September 18 2010: The actor is back playing the former Prime Minister, has cracked Hollywood and is now set for Hamlet
When Michael Sheen met Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister looked the actor up and down. He insisted that he hadn’t seen either The Deal, in which Sheen played Blair making a pact with Gordon Brown about the Labour leadership, or The Queen, which examines the relationship between Blair and the monarch after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
They met in Los Angeles shortly before Sheen began shooting The Special Relationship, about Blair’s bromance with Bill Clinton. What did Sheen make of Blair? He laughs. “I talked to him for only a short time. I felt as though I was being kept away from him for the rest of the night. I did talk to his staff though; it was interesting getting a sense of him through them. And just being able to watch him in a room, interacting with people.”
I remember seeing Blair give a talk in Brixton on the eve of the 1997 general election and being struck by his charisma. Sheen sidesteps. “He was very relaxed. If a politician was designed by Ralph Lauren, it would be him. Denim shirt, laid-back, charming, a bit rugged. He seemed very … happy. He knew about The Special Relationship; he said, ‘You’re doing a film about me and Bill. I hope you’re not going to make it look as though Bill had all the fun.’ It was an intriguing thing to say, but I didn’t follow it up.”
It is an odd thing for Blair to say. The Special Relationship doesn’t, in fact, show either leader having much fun. It follows Blair as a desperately ambitious young politician arriving in Washington DC in the early Nineties for his first meeting with President Clinton, through the disruption of peace in Northern Ireland, the Monica Lewinsky affair and on to the crisis in Kosovo. The film has already been criticised by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy, who recently complained that when dramatised accounts of real events are mixed with real footage, people start to think both are real.
Yet no one involved in The Special Relationship has pretended that these are anything but fictionalised accounts. Peter Morgan, who wrote all three of the Blair films, has always been open about making up undocumented dialogue — as he has pointed out, there are no transcripts of the conversations had by Tony and Cherie or Bill and Hillary in their respective homes. There are some amusing private moments in The Special Relationship (Clinton’s constant snacking comes to mind), but the finale, in which Blair’s focus sharply shifts from Bill Clinton to George Bush, is damning.
Sheen, who clearly wants to remain as neutral as possible, simply says “yeah” and “mmm” when I say this. He is too clever to be directly drawn on the simple question of whether or not he actually likes — or ever liked — Blair. We are in a private room at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in London, where a preview of The Special Relationship is to screen to a public audience. Sheen looks like any modern bloke of 41: dark T-shirt, dark unfitted jacket, brown cords, blue Converses. His hair, cut shortish, is just beginning to curl.
His Welsh accent is soft and, although I wasn’t expecting him to be like Blair, Brian Clough or Kenneth Williams just because he has portrayed them all so brilliantly on screen, I am surprised that he is so approachable. I don’t ask, but I imagine that his dad, who is a part-time Jack Nicholson impersonator, is more of a show-off than his son. Michael’s apparent ordinariness — and I mean this in the best possible sense; he has a certain muted alpha male presence and certainly doesn’t blend into the background — is particularly surprising given the fact that he is now a global movie star.
While we haven’t been looking it seems that Sheen has become a proper Hollywood star. The Deal gave him his breakthrough role here and The Queen did the same in the United States. Frost/Nixon, in which he gave David Frost just the right balance of light and dark, put him up against the might of Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon — much as The Queen positioned him opposite an equally dominant Helen Mirren. Yet in both he was not only believable but also hugely watchable and didn’t, as a lesser talent may have done, fall into the shadows of those more experienced actors.
Yet, as we were admiring Sheen’s versions of real people — he caught perfectly the fastidiousness of Kenneth Williams in the BBC drama Fantabulosa! and the bluff arrogance of Clough in The Damned United — he had his eye on fantasy roles. He played a royal vampire in The Twilight Saga: New Moon and will reprise the role in the next instalment, Breaking Down. He got buff for last year’s Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, in which, as leader of the werewolves, he sliced down Bill Nighy. He will appear, on Boxing Day, in Disney’s 3-D digital adventure TRON: Legacy.
Sheen is not in the least bit embarrassed by these fantasy blockbusters. Far from it. “I’m known for my drama-based films — which are supposedly serious pieces of work — but my taste is much more biased towards the sci-fi genre. I’ve really enjoyed being able to do both genres. I didn’t even have to audition for New Moon or TRON; the producers liked my work and offered me the job.”
I ask how he came to appear in four episodes of 30 Rock this year. “Tina Fey [the creator and star] had written this British character and they got in touch, asking if I’d be interested. I think they thought I wasn’t going to be interested, but I just jumped at it because I love the show. It’s so brilliantly written and such fun to do.”
Sheen’s new level of success probably has something to do with his recent move to Los Angeles. Most British actors move there to get work; Sheen moved to be closer to his 11-year-old daughter, Lily. When he separated from Lily’s mother, the actress Kate Beckinsale, she took their daughter to Los Angeles while he stayed in London. Then the 11-hour commute became too much and he found a place in Los Angeles. His Twitter page may describe his location as “all over the place”, and he still calls London home — his partner, a dancer called Lorraine Stewart, still lives there — but he is mainly in America these days.
I ask if he finds the West Coast film industry ultra-slick, professional and polished. “Are you saying I’m not any of those things?” He laughs. “It’s much more of a business, I guess. I definitely wouldn’t have moved to LA if Lily wasn’t there. And I had to have something to do during the day, when she was at school. I couldn’t just sit around!” He is serious again. “At the beginning I cared too much about whether or not I was in Alien v Predator and then I let go of the idea of being in mainstream films. At which point, weirdly, I started getting offered roles in mainstream films.”
And now Sheen has three American films coming out this year — TRON; a Columbine-type story called Beautiful Boy and, curiously, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue — and another two next year. He plans to join the current trend for British actors of a certain age to play Hamlet — his portrayal will be at the Young Vic next winter — and he is also staging an ambitious version of Passion of the Christ in his home town of Port Talbot next Easter. He has just visited the tiny German village of Oberammergau to see how it’s done. “Every ten years since 1634 they’ve been putting on the Passion Play, initially to protect them from the plague and now as a tradition.”
He hopes to use local actors, professional and amateur; he can’t promise fellow Port Talbot lad Anthony Hopkins, but he does say that his good friend Rob Brydon is already on board. He might even spread the geographical net slightly wider to include Ruth Jones, who is from Porthcawl because they were in the National Youth Theatre of Wales together. “Rob’s parents go to church with my parents, but I’ve only got to know him well more recently. Ruth I’ve known since we were teenagers.”
Until he was 14, Sheen was going to be a footballer; he was even spotted by an Arsenal scout, but his father thought he was too young. Michael himself says that he never knew what to do with his head when he was playing football. I initially take this to mean that he was useless at headers, until he corrects me. “I didn’t know what to do with my brain. I’d be running around the pitch making up elaborate sentence constructions. Sounds a bit odd now . . .”
It does indeed. It’s just as well he found an outlet for his restless intellect. As a member of the Port Talbot youth theatre, he saw a run-through of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and it changed his life. “I’d never really watched a play before. It left a huge, indelible impression on me. I was utterly seduced by it. And I’ve never forgotten that moment; I always give everything to acting because I remind myself I could have that effect on someone else. I find it hard doing long runs of plays because I find it almost impossible not to give everything.”
Sheen admits to being driven — and fussy; he is a voice actor in Tinker Bell only because of Lily — but he has learnt when to say no. In 2003 he was shooting The Deal by day and appearing in Caligula at the Donmar Warehouse at night. A motorbike would pick him up from the film set, take him to the theatre and, if he was lucky, he got four or five hours sleep before filming started again.
“Sometimes the motorbike would take me past RADA, where I trained, and I’d remind myself of how lucky I was. I was doing exactly what I’d dreamt of doing but it was ridiculous. Stupid.”
He pulls a face. Sheen is his own worst critic. He is happy to put in the hours but never to compromise. He gets cross when people expect him to look like the people he has portrayed on screen. “I get quite offended when people say I look like Blair. I put a lot of work into it! It’s not something that comes easily. I try to make it look easy but it really does involve a huge amount of work.”
If he sees snatches of The Deal, he cringes. “My portrayal of Blair was flawed. Dave [Morrissey, who played Brown] and I were both really rattled by it. It was the first time I’d played a real person and, compared with what I’ve done since, my Blair looks like a caricature.”
At a Q&A after the BFI screening of The Special Relationship, Morgan says he is not yet finished with Blair; he wants to do one more film about his tumble from popularity before the Iraq War. Sheen, able to sidestep awkward questions just like a politician, won’t commit; nor will he say that he’s had enough of Blair.
I speak to Sheen on the phone a week or so later. He’s just been hanging out with Hopkins and Brydon at the Toronto Film Festival, where he was promoting Beautiful Boy. He’s tired but happy. He’s got the career he dreamt of and a daughter he sees all the time. Having seen Robert Pattinson struggle with fame, Sheen is glad that he can still be anonymous more often than not.
And then, quite unexpectedly, he starts to laugh. It’s a low, naughty laugh. “The thing is, I have just the right amount of recognition. But I have heard that when Tony Blair comes to America, people think he’s me. They tell him how much they enjoyed him in The Queen. I’m not making it up. It’s hilarious. I love the idea of Blair being mistaken for me.”
He’s on a roll now. “Perhaps, when he denies it, people think he’s a Michael Sheen lookalike; everyone in America used to think I was a Tony Blair lookalike.” And then he is momentarily cross again. “And I don’t look anything like Blair!”
The Special Relationship is on BBC Two today, 9.30pm
Politics on screen: five of the best
It seems a little quaint now, giving the part to Ben Kingsley
A brilliant Liam Neeson helps to give us a crash course in Irish history
Anthony Hopkins’s brooding monster is more than a match for Langella’s
Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley
An hypnotic prortayal of the Iron Lady by Andrea Riseborough
Young Mr Lincoln
John Ford’s direction and Henry Fonda’s looks turned Abraham Lincoln a sort of saintly icon
The tricky part about mixing politics and drama is that drama has to be exciting enough to make you keep watching. In real life, politics has minutes of excitement and months of tedium. And that’s if you have got some actual power. If you haven’t, you perform much the same function as a doily on a banqueting table — for decoration only, fulfilling no obvious purpose, and regarded by most people as a little tawdry.
You only have to read the diaries of politicians — Alan Clark was one, Chris Mullin another — who were too far from real power to feel that they were changing the world, yet close enough to it to appreciate just how impotent they were compared to the insiders who really pulled the levers, to see that political life — for many politicians — is less eventful than being, say, a busy plumber. And, like academia, far bitchier than it ought to be for a profession driven by an ambition to make the world a better place.
There’s comedy in that (Yes Minister,The Thick of It and Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons). And a certain amount of dramatic cinematic mileage. But not too much.
So it is because of slick scriptwriters — who have made heroes of presidents like The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet — that we see politicians as men of principle and passion rather than as men who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power on the premise that those who crave power are the very people who shouldn’t be allowed near it.
One reason for why we have been seduced is that we know more about their lives. Who knew what went on in Harold Macmillan’s mind? But because modern politicians sell themselves on chat shows, because we know all the details of George Bush’s wayward youth and about the Blairs’ contraceptive arrangements, politicians have developed a media personality, however confected and inaccurate it might be.
The highest-profile politicians of today are already halfway along the road to being reality show characters. From there, it is just a short step to moulding them into beguiling stars on screen. Paradoxically, it is because Sarah Palin became such a joke through Saturday Night Live that she grew so powerful as a politician and, as a consequence, a media phenomenon that was of greater interest to dramatists. What might, only a few years ago, have turned into a vicious circle for her has turned into a virtuous one. Politics takes unexpected turns sometimes; both on and off the screen.