Michael Sheen has been a British theatre mainstay for many years, but aside from his turn as Lucian, leader of the Lycans, in the 2003 action-thriller Underworld, he has mainly remained under the radar in the States.
That is, until now. In the last two months, it’s become almost impossible to ignore Sheen as he portrays British Prime Minister Tony Blair opposite Helen Mirren in Stephen Frears’ The Queen, the big buzz movie of the fall. He’s also been playing journalist David Frost in the hit London stageplay “Frost/Nixon” with Frank Langella as the late ex-president. By chance, both pieces were written by Peter Morgan, who’s been getting his own moment in the spotlight, thanks to the words he puts into Sheen’s mouth as he portrays these real people.
The connection to Morgan seemed as good a place as any to start when ComingSoon.net spoke with Sheen during a brief visit to New York City.
ComingSoon.net: How did you first meet Peter Morgan, who seems to be so involved in this moment that you’re having? Michael Sheen: Well, we did this thing called “The Deal” about three or four years ago, which I played Blair in. That was about the relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown, who has been his chancellor but will probably take over for Blair when Blair steps down. It’s about the incredibly complex relationship that they’ve had since Blair first got into politics. Stephen Frears was directing it and Peter Morgan wrote it. I’ve worked with Stephen years ago. First movie I ever did, I had a small part in a movie called “Marie Reilly.” I don’t think I burned into his brain necessarily from that, but Stephen’s casting director, a fantastic woman named Leo Davis, was at a play one night and I was watching it was well, and she came over and said, “Stephen’s making a love story about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and you should play Blair.” Well, that was the first time it ever occurred to me that I could play Tony Blair, but then Stephen called me and sort of sat there and looked me up and down, and went “Right! You’re my Blair!” and that was it.
CS: No audition, no preparation or research, nothing? Sheen: No, no, I just went in, we just had a chat, and that was it. Stephen just goes on instinct, and I think he trusts Leo so much that if Leo puts someone in front of him, he just trusts her. He was convinced enough to change the schedule of the film and everything to accommodate me, because when we did it, I played Blair in the day, I’d finish on the set at 6:00 and then there’d be a motorbike waiting for me outside. I’d jump on the back of the motorbike and get whisked across London to the theatre, where I was playing Caligula in the night. So I was going from one power mad leader to another.
CS: That must have been a very schizophrenic time in your life. But for “The Deal,” you were playing Blair at a different time in his life than in “The Queen” I assume. Sheen: That was very, very young Blair, before he became leader of the Labour Party. In fact, “The Queen” picks up almost where we leave off at the end of “The Deal” so you could watch both films straight through.
CS: Do you think Miramax will try to get “The Deal” released here in some form? Sheen: I hope so. I don’t think “The Deal” will travel as well as “The Queen” did, because the only character that anyone outside of Britain would know about is Blair. It’s much more about the internal wrangling of British politics. Maybe now, in the light of “The Queen” getting this attention
CS: Maybe “The Deal” could even be a DVD extra on “The Queen.” Sheen: Exactly. It would be great, because it would be lovely for people just to watch the Blair character go through both films.
CS: To play Blair in “The Queen,” you obviously have a lot of reference in terms of the live speeches he gave, TV appearances, etc. but how did you prepare for the original movie? Sheen: Well, it was hard. Obviously, there’s not as much TV footage of him. Very few little things when he first became a part of the Labour Party, so I watched all those obviously, but there’s a lot less to go on. It’s more about reading about the early days and talking to Peter, who interviewed a lot of people about it. And then, a lot more guesswork and imaginative license came into that, because we just don’t know as much about it.
CS: Have you had a chance to meet Tony Blair yet? Sheen: Not yet. It must be a weird thing for him at the moment, because this is a film about when he was at his most popular, at a time coming out when he’s at his least popular. I hope that he’d feel quite good about it. I think he’d probably have more ambivalent feelings about “The Deal” ’cause that’s a different thing. I haven’t met him, but a few days before we started shooting “The Queen,” I went back to my old drama school to give a talk to the students. Afterwards, one of the students came up to me and said she was meeting a friend later that night, and the friend would like to say hello, because I was “playing her Dad” next week.” And it was Katherine Blair, his daughter. In the film, she’s only about 8, but in real life, she was 17, so I started talking to her. I just had a costume fitting that day, and we’d been trying to work out what Blair should wear in bed. T-shirt? Boxer shorts? Pajamas? So of course, the first thing I said to Katherine was “So what does your Dad wear in bed?” Then I bombarded her with questions for about an hour.
CS: Do you know if Blair has seen either movie yet? Sheen: I’m sure he has, but he hasn’t said anything
CS: You’ve been playing so many real people on screen and on stage lately, so is it safe to assume that you enjoy that challenge? Sheen: It’s something I’ve come to enjoy doing. “The Deal” was the first time I ever had to play a real-life character, and because that was so successful in Britain, I guess people thought I can do that, so they started offering me other things. And it’s a great challenge. If someone is going to have a film made about them and it’s a real life character, it’s usually because there’s something incredibly interesting about them. They tend to be extreme people in some way, and that’s the sort of characters I like to play anyway. So you got all the normal challenges of just playing a character in a film that you would if it was a fictional character, then on top of that you have the familiarity that people have with that character, the expectations that people have with you to be like them. Then also, with someone like Blair, on top of that, the fact that people have such strong opinions about political figures, so people want you to give a bias towards it, so either do a hatchet job or be very sympathetic towards him, and you have to resist all that as much as possible. So yeah, all these real life characters I’ve been playing, I’ve really enjoyed it, but it comes as such a complete surprise, because I was always terrible at doing impersonations. I’ve never been able to do them, which seems weird after I’ve done all these characters. All I can do is concentrate on one person at one time and totally saturate myself with that person and then slowly over time, the wheels start to turn very slowly and I start to pick up on things about them. I couldn’t do Blair for you now.
CS: It may be easier for Americans to superimpose how we see Blair onto you because we don’t see him as much. Has Peter Morgan talked to you about possibly making this a Tony Blair triptych? Sheen: Yeah, we’ve always talked about it, and I think that Peter’s interested in it. He thinks that the major turning point for Blair in terms of his downfall, so to speak, is not to do a film about Iraq or the last days, but the film would be about the relationship between Blair and first Clinton and then Blair and Bush. It’s the aligning himself with Bush that is the moment and let the audience do the work. Peter talks about the fact that it’s Clinton who advised Blair to align himself with Bush after he became president. So that would be very interesting, that special relationship. They’d have to wait a few years for me to get older, because Tony’s looking a bit ravaged.
CS: I read that you helped Helen Mirren find a dialect coach for her role as The Queen. Sheen: I work with a woman called Penny Dyer on all the real-life characters I’ve played. We bumped into each other, me and Helen, in L.A. a couple months before we started working. I remember what I was like before we started doing “The Deal.” I was scared to death, thinking that I’m going to play this character that everybody knows, and obviously, Helen was feeling the same way. It reminded me of how I felt back then, and she said, “Have you got any advice on what to do?” and I said, “I think the best thing you can do is start working vocally as early as possible,” and I said I worked with this woman Penny Dyer and she’s brilliant, and you should start having one or two sessions with her, so that it doesn’t feel like much later on that you’re putting a voice on top. You need to do all the work at the same time, so it feels much more organic. So that’s what she did.
CS: And then you ended up only having two scenes in the movie with her. Sheen: Exactly! I know, it’s so weird, isn’t it? We do the bookend scenes, and when we came to film them, we did one on one day and one the next day, so in fact over the whole filming, we spent two days together. And yet, all those conversations we had on the telephones, there’s such a journey between the first scene and the last scene, and yet it’s all done over the telephone. There was one scene where we both thought it to be important for us to be in same room doing it, the scene where the Queen goes into the kitchen and sends all the staff out and then speaks to me on the telephone. Originally, the schedule was such that she would be filming in London, while I was in Los Angeles, so we were going to do it so that I was on my cellphone in my living room at like 4:00 in the morning, and we’d do the scene live over the telephone, while she was being filmed. Eventually, it didn’t work out like that, so in that scene, unbeknownst to anyone else, the only place where I could sit in order to do the off-lines for Helen and not be in shot or in anyone’s way was 20 foot in the air on top of a cupboard with the ceiling pushing on top of my head sitting cross-legged doing the lines for her. So at least I was there for her.
CS: Did she do the lines for you when you were doing your scenes on the phone? Sheen: She couldn’t, but it was just the fact that we done it that one time together, so when I came to do it
CS: You had a 300 lb stagehand reading her lines. Sheen: Exactly. Dressed up as the Queen. Very strange and a bit Norman Bates. Stephen Frears put a wig on for me.
CS: What do you think of the Oscar buzz surrounding the movie? It started pretty big with Helen, but now people are noticing other things and moving over to you. You’ve won a number of acting awards in England for theatre already, but has Helen given you any tips on dealing with Oscar madness? Sheen: Not really. The main bit of advice that Helen has given is the best advice that you could give which is to “just enjoy it,” because it’s very rare that you’re in a film that everybody seems to enjoy. She said, “Make the most of it now because you spend a lot of your time in films that maybe there’s good things about it or bad things or maybe it’s just awful or people are split on it, and it’s very, very rare that you get to sit down with people who genuinely enjoy the movie that you’ve done, that you enjoyed making it and that everyone enjoys talking about it.” So that’s the main thing, I think. With everything else, any awards that come along for our film are going to help. It’s a small budget film, and we need to get people to see it, so that would help enormously. And of course, it would help people’s individual careers and all that. It’s just all very exciting at the moment.
CS: Okay, so let’s talk about “Frost/Nixon,” which is getting just as much buzz and excitement as well as many sold out shows. Sheen: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s again the Peter Morgan connection, because it’s Peter’s first stageplay, and it seems to have the same sort of qualities as “The Queen” in that it’s about big, important themes and subjects, but done in a very accessible way where there’s a lot of humor and everyone’s very humanized in it. And he somehow manages to grasp people’s attention. It’s got a real page-turner feel to it, and he’s done the same thing with the play. It’s become a huge, HUGE hit in London, and we’re going to be coming here with it as well in end of March, beginning of April, we’re going to be doing it on Broadway. It’s really exciting.
CS: I haven’t seen it yet, of course, but does it just reenact the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon? Sheen: No, a lot of people think they’re going to come to the theatre and see me and Frank Langella sitting there doing these interviews. Frank Langella plays Nixon, and he’s amazing. It starts with Nixon’s resignation, and then it tells the whole story from where Frost was watching the resignation, got the idea that maybe he’d like to interview Nixon and then all the dealings with Swifty Lazar and all the deals, and the fact that Frost had to put his own money into it because everyone was against it. Then towards the end of the play, you start seeing the interviews.
CS: That’s a pretty amazing idea. I think Peter Morgan’s next big project should be to just retell the entire history of the world from the beginning. Sheen: (laughs) He’s the man to do it! Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right.
CS: Of course, the big deal surrounding the play is that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer picked it up to make it into a film that Ron wants to direct. Have their people contacted your people to have you do the movie as well? Sheen: I don’t know. I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but hopefully I’ll be playing Frost in the movie. It was extraordinary because at the Donmar, where we did the first run of the play, it’s a tiny theatre that holds 200 or 300 people, so you can see everyone in the audience. After “The Queen” was at the Venice Film Festival, for the next two weeks, at every performance there was another huge Hollywood player in the audience. Peter had said that he was only going to sell it to someone who came over and watched the play. That was amazing ’cause you had people like Ron and Harvey [Weinstein] and all kinds of people coming over. It was really exciting for us in the theatre. Ron’s bought it for Universal and Imagine, and hopefully, they’ll be making it sort of the end of next year.
CS: How do you feel about turning plays into movies? It’s something that’s often hard to do in an interesting fashion. Sheen: Yeah, it is. I think that if anyone can do it, Peter can, in terms of a screenwriter. He’s now going to do the screenplay version of his own play, and given that it’s his first play and he’s got more experience writing films and TV stuff, then hopefully, that transition will be a lot easier. The harder thing will be for him to write a play that works well as a theatrical piece and he’s managed to do that, so turning it into a film hopefully won’t be as difficult. I think with a director like Ron Howard and a producer like Brian Grazer, you’re in safe hands. You know that they know what they’re doing and they know how to make it into a good film piece. They obviously saw something that they thought would work as a film, so hopefully, it will work really well.
CS: You’re also appearing in Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” which comes out in December? Sheen: Yeah, yeah, I play the British diamond dealer that Leo [DiCaprio] has to sell this rogue diamond to, so I’m sort of a shady businessman. They shot all ’round Africa and I went to Capetown, and we also filmed in London.
CS: I recently spoke to Yul Vazquez, an amazing New York actor, and he told me about this movie “Music Within” that you did together, too. Sheen: Right, yeah. I’m going to see it when I get back to L.A. next week, and I’m really excited about seeing it. It’s a small movie but it’s a great story and I again play a real-life character. I play a guy called Art Honeyman, who’s a poet with severe cerebral palsy. The extraordinary thing about that is that I actually got to hang out with him while making the film. He’s in his 60s now, and he took me around Portland. The weird thing like with Blair, I know that Blair’s going to watch the film, but he’s not there in front of me while I’m doing it. So that’s the one thing, knowing that the person you’re playing is going to see it, then you’ve got Frost, who’s actually been into the theatre twice to watch it. That’s kind of weird, being up there doing it and seeing the man you’re playing sitting there as you do it. Another thing again is playing Art, where when I wasn’t filming, on my days off, we’d just spend the days together, so that was another extraordinary experience, just to be with the person.
CS: Did you get a chance to talk to Frost after the show? Sheen: Yeah, yeah. He was very gracious and generous about it, and I said to him, “It must be really strange to be sitting there watching someone being you, playing out one of the most important events of your life.” And he said [goes into an amazing impression of Frost], “In the words of Yogi Berra, it was like déjà vu all over again.” But I never heard of Yogi Berra, so I thought he said Yogi Bear, and he’s an infinitely more humorous person to quote.
CS: We can’t end this interview without talking about your other big role, that of Lucian from “Underworld.” I spoke to Len Wiseman earlier this year, and he mentioned wanting to do a prequel, though he’s now off doing “Die Hard 4.” At this point in your career, would you still want to go back and play Lucian again? Sheen: Oh, yeah, absolutely! I love playing that character. It’s great, and I’m always amazed by how popular the character is with people who are into that sort of genre thing. It always makes me laugh. At my local pub in London, there used to be a young guy who worked there, and I remember walking in at one time when he only started working there, and he freaked out because he suddenly realized I was Lucian from “Underworld.” He couldn’t believe “Lucian” was in this pub, and he said, “Could you wait around because my boss looks like a werewolf and I want to see the two of you have a werewolf fight!” It’s an incredibly popular character, so I think the idea is that we’re trying to work out the whole idea of doing a third film. It would be a prequel and it would be about Lucian, the third film. Hopefully, we’ll get that together.
CS: It’s not strange jumping between this serious theatre stuff and more genre-based movies? Sheen: No, it’s sort of what I’ve done my whole career. I like to be able to jump around in that way. If you get the opportunity to do that, it’s an actor’s dream to be able to play Blair one minute, Frost the next minute, and then Lord of the Werewolves the next. It’s great! They do start to blur into one another after a bit.
You can catch Michael Sheen as Blair in The Queen, now playing in select cities with an almost guaranteed expansion down the road.