A sheen of excellence

Following his appearance in UCD, Gillian Temple talks to Michael Sheen about his recent film with Woody Allen and his hilarious stint on 30 Rock

Some call him the great pretender, to others he is known as a chameleon, while his peers such as David Lan of the Young Vic Theatre refer to him as an “acting animal”. He has achieved great success in theatre and in film by capturing the unique and realistic essence of the characters he plays. Audiences have been won over by his convincing representation of his more iconic roles, from veteran interviewer David Frost to the mercurial charms of Tony Blair.

Yet despite receiving considerable critical acclaim in recent years, Michael Sheen plays down such praise. “We had no idea whether the audience would take it seriously or whether an audience would accept me as Blair,” he admits.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that the film and theatre industry nearly lost this great treasure to Arsenal Football Club. However, Sheen’s father refused to allow him to pursue his football career.  As a result, Sheen endeavoured to follow other ambitions: “Somewhere at the back of my mind I always accepted I was going to be an actor.”

Sheen’s thespian roots stem from his attendance of the National Theatre of Wales and his studies with The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. During his second year of college, he developed a strong relationship with acting and was awarded the Laurence Olivier Bursary Award.

Following this accolade, his acting career began to blossom, as he won the role to perform alongside Vanessa Redgrave in When She Danced on the West End. He recalls: “I went into this amazing first job and learned from Vanessa Redgrave and spent six months doing a play with her. It was incredible and it started my career.”

From there on in, Sheen was catapulted into the acting business and has never looked back. One surprising element of this journey was the root of his inspiration for getting into acting. “I think I’m the only actor who got inspired to be an actor by a critic: Kenneth Tynan. I found a book of Kenneth Tynan theatre criticism called A Prospect of the English Stage. I was reading his reviews of Olivia on stage and that’s what made me want to be an actor. It gave me a kind of something to aspire toward.”

O-two asks about his iconic roles, such as Tony Blair, Brian Clough and David Frost. How is he able to transform himself into these characters with such ease and conviction, and what gravitates him to these roles? “It’s ambiguity that I am most drawn to in characters,” he replies.

“I can only play myself. The only raw material is me, and so when you’re playing a real person, it’s a long process. I can get somewhere hopefully close to some kind of spirit of them, or at least my connection to them. So I’m ultimately playing myself in a different set of certain circumstances.

“It’s a long process for me. I completely immerse myself in the life of the person. Brian Clough was a Sinatra fan and he liked ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’, so you find little clues, like knowing those snippets of information.”

Continuing to detail his approach to immersing himself into roles of specific characters, Sheen explains: “With Albert Finney, you watch that film and you say ‘Ah I see, so Clough was kind of basing himself on the Albert Finney character’, so you start to get a sense of how much he was kind of creating a myth of himself and how much he was self consciously playing the role of Brian Clough at times.

“It behoves us all as artists to try and make people more human, to strive to understand people in all their complexity. You put all that stuff together and hopefully at the end of it comes a great performance.”

The common denominator of all these biographical characters that Sheen plays lies in their difficult personas. Pondering the issue, Sheen elaborates on the difficulty playing such unfavourable roles like Tony Blair. “Funnily enough, the more I find out about the person, the less judgemental I become.

“People always say: ‘what do you think about Tony Blair having played him three times?’ I have less and less of an opinion about him. The way I’ve played Blair has always involved the idea of a mask and that one of his tools that he uses in the earlier days.”

In The Special Relationship, it will be Sheen’s third time playing Blair. Written by friend and colleague Peter Morgan, he is partly responsible for Sheen’s other performances of Blair along with David Frost and Brian Clough, having written the scripts to all these films.

O-two asks about his relationship with Morgan and how he deals with handling the factual elements of these roles: “It’s a very dangerous area I suppose, because people are inevitably going to watch something and partly feel that’s the way things were, so you do have to be incredibly careful.

“It’s not about the person; it’s about the story. The reason why I’ve played these real-life people is because on the whole, they’ve all been written by the same man.”

Throughout the interview, Sheen shows great enthusiasm in his answers and was only too delighted to cover the many aspects of his career in theatre and film. He fondly recalls stories about Tom Hanks being starstruck by Diane Ross, or his excursion with Javier Bardem to the Irish and Welsh rugby match last year.

Sheen currently resides in Los Angeles to be closer to his daughter Lily, but he has no interest in the Hollywood lifestyle and the film star image. “I don’t really know what a film star is,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as a film star, I think of myself as an actor. Hollywood is the shittiest area you could come to visit. It is a myth, it’s a state of mind, so I think being a film star is like that.”

What is most appealing and inspirational about Sheen’s outlook on the film industry is his enthusiasm to branch out and to educate himself with regards to the different areas of film production. “The more I work in film, the more I start to appreciate other people’s jobs within it. I’m more appreciative of what it takes to make a film and the work and artistry that goes into all the different areas of it.”

Sheen’s current project sees him work alongside the legendary director Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris – a film that is said to be premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Other actors have often perceived Allen as difficult and intimidating while working on a film with him. Sheen describes Allen as “fascinating and very funny. He used to make me laugh all the time.

“What I found fascinating about Woody was that he doesn’t let you play subtexts at all. Characters are revealed to what he chooses to write about in each scene, he is a pre-Freudian director. He doesn’t want actors to play what’s going on under the surface, he just wants you to play the surface constantly, and then the revelation of character comes through the actions he gives to the characters in the scenes.”

In ­O-two’s mind, the whole interview has been building up to quizzing Sheen about his experiences on 30 Rock and working with Tina Fey. Sheen’s execution of Wesley Snipes, which he described as an “English dickhead”, was possibly the most memorable aspect of season four of 30 Rock.

At this point, Sheen becomes especially animated: “It was really intimidating because of Tina Fey. The whole group of writers on it, that are very young, are so sharp and so brilliant. Tina would say: ‘Oh don’t worry about that the script, this time just do whatever you want to do.’ So that was kind of scary but brilliant, as you realise that she writes for you specifically and then the character kind of evolved and got weirder and weirder the more she worked with me.”

Continuing his discussion on 30 Rock, Sheen informs O-two that he would be returning as his Wesley Snipes character in the near future: “I’m really looking forward to going back. We had this idea that we would recreate Wesley Snipes movies, but for my Wesley Snipes.”

Listening to Sheen, it is clear he has a vested interest in 30 Rock and enjoys working with Tina Fey. However, he refuses to be drawn into comparing Allen and the 30 Rock star. “You can’t really compare them, they’re both brilliant and have brilliant minds.

“Woody is an auteur and Tina is a brilliant comedy actress and writer. They both have a sense of being very good at documenting what life is actually like in a brilliantly funny way. But Tina Fey plays a mean game of Boogle, so maybe she would edge it just for that.”

The immediate future for Sheen sees him return to Port Talbot next week to continue his work on stage with the National Theatre of Wales on a project he has been working on for two years that will premiere over Easter. He describes it as “a continuous performance that lasts for 72 hours over the Easter weekend.

“It’s a modern secular version of the Passion of Christ taking place all over the town and using the community of the town. It has been a long-held ambition for me, having grown up in that place to go back.” But if you can’t get over to see him in Wales, O-two suggests you indulge in some more quality viewing of 30 Rock season four.

Michael Sheen was in UCD last week to receive the James Joyce Award from the Literary and Historical Society.