Two years ago, screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen were out and about for awards season promoting Stephen Frears’ Oscar-nominated film The Queen, which Morgan wrote and Sheen starred in as British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was the second time Sheen would play Blair in something written by Morgan (with a third film promised which Morgan may even direct himself). Although Morgan’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, it lost rather tragically to Little Miss Sunshine, but by then, the two men were already waist deep into their next project, a history-based play which had a limited yet acclaimed run in both London and New York.
That play, Frost/Nixon, has now been turned into a major feature film directed by Ron Howard, reuniting the duo for the fourth time. In the play and movie, Sheen plays British television producer David Frost, who in 1977 convinced former President Richard Nixon (played by Frank Langella) to do a candid interview about his years as President and the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign. The film shows the preparation and lead-up to the famous interviews and perfectly creates the dynamics and tension between the two very different combatants in this historic televised event.
(Incidentally, those interested in watching the actual Frost/Nixon interviews on which the movie is based might want to check out Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews from Liberation Entertainment, released on DVD on Tuesday, December 2, which can be purchased at Amazon and other fine DVD retailers.)
Despite having worked together on almost a half dozen projects, Sheen and Morgan couldn’t be any more different: Sheen is energetic, almost sprightly with his enthusiasm about acting, while Morgan is blunt with a dry wit when responding to questions about his work. Then again, Morgan might also be one of the smartest screenwriters in England, maybe in the world, the meticulous research that goes into his screenplays making one think that if he weren’t a writer, he could easily be either a historian or working for Scotland Yard solving their cold cases. Either way, the long-standing working relationship between these two very different men is what ComingSoon.net wanted to explore when we sat down with them a few weeks back for the following conversation:
ComingSoon.net: I wanted to talk to the two of you together because you’ve worked together for so long on so many different films. Obviously the two of you had already done “The Deal” with Stephen Frears by the time this came along. Had Michael already been cast as Tony Blair in “The Queen” and you knew that he would be playing Tony Blair again?
Peter Morgan: Yeah, Michael’s always going go to be Tony Blair. There is only one Tony Blair, but I wrote this when there was this hiatus, because Steven went off to make “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” so I wrote this then and immediately I thought it should be Michael. Because it was such a short theater run, Michael could fit it in without being too angry with me.
Michael Sheen: I’m trying to remember the first time you mentioned it to me, and I feel like it was my first day on the set of “The Queen.” That’s my memory. Does that seem right?
Morgan: That feels about right.
Sheen: I remember being outside that home that was (doubling for) Buckingham Palace. I remember it was raining and you saying, “I’ve written this play and I want you to look at it.” I’m sure that was the first time.
CS: Peter, you’d already met David Frost at that point…
Morgan: I had, oh yeah. Once I had the script, I would have had to have met Frost a number of times.
CS: Knowing that you wanted Michael to play him, had you tailored it to him knowing what he could do?
Morgan: He can do anything. I mean, really obviously, he can do anything, but having said that, he literally fit perfectly. I think you were exactly the age that Frost was, 39…
Sheen: I was 38 when we did it…
Morgan: And Michael’s known and famous as a playboy (Michael laughs at this) and I live my life vicariously through his, so it seemed a natural fit.
CS: What was your reaction when he told you this? You must have known David Frost’s TV shows beforehand.
Sheen: Yeah, I was intrigued by the prospects of playing Frost and read the play and thought it was extraordinary. But also, the other weird connection for me was that Peter told me about the play and then when I got the script, it came through the Donmar Theater. (To Peter) Because you hadn’t mentioned anything. I think in the gap between you talking about the play to me and then me receiving the script, you’d sort of gone through the process of talking to Michael Grandage and the Donmar about it, and that was somebody I had a totally independent relationship with, aside from Peter. I had done “Caligula” at the Donmar for Michael Grandage and had a relationship there, so it was kind of like the two sides of my career coming together, which was amazing for me. So it became even more of an exciting prospect.
CS: I’m really interested in the idea of not so much playing David Frost as playing a character called “David Frost” based on what people know about him. I was curious how the two of you approached that, having a lot of information about him and facts of what happened while getting his personality from his television appearances and interviews.
Morgan: Well, I wouldn’t have that conversation with Michael. That would have been done by Michael Grandage the director, but your question is an interesting one, because if I look at how I wrote Frost, I mean I made up a whole lot of stuff, which was about how do I feel about Frost? Frost himself is a very full-on proactive publicity machine. He’s very conscious of his public perception, and as a highly-skilled entertainer and presenter, he’s very controlling of that and he’s handled it brilliantly his whole life. It’s my job as a dramatist to get under the skin of that a little bit and then it’s Michael’s job to get under the skin and own and feed into what it is that I’ve written. In a sense, it’s almost like a DVD that goes to video… each time there’s another departure from the original source, and what I write about Frost is a departure from what Frost is. What Michael does with my writing is sort of a departure from what the writing is.
CS: You mentioned using the impressions we have of certain people and play off of that, so was a lot of that already in the script?
Sheen: I was saying, and I’ve said this a few times that I always feel like that in your work that you sort of riff around what people already know about the person. That’s one of the things I find really interesting in the work that you do is that part of the enjoyment of the film or the play is that people come in with preconceived ideas that you are already playing with in what they watch. There’s an enjoyment in that that I think you have in the writing of it and that the audience gets a sense of as well when they’re (watching). So part of “The Queen” was about the fact that people already had a certain idea about the Queen that then gets played with (Morgan agrees with this thought) and there’s a huge enjoyment in that and I think the same with Nixon in this and for a British audience, possibly more than an American audience, with Frost in this as well. ‘Cause I found that in America, when we were doing the play in America, there was less of that… the audience took more of that at face value when I was doing it to begin with…
Morgan: I completely agree…
Sheen: And part of what I was trying to do on Broadway was to teach them who this person was so at a certain point in this piece, I could then start doing the riffing thing you do. And in a way, that feeds into the film in I think a good way, because the way through the narrative is through Frost’s story in the film. It’s good that the audience take him at face value a bit more, in a way.
Morgan: Ron (Howard) also saw sides of Frost that is hard for English people to see. Ron really rooted for him and particularly rooted for his very American qualities. Never say “die”, worked really hard, really entrepreneurial, hated to be ground down…
Sheen: Adventurous spirit…
Morgan: Yeah, all that kind of stuff. In England, we sort of go (exasperated “Oh, come on…”)
Sheen: Pioneering spirit. It’s the pioneers, isn’t it?
Morgan: Yeah, yeah, it’s very American in that sense, Frost.
CS: When we spoke to Ron, he was the one who mentioned you were the one who decided to go with them to make the movie, and what was it about him that made you decide he’d be the best person for the job? Did it strike you that he’d be faithful to it?
Morgan: No, I mean Ron has a slight advantage in that he and I were already in conversation about something else. He wanted me to write something that he then didn’t do, but it meant the ice was broken and I was less intimidated by him then possibly one or two of the other people who were calling. I certainly felt more comfortable with him and I certainly felt that I would trust at face value what he said. When you’ve got a very rare moment like this, where a number of people are ringing you up, you don’t want to make a decision and then think, “Oh, no, I blew it.” In other words, people can be very seductive and I really knew that if Ron said “I’m going to do this and here’s my commitment” in a sense, that was the thing that swung it. Also, his extraordinary Americanness, I really wanted somebody who was particularly American like this and I felt also that I would feel safe that Ron would not attack Nixon or lampoon Frost. I felt that there would be a really even hand to what he does, because he’s such an even-handed human being. It was his maturity as a human being and the dignity he shows to other people that made me think he would be a natural fit.
Sheen: Also, his absolute enthusiasm and passion for the project. When he came to see the play, I remember he came to the Donmar, the matinee performance, and I remember when the cast were coming out of the stage door at the Donmar, he was waiting on his own in the corridor. He didn’t need to meet any of us. At that point, there was no reason to assume that anyone in that cast was going to be in the film. Peter wasn’t there. He didn’t come to see Michael Grandage particularly. He just wanted, as a fan, he wanted to say “I really enjoyed that” and you could see that it really affected him, and that’s something that I thinkall the way through the whole processhas never left. I’ve always seen him as someone who really cares about this story.
CS: As an actor, once you knew you were going to be in the movie, besides knowing you had the job, what was the first thing you wanted to know from Ron about how he wanted to approach it? Did you want to sit down with him?
Sheen: (chuckles) The first thing I wanted to know was “Are you sure I’m going to be doing this? You’re not going to bail out on me…” No, the first time I met Ron we had dinner in New York, and the thing I was most struck by was how much he wanted to put my mind at rest and kind of go, “You guys have to teach me and you know I really respect the story. I’m going to defer to you, and you know much more about this than me.” I was kind of amazed by how deferential and respectful he was to the process that we’d already gone on. You know, he’s very clever, Ron. He’s such a great person, a really good human being, but he’s also very clever, very skillful and his people skills are brilliant. It could have been a delicate subject, the idea that we’d done the play and we were going to do the movie, and he handled that absolutely brilliantly… I know I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure that Frank would say the same thing, that we felt really respected, like we owned what we were doing, and yet at the same time, we were doing something very different to what we’d done on stage and felt comfortable with that. Ron really allowed that and made that happen, and I’m really grateful to him for that.
CS: Peter, this was really your baby from the beginning but when you write a play, you have to let the theater director do his thing, and you’d been through that, so how involved did you want to be as an executive producer with it being made into a movie? Did you want to be on set and see what was going on? Did you want to wait and see what he was doing afterward?
Morgan: No, I was very involved and I like to be involved. I think that I like working with directors who like having the writers involved, and it feels to me, particularly with a piece like this, it would be insanity not to have the writer involved, to be honest. Stephen Frears, more than Ron, he doesn’t do anything without his writer there, so I came from having made two films with Stephen where I was on set pretty much every day, and I went on location scouts. You really go on the journey, and then you’re in the editing room. I mean, it’s not good for your hourly rate (laughter) but it means you’re completely and utterly involved in every part of the process.
Sheen: And as an actor, I love that Peter is just around all the time. Rehearsing with Peter is extraordinary because you’re in a room and normally, in other circumstances, you’d be in a room with a director and you’d sort of read through the scene and then maybe one of the actors would say, “You know, I don’t like this line” or “I’m not sure what’s happening here” and someone would say, “Alright, maybe I’ll talk to the writer about it.” This process goes on, and when we’re in rehearsals, as maddening as it is for Peter, he has his laptop there and you do a scene and by the time you finish reading the scene with the other actor, he’s already done a rewrite on it. Then you start talking about it and as you’re talking about what I might feel about a scene, by the time I’ve finished saying what I said, he’s also rewritten it based on that. It’s such an organic process, and then on the set as well. It suits me, it probably doesn’t suit all actors, but really, I love it.
Morgan: No, I don’t think all actors could cope with that.
Sheen: No, but I love the fact that I can do a take and Peter might come up and go, “I’d like to change that line and I’d like to put this in.” And I know exactly why he’s saying it, because he’s just watched what I’ve done and what he’s seen me doing has made him think of something, and then he comes to me, and then I love being able to do it. Some actors would go, “Sorry, I can’t change it. I can’t do anything. No.” But I think that’s part of why we enjoy working together, is that there’s something very responsive about Peter and I think there’s something very responsive about me.
Morgan: Yeah, it’s really true, really true.
CS: I’d say that the dialogue in the movie is very faithful to the play, which you’d already workshopped and gotten it the way you wanted it over the course of its many performances, so did you still feel you needed to tweak and change things?
Morgan: Oh, yeah, always, always, and sometimes, it’s tiny little things, but it’s actually keeping that process alive. I don’t know anybody else who could do that, who can actually make a long speech, and you can go in there and you can say, “You know in the middle, there’s a line where you do that, I’d like you to invert those two words” and he just goes “Okay” and he does it. It’s absolutely extraordinary. I would wet myself at that point.
Sheen: But it always makes it better.
Morgan: Yeah, it does. You can hear it, when you hear it. I wrote this piece and I didn’t get any notes because I was writing a play, and the way in which I got my notes was to do readings, so I hear readings and when I hear it, it’s so obvious what you need to do. When I’m on set, I can hear the lines coming out and you can immediately hear when there’s something wrong.
CS: I’m not sure how many times you’ve seen Michael and Frank perform the play, but you must have seen it a bunch of times. Did you learn anything new about it, whether it was about their performances or the piece as a whole, when you sat down and watched the completed film?
Morgan: Well, there were changes made, and of course, it was Ron’s piece, and you accept that and you accept that it’s going to have a slightly different tone. No, in that sense, I felt so comfortable with both directorsthey’re both brilliant directorsand so you just felt like heaven. They’re both extraordinarily capable directors. They remove all problems, so to be honest with you, that was quite fun, it was a bit of a ringside seat.
CS: I understand the two of you also did a football movie since finishing this called “The Damned United.” That was something Peter wrote and you starred in as well, so is that finished and can you talk about that?
Morgan: Yes, it’s a story about a particularly controversial British soccer coach who had something like the impact in England culturally that Mohammed Ali had here, not in terms of the civil rights movement, in terms of being an outspoken media personality. Certainly somebody who’s shadow would have been cast all over our childhood, so to explore another character who was so pivotal to our cultural make-up, and it was great, and Michael was, needless to say, dazzling.
CS: And you once again wrote that with him in mind?
Morgan: Of course. Are you kidding?
CS: Having worked together five times, do you feel there’s more you’re able to find in Peter’s writing or more you can find in the characters Michael creates from what you write?
Sheen: Well, playing Brian Clough in the soccer film, it felt like a new experience. I mean I could see that there were things in it and things in the character that interest Peter and that interest me and I’d seen bits in other people that I’ve played that Peter’s written. I feel like each thing that we’ve worked on is new ground. I feel like I’m growing as an actor through working on what Peter writes and so hopefully, that responsive thing will carry on working. I feel and I hope that I’m becoming a better actor, because you get better by working on the best writing. I’m incredibly fortunate that I get to work on some of the best writing that’s being done in British cinema and theater at the moment, and it’s making me better, and I hope that by making me better, because of how responsive and intuitive and sensitive Peter is as a writer that it’ll then come back, so that his writing will reflect me getting better as an actor. I hope that what I do can inspire him and what he does inspires me, so hopefully it’ll keep going.
CS: And do you basically feel the same way?
Morgan: No. (laughter)