Want to play the UK equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Simply scan the BBC TV dial at any moment, and you’re virtually certain to come across either a film starring Michael Sheen or a story involving one of the real-life figures he has played. In the past four years, the 41-year-old actor has portrayed England’s best-known living statesman (Tony Blair, in 2006’s The Queen), its most esteemed media personality (David Frost, in 2008’s Frost/Nixon), and its most notorious soccer manager (Brian Clough, in 2009’s highly underrated The Damned United). As if that weren’t enough, he can also be seen opposite his country’s most prized export, the brooding hearthrob Robert Pattinson, in The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
Across the pond, the versatile Sheen can next be seen (or heard, to be precise) as the White Rabbit in director Tim Burton’s 3D update of Alice in Wonderland. We spoke with him about his journey into the “Burton-verse” (as he called it), his role in the highly anticipated reboot Tron Legacy, and his fateful first encounter with Tony Blair, who he’ll be playing for a third time in the upcoming HBO movie The Special Relationship.
What was the process like for you on Alice in Wonderland? I imagine it was a little different from that of the other castmembers.
Yeah, I got to have Tim all to myself. We did the first [recording] session in L.A., and then we did a couple sessions in London. I’d never met Tim before, so I turned up at his studio and there he was. It was great.
Were you disappointed at all that you didn’t get to spend time on the set with Burton and the cast?
Yeah, I kind of wished that I’d been able to be more on the set, but they wanted to do all the animal characters as real animals. When I watched it, I was really glad that they did that ... It’s lovely when the animals really do look like animals, and yet they’re speaking and sentient. So I think that works really well, although I would love to have been with rabbit ears and a tail and jumping around the set. I would love to have done all that.
Because you’re method like that.
And because it’s fun! It’s like acting when you’re a little kid in your bedroom. It’s a much purer form of acting. I’ve always loved that, the physical side of acting.
You just finished shooting your third stint as Tony Blair, in the upcoming HBO movie The Special Relationship. Have you started receiving cease and desist letters from the Blair camp yet?
Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with any of that. But there's been a whole process with all those films, the films I’ve done that are based on real people, especially the Blairs, because Cherie [Blair’s wife] is known to be prodigiously litigious -- and try saying that again, by the way. You have to be careful about it ... Lawyers are constantly on the phone [with us] during the whole process. Every film I’ve done with [writer/director] Peter Morgan, there’s always a huge legal team, and every day there’s a message — you can’t do this, you have to change that line — just to kind of cover ourselves. But we’ve never had anything from Blair — and I’ve met him, now. And his official thing is that he hasn’t seen any of [the movies].
But he had to have—
Of course he has. Clearly he has, because he was very into it. He seemed to have a very big, very intimate knowledge of the scenes in The Queen and The Deal. I suppose by saying he hasn’t seen it, he can’t be asked questions about the veracity of it or whatever. But he was asked in my presence whether it was accurate, the stuff that happens in The Queen, and he said yeah. He sort of had to admit in my presence that it was very accurate.
I watched one really good series interviews Blair did after he'd stopped being prime minister, and there's one where the interviewer asks him, "So when you did go to meet the Queen on that day before you went to 10 Downing Street for the first time, is it true that you got the protocol wrong and kissed her hand when you shouldn't have, and all that?" And he gets a bit flustered and doesn't know what to say, and then he replies, "Well, what do they do in the film?" — basically saying, that's what actually happened. And I thought, wow, he's now answering questions by referring to my performance in the film.
It’s like some sort of crazy, post-modern feedback loop.
Once you start playing these real-life people, a lot of that starts to happen. When I finished playing Frost in the film, having already played him on stage — the day after I finished the movie, I started my research on playing Brian Clough in The Damned United. The very first thing I did was put Brian Clough’s name into YouTube to see what came up, and the very first thing that came up was David Frost interviewing Brian Clough.
That must’ve blown your mind.
It’s surreal, yeah. And it’s happening more and more. On the opening night of Frost/Nixon on the West End, we invited Frost to come and watch the show. He said he couldn’t because he was interviewing Blair the next morning, and he didn’t want to be accused of being at an opening night party before a major interview — like he is in the film.
The universe would have collapsed upon itself.
It was life imitating art imitating life, that Frost was influenced by the fact that in the story of Frost/Nixon, people say he’s at the opening night of his own film before he interviews Nixon for the first time, and everyone sort of slights him off for that, and so he didn’t want to make that mistake before interviewing Blair, who I also play. So it’s just very peculiar. It is a bit like going down the rabbit hole.
What will your involvement be in the next Underworld flick?
The next Underworld film I know nothing about. Nobody’s gotten in touch with me about it, so I don’t know anything about that. Genuinely, I know nothing at all. So either they don’t want me to be a part of it or they’re scared to ask me, I don’t know. We’ll see.
The difficulty of playing a character who never gets any older, and who’s always in fantastic shape, is that I get older and I’m not always in fantastic shape. It gets harder and harder each time. So I don’t know [if I could]. If only they could come up with a loophole where Lucian can get older, even though he’s dead. Also, there’s only so many prequels you can do, and I died in the first film.
You just finished working on Tron Legacy. What was that experience like?
I’m really excited about Tron. As a fan, I just really want to see it. It’s the same with Alice in Wonderland, in a way. Because my involvement wasn’t throughout the whole film — I sort of come in and do a bit — I can feel like I’m a part of it, but I can also enjoy going to watch it.
What can you tell us about your character?
I play a character who runs a nightclub, the best nightclub in the world. It’s like a mile high, up on top of a building, and I’m this kind of showman/entertainer/nightclub host/chameleon kind of character. I’m very sort of ambiguous. I got to dance and sing and do all kinds of things. It’s great. I’m very excited.
Alice in Wonderland opens Friday, March 5, 2010. Tron Legacy opens December 17, 2010.