Exclusive: Michael Sheen on Midnight in Paris

Here at ComingSoon.net, we’ve been following Michael Sheen’s career for a number of years, from his roles in Oscar-nominated films like Stephen Frears’ The Queen and Ron Howard’s big-screen adaptation of Frost/Nixon, and whether he’s playing a Lycan in the original Underworld (and its 2008 prequel), Aro, leader of the vampire overlords known as the Volturi in “The Twilight Saga,” or the quirky bar owner Castor in last year’s TRON: Legacy.

On Friday, he can be seen in Woody Allen’s 41st (!!) feature film, the comedy Midnight in Paris, playing Paul, a knowledgeable American scholar in Paris who brings out the competitive nature in Owen Wilson’s Gil when his fiancĂ©e (Rachel McAdams) takes a shine to him. Sheen can also be seen next month in Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy, playing the father of a college student who wakes up one morning and shoots up his campus before killing himself, leaving his parents to pick up the pieces. Starring opposite Maria Bello, it’s an intense dramatic film that’s quite the counterpoint to the Woody Allen movie.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Sheen earlier this week for a brief interview about the two films and other things he has planned, including his directorial debut and Breaking Dawn, the final chapter in the popular “Twilight Saga.”

ComingSoon.net: I’ve talked to a lot of actors who’ve worked with Woody Allen, and obviously, when Woody Allen calls you drop everything and you go there. He has made four movies in England, but then he goes to France and he calls you as an American.
Michael Sheen:
I know. It’s peculiar isn’t it? If someone said, “You’re going to be in a Woody Allen film,” of all the things that I would’ve thought, I wouldn’t have said it would’ve been playing an American in Paris. I was here in New York doing “30 Rock,” and I got the call to say, “Woody would like to meet you” and all that. So I went down to the office and met him there. It’s only after I came out… I mean, he said to me, “You might be right for this movie I’m doing in the summer.” That was all I knew about the film, I knew nothing more about it. Then I came out of there and he said, “Do you do an American accent?” and I said some sort of stupid self-deprecating British type remark and then realized that that’s not a good idea. I went, “Yes, I can, I can. I’m very good at doing American.” Then I came out of there and I was just so excited about meeting Woody really beforehand, and it was only afterwards I thought… I’d been led to believe that he only really meets people who he’s fairly certain he wants to be in it anyway, and it’s just to check that you don’t have three heads. It’s only afterwards I thought, “Hang on a moment, I might be in a Woody Allen film.” So that was very exciting.

CS: You didn’t know it was going to be in France? You didn’t know anything about it?
Sheen:
I knew nothing about it. Then I got sent my scenes and a card from Woody saying, “I’d love you to do this.” I think he said something like, “He’s the ultimate pedant. I think you’d have fun with it.” So I read the scenes, but of course, I still had no idea what the film was really about because the central conceit of the film I wasn’t a part of, so I didn’t get that.

CS: I don’t think anyone knew about that aspect until it played at Cannes last week; it was one of Woody’s best kept secrets.
Sheen:
Yeah, yeah, and then I bumped into Marion Cotillard here in New York. I knew she was going to be in the film, so I said, “So who are you playing?” She said who she was playing and I was like, “What? Is that the same film? What? What? How does that work?” Then I slowly started to piece it together, but even when we did the film I finished filming in Paris and I was leaving the next day and a few of us were having dinner and Rachel mentioned something about this affair. I went, “What?” She said, “Well, we have an affair in the film.” So I went, “No, I wasn’t aware of that,” because it doesn’t come up in any of the scenes that I’m in.

CS: I was wondering about that because when I read the plot for the movie, that was the whole thing, that basically she was having an affair with you while in Paris with her fiancé, and then she only just mentions it, but I wondered if there were any scenes shot where see that affair taking place.
Sheen:
Nope. Absolutely everything I shot is in the film. In fact, pretty much everything I shot is in the trailer. Because they couldn’t show the going back in time stuff in the trailer, then it meant that they had to rely on all the other stuff. It makes it look like I’m the main part in the trailer. But yeah, so I only knew about that once I finished filming.

CS: That just cracks me up. I assume Owen probably had the full script.
Sheen:
Yeah, yeah, Rachel and Owen.

CS: That’s so funny, because Woody does all these movies with ensemble casts and probably half of them don’t really know what the movie is about until they see it.
Sheen:
Exactly, but there’s sort of something wonderful about that as well. I kind of like that. Even though it’s a very sort of unmodern way of doing things, I suppose, there’s something very liberating about it as well, saying, “I have no idea what this film is about and I’m just going to do my best.” It makes you very open to the possibilities.

CS: Your character is a bit of a stereotype, being one of these American guys who goes to France knowing a lot of stuff and being very cultured, so everything he says we assume to be true. Did you have to do any research for that or did you just trust what Woody wrote for you as being right?
Sheen:
Yeah, well the very basic thing, everyone I mentioned in the piece I had to look up and know who I was talking about and know whether it was true or not and all that kind of stuff. So I did that, but really apart from that… I mean, he’s not a stereotype, but he’s someone that I think a lot of us know, someone like that. But also he’s someone that you know from other Woody Allen films in a way. There’s a sort of stock archetype who turns up in a lot of Woody films because the Woody Allen character is usually someone who needs someone to feel both inferior and superior to them. It tends to be in Woody’s films that all the characters around the central character are very, very opinionated and very certain about what they believe and think. Then you have a character in the middle who sort of vacillates all the time, and that creates a comic context. My character is very much–if you look at “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan” or whatever–there’s always a character who’s like that because it allows for other people to be really embarrassed by that character and Woody to feel inferior to him, but also to kind of go, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” and to feel superior as well. It was very clear what my role was.

CS: You obviously know Woody’s movies, so are you one of those people who goes out to see every single one of them when they come out?
Sheen:
I’ve just seen them. I mean, I’ve always been a fan of his stuff. I think “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is one of the greatest films of the last 25 years as well as “Broadway Danny Rose” is probably my favorite Woody film. But I’ve seen I think pretty much every film he’s ever done.

CS: Did you get the impression he was aware of your work? He works with so many different actors, I wondered if he knows all their work. I don’t get the impression Woody Allen has a lot of time to watch other movies or watch other things.
Sheen:
I think he relies on his casting director a lot, but he goes to the theater, so I think a lot of actors who are in this film and who have been in a lot of his films, he’s seen doing plays. Then I know for certain that there were a couple of actors in “Midnight in Paris” who he’d just seen in a play, then I think there are people who he has recommended to him by his producer or his casting director. But I think he watches a fair amount; I think he’s pretty up on what’s going on or that’s the impression I got anyway.

CS: I’d love to think that he watches “30 Rock,” because I think he would enjoy that.
Sheen:
I think he would. I think Tina is very much in the Woody tradition in some ways, so I hope he does, yeah.

CS: You’ve been playing a lot of Americans lately. I saw “Beautiful Boy” and “Jesus Henry Christ,” and you seem to have this string of playing bearded Americans. Is that something that happened consciously?
Sheen:
Well, consciously I suppose party because I didn’t want to just be seen as that Brit who plays famous people, you know? So it’s partly because I wanted to expand my options and for people to see me in a different light I suppose. Also I think it’s just a natural development that if you’re spending more time in America and partly as well because I start to get sent more independent films – I think my options are wider with independent film because I’ve got, I suppose, a certain level or profile or whatever that it can help an independent film, and so they’re more open to me playing the American characters. The first one was “Music Within” but you wouldn’t really know because you couldn’t hear him speak clearly, but then “Unthinkable” with Samuel Jackson was the first time I played a full-on American character. Yeah, and now “Beautiful Boy” and this, but playing an American in a Woody Allen film is a kind of seal of approval somehow, like “There you go. He can play American.”

CS: “Beautiful Boy” is a pretty tough movie to watch, and I almost saw it in Toronto, but they screened it right after “Rabbit Hole,” and I just couldn’t do two tough dramas back to back like that. It really seemed like it could be a tough movie to make.
Sheen:
It is and it isn’t in a way. The subject matter is very tough and difficult emotionally, but it’s written very well, I was working with Maria, which was great. We got on very well, and we enjoyed the process. I think sometimes people think because it’s very difficult emotional ground, that it must be a really difficult shoot. To be honest, it’s very often the other way around, it’s those ones that are the most enjoyable to do.

CS: But also because of the budget, one imagines you have to get through these really tough scenes very quickly.
Sheen:
But then the way it was shot with one camera, it was very handheld, we would do scenes where we literally didn’t know what the camera would be on at any given point. So, in another way, again, that makes it easier in some ways. You’re not doing endless takes and endless setups. It’s very free-flowing and very sort of improvisatory, so that was really enjoyable as well, as well as everyone on their game, but that really was fantastic.

CS: You mentioned doing more independent films, but you’re also doing these huge, huge movies like “Twilight” and “TRON,” and then television as well, so having all this variety now, is there any of that you’d want to do more of or continue to do these bigger movies?
Sheen:
It’s the combination. That’s what I enjoy really, is being able to do so many different types of things. That’s what I love about acting really, and I love the fact that it challenges me as an actor as well, so the idea of being able to go literally from doing “TRON” to doing “30 Rock” to doing Woody Allen to doing “Beautiful Boy” to doing “Twilight” or whatever, it’s that aspect that I really like. So it’s just hopefully being able to carry on doing that.

CS: What are you going to do next? I know you’ve been shooting the last “Twilight” movies and I imagine that’s almost done. Are you going back to theater now? Do you know what you’re going to do next?
Sheen:
Well, I’ve just finished doing something that I’ve been working on for two years called “The Passion,” which I did in my hometown which is one three-day performance that lasted nonstop for three days in my hometown, taking place all over the town with thousands of local people involved in that. I worked on it for two years, and we just did that over Easter. So I’m certainly getting more and more ambitious in what I am trying to do. (Laughs)

CS: Was that filmed?
Sheen:
It has been filmed, yeah, but it was a live piece that there’s a film record of it. So I just finished doing that. I’m going to be doing “Hamlet” at the end of the year back in London. I’m working on a film that hopefully I might direct next year, so yeah, I’m sort of getting into writing and directing and developing my own stuff now.

CS: Is that interest fairly new for you, the directing part of it?
Sheen:
Well, yes and no. I mean, I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’ve waited until I felt like the time is right, until the opportunity was right, until there was something I actively wanted to do. I’ve directed plays before and I’ve produced things, so I’ve wanted to move more and more into that, but I’ve had to kind of wait until the opportunity was there really. As the opportunity has become more available to me, then I want to make the most of it. That’s definitely the next sort of chapter of my career, I think, is that I’m going to do more of that kind of thing.

CS: Great, and you know a lot of actors I’m sure you can call upon and get involved in your movies.
Sheen:
Yeah, yeah, exactly. I’ve developed relationships with producers and studios and different people, so now it’s sort of going there, I’m going to make the most of that.

CS: Now you’re going to be on the other side, the guy who has to push to get financing and go through what all of your directors have to go through.
Sheen:
Yeah, and also I want to create parts for myself to play as well. It’s not for that, but I would love to get to a point where the things I’m acting in are the things that I’m also directing or writing or producing so that it becomes all one piece.

CS: I haven’t read “Breaking Dawn” yet, but I know you have a bigger part when you come back? Did you shave your beard to play Aro and then grew it back again?
Sheen:
Yeah, there has been a lot recently. Just don’t really like being clean-shaven, so I tend to sort of let it go, but “The Passion” that I did, I had a huge wild beard, a huge hat, so I just sort of had a bit of a trim for this. I have a shaved Aro and yeah, and the wig was on. What’s interesting is that each film that we do on the “Twilight” series, ’cause it has a new director, they always want to sort of change the look of it, so you have to keep a consistency obviously, but they like to change it up a little bit. I feel like this time I’m bit more Olivier in “Richard III.” That’s why I sort of introduced a bit more this time, the look, but no, it was great. There’s this extraordinary huge battle sequences in “Breaking Dawn 2,” which I’m kind of at the center of, so it feels like the whole of the filming was just one long scene that we worked on. I think it will take up like 20 minutes of the film or something. It’s a big sequence.

Midnight in Paris opens in select cities on Friday, while Shawn Ku’s Beautiful Boy opens on June 3rd.

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