British actor Michael Sheen knows a thing or two about England’s Prime Minister. In fact, he has portrayed Tony Blair two times in the last three years—first, in the excellent BBC production The Deal, which focused on Blair’s early political career, and now The Queen, both of which were written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.
The highly touted The Queen focuses on events immediately following Princess Diana’s untimely death and how newly elected Blair had to convince Queen Elizabeth (played exquisitely by Helen Mirren) to come out and address the inconsolable masses, despite her determination to grieve in private. Its an incredibly fascinating character study on two of contemporary history’s more influential people, and Hollywood.com sat down with Sheen to discuss the film’s deeply personal and humanistic virtues, as well as the impact Diana’s death actually had on British culture as we know it.
Hollywood.com: The Queen is one those great movies which gives you a bird’s eye view on something you ordinarily would never have known about. How would you define the film?
Michael Sheen: One of the things I find most interesting about The Queen and that moment in British culture was that Diana sort of created a bridge between the old Britain and the new Britain. The old Britain was based on the attitudes of the royal family, I suppose: Duty, responsibility and a particular way of doing things, tradition. And then the new Britain, sort of exemplified by [Tony] Blair and New Labor, which was all about being more touchy feely, taking the pulse, giving people what they want. Never mind what happened before, this is they way we are going to do things now. So Diana, being part of the royal family but also being part of this new celebrity culture, was the bridge between those two worlds. When she died, suddenly a vacuum was created between those two worlds, they just clashed together. And that’s what The Queen examines. I think Britain as a culture wasn’t aware that shift had happened. That our culture had been polarized—until she disappeared. She was the thing that stopped those two worlds from coming up against each other. Then suddenly there was the outpouring of grief, an extraordinary phenomenon. I think the film is about that moment, where it was crystallized for us that a HUGE shift had happened. And the royal family weren’t aware of it, had sort of been left behind and then had to run to catch up. All that was fascinating to capture. Because at the time it was going on, we couldn’t really tell what was happening besides the fact Diana had died. Culturally, we weren’t really aware. Looking back on it now, it becomes much clearer what was going on at that time.
HW: Diana really connected England to the rest of the world, don’t you think?
MS: Well, being pretty and having star quality gets you a long way in this world. She was like a Hollywood actress, image is very important and your relationship with the media, how control the media. She may be the only person in the royal family who would have been able to do that and treat it like Hollywood. She was successful at it but of course, there’s the theory it killed her as well. Of course, the reality of Diane was a lot more complicated than people think. What’s interesting and mysterious is what she came to symbolize, all kinds of theories. The repressed goddess and all kinds of stuff. But she did symbolize that moment in history and in culture.
HW: Was it the film’s intentions to show how real and, well, human the royal family is?
MS: Of course. To us, to normal people, it seems like they’re this weird, remote family who have no idea about things. But actually once you get involved in their world a bit, you sort of understand it from their point of view. Blair is sort of the audiences’ representative in the film and that’s what I came to realize after awhile was that the relationship the audience has with the Queen is mirrored by the relationship Blair has with her. To begin with, he thinks of her as this extraordinary head mistress, difficult to read and quite cold. But as the film goes along, the more he knows of her situation, the more he starts to empathize, as this sort of isolated leader. And when they make cruel jokes, he can’t help but to defend her.
HW: Was there any kind of nervousness making The Queen?
MS: If we hadn’t just done The Deal and gone straight into this, it would have been a lot more nerve wracking. But we learned a lot of lessons in doing The Deal, which helped enormously with this. Partly because before The Deal there had not be a drama about contemporary political figures, with actors playing them that wasn’t a satire or comedy. At that time, we weren’t sure if people would accept it or just laugh at it. Because we sort of managed to get the tone right for that, I think Stephen knew he could make [The Queen] work. I had done Blair once, so maybe I could get away with it again, so I wasn’t as scared as I was the first time. But it was still a very daunting thing to do a film about a kind of state of the nation film, the very recent part. It was about our country and our culture and our iconic figures.
HW: How did screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears get all that insider information?
MS: Well, Peter did most of the research and talked to most of the people. He was always surprised at how ready people are to spill the beans—at least around Westminster, the political groups. It’s a very leaky government. But not so much with the royal family. The royal family is a different case, very sort of closed up and don’t talk much about stuff. But Peter has his little spies and contacts around the palace. Like that Queen Elizabeth was a mechanic in the war! We’d find out the most fascinating things. Peter would come in one day and say, “Do you know what I found out yesterday...” And then we’d try to fit a line in about it.
HW: Helen Mirren was just a marvel. Do you know how she feels personally about the monarchy?
MS: If anything, I suppose she would have been against the monarchy beforehand. But inevitably, once you’ve played a character, you can’t help but sympathize with the character. Same thing with the director, Stephen Frears. I mean politically, he would come from left field. But then you get drawn into it. That’s one of the great thing about films and art, in general. The opportunity to have your preconceived notions challenged. So if you come into something like this, you can’t help—if you do it right—to see people as human beings.
HW: Why do you think there is this fascination with the monarchy?
MS: I think there’s differences between people’s attitudes towards the royal family as an institution and people’s attitudes toward Queen Elizabeth herself. I think its going to be a very different situation when she is no longer queen. People who are into the royal family are so because they love the queen. And people who tolerate the royal family, only tolerate them because they actually think the queen does a good job. But since the events this film depicts, the royal family has changed a lot. They realize they have to become more accessible, seemingly in touch with the mood of the nation. They’ve sort of learned their lessons since Diana’s death. So I think their relationship with the people has changed much more than the people’s relationship to them.
HW: Seeing Tony Blair at the height of his popularity was also quite fascinating, considering how he is viewed today.
MS: Definitely. This is [Blair] at his most popular. He was never more popular than when he does the speech about the “people’s princess.” He was only four months as Prime Minister when Diana died. He had such a huge majority, such a landslide when he came into power. And in a way, if you sort of put Iraq aside for a moment, there was inevitably going to be a backlash. You just can’t live up to those expectations. After so many years of conservative government, people were really desperate for change. And [Blair] seem to represent everything that was fresh and young and new and radical and modernizing.
HW: How did you approach playing Blair this time around, as opposed to playing him in the The Deal?
MS: I couldn’t do too much of an impersonation because it would detracted from the function he has within the film. Which is to let the audience see the story through his eyes. And if there was too much going on with Blair, it would be difficult to see it through his eyes. You’d be on the outside of what he’s doing instead of going along with him. So I knew I sort of had to underplay him, in a way. People accused Blair of being an opportunist, forced emotion and being a bad actor. Before I did the “people’s princess” speech, first day of filming, I had to watch that footage over and over again. Partly, not to do it as Blair did it, but also to make up my mind about what was going on inside his head. Whether he was genuine or whether he was being an opportunist. So I had to make lots of choices.
HW: You’ve never met Blair, right? I was told you have a funny story about meeting his daughter, though.
MS: No, never met him. He doesn’t really want to have anything to do with it, obviously. He’s the Prime Minister and doesn’t particularly want anyone to make movies about his life. Would you? I mean, all of them have to keep a big distance. But, yeah, I met his daughter! Three days before I started filming on this, I went back to my old drama school to talk to the students. And we went to this bar afterwards and one of the students said, completely coincidentally, “I was meeting up with one of my friends tonight. She’s here and wanted to say hello to you cause you’re playing her dad next week.” It was Kathryn Blair. Ironically, that day I also had a costume fitting and we were trying to figure out what Blair would wear in those scenes where I’m in bed. So I was asking Kathryn what her dad wears in bed. And I kept asking her all these questions, what does he eat for breakfast? How does he drink his tea? This poor girl was really embarrassed. She was just this 17-year-old girl, standing with her friends.
HW: Are you going to play Blair again?
MS: Actually, Stephen, Peter and I are thinking about doing a third film on Blair’s end days. The fascinating thing, supposedly the reason Blair aligned himself with [President] Bush was because Clinton told him to. Blair had this very good relationship with Clinton and when Clinton left office, he told Blair, “Look, I know you don’t like Bush, but you have to go with him. It would undo all the work we’ve done.” That’s what the third film will be about, that special relationship.
HW: How is it working with Frears and Morgan?
MS: I think one of the great thing about what Peter writes and how Stephen directs is, Peter writes about big, important, serious themes but in a way that’s very accessible and quite funny. There’s a release there. And yet everyone is still very much a human being. And then how Stephen Frears directs, he won’t allow anything two-dimensional. Everything is completely three-dimensional, with depth and richness and all grounded in reality. When you watch The Queen, you can just see how he and Peter got it right. There’s no favoritism, everyone is portrayed in a humanistic way, a fair crack of the whip of it. Stephen’s got great taste and huge respect for everyone’s individual craft. And when anyone brings up the subject of awards and whatnot, he just says, “Oh don’t be silly.” He doesn’t play the games. He’s been around a long time, doesn’t need to impress anyone.
HW: How does the whole Oscar talk make you feel?
MS: It would be extraordinary, of course. I mean, anything possible, I suppose. I think it’s fairly a done deal that Helen will get a nomination and hopefully will win. And then I think it’s a lot about the momentum that goes with the film. On whether the film gets a nod or the screenplay or all that kind of stuff. I think it deserves to, whether it does or not is another matter. When we made the film, the last thing any of us thought was it go this far. I mean, we thought maybe it would go down all right in Britain. It might split people in Britain and that would be it. But the fact its traveled so well, universally enjoyed, seems to mirror whatever anyone wants to see in it. Then we went to the Venice Film Festival and it was a HUGE hit there and we started to think, “Hmmm, well, maybe there’s something going on here.” And then when people started talking about awards and all that kind of stuff—obviously, it’s not something you want to think about, the wrong thing to be thinking about. But you can’t help it! It’s still a bit of a shock, I can’t quite get my head around it.
HW: What’s next?
MS: We’re trying to sort out Underworld 3 [Sheen played Lucian, the leader of the Lycans in the first Underworld]. It would go back in time to show my story, the whole love story thing. That’s the plan, anyway, nothing’s been worked out yet. It’s funny, I’ve played Lord of the Werewolves AND Lord of the Labour Party, very authoritative figures. [Laughs].