Frost/Beaks: Michael Sheen On Shaming A President, Turning Into A Werewolf, And Visiting Burton's WONDERLAND!
Published at: Dec. 5, 2008, 10:46 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
As is the case with so many great actors of the London stage, Michael Sheen didn't become a widely known commodity in America until he did something fantastic. Indeed, all those years of curtain calls and rave reviews - even when they extend to Broadway - don't mean a thing until you couple that fancy accent with a wizard's staff or a killer set of fangs or something one might've seen on the cover of HEAVY METAL during the 1970s. So Sheen transformed himself into a werewolf, and now he's beloved in Boise.
And he couldn't be happier.
Though Sheen is currently caught up in year-end awards campaigning for his winningly charismatic turn as the famed British television presenter David Frost in FROST/NIXON, he's just as willing to address his hirsute antics in the upcoming UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS. To him, there is no difference. The work is the work - or, rather, playtime is playtime. And just in case one thinks he's paying lip service to the geeks, read the below interview and note how he effortlessly, unironically draws parallels between THE CRUCIBLE and UNDERWORLD. This is a man who relishes genre.
Fortunately, there's more genre on the way. Aside from his third go-round as Lucian in RISE OF THE LYCANS, Sheen is set to appear in Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND. He couldn't say precisely who he'll be portraying, but he could rule out one character: The Cheshire Cat. (Take note, IMDb.) We talk about both of those movies in the below interview as well as FROST/NIXON - for which he could earn a Best Actor nomination. In terms of discussing the craft, and the difference between stage and screen acting, Sheen is as fiercely articulate as any performer I've ever interviewed. Hope you enjoy our conversation...
Mr. Beaks: You grew up in an a real working class town, Port Talbot.
Michael Sheen: It's an old steel town.
Beaks: What was it, then, that sparked your interest in performing? What actors, what plays, what movies... what got you into this racket?
Sheen: It was a few different things. Partly because my family was into amateur operatics. I don't know what your equivalent would be; it's basically middle-aged people putting makeup on and doing CAROUSEL. So from an early age, I was at least in theater. Theater wasn't an alien thing to me. I was quite comfortable with theater. It's not that in itself that made me want to act. But the idea of performing, of being in school plays and stuff like that, was something that I was guided toward because of my family.
But the first thing that really inspired me was that I was in a youth theater that was a really good youth theater. And the first productions they did that I was involved in were THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. They were these two major works. And I did very little in them, so I used to just sit and watch. But they were incredibly overpowering - particularly THE CRUCIBLE. This idea that there are no "bad guys"... I'm only thinking about this now, but my first really powerful experience in performance and writing and acting was one in which there was no clear-cut good guy or bad guy. Everything was gray. And there was a kind of tragic inevitability about it. They are all things now that I hold and aspire towards. I've never cited that as a big influence on my, but now that I think about it, I think it was.
Subsequent to that, I'm the only actor I'm aware of whose major inspiration was a critic. (Laughs) It's Kenneth Tynan, who was a writer, journalist, theater critic, man of the theater. I don't know how I came across it, but I found a book of his called PROFILES that was a collection of profiles on various actors and performers. Then I started reading a book of his reviews, where he'd collected all of his writings on Olivier's performances and that sort of golden era of British theater - which was the 1940s, '50s and '60s. And it was reading Tynan writing about Olivier on stage that gave me a real excitement about the possibilities of acting. It wasn't even the performances themselves; it was someone writing about the performances. Tynan lifted theater criticism to an art in itself. That's something I always go back to; I go back to Tynan's writing just to get in touch with that excitement again.
Beaks: That's so particular to theater. There's that mythical quality of all of these great performances that we'll never see. Sure we got the movie, but we didn't get to see Brando do STREETCAR on stage. We didn't get to see Welles's MACBETH. So it's really the great criticism of these performances that allow them to live.
Sheen: I remember one of the teachers in my youth theater saying that his favorite part of the production was [striking the set]. He'd say, "This is my favorite moment. Up until a couple of hours ago, there was this set and we were doing this play. Now, it's gone. And all that remains is what you were touched by." There's something very magical about that. That transience gives theater its power. Whereas with film, it's inarguable and always there - and that's great, too! But theater is something else. It's a ritual. And it would lose its power if it were to remain concrete.
Beaks: I believe the 1999 revival of AMADEUS was your introduction to U.S. audiences, even though you'd been doing theater in London for close to a decade.
Sheen: When I came out of drama school, it didn't occur to me that I would be in films particularly. I just wanted to do theater. That was my passion and interest. And that's what I did for ten years, really. I mean, I did the occasional bit in a film - in fact, the first film I ever did was MARY REILLY for Steven Frears. And he said, "One day, we'll do something much more substantial." (Laughs) And years later that did happen [with THE DEAL and THE QUEEN]. But I really just did bits in films as they came along; it was theater that I was most interested in. And I'm glad for that. It gave me the opportunity to learn about storytelling. Acting in film doesn't really do that. The responsibilities of telling the story are on the director and the editor, and the actors are, in a way, encouraged to not to take responsibility. You're encouraged to inhabit totally what you are doing, and to be, in some ways, quite selfish about it. You're not to worry about where the focus should be. It's just... "Produce stuff, and then we'll select what works for us."
Whereas on stage, you have to take responsibility for the whole thing; if the focus is in the wrong place, the director can't run on and say, "Alright, do it again!" You're your own editor. I mean, actors don't always take responsibility for it, but there's the opportunity. So I learned the nuts and bolts of telling a story, and I love that. I'm really interested in that. A lot of actors aren't, but I really love knowing how stories work. I like writing myself, and that's something I'd like to do more of. I've also directed a bit myself. But theater gave me that, and that's put me in good stead.
Beaks: So what's it like, then, transferring an entire production [FROST/NIXON] from the stage to the screen over the course of a couple of years? How does that alter the dynamic of the storytelling, and, more practically, your rapport with Frank Langella?
Sheen: The basics are the same. The major difference is that, on stage, it all has to be going on in you, so then you have to find a way to communicate that in a kind of wide way. It's a more deliberate act, I suppose. It's more conscious, and it can lead you to indicate things rather than allowing them to just be. Whereas on film, you just trust that if it's going on, the camera will pick it up; there doesn't have to be another stage between you and the audience, it's just there. And the great thing about having done the play for a long time was that we'd built up a lot of detail and subtlety and a rich inner life to these characters - a lot of which the audience didn't get. Whereas on film, that can come through; there's more subtlety and nuance in the performances.
But in terms of just acting [on film]... people always say that you have to bring it down for film. That may be the consequence of what you do, but it's not what you should focus on. It's certainly not what I focus on. If you're spending time concentrating on being small, I don't think that works. The major things I have to do as an actor are listen and react. And if someone is talking to me at a certain volume, then I'll listen to them and react in that way. And then it becomes "small enough" for film, or whatever. But emotions are emotions, and thoughts are thoughts; you don't make them bigger emotions or bigger thoughts just because it's [on stage]. All of that stuff stays the same, so it's just about responding appropriately. In the theater, an appropriate level of response in theater-sized, whereas on film it's not. That was the major difference.
Beaks: Before the film went into production, did you know for certain that you'd be a part of it? Or were you worried that they'd find a Vivien Leigh for your Jessica Tandy?
Sheen: Yeah, it's very rare that the actors who do the play get to do the film.
Beaks: DOUBT, for instance, has been recast from the top down. You guys were rather lucky, I guess.
Sheen: Yeah. Although I'd like think that the film is rather lucky. If they didn't have Frank [Langella] playing Nixon or maybe me playing Frost, the film wouldn't work as well. Actors aren't interchangeable. Just because someone has box office clout doesn't mean they'll have the chops to pull it off. Also, with a film like this, it kind of stands or falls on the performances. I'm not trying to take anything from what Ron [Howard] has done, but the nature of this kind of piece is that it's performance-oriented. Unfortunately, all men aren't created equal. I'm sure the studio was very interested in having bigger names.
Beaks: We heard bigger names being bandied about. Warren Beatty was evidently being considered for Nixon.
Sheen: But this sort of stuff separates the men from the boys. When you play a fictional character, there's no one saying, "He doesn't look a thing like him" because there's no one to compare it to. With these people, you do know. And a lot of very talented actors get very scared to do it. It takes guts. And to do it successfully takes guts, skill and all the rest of it. And to do it successfully on stage and film takes something else again. There aren't many actors who can do that, so the idea that there's carte blanche to cast anyone... I understand why [the studio] would want to do that, but you might end up with a very different film at the end of it. So all praise to Universal and Working Title for not going down that road.
Beaks: Did you find that Ron Howard had different insights into the material and the characters? Did he bring out different aspects of the work?
Sheen: Rather than bringing out different aspects, I think he connected with the piece so much and understood what worked about the story so much that he was able to find the filmmaking equivalent, rather than just going, "That was a really good scene, so I'm going to keep it like that and film it." For instance, he understood that something that works about Frost is his vulnerability. And there was a scene on stage where you see the mask drop when he's alone in a room. That doesn't work as well on film. But the quality that was in that scene, Ron found ways to bring that out at other points in the film. Ron seemed to have a real understanding of the piece, and how it could work as a film as opposed to a theatrical piece.
As you know, the history of Hollywood is littered with terrible films of great novels.
Beaks: And plays.
Sheen: Yes. And just because something works in one medium doesn't mean it's going to work in another - in fact, the chances are, it won't. What makes something work is because it understands its medium. So it's this huge deal for someone to be able to make it work. I think [FROST/NIXON] works as a film, and that's down to Ron.
Beaks: And isn't that a testament to the durability of Peter Morgan's script, too? That it can withstand being transferred to another medium?
Sheen: The astonishing thing, really, is that it worked as a play. Peter is a screenwriter, and [FROST/NIXON] was his first ever play. So the fact that it worked as a film is sort of not surprising at all, because that's what he does. And the play didn't really need opening up. The first three scenes in the play take place in different countries: one is in an airplane, one is in a TV studio in Sydney, Australia, and one is in the White House. The play is just all over the place, so you don't need to open it up in that respect. But the original production used very theatrical devices, so it seemed theatrical. But they didn't need much changing to become a film. I suppose the biggest challenge was understanding what made something work on stage as opposed to saying "That worked, let's keep that." You had to draw everything out and rediscover what it meant on film. But Peter's writing is just good writing; it's good storytelling. And there's no reason why that shouldn't work in any medium. When you have an understanding of what makes good storytelling, and you understand your medium, then as long as you're not too wedded with how things were done before, you're fine.
It was the same with me and Frank. We went through it twice. We left London and came to New York, and had a different cast around us. And when we re-rehearsed the play, that was the opportunity to either say, "In this scene, you have to do this so that I can do what I'm doing - 'cuz I ain't changing what I'm doing. It worked in Britain and it's going to work here. So you just have to accommodate my grand, wonderful performance." Or you could say, "Alright, let's throw everything out and find out what this play is with these people." Having done that once for New York, I had a lot less fear about doing that for the film. I just trusted that I knew who this guy was and how he reacted to situations. And then I went, "Alright, let's see who these people are." They were the same characters, but they were very different actors. That was what was amazing about this, and also what made it very enjoyable. You've got Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt... so you just go, "Alright, you do all the work. I'm lazy. I don't want to do any work, but I want this to be different, so all I have to is just listen to you."
Because the other actors tell you who you are. It's like people always say, "You don't play a king. People around you give you kingship." You don't play "I'm powerful". In fact, the less you play 'I'm powerful', the more powerful you seem. It's the reactions of other people. My job is just to turn up and listen.
Beaks: But acting is listening. And it's very rare that film actors know to listen. Very often, there's that wall, and it's just about what I'm giving to you.
Sheen: Right. It's about being my character. But it's scary. It's scary to listen. The act of listening means you have to let go of what your idea is that you want to do. Acting is essentially scary. It's frightening. You're being watched, and you have to be interesting. So to listen means to give up control and to be affected. And you might be affected in a way that you don't want to be affected. You might be like, "I don't want to say the line like this. My idea about this character is this, and he does things like that." To really listen and be affected, you have to give up all of that. It's like taking a big step into the void. And there's no safety net.
Beaks: Since Frost is a TV guy, did the fact that you were playing to a camera help you discover different qualities of the character? The use of the close-up had to be something of an advantage.
Sheen: I can't say that my mastery of the medium of film is so complete that I'm able to go, "Now I'm going to do this in the close-up." (Laughs) You just have to trust that it would work. A lot of that has to do with the casting. If someone is supposed to come across a certain way on TV, then you cast someone who already comes across like that. And just by slowly inhabiting the character as much as I can, I just have to hope and trust that the qualities he had, I sort of have. I can't say that I was like, "Oh, great, now I'm going to be able to this."
(Pauses) Well, to a certain extent, I was able to do that. Like you said, because the camera is just there and sees everything, all the stuff that I never noticed and thought about that's going on with Frost, I did think, "Oh, well that's going to come across on film." There was nothing I changed; it was stuff I was always doing on stage. It's just that nobody ever saw it.
Beaks: Shifting gears dramatically, when you do something like UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS, and you've got to do these huge dramatic speeches... I don't want to say that it's silly, but it does have to unabashedly be what it is. It's grander and more steeped in genre conventions.
Sheen: There is absolutely no difference for me.
Sheen: None. There's absolutely no difference between FROST/NIXON, THE QUEEN and UNDERWORLD 3. It's a story. I put as much work into both. I try to be as truthful and believable, as complex and as rich in both. There's nothing intrinsically more real about the character of David Frost or the character of Lucian: they're both just characters in a story. It requires absolutely no different process for me. I think what it does is reveal people's attitudes toward genre films; I think it reveals a snobbishness of culture. I mean, some of the best writing of the last century has happened in science fiction. One of my favorite writers is Philip K. Dick. One of my other favorite writers is Neil Gaiman. And Stephen King. These are people who, to a certain extent, don't get the literary kudos they deserve - and they're dealing with some of the biggest themes and subjects of what it's like to be a human being in the twentieth and twenty-first century.
Maybe they're made more palatable for people. There are things in THE DARK KNIGHT that are profound truths about our society. And that fact that it was a huge blockbuster - that kids went back again and again - is good! So just because something is on a more fantastic plateau doesn't make it any less valuable. Some of the most moving experiences I've ever had is watching things like LORD OF THE RINGS or THE MATRIX movies. It's not the genre. It's how well it's handled. And while I haven't seen UNDERWORLD 3 yet, the process was incredibly challenging and exciting for all kinds of reasons. I was excited by it because it was about something that I connected with about the human experience. I think people would be foolish to dismiss fairy tales or myths because they're not directed by Sidney Lumet or something.
Beaks: Like you said, it's how the genre is handled. Some of our greatest living actors were in LORD OF THE RINGS. And Olivier was in CLASH OF THE TITANS, so...
Sheen: You know, I loved the character of Lucian in the first [UNDERWORLD]. I think there's something complex going on inside of him. I love the idea that he's set up as the bad guy and then by the end you're like, "Oh, he's not the bad guy." Again, like I said about Arthur Miller, I'm drawn to those things: the ambiguity of right and wrong, good and evil. In this third film, because it's about [Lucian] and how he came to be the character that he is, that's what I was fascinated about; he's this man who's in denial in something about himself, who's fighting against something he's scared of within himself. And unless he makes peace with this, it will destroy him. And how he turns into a leader of men... I don't know, I just like that. (Laughs) I connected with it, and thought it gave space for a really interesting journey. I find that my imagination is fired by things when they go outside the norm. That's why I love science-fiction: not because it's an escape; it's a different way of engaging with my experiences in life.
Beaks: Well, you're going to be a part of one of the most richly imagined fantasy worlds of all time in Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND. As The Cheshire Cat--
Sheen: I'm not The Cheshire Cat.
Beaks: Oh. Damn IMDb. Who are you?
Sheen: I can't say. But it's not The Cheshire Cat.
Sheen: IMDb needs to get its facts straight. It's funny. People have come along and said, "Oh, you're playing this" And I'm like, "Really? Who's told you? The studio hasn't said."
Beaks: Well, I won't go fishing.
Sheen: Go fishing. I just won't say. The studio releases these things. It's not up to me to say. But I am in the film. And it's great to be in a film that my daughter can watch.
Beaks: Is it a traditional take?
Sheen: No, it's not traditional. I've always loved those classic children's stories like PETER PAN and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. There's a darkness at the heart that I guess you can trace back to Grimms' Fairy Tales. They're for children, but there's a harsh reality about life that seems unfit for children, and yet it's incredibly compelling. They get at something that is much harder to get at, something essential about our experience. I get very excited about those things. So to be in a classic like ALICE IN WONDERLAND... even though it's not a straight-ahead retelling, I find that really exciting.
Beaks: Actors are so good at engaging that childlike sense of play. Is there something about those works that brings out the child more easily?
Sheen: Not really. Like I said, my process is always the same. I have to find a way to be totally engaged in everything I'm doing - and that's physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And it's only through having a childlike sense of play that you can do work - even if you're doing the most tragic of stories. I just did a film [UNTHINKABLE] in which I was tortured every day for three weeks. You have to find a sense of play in that so that it comes alive. Even if you're doing the most awful things, there has to be a joy in it. It's that sort of child aspect of yourself. Hell, I see it in my daughter. She's with her friends, they're playing, and she says, "I'm the woman who works in the village selling bread, you're that, and let's go!" It's this childlike sense of engagement where you just believe what you're doing and you don't censor yourself. That's essential for an actor. When you start thinking of acting as being "grown-up", no one will want to watch you. And anyone who does ought to be shot.
FROST/NIXON begins its gradual rollout on December 5th. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS opens January 23, 2009.