Michael Sheen: 'I try to inhabit what it is I'm doing'

The award-winning actor thrives on playing real people. After Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams, he has now taken on David Frost

Friday 09 January 2009 01:00

Michael Sheen hates acting. "I've become more and more repulsed by it," he says. He has just spent two hours watching himself, long-haired and wild-eyed, as Lycan Lucian, a werewolf who leads an uprising. I've just spent two hours watching him as a hero of a different kind: a suave and slightly bouffant-haired David Frost, who, in the last of a series of televised interviews with the former American President, Richard Nixon, elicits a historic confession. I can't speak for his Lycan, but his Frost is electrifying. Like his Tony Blair, his Kenneth Williams, his Caligula. If Sheen hates this, it seems, to put it mildly, a shame.

But what Sheen hates, it soon becomes clear, is not the process of playing these roles, or even the process of watching himself on a giant screen. He has, it seems, quite enjoyed his first glimpse of himself in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the third of a series of epic battles set in the Dark Ages. "A lot of people will think it's rubbish," he says. "But I thoroughly enjoyed making it, and I had to get in really good shape as well, so it was quite good to sit there watching me all buff. In some ways, it's good fun that it's coming out on the same day as Frost/Nixon, because it's so different in every way. In some ways, it's closer to my taste. I love fantasy."

He has seen Frost/Nixon four times and each time enjoyed it "in different ways". But, he says, "there's maybe a few moments in Frost/Nixon, I couldn't tell you what, where I go, 'oh, I'm acting'." Er, isn't that what an actor's supposed to do? "Well," he says patiently, "it's trying to do something, as opposed to just doing it. For example, when I'm listening as Frost, I can either act listening, I can have an image of him listening and try to make my face go like his goes. I can do all the externals of listening, and not listen at all. I can either go, 'look at me listening', or I just listen. That's a big difference. One is acting, and one is something else. I don't know what the word is. 'Special being' or something."

Whatever it is, I think it might be the key to Sheen's success. While people have raved about his performances as Blair, first in Stephen Frears' TV film, The Deal and later in his Oscar-winning film, The Queen, and as Kenneth Williams in the BBC4 drama documentary, Fantabulosa!, and then as Frost on stage in Frost/Nixon, first at the Donmar Warehouse and then on Broadway, it hasn't been for his skills as an impersonator à la Rory Bremner or Mike Yarwood, but for the extraordinary quality that he brings to the roles, a quality that makes you think that this is not someone like Blair, but that this is Blair: a Blair who seems almost more real (more truthful, more vulnerable) than the real thing.

It's a quality that's rather discombobulating, so that when a boyish figure, with tousled, curly hair, lots of rings, skinny black cords and a mellifluous Welsh accent turns up in a hotel foyer on the dot of our scheduled time and finds us a quiet spot to sit and worries, with me, about whether the retro record-player I've bought is the wrong shade of brown, I'm slightly thrown. And when I discover that I've turned up to the interview with a tape recorder with flat batteries, and am, by the time a hotel employee turns up with spare ones, in such a fluster that I can't work out how to change them, I can only stare at the boyish creature, calmly flipping off plastic flaps, inserting fresh batteries, and handing the contraption back to me, with awe. The Michael Sheen smile, on stage and screen, is a thing of great versatility. Often seductive, sometimes nervous, sometimes menacing. Today, it's just kind.

"When I first started doing films," he says, "I'd have a very developed idea of what I thought was happening. I was always surprised by how much gets cut and how different it comes across, and I suppose I learnt from that really to give that up. I realised that the important thing is just to inhabit what you're doing and not be thinking about how it's going to come across. I tend to be quite disappointed when I watch something and then slowly, through hearing what other people have to say about it, and watching it again, getting a bit more objectivity, I sort of come round to it." Sheen is, in fact, famously self-critical, famously disciplined, famously, to use an actorly word, focused. He put on weight to play Frost, just as he lost three stone to play Williams. He is, in other words, famously in control of what he does. Film work has been a process of relinquishment. "That's the one thing I've learnt most," he says, "that I have to let go of trying to take responsibility for what everybody else has control over. I can only take responsibility for what I can, which is be in the moment and discover it afresh."

That, for a role you've already played on stage for a year, must be quite a challenge. Even on a long stage-run, however, he insists that you have to find ways to keep a performance fresh. "It might," he explains, "be that you end up giving on the outside a carbon copy of the performance you gave the night before, but it has to be rediscovered. You can't just copy what you did. It only worked last night because you were listening and reacting in the moment." When the production moved to Broadway, and (with the exception of Frank Langella's astonishing Nixon) the cast changed, he had to refresh his performance all over again. And then, again, for the film. "I thought, I'm not going to repeat anything I did on stage. It's a different medium. I just need to listen to the other actors and trust that I know who this character is and trust that I know that I'm telling this story."

And the story is, of course, riveting. The bare bones are gripping enough: chat-show host seeks international audience, gravitas and acclaim by conducting TV interviews with disgraced former President, and risks everything – his reputation, his money, his home – to do so. But Sheen brings to it, just as he did for Blair, the tension between the public and private face. "Frost," he says, "is very much someone who wants to put across the idea that he's relaxed and yet underneath that's not the story at all, so that creates an interesting tension and immediately raises the stakes: I want this, and I also want this. I know that, as an audience member, I respond to that, because I recognise that as being like life, like me."

If it doesn't win him an award or two (it should) it's certainly likely to propel him firmly on the road to stardom. The boy from Port Talbot (home, also, to Richard Burton and Antony Hopkins), son of personnel-manager parents, one of whom also works as a Jack Nicholson lookalike, the boy who turned down an offer from an Arsenal scout in favour of the National Youth Theatre of Wales and, later, Rada, is firmly on that road. He has already had a taste of it, too, through his ex-wife Kate Beckinsale (with whom he has a daughter) and their brief life together in LA. And, since being awarded an OBE last week, there have been lots interviews and limos.

"The way things are going at the moment," he admits, "I can see how you can actually become less connected to people, less open, spend your time in a limo, or in a room with people who say 'yes' to you a lot."(Yes, I nod, yes.) "You could end up being very disconnected from people, and that can't be good for acting. But to be honest, if people are pleasant, I don't really care why they're being pleasant. It's just nicer. And I can't think of any other profession where I can be walking down the street, a bit down on myself or whatever, and an absolute stranger walks up to you and says how much they like what you do. You can only walk away from that feeling better."

Sheen seems so sunny that it's quite hard to imagine him being a bit "down on himself", but he's a big fan of Jung and would, he says, love to have Jungian analysis. "I was advised against it," he confesses, "because I have a tendency to disappear off, and in the past it's been quite difficult to keep my feet on the floor. I'm much more comfortable talking about how the trickster archetype plays out in my life than I am about why I feel threatened with intimacy." Uhuh. And how does it? "I don't know. I just made them up! But in the past I've used abstract thinking as something to hide behind, as opposed to being able to go, 'I feel this'."

His other hero, he says, is Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist (and Jungian) whose masterwork, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is all about the mythic journey. "I find increasingly," he says "that the more extreme are the things going on in your life, the more cultural reference points fail you. More mythical reference points actually help, and you realise that's what myths are for. It's for human beings to process their experience in extremis."

Perhaps it's this constant awareness of the human situation "in extremis" that enables him to undertake acts of imaginative empathy with such profound conviction. His cast of real-life characters – soon to include Brian Clough, in an adaptation of David Peace's The Damned United – includes, in Music Within (2007), a disability campaigner with cerebral palsy, Art Honeyman. Honeyman, who became a close friend, died a few weeks ago. "I don't know what it's like to have cerebral palsy, but I do know what it's like to feel different, or hampered or frustrated. In the same way, with Mark Furness [a character he played with Tourette's] in Dirty Filthy Love, I know what it's like to feel like there's something within me that I'm not in control of that is affecting how other people see me. If I'm honest about that, it seems to allow me to put that across believably."

Honesty? Perhaps. Empathy? Perhaps. Or perhaps just sheer bloody talent. Soon, however, we'll be seeing less of it on the stage. Michael Sheen is moving back to LA because he wants to spend more time with his daughter. He talks of setting up a theatre space, but for a man who loves the British theatre, it's clearly a sacrifice. On the cusp of 40, on the cusp of stardom, this preternaturally gifted and extraordinarily nice man has clearly decided that life, ultimately, comes before art.

'Frost/Nixon' and 'Underworld: Rise of the Lycans' both open on 23 January

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