Michael Sheen is looking pretty spiffy in his fine-tailored suit as he finishes signing posters for his new movie The Damned United in a Toronto press office before our interview with him. We’ve shown up to talk to him about his latest take on a real life person, something Sheen has become quite proficient at doing, having played Tony Blair (three times) and British talk show host David Frost, both in the stage and screen versions of Frost/Nixon. We certainly weren’t expecting to feel particularly underdressed for the interview.
This time around, the Welsh-born actor who turned 40 earlier this year is playing Brian Clough, the brash loud-mouthed British football manager who spent years taking his team Derby County from the bottom rungs of the lower league to the very top in order to face their arch-rivals, Leeds United. Years later, Clough’s arrogance would be his undoing when he got a job managing Leeds and the players he insulted for years refused to play well for him.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the man behind hit HBO movies and mini-series like “Longford” and “John Adams,” it’s another terrific spotlight for Sheen’s talents at bringing charisma to every role, but he has a great supporting cast in Tim Spall as Clough’s right hand man Peter Taylor and Colm Meaney as his arch-rival Don Revie, the previous manager of Leeds, as well as Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham and Peter McDonald.
Last November, when ComingSoon.net sat down with Michael Sheen and his frequent collaborator Peter Morgan–you can read that here–they talked briefly about the project, but up at the Toronto International Film Festival, we had more time to talk to Sheen specifically about his take on Clough, as well as some of his upcoming high profile movies like New Moon and Tron Legacy.
ComingSoon: So I remember talking with you and Peter back last year, and at the time I didn’t know the story about you having read the book by David Peace and suggesting that Peter adapt it. Sheen: No, I didn’t say to Peter that we should do it. Stephen Frears was the instigator of it all. I was doing “Frost/Nixon” on stage in London still so yeah, it was when we were still at the Donmar. I don’t even think we’d even opened so that was really early on. Stephen came to see it and me and Stephen went out for dinner and Stephen said, “I’ve found your next part.” I said, “Like what?” He said, “I’m reading this book called ‘The Damned United’ and it’s about Brian Clough.” I went and read the book and Stephen had also then told Peter about it, so he came to us both, and then we started talking about what shape the script could be and what the story would be and things like that.
CS: He seems like an instigator. He just gets movies started and then walks away from them. Sheen: Yeah, exactly. He does that a lot.
CS: What did you like about the character? When you take on a movie about a real person like this, do you see it as a challenge to try to find a different side of yourself or do you see it more as something you know you can do because it fits with part of your own personality? Sheen: Well, there’s a combination of things. With this character it was a challenge in that he’s so well known in Britain. I mean, any of these real-life people seems like a huge challenge to me because I don’t do impersonations. I can’t do impersonations. Then the idea of trying to become this person is just a challenge in itself, but especially him who was so well known and so well loved and had such a very particular personality. The challenges were not to do a caricature, to kind of inhabit him rather than to actually caricature. On the other hand, it was also because he had all the qualities that make for a great film character. He’s charismatic, fun, outrageous, angry, kind of edgy, unpredictable, dangerous, all those sort of things. So I knew that it would be a great character to play.
CS: I’m not sure how it is in Toronto, but at least in America, I’m guessing no one has heard of this guy, although he’s probably as infamous a manager as Billy Martin in the U.K. I even read that his name is used in Cockney rhyming slang, which is pretty amazing. How can Americans approach this movie, realizing they’re not even as into football as other countries? Sheen: Yeah, well I think in the same way as you didn’t have to be into politics to enjoy “Frost/Nixon,” you don’t have to be into football to enjoy this film really. As far as the character is concerned, I think he just sorta speaks for himself really. I think within the structure of the film, upfront you get sort of who he is. Very early on you get that. On his first day, he’s turning up and the way he behaves on that first day, you kinda know where he is character-wise. I think the film takes you through it, so I don’t think you have to know anything before you come in really.
CS: Yeah, I don’t think so either. Obviously, this started with a book, but you must have seen him on TV before. Did Peter take a lot from the book or did Peter throw in some other things he found out on his own? Sheen: Well, the book is much, much darker than the film and the book all takes place inside Clough’s head.
CS: But it wasn’t written by him. It was fictionalized. Sheen: Oh, it’s a fictionalization of him by a writer called David Peace, and he did a fictionalization of the period of time that the film deals with. Because it’s all inside Clough’s head, it’s a very obsessive, dark, angry, bitter kind of really horrible kind of atmosphere in the book. And it’s brilliant, it’s a brilliant piece of writing, but it’s not necessarily representative of all the facets of Brian Clough as a man. In Britain, when you talk about Brian Clough, people just immediately start smiling and laughing and telling stories that they’ve heard about him. He’s sort of this myth. He’s like a folk hero almost like, so Peter put more of that in.
CS: A lot of it came from his television appearances because he appeared on television a lot and he was very outspoken. Sheen: He was everywhere. He was such a star. He was the perfect chat show host. Everyone wanted to get his opinion on everything ’cause he was always funny, always witty, always outrageous. So, yeah, there’s so much footage of him to watch and so many quotes and he used to write columns. He was a pundit on football shows, he was interviewed on the big “Parkinson Show.” Frost interviewed him. Everyone wanted a bit.
CS: It would’ve been interesting to see that scene in the movie. Sheen: It is in the movie, you just don’t see Frost. I do an interview with him. On the DVD I think that’s come out in Britain recently they show the whole of that interview, me doing it, but the whole of it.
CS: That would’ve been very strange if you had done the scene with you playing both characters. Sheen: Yeah, well the very first bit of research I did was just go on YouTube and put in Clough’s name and the first thing that came up was the interview between Frost and Clough. I just finished doing “Frost/Nixon” the day before.
CS: That’s pretty cool. Did you get in touch with his family or friends? I know you did a lot of research. Sheen: Yeah, well, Clough’s family didn’t like the book.
CS: I can imagine. Sheen: Rightfully, I think they felt that if there’s gonna be a film or a book about Clough, you want it to be about his achievements because he achieved so many incredible things that nobody’s ever done before or will ever do again. I think they were concerned that the book concentrated on the 44 days of non-achievement. So consequently they were very, very wary of the film. We offered them to read the script and then subsequently, private screenings of the film for them, but they just didn’t want to know and I think they just felt like, “Well, it’s going to be the same as the book and it’s going to be horrible.” I hope that since then, people close to them have seen the film and said, “Look, it’s not like that at all.”
CS: Did it open in England already? Sheen: Yeah, it opened a while ago, yeah.
CS: How has the reaction been there? Sheen: Really positive. Yeah, ’cause all the football fans are really into it and then I think people were very surprised that you didn’t need to be a football fan or into football to enjoy it. So it’s sort of had a really great reaction.
CS: One of the achievements you talk about it is pretty incredible, and we see so many sports movies that are embellished, so it seems so incredible that he could train his team to beat Leeds and then turn around and become their manager. Do you think it was his arrogance that led to his downfall? Sheen: I mean, it’s a story of hubris really, isn’t it? A big motivating factor for me in terms of the character was the fact that he was a player first, and he was a prolific goal scorer, and he was injured early on in his career, and that brought it to an end. So I always feel like he has a bit of a Brando about him in that since that point he had a kind of disrespect for what he did, because he always wanted to be a player, not a manager. So him having to spend his time with teams watching people doing what he wanted to still be doing gave him sort of a danger and a recklessness in the way he did what he did. In the same way as Brando kind of always used to say, “Acting is rubbish,” and he’d just take risks. I think Clough did the same thing and it gave him that same sort of unpredictability and spontaneity. Yeah, so when he was younger, even before he got injured, he felt very hard done by football management, so from then on I think he had a bit of a vendetta against the manager. All these battles that he has with the Chairman and the Board of Governors, I think it’s partly because he felt that they are symbolic of the people who did him down and made him feel terrible. Even before he got injured he was still arrogant and pig-headed and all of other players on his team used to sort of not like him, because he used to boss ’em around and say how great he was. So he already had those qualities in him. I think the combination of that kind of arrogance and self-belief and confidence. He was very intelligent, very bright, and then this kind of added desire for revenge I think all combined together to make him the person he was really–very ambitious, very driven and a man who manipulates the media like nobody else had ever done before really.
CS: Also the relationship with his assistant Peter Taylor is interesting. Now is Peter still alive or has he passed away also? Sheen: Peter Taylor? Peter Taylor died before Clough did, yeah.
CS: I was curious about their relationship, because the scenes between you and Tim Spall are pretty amazing and I was wondering where Peter was able to get that stuff from? Sheen: Well yeah, ’cause Taylor kept very much out of the spotlight. I mean, the whole way it worked was the perfect combination was that Clough was… I think Taylor says it in the film when he says, “Yeah, you’re the shop window, but I’m the goods in the back,” which is a very good way of putting it because Clough was the kind of razzle-dazzle. He was the one who put up the front and did the media stuff and Taylor was the guy in the back who was very shy, but he was the one who could see where they need to get players from and how they all fit together. So there’s not much footage of Taylor. There’s a lot of documentation, like Taylor wrote a book. There’s been all kinds of stuff written about him.
CS: Did you have any kind of football background yourself? You do show a few moves in the movie. Sheen: Yeah, well I was gonna be a football player before I was an actor. Yeah, I was offered an apprenticeship with Arsenal Football Club when I was 12.
CS: Wow, that’s impressive. Sheen: Yeah, so I seriously was good.
CS: You still had the moves apparently, so do you still play at all? Sheen: Yeah, I play now and again. It’s harder now that I’m busier.
CS: I’m always interested in actors’ choices, especially from talking to you so many times over the years. You’ve kind of been jumping between these very real people and these completely, fantastical insane things. You have “Twilight,” you have “Tron,” you have “Alice in Wonderland,” and you can’t get any more fantastical than that. And just recently, you went back to playing Tony Blair again. Can you talk about making that jump back and forth? Sheen: Well, I guess maybe one goes with the other somehow. Films like “Tron” and “Alice in Wonderland,” these are things I can’t imagine anyone saying no to doing regardless. I’m sure there’s a connection between how specific and how rooted in reality the stuff is that I do with Peter, then to be able to just go to the other extreme with this other stuff is great, to be able to just let my imagination fly as well.
CS: Are you just going out to a green screen set for most of those movies? Sheen: Well, with “Alice” it was different because I just do the voice for that. They film me as well to get movements and all that kind of stuff.
CS: Did they do the performance capture sensors and everything? Sheen: No, no. It’s just very basic ’cause all the animal characters in “Alice” are animated and all the human characters are real humans, so Johnny and Helena and people like that are all playing real people, but then Tim Spall does the voice of someone and Stephen Fry does the voice of someone. But we’re all characters like the caterpillar.
CS: Did you actually go on set and interact with the others? Sheen: No, no, I was just doing all the voice work really. I mean, Tim said, “Come down on set and have a look.”
CS: So they just filmed you. Sheen: Yeah, as I was doing the voice they were filming me as well to get facial movements and stuff, but not as exact as the animated stuff.
CS: With “Tron” are you involved in the computer world or are you on the outside? Sheen: No, I’m in the computer world, yeah, I’m in the “Tron” world. That was amazing because there’s a lot of green screen in that, but my stuff was mainly in this amazing set they built, ’cause I’m a night club host, so they built the night club and there was hundreds of extras and it was one of those great scenes where there’s just loads going on.
CS: I was really impressed with that short demo they did that was shown at Comic-Con the last few years. Sheen: Joe did that to get Disney to give the okay to make the film, so Joe now says that he doesn’t like people seeing that because it’s moved on so much from that. Now it looks awesome.
CS: I’ve seen some of the artwork and it looks really impressive. I also wanted to ask about “The Special Relationship.” Last time we spoke Peter was going to direct that, so I assume you’ve finished shooting it already? Sheen: Yeah, we finished like two weeks ago I think.
CS: How’d it go compared to the other two movies? Do you feel it’s gonna fit in as part of a trilogy? Sheen: Well, it’s very different, but each one has been different. In some ways it’s more like “The Deal” I guess, the first one. “The Queen” in a way was a simpler story I suppose in some ways, and this has got a bit more complexity to it, maybe a bit like “The Deal” did. Well, it’s got a good mixture of both I think, and it covers a much larger period of time as well ’cause “The Deal” was just up until Blair became leader of the Labor Party, before he became Prime Minister, and then “The Queen” obviously is just one week. “The Special Relationship” goes from the same time that “The Deal” is set right through to Bush getting in, so it’s about four or five years, the period of time.
CS: How is Dennis doing as Bill ’cause he kind of did a bit of a Bush impression in “American Dreamz” by one of the Weitz brothers, so how is he as Clinton? Sheen: Great, yeah. I mean, he’s very convincing as Clinton with all the hair and makeup stuff he looks great and he’s got the voice and all that. Yeah, he’s terrific.
CS: Do you have anything else that you’re going to be shooting next? Sheen: I’m doing a film called “Beautiful Boy.” We’re shooting it in Los Angeles in November. It’s a very small independent film, a first-time director. He’s written it as well, and it’s about the parents of a kid who goes into a school and shoots (people) and then kills himself. It’s about the parents and how they sort of deal with it afterward.
CS: Wow, so that’s going to be a big change as well. Sheen: Hm, yeah. Me and Maria Bello. Yeah, and then “New Moon” comes out in November and “Alice,” “Tron,” “Unthinkable”…
CS: You’re gonna be pretty busy, especially if you do press for all of those. Do you see the character you’re playing in “New Moon” as an ongoing one that we might see in some of the other movies? Sheen: Yeah, there are four books and so they’ve made the first one, the second one’s about to come out which I’m in. The third one they’re filming now, but I’m not in that one and then the fourth one, which I guess they’ll make. I can’t see why they wouldn’t. I’m in that one, so that one, I guess I’ll do that next year.
CS: Did you go back and read all the books when you got the part to see what happens to your character in future movies? Sheen: Yeah, well my research is to read all the stuff about it.
CS: At this point, do you want to continue doing more fantastical stuff or try to find more stories based on real life? Sheen: I would never have planned to do all the real life stuff. It’s literally if a good script comes along then I want to do that. It’s not because I want to play real people; it’s just I want it to be good scripts, good stories. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sort of fantastical thing or a real life.
The Damned United opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 9. You can watch five clips from the film here.