw him playing Blair by day and Caligula by night - you can fill in your own satirical jokes here. His name may not be instantly familiar, but after a classical training at Rada and acclaimed stage performances in Caligula, Henry V, Look Back in Anger and Amadeus, the actor has made a smooth transition to films and is now white-hot property in Hollywood.

To underline the point, the actor (whose father, incidentally, is the UK's top Jack Nicholson impersonator) has been a blur of activity recently. Dividing his time between London and Los Angeles, Sheen has landed starring roles in such major movies as the big-budget vampire chiller, Underworld (released last week and co-starring his former partner Kate Beckinsale); the latest block-busting Michael Crichton adaptation, Timeline; Shekhar Kapur's swashbuckling Four Feathers, opposite Heath Ledger; and the latest picture from Damian (East Is East) O'Donnell, the touching romance, Heartlands.

It is easy to see why at the age of just 34, Sheen is already coming to be regarded as a worthy successor to those other natives of Port Talbot, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. Dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, with tousled hair and several days' stubble, Sheen looks nothing like our dapper Prime Minister. But, like the premier, Sheen would stand out in any crowded room without even trying. Stephen Fry, who directed the actor in Bright Young Things, says Sheen is "filled with that damnable charm that seems to bubble up from under the ground".

We begin by discussing how Sheen arrived at such an uncanny representation of Blair in his younger days as a politician. The actor admits that undertaking the first dramatic portrayal of the most famous man in the country was a seriously daunting prospect. "I watched a lot of footage to get a sense of what he is," Sheen recalls, as he fires up a cigarette. "I was determined to get rid of anyone else's impressions from my mind. I did not want to hear Rory Bremner or Jon Culshaw in my ears.

"It's easy to slip into caricature, but I've tried to get as close to him as possible. You start by doing an impersonation, but then at a certain point you have to let go of the real person and think 'This is a character I'm playing.' You pull it back, relax and trust it's all there." Sheen smiles, though, as he admits "I felt a lot of pressure when I turned up for the first read-through. The worst thing is doing the voice because everybody knows what Tony Blair sounds like. It's very scary playing someone so well known.

"Before my first line, all the actors leant forward intently in their seats, and when I said: 'Hi, Tony Blair,' they all pissed themselves. Stephen [Frears] told me off and said: 'Try to be a little subtle'." In the finished version, Sheen is very subtle. As Blair, he delivers a beautifully-nuanced, ambiguous performance, leaving the viewer unsure whether to sympathise with him or Brown.

The actor, who says he voted Labour in the last two elections, always aimed to make this Blair enigmatic and unknowable. "In the film, he is a shadowy figure," Sheen admits. "You can't tell what's going on in his head. At the end of the Granita meeting, when he has agreed with Brown that he will be Prime Minister, Blair smiles at first. But that smile soon fades to reveal a hint of something more steely. There is something there that no one ever sees.

"With Brown, you can always tell what he's trying to move towards. He's a much less slippery character. The drama reflects that Blair is impenetrable as a politician, much harder to get a grip on."

But one thing is clear: this Blair is a very driven man. From the first moment he enters the Commons in 1983, and is forced to share a tiny office with Brown, he looks in The Deal like a politician who wants to go all the way to the very top. "Blair is someone who would have been successful at whatever job he'd chosen," Sheen muses.

"For a long time, of the two of them Brown was always going to be the leader. But when John Smith died, Blair's ambition and impatience got the better of him. He justified it to himself by saying, 'It's for the party. The party has to be modernised, and if that means me getting the leadership ahead of Brown, then so be it.' Of course, other people might merely see this as Blair's vaulting ambition."

Perhaps because of Blair's elusiveness, The Deal ends up being Brown's story. He is portrayed as a man who is unable to comprehend it when he is leap-frogged by a politician he views as "a blow-in to this movement, someone who comes to where he doesn't belong and makes it his home".

In Sheen's eyes, the drama "ultimately depicts the tragedy of Gordon Brown, a man groomed for leadership who never quite reaches it. The film says his fatal flaw is that he chokes at the very last second when power beckons. He suffers from hubris because he feels it is beneath him to scrabble for power.

"He has this sense that it's his right to become leader, and he's brought low by his own inability to ask for things. Blair, on the other hand, sees the leadership as something to be fought for - and that's what leads to Brown's deep sense of betrayal. There is a real mythological feel to this story. In fact, in the end, The Deal is very much like a Greek tragedy."

Before Sheen can even pause for breath, his next offering is about to burst into the limelight. He stars as Miles - "possibly the campest man in cinema history" - in Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's exuberant directorial debut which is released next week. The actor relished the movie, particularly a scene "where I do drugs with Sir John Mills - not many people can say they've done that. He said, 'marvellous - my first cocaine film'!"

But right now Sheen has to jet off to Dublin to star as a pop idol opposite Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore in another high-profile movie, Laws of Attraction. It's a tough life. "It's my rock star moment," Sheen beams. The only thing he is scared about is strumming the guitar in public. "Still," he says, "at least I had a lot of good practice playing Tony Blair."

'The Deal' is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday