Written by Judy Sloane Thursday, 24 September 2009 14:40
We catch up with Michael Sheen to talk about The Damned United and upcoming projects Alice in Wonderland, Tron and Twilight: New Moon...
Welsh-born Michael Sheen is slowly but surely making a name for himself as one of the UK's hottest actors, and his ability to turn his hand to seemingly any genre have seen him star in everything fro werewolf franchise Underworld to critically acclaimed real life dramas like The Queen and Frost/Nixon and his latest, The Damned United to forthcoming mega movies Alice in Wonderland, Tron and Twilight: New Moon. Despite his manic schedule, he found time to sit down with us to chat about football, white rabbits, CGI and vampires...
You've played so many real-life figures, including Tony Blair, David Frost and now Brian Clough. How do you prepare for these roles?
The process is always the same in terms of the work I do beforehand. I’ll start with just watching the person and I’ll find one book and I’ll start reading because you’ve got to start somewhere! Then I’ll start watching footage. There’s a team of researchers who put together all the footage for me and find all the stuff. Then I slowly start working my way through everything that exists about the person. I’ll sort of compile all that and then that becomes my kind of talisman in research that I’ll just go back over that.
With Brian, what I found was that for a man who was famous for being the epitome of arrogance and self confidence and self believe, the thing that surprised me was how little self confidence he actually had, how little self belief, how much he had to achieve things in order to boost up his feeling of self-belief. There’s some sort of never ending hunger for something that can never be fulfilled. I think with Brian it was the fact that he was stopped from doing what he wanted to do when he was a younger man. He was a player and that was his dream and that dream was cut short and I don't think he ever really accepted that. So there was always this kind of frustrated resentment in him.
Do you have any memory of Brian Clough yourself?
Well when he was at Leeds in 1974 I was five, so I don’t remember that. But he went on, his greatest achievements were after this. He went on, he found Nottingham Forest. They were in the bottom of the second division or something and he took them not only to the top of the first division but into Europe and they won the European Cup twice, two years in a row, so what he achieved there was unprecedented and never done again. So I remember that. That’s what I kind of grew up with. And I suppose also the later Clough where the alcohol took its grip on him more and more, he became more ravaged and bloated looking and he became in some ways quite a tragic figure.
Are you a big football fan?
Not as big as I used to be! When I was a kid, that was all I cared about was football. All I wanted to do was be a football player. When I was a kid, if I wasn’t at school, I’d be playing football in the street or in the football field next to me. Even when I was at school, every time there was a break, I’d be playing football and talking about it and getting football stickers and filling up albums and all that kind of stuff. Then when I was 12, I got offered the possibility of going to play for Arsenal, the youth team, and then coming through. Oh look, I’m doing it now. [rubbing his eye]. I lived in a small town in Wales and it would’ve meant my whole family having to go and live in London so my dad said, “No, if you’re still interested when you’re 16 then you can go then.” But it’s too late when you’re 16. You have to go when you’re much younger. And also I was into other thing by then like girls, drinking and acting.
Where do you start with your preparations when it’s a literary adaptation?
Well, I start at exactly the same place which is always the story. My first contact with anything I’m going to do is the script. That first reading of the script is very special to me because I know it’s my first point of contact with the story, the world of the piece. I have to have full concentration. I read it because that’s, if I end up doing this film, that first reading, the impressions I get and the connections I make, how it sparks my imagination will fuel everything I do for the whole rest of it. All the way through all this as well, the publicity and everything, it’s always that first contact with it so that’s a very special moment for me and that doesn’t matter whether it’s based on real events or not, whether it’s [Twilight] New Moon or anything. That’s the world, that’s the beginning point. And then it’s just about letting your imagination go. I look for clues. It’s like a whodunit, any script. The writer has certain intentions whether they’re conscious or unconscious and they come out, they’re expressed in the script.
So for instance, when I was doing New Moon, it wasn’t just the script, it was the book as well. I used to have the book with me every day on the set all the time. I’d reread it and reread it and reread it. I try and immerse myself in the world of the piece, whatever the piece is. So if it’s Brian Clough’s life, then I immerse myself in Brian Clough’s life. If it’s New Moon, then I immerse myself in the world of vampires . With the Underworld films, watch everything that ever has been on werewolves, read everything. Because you never know where the one little thing will come from that just sparks your imagination. I might be reading, or a chance remark that someone makes about Brian Clough and just something about it sticks with me. I’ll be doing a scene and maybe the director will say, “At this point, could you do something here? Could you say something?," and suddenly something will occur to me from the research.
That’s the same for New Moon. Weirdly, I found myself on the set and I suddenly heard the voice of the Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine. There’s a thing in the book that [Aro's] voice was like feathers, and it just suddenly I heard, ‘The Blue Meanie.’ This voice that really kind of disturbed me when I was a kid. It was very gentle and soft but there was something very scary about it. So little things like that, you never know where it’s going to come from.
You've played Tony Blair twice; do you think you'll come back to Brian Clough?
Well, because this is an adaptation of a book obviously and there is no other book to do but there is a whole other story there which would make for great telling so maybe in a few years time, when I’m a bit older, I’ll do the last few years of Blair and the last few years of Clough as well.
And you're also in Tron...
Amazing sets. That’s going to look phenomenal I think.
So will you do Underworld 4
I don't know if there is going to be an Underworld 4. I’m not sure. I’ve heard rumor of it but nobody has actually spoken to me about it so I don't know, maybe it is going to take place without me. I don't know. I’m not sure but if I hear anything, you’ll be the first.