wed 18/09/2019

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Sheen | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Sheen

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Michael Sheen

The Which Blair Project: in-depth interview with the great Welsh impersonator/actor

It's all an act: Michael Sheen resumes his special relationship with Tony Blair

Either it’s a bizarre accident. Or there’s something in the water. Port Talbot, the unlovely steel town in Wales where smoke stacks belch fumes into the cloudy coastal sky, has been sending its sons to work in Hollywood for decades now. Richard Burton was the first to put his glowering blue eyes and golden larynx at the service of Tinseltown. Anthony Hopkins, for all his American passport, has never shed the native tinge from his accent. And in recent years there has been Michael Sheen (b. 1969).

Right from the start it was clear that Sheen was more suited to playing oddballs and misfits than romantic leads. Reviewers went slack-jawed at his mercurial brilliance as a stage actor fresh out of drama college. As Peer Gynt (1994) and Mozart (1996) and Caligula (2003), he scampered effervescently about the stage being not quite the full shilling. Dynamic, febrile, this was the type of talent that rarely prospers on the big screen, where a quiet intensity allied to symmetrical features tend to trump all that mesmeric shape-shifting.

Although he’s never been out of work, the career only really took off when, in The Deal (2003), Sheen was cast as perhaps the biggest weirdo of them all, the bright-eyed young Tony Blair. His chillingly likeable PM-in-waiting inaugurated a collaboration with the writer Peter Morgan which produced a second stab at Blair in The Queen (2006). He visits Blair for the final time in The Special Relationship, an HBO drama also starring Dennis Quaid (pictured below with Sheen as Blair) which recounts the blossoming and souring of the PM’s relationship with Bill Clinton, paving the way for the fateful alliance with Clinton’s White House successor, George W Bush.

220831Blair was the first of several performances which Sheen doesn’t like to call impersonations. Transforming away from the base metal of his own appearance and voice - a big-eyed, ferrety-faced man with dark curly hair – he has cornered the market in portrayals of figures who loom large in the national consciousness.

In Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, which dramatised the gladiatorial encounter between the ambitious interviewer and the disgraced ex-president, Sheen played David Frost. A hymn to the intrusive power of the goggle-box, it made its way from the stage of the Donmar Warehouse (2006) to the West End to Broadway (2007) and then the big screen (2008). It’s a testimony to Sheen’s performance that the director Ron Howard was told by Morgan that the film would be his only if Sheen was allowed to persevere as the smooth-tongued interrogator. Nor was that the end of the writer-actor collaboration. Morgan also adapted David Peace’s gripping, gruelling novel The Damned United (2009), about Brian Clough’s star-crossed 44 days spent in charge of Leeds United in 1974.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the figure about whom Sheen has more to say than any of them is not Blair, traditionally seen as a fake actor, but a real actor. In Fantabulosa! (2006) he did a marvellous Kenneth Williams, capturing uncannily both the preening cockatoo and the miserable spinster. Having appeared in the guise of four men we know so well, there is even a suggestion that one day he may play a fifth man. Clue: they’re from the same mean streets. Before Sheen takes on Richard Burton, Sheen will return to his home town next Easter for National Theatre Wales’s revival of a local tradition: a Passion play in the open air. In the mean time, Michael Sheen talks to theartsdesk about going to extremes.

PORT TALBOT

‘It’s hard to put a finger on what it is but I can see something that’s in Burton that’s also in Hopkins and that’s also in me. There is a frustration there. There is something that is a bit unpredictable and slightly on the edge’


JASPER REES: Your own childhood took place in a town which doesn’t always get a great write-up. Is it undeserved?

MICHAEL SHEEN: I always loved Port Talbot even though everyone else hated it and said, “I can’t wait to get out.” I suppose I always assumed that I would leave anyway so I never had a problem with it. Because I was born somewhere else, when we came back there, even though it’s where all my family come from, I always felt like a slight outsider there, slightly like a bit of a cheat. I lived in Newport till I was three; Birkenhead, Wallasey till I was eight. Then came back.

What is there to like?

Nothing obvious really. You’re by the sea, there’s mountains as well. There’s industry there. It’s a real weird mixture of countryside and industry. Terry Gilliam apparently got lots of inspiration for filming Brazil from visiting Port Talbot. I think aesthetically I really like it. There is nothing pretty about Port Talbot. And there is this ugliness spread out all over it. But that’s what I grew up with and I like that. I think it has a beauty of its own. Nobody really has a good word to say about Port Talbot in terms of how it looks but it’s an amazing place. I mean it’s home. It’s got such a mixture of safety and danger. There is a real warmth there about the people and support and loyalty and all that, but there is a lot of frustration. Growing up there was a lot of latent violence and a dangerous atmosphere to the place. That’s not to recommend it. But it prepared me well for everything that was to come. It was the nurturer and the destroyer like that Indian god. I didn’t have a false sense of what the world is like. It gave me a very real sense of what the world is like, that there is a mixture of things, that the world can be a very scary place and a very supportive place.

chemicamI loved when the steel works (pictured) was there. Weird metal piping and flames going up everywhere and the sea behind it. And just the people. A fantastic community there. And not just the friendliness, but also the edginess of it, the violence I really liked, of it being a bit scary. A good place to grow up. On Station Road in Port Talbot there is a pub and the guy who owns it for the millennium commissioned someone to do a mural on the front of the pub and it’s of anyone who’s ever come from Port Talbot and done anything. In the middle sections it’s three big faces: Burton, me, Hopkins. I get middle billing, which is pretty good.

What is about that place that has produced the three actors. Is it just a fluke?

I really don’t know. I do get asked that and there is no answer to it other than each one I suppose inspires the next one.

Something about the accent?

I think there is something about the character of that very particular place. There must be. I can see there is something in what Burton does – I’m not talking in terms of the quality of likening myself to them in terms of how good they are – but there is a quality that we share that I can see myself. It’s hard to put a finger on what it is but I can see something that’s in Burton that’s also in Hopkins and that’s also in me. It’s not about level of talent. There is a frustration there. There is something that is a bit unpredictable and slightly on the edge.

Both turned to booze.

I haven’t gone down that road. There is a kind of a darkness there.

Did you see Hopkins as something to aim for?

Maybe unconsciously I did but not consciously until quite late. It took a while before I really appreciated his acting. Burton is the figure that looms large over Port Talbot still. It was quite late in the day that Hopkins became a big big star, I suppose with The Silence of the Lambs. Until then Burton was always the template. I don’t think anyone will surpass Burton in terms of the print that he leaves. He was everything: the tragic figure, the impossibly glamorous figure, married to Taylor, charismatic classical actor, film actor, everything. It can never be replicated. Hopkins as I started to watch his performances as Nixon, interestingly, and Shadowlands, I started to see the real power of what Hopkins can do and the humanity of him as well. If anything I started off being more inspired by Burton but I’ve ended up being far more inspired by Hopkins and seeing the fearlessness of Hopkins to explore the real monstrosity of people. I find that really inspiring.

I’ve always known that I was good at it and I’ve realised that that’s not the point

Did you know you were good at this at a certain point?

I’ve always known that I was good at it and I’ve realised that that’s not the point. I knew I was good at 13 or something but it took me a long time to realise that you just have to get over that and move on from that. If you worry about whether you’re good or not… Then it becomes about the choices. If you make choices about whether you’re being good or not it becomes narcissistic and acting becomes a form of neurosis. I don’t think a really good carpenter worries about whether he’s any good or not. You just go, “I handle wood well and I know what I’m doing.” So then it become about what you apply that talent to. Then it becomes about it being an expression of you and what you believe. There is a responsibility that comes with it. If you spend your whole time worrying about whether you’re any good or not there’s no time to think about responsibility and the choices you make.

Is acting what you always had your eye on as a profession?

I was going to be a football player when I was younger. That was my first love. I was offered a place at Arsenal when I was 12. I was midfield general. I sort of model myself on Hoddle. He was my hero. One of the reasons I didn’t get into Arsenal was my dad said I couldn’t do it. It was Tony Adams’s dad who scouted me. I played a game with Tony Adams at Pontins on the Isle of Wight. Skinned him. And then his dad arranged a game between a team that he picked and the local village side. I didn’t know this but he’d done it so he could watch me in a proper match. My dad said he’s too young to go and live in London. I was captain of the RADA team. Although there is nothing quite like a drama school football match because every single guy who’s playing wants to prove that he’s not a poof and that he’s hard, so they are the roughest, most violent games you’ve ever seen.

The first time people got excited about you nationally was Peer Gynt.

I have no sense of that. The only sense of that I have is that since The Deal came out people recognise me more. And that’s it. I started to feel like I’ve slightly entered a more rarefied air. But probably Peer Gynt within the business anyway. My second job I ever did was Romeo and Juliet in Manchester and Michael Coveney wrote that I was “the most exciting actor of my generation”. That very nicely has hounded me ever since. That made a big thing. More people read that review than saw the play. I always remember at that time going, “That’s a bit of pressure, to have that kind of tag.” You didn’t want to fall back from that, which is quite a high bar to have been set. But on the whole the critics have always been fine, which has probably given me a warped sense of critics.

It was a critic who got me into acting in the first place. Reading Kenneth Tynan’s reviews are what made me really excited about acting. I was probably about 14 when I first started writing his stuff. I had just started to see Olivier in films and then reading Tynan’s reviews of Olivier onstage. The combination of those two things kind of blew my head off. I’m constantly nicking stuff I’ve read about Olivier.

It was a toss-up between the Michael Sheen banqueting suite or the Michael Sheen honeymoon suite

In The Government Inspector [at the National] I shamelessly stole something off Olivier. It was when Olivier was doing, I think, Coriolanus. Apparently there was this parapet high on the stage and he just fell forward off the parapet and you thought, he’s just going to fall off, and you couldn’t see but in the darkness behind him there was a guy who just grabbed his ankles as he fell and swung. There was a bit in The Government Inspector where I’m standing on top of a table and I’ve got very drunk doing this big speech and right at the end of it I just thought, what if I just fell off the back of this table?

In Caligula there was a scene where I ran up the table and dived across the stage at another actor. That’s not a direct lift but it’s in the spirit. I remember reading that he always liked to put something in a performance that would make an audience go “Haaa!” I’ve always liked the mixture of showmanship and technical… it’s showing off is what it is. But if you can do it, why not? How often do you see in a play when the people are actually there in the theatre someone do something that the vast majority of the people in the audience can’t do and it is quite dangerous? As long as you’re not doing it just for the sake of it…

The nudity defence.

Yeah, so long as it’s absolutely in good taste, I would consider keeping my clothes on.

You very rarely get to play Welsh.

That’s true. I don’t play Welsh characters very often. Although now and again if a character can be from anywhere then I’ll sometimes suggest playing him Welsh. I did a production that not many people saw because it was in Plymouth of The Dresser, that I directed. I played Norman in that and I played him Welsh. That was in ‘97. I played Welsh in a film called Four Feathers.

Do you speak Welsh?

Port Talbot is the industrial south so there’s not a lot of Welsh speaking going on around there. I speak a few words but not a huge amount. I’ve been toying with developing a film about Burton which is a bit scary and a bit daunting, because I’d be playing him. That is scary, to play someone who does exactly the same thing as you. And who was known for certain qualities. But I do connect with his experience so much.

sheendeal2In LA do people know what the hell Wales is?

No, not really. It tends to be, “It’s where Tom Jones comes from, and Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins.” And in fact if I say I come from the same town as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, it’s an even more exclusive club. People tend to think that it’s in England somewhere.

When you were growing up was there any sense of theatrical heritage in Port Talbot?

Yeah. Very proud of the two of them and now I’m starting to feel what that’s like, to be really embraced by your town, which is wonderful and weird at the same time, given that I’ve lived there all my life pretty much. I sat there and listened to a male voice choir sing “We’ll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides” which on the one hand is very clichéd, but I still cried, and at the same time you go, “This is because I’m being quite successful.” I’d gone back to Wales and it was the opening of a banqueting suite in a hotel named it after me. It was a toss-up between the Michael Sheen banqueting suite or the Michael Sheen honeymoon suite. In which case there would have been a painting of me above the bridal bed and I was given the choice. I said, “I think probably the banqueting suite. I don’t want to be  looking down on people doing that.” So it was the opening of this thing and outside were paintings of me as Williams, Blair (pictured above), Frost and me as myself.

EXTREMES

It’s a common thread with all these real-life characters: this idea of the public and the private’

Would you like to play some normal people?

I played a normal person once but I ended up making it abnormal in its normality. There is no normal. I’ve never met anyone who is normal. Normal people, ie people who aren’t actors, are the most bizarre people you can ever come across. Everyone is just weird, every single person in the world. And the more on the outside normal they are the more weird they are. I’ll talk to someone and come away thinking, they are clinically insane. Therefore you can’t play anyone normal. Everyone’s weird. The only way I can put that into what I do is by playing very extreme characters. Also it goes along with my belief that part of what acting is about is making people feel we all belong together. It shouldn't be divisive, it should be inclusive. The test of that is to take the most extreme character or the character suffering in the most extreme circumstances and play them in such a way that people can relate to them. And then slowly you go, nobody is excluded. There are no monsters.

I suppose I’ve got a reputation for playing quite extreme characters and making them quite believable. Rather than playing monsters like when I played Jimmy Porter – although you can’t get any more extreme than Caligula, a mass murderer – playing those sort of characters who are very extreme and seem to be on the very edges of human experience, there’s not many people who can go, "Oh yeah, I know what that’s like" – finding a way to do it so that people can empathise.

Why has it happened?

I think it’s two sides of things that I’ve done coming together. One is playing quite extreme characters and the other is the fact that people know that I can play real people. I suppose Kenneth Williams is the perfect marriage. You’ve got somebody who is incredibly extreme as a character, which I would be interested in playing whether he was fictional or real, and the fact that I’ve started doing more and more of these things, where you research the character.

frostDoes your face have a part to play?

I always thought I had a very particular kind of face (pictured, Sheen as David Frost). I’ve got a big pointy nose and particular sort of features. But I suppose there must a blandness about it that allows for playing different characters. People I’ve worked with will say, after a little while of working on something, “Your face has actually changed, you do actually look different, you are a different person to the person who started working on this.” I think there must a symbiotic thing that happens when I work on something. Somehow I manage to be able to change.

What is it about you that is attracted to the idea of playing familiar real-life characters?

I get offered them more than other people. Most of them are all written by Peter Morgan as well. That’s not a coincidence. The only one that wasn’t was Kenneth Williams. I really like the challenge of how much work you have to do. I like doing all the research. I like the feeling of fear at the beginning when I think there is absolutely no way I can do this. I was one of those people who would have said, “I can’t do impersonations.” I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t very good at it. I never tried to do it. Left that to other people. The beginning of any of these projects I start with the script but I also watch the finished product on the screen in front of me and think, I have to be that eventually. But the worry was the same with all of them, that it’s not going to be believable. You can do a reasonable approximation of what they’re like. But for the audience to actually believe that this is a real person, especially when they are quite self-consciously created personas like in the case of Clough and Williams...

TONY BLAIR

‘After the first take of it he just said, “God, you’re a wonderful actor.” The perfect thing to say as a director, whether he thought I was rubbish or not’


Are the roles that you get partly conditioned by how you look?

I would have said that I don’t look anything like Blair. I think my hair gave the best performance in The Deal, which has nothing to do with me. The Deal was Gordon Brown’s gig anyway. Brown (pictured below, Sheen as Blair with David Morrissey as Brown) was the hero of that story. You saw the story through his eyes, whereas Blair as a slightly more shadowy figure. As much as people involved said there wasn’t an agenda, inevitably if you go the story of this piece is about a man who was primed to be the leader of the Labour Party, took another man under his wing, trained him up and then eventually the man under his wing takes his place as leader of the Labour Party, it’s obviously a story about that man. And you’re obviously going to sympathise with that man more.

sheendealWas it like putting on an old suit playing Blair in The Queen?

It was a bit. I wasn’t as scared shitless as I was the first time I did it. What was exciting about it apart from working with Stephen [Frears] and Helen [Mirren] was coming back to the same character but four years on and being able to play it slightly differently. At the end of The Deal he’s just become leader of the Labour party in opposition. At the beginning of The Queen he’d just become Prime Minister. He’s had four years in leading a party, four years to put everything that him and Brown had talked about in terms of changing the party and becoming electable into place. But also everybody else thought it would be a landslide for Labour. Blair, almost to the point of paranoia, was being cautious. So that puppy-dog thing that he’s a bit more like in The Deal – he’s got a weight to him that he didn’t have before. And more cautious. He’s more instinctive in some ways, more on the back foot rather than on the front foot.

Was his famous “She was the people’s princess” speech done verbatim?

Absolutely verbatim. I think that the first thing I had to do in the film. We did about three takes. I did study it absolutely. But that’s the thing. You study it but it’s not about just doing what he did. You study it in order to try and find out what’s going on, what’s he trying to do, trying to find all the different layers within it. Stephen and Peter [Morgan] on the whole, especially this time, just let me go where I wanted to go. Stephen’s a fantastic director. I think about it now in retrospect. It’s my first day, it’s the first thing I did, and I remember after the first take of it he just said, “God, you’re a wonderful actor.” And you go, oh great. And then of course, yeah, it was my first day, my first thing, and that made me feel great that he said that. And I had loads of confidence. The perfect thing to say as a director, whether he thought I was rubbish or not.

It’s apt that you should have been asked to do that first because Blair was absolutely thrown into the middle of it. He had only one take to get it right.

Exactly.

So what was he thinking?

This is my own interpretation. I think he was aware that it was a big moment. I don’t think he was aware quite how big a moment it was going to turn out to be for him. It’s really only in retrospect that you see how the pieces fitted together. But at the time I think he realised that… in the film we see him talking to Campbell about it. They watch Chirac and Campbell says, “Here comes Chirac, watch him fuck it up.” They were both aware that it was a big moment that they had to get right. The interesting thing in the speech for me is the balance between preparation, what they’d worked out, what he’d prepared, what he knew he was going to say, and spontaneity. At one point he really does, and I’ve watched it probably more than anybody on earth has watched that speech, and I went from one end of the spectrum to the other thinking about whether there’s genuine emotion in that. And there’s a moment at which he almost cries and you think, is that acting?

2006_the_queen_sheen_kneelsPeople talk about the forced emotion of that speech. The problem is I think he was genuinely moved by it and genuinely upset and at the same time was so self-conscious about it because he knew that this was a performance and he knew that this was an important moment not just for him personally but I think he genuinely felt someone needed to be able to officially be the mouthpiece of the country at the moment. But he was also aware that if he managed to pull it off it would be a big thing for him. But underneath that was real emotion. When he talks about the two boys, as a father, I think he really was genuinely upset by that. But there are other bits where you go, that’s the worst acting I’ve ever heard really, that’s just terrible delivery, really stilted and obviously working this “I’m very upset and I’m taking this very seriously” and yet at the same time making sure you can all get pictures of me from all different sides. It’s really worked out. I suppose in the whole character of it is that mixture of his genuineness, his sincerity and him as a performing prepared actor.

Helen Mirren (pictured above with Sheen as Blair) won a ton of awards. Was it in any way difficult to watch your co-star getting all of the public plaudits?

I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t in some ways difficult. Because inevitably you act with someone in a film and you’re both playing the leads and there was a huge discrepancy between the reaction to Helen and the reaction to me. That was already inbuilt in the film. It was about her. It’s not called Blair. It’s called The Queen. She’s such a gracious woman and it’s such a brilliant performance that that made it a lot easier to deal with but nevertheless I learnt a lot from that, from going down that road. It was the first time I’d ever had to do that much publicity and a film that I was in to have awards and that much consideration. It’s very easy to get caught up in all of that and it is incredibly exciting and it can press a lot of buttons in you. I learnt that the really important things is to enjoy the process and not to get too caught up in it all and to just keep remembering that you can’t change anything about that. People react to things the way they react to things and I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to be involved in anything that people really like, and that’s the really important thing.

Watch The Queen trailer:

KENNETH WILLIAMS

‘Every time it came he would fall back on what he knew he could do and what people would like him doing’


You pulled off a remarkable physical feat in Fantabulosa!

Most of it is done before filming. I had to lose loads of weight. I had to be naked a fair amount and Kenneth used to have, as I call them, five-act wanks where you would spend hours and hours having these incredibly elaborate masturbatory sessions and quite often would end up with bruises and cuts and all sorts. We had a little bit of that in there. His sex life is a psychological minefield. I don’t think he ever had penetrative sex but he certainly did pretty much everything else. In the diaries he talks about how he used to go Morocco a lot, Tangier. He would be intensely private about what happened, even with his closest friends out there. They’d see him nipping off on the back of a scooter with some young boy. And when he came back they’d say, “What happened?” He’d say, “None of your business.” He would never talk about it but he would talk about it in the diaries a bit, in code. But he certainly had oral sex. All kinds of stuff. And even in London he’d occasionally go off with somebody. But the thing was that he could never have a committed relationship with someone. It was John Lahr who said that he felt like Kenneth had a fear of penetration, not just physically but also psychologically as well. And I think that’s probably true.

He consciously created this façade, like this personality he presented to the world, and the idea of anything coming through that was just too much for him - the vulnerability that that would imply. That would involve a sacrifice of some kind, or a reckoning of some kind eventually. But what he gained from having that privacy and total independence he felt – earlier on at least – was worth what he lost in terms of companionship and intimacy. But as he got older – and this is a tragedy – I think he realised that maybe it wasn’t worth the sacrifice. But it was too late. He was too set in his ways then to be able to let anybody in. And so towards the end of his life, or from mid-thirties to forties, you can tell in the diaries that he’s really really unhappy.

sheenwilliamsThe script doesn’t intimate that he has much sex. He sends them away before it happens. He rejects someone who has muck under his fingernails, for example.

There’s also the problem that in his diaries he does just make things up sometimes, which is weird given that it’s a diary. There’s one famous instance where he says, “Went to see Frankie Howerd at the Establishment Club. He was very good but there was this awful woman who kept shouting things out. Frankie dealt with it very well but she was really awful and almost marred the show.” Unbeknownst to Kenneth that night, that performance by Frankie Howerd was recorded. I’ve heard the recording and it’s Kenneth Williams. There’s no woman in the audience doing it. It’s him. Frankie Howerd is going, “Two comedians, do you think he wants the limelight?” And yet he went home and wrote, “There was this terrible woman.” It’s a bit weird.

It’s about his self-loathing.

Partly it's to do with him not wanting to admit certain things about himself. And also shame and guilt about himself. He knew that he could lose control of things. He so admired self-possession in people. He’d say, “I kept my countenance.” That was a big phrase of his. No matter what happens you sail through things with nobility and dignity. His big hero was Noël Coward. So the idea of someone who can just deal with all of life’s indignities with incredible class and a bon mot for every occasion was a thing that appealed to him the most, but he couldn’t really live up to that. He had to tell fart jokes and shit jokes and be really dirty about things. And he would lose control. He would get angry and he would get incredibly infuriated. All that sexual energy he wasn’t using up and all that frustration and anger would just spill out and then he would hate himself for losing control and so he would rewrite it and mythologise himself in his diaries.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t write particularly well.

He was literary in the sense that he read a huge amount and was very knowledgeable about writing and read philosophy and poetry and novels.

I remember seeing him talking about Augustan poetry on Parkinson.

One of the things he enjoyed doing the most and got the most from was a piece about poetry that he put together himself and called The Crystal Spirit, from an Orwell poem. He chose all these bits of poetry and then did them onstage. He said that for the first couple of minutes people were tittering and laughing because they weren’t used to seeing Kenneth Williams doing this kind of thing but then after a while they were very attentive and it went really well. The fact that he was taken seriously, that people allowed him to not have to be funny, meant a huge amount to him. And so you can see why poetry was so important to him. He was prepared to put himself in a vulnerable position which he was never usually prepared to do at all

That’s the other tragic thing about this life in a way. Reading the diaries and reading the autobiography and biographies, you see over and over again moments where he could have gone off on a different path, where he could have become a great stage actor or just had a different kind of life. And each time when that choice comes up for him to take that turn it requires him to have some kind of vulnerability, to take a risk, and to possibly risk failure. And he was never prepared to do that. Every time it came he would fall back on what he knew he could do and what people would like him doing.

So it was the typical what we know of as Kenneth Williams stuff. When you are reading the diaries you are thinking, go on, please, you’ll be so much happier in the long run if you go down there. And he never never does. And so there is a sort of inevitability about his life as you read it. You can see where it’s going. And I think he could as well. That’s the other thing about him. He’s not someone who just had all these weird blind spots in his life and ended up not understanding how he’d got to where he got to. He completely understood what was happening and had total self-awareness, knew all his faults. And yet still couldn’t stop himself from going where he was heading.

All the contradictions in his personality are in his voice

Do you think he couldn’t come out to himself for fear of hurting his mother?

I think that’s a big part of it.

The script was ambiguous about whether his mother knows about it.

“My Kenny’s not like that.” She believed that right to the end of her life. He says, “I can be myself with you” and she says, “Almost.” In actuality she right to the end refused to believe that he was gay. Nobody really writes much about what happened to her. She didn’t last that long after.

Was the empty flat a metaphor for the fact that there’s nothing going on inside him?

What it’s a metaphor for I’m not sure. But there’s a clip of him in The Joan Rivers Show and she asks him about his sex life. He says, “I’m celibate, I should have been a monk,” as a joke. But it’s actually true. There was a monk thing to him, in a few ways. In the ascetic life, very Spartan, no material possessions to speak of. He always said, you have to love people, not possessions. But there was this other side to him, this spiritual quest as well. He didn’t belong to any particularly religious faith but he had a deep need for spirituality in his life. And it came out in a way that, like monks are separated from society as opposed to within it, and that was what his spirituality was like. He could be incredibly moved by walking through a park and seeing a mass of humanity there. And he would be separate from that but he could be moved by that. But if suddenly he had to interact with anybody he’d hate them and be horrible to them. But he’d read and listen to his music, Bach and Schumann, and get incredibly moved by that idea. Redemption was something that was very important to him, obviously, for a man consumed by guilt.

Watch the opening of Fantabulosa!:

How did you prepare to play Kenneth Williams?

I just tried to get hold of everything I could get hold of. Watch everything and listen to everything. I watched loads of the Carry Ons. Funnily enough the one he was most proud of and thought was the best was Carry On Cowboy and that’s one of the few times he plays a different character, he plays an old man and does a different accent. But I love all those Carry On films. He’s such a part of the British psyche.

Was it a breeze playing another actor?

God, no. It was tough. When I first said I wanted to do it I was really excited and the closer it got to it the more and more scared I got about it. Even though I’ve done Blair, they’re not impersonations. I can’t do them very well. I can change my voice but I’m not an impressionist. With Kenneth Williams his big facility was for voices and characters and his voice is not just recognisable but so much an expression of his personality as well. It’s all in his voice. All the contradictions in his personality are in his voice. On the one hand you’ve got the aspirations towards Coward, so you’ve got that incredibly plummy voice. On the other you’ve got his upbringing in King’s Cross, which is the Cockney earthy London thing. And he uses both all the time to great comic effect where he cuts across one with the other. That’s how he gets a lot of his effects. And then the whole nasal thing and the strangulation of vowels and all that stuff.

I do completely believe that he didn’t have penetrative sex, but I think there was so much psychic energy concentrated around that area that it expressed itself in anal ulcers

Which made him so good at Just a Minute.

And yet at the same time I’ve never heard anybody speak so quickly.  And the big thing for him was one of the things he admired about Coward was he never elided words together. If you slowed a recording of Coward down and the same with Kenneth Williams when he’s on form you would be able to hear every single word is separate from every other word. Words don’t slide into each other. So the consonants and everything, it’s all perfectly done. He really admired the ability to be able to speak incredibly quickly but with perfect enunciation.

I had to do a full vocal warm-up every morning before we started filming just to feel like you were able to get anywhere near what he can do. And I think I’m quite good technically vocally but nowhere near what he was like. So just technically it was a big challenge, but then emotionally and psychologically it’s a total manifestation of his personality in how he speaks. I just listened and listened and listened. But when I first started listening to him it’s just like white noise. I can’t hear anything. I get what he’s doing generally but I can’t pick anything out. I don’t know where to even start. And then slowly as time goes on things start to come out.

The thing that helped me most was the Audience with Kenneth Williams, which I think is genius. Watching that over and over and over again. It’s just him talking to an audience and telling stories and talking about his life. It’s a really good mixture. You are able to pick up on his rhythms. And because he is talking about his life things come through that maybe he’s not as in control of. You are always looking for things that are spontaneous, things that are not in control, and that gives you a little clue as to what’s going on inside his head. I listened to that every morning going into work. Slowly you just start to get a sense of your interpretation of what is going on underneath. And that’s where you have to build it up from. You’d think that you just copy the exterior. You have to get comfortable enough with the exterior of a person to then be able to start to understand what’s going on underneath. Then you start putting exterior on again.

How much weight did you lose?

I lost about two and a half stone? I got down to 10st. I worked out in the diaries that when he was 36 which is the age I am playing him he was exactly 10st 4lb.

michael-sheen_04_446Were his troublesome guts a metaphor?

I’m sure they were. I do think a lot of illness and stuff is another way of expressing what’s going on psychologically. He had anal ulcers. I do completely believe that he didn’t have penetrative sex, but I think there was so much psychic energy concentrated around that area that it expressed itself in these sorts of things. When it came to pain he had such a low threshold. The fact that he was in pain so much towards the end of his life, maybe for somebody else that might now have been as much pain. He was a bit of a hypochondriac. It seems now that he was an obsessive compulsive as well. He would be diagnosed as an OCD now. The clingfilm over the cooker and germs, which is about not wanting to be penetrated. For someone who’s so anal and so repressed, when you suppress everything it churns you up inside. The two areas that he suffered from the most, his stomach and his bum, it’s just a perfect expression of what’s going on for him.

One of the good things about losing all the weight was I was in better shape than I’ve ever been all my life, because I’ve been going to the gym. I don’t think Kenneth was a big gym guy. Suddenly Kenneth Williams looked a bit muscly. There’s nothing you can do about that. You can lose the weight but you can’t get rid of the muscle that’s underneath. I had to do all kinds of weird contortions.

How did you do the Kenneth Williams nose?

We were going to use baby-bottle teats that you cut the ends off and shove them up your nose and it expands the nostrils. Very uncomfortable. It looked quite good except it was too much in a way and they would have kept falling out. So ultimately I ditched those and then I thought there are two ways of doing it. You either shove something in there or you just don’t do it at all and just try and do it yourself. The day before we started filming I thought I’d rather go for me filming it rather than adding loads of stuff. And that you try and get the spirit of someone. Ultimately we ended up with just make-up and making my nostrils looking a bit bigger than they are. He had his nose broken when playing football in the army. His father gave him a pair of football boots once that were never even taken out of the box. I also think he gave him a pair of boxing gloves. “What are these?”

The idea of Kenneth Williams understudying Richard Burton...

But it was a big thing for him when he was in the army. He had to share with all these other men and he always talked about how everyone would strip off and he was so self-conscious about his body and he would have his trousers on and wait until the lights were off and struggle his pants down and then someone said, “Here, Williams, what you doing? Are you scared to show your willy?” And then he said, “After that I became quite uninhibited.” He would strip off and do big shows for everyone. For all his insecurity and his fear of vulnerability, his way of dealing with it is to go, “Fuck it,” and seem incredibly brazen. That brazenness and brashness and vulgarity covers up his insecurities. That became an interesting thing to play with.

Was he Welsh?

I haven’t been able to work it out. People in Port Talbot say, “Oh, his mother was from here. Lived in Port Talbot.” It’s difficult to trace back. One of the biographies says something about his mother’s family being from Wales. But Williams did a season very early on at Swansea Grand and he understudied Richard Burton in The Seagull. There’s a story that he used to tell about how he came in one day and the stage door guy said, “Richard’s ill tonight. You’re on, Kenneth.” He went up to his dressing room, knocked on the door. “You’re all right though, aren’t you? You’re well enough to go on.” “No, the voice has gone. I feel very ill, very ill.” “But I haven’t learnt it, I haven’t learnt it, you’ve got to go on. I always thought you were strong as an ox.” Eventually Burton said, “Go down to the pub next door and get me a drink.” And so they went down to the pub and barman lined up 20 shots of something, Burton drank them all and went on pissed as a fart and got through it. The idea of Kenneth Williams understudying Richard Burton...

DAVID FROST

‘I saw him walking down the street and I followed him just to watch how he walked. But I don’t think he’s aware that I did that. That was closest I got to him until we opened the play’


Frost is unique in all of these characters in that he actually saw you recreate him onstage and then on film.

I had the opportunity to meet him earlier but I didn’t, so the first time I met him was when he came to see it at the Donmar. Part of me thought, here is the ultimate resource as a research tool. Peter advised me not to talk to him, because he’s such an engaging man that I could have become too protective of him in the wrong way. It’s necessarily not an entirely flattering portrayal of him and it could have impinged in the wrong way.

I have to be able to keep total objectivity about the character for a long time until there is always a moment where you suddenly realise, I‘ve lost all objectivity now. I’ll suddenly find myself arguing with the director or other actors about a scene not from the point of view of Michael playing the character but from the point of view of Frost. That’s when I go, all right, I can’t actually talk about anything to do with this any more. And so until I get to that point it would be wrong to meet the person. I did actually go to a party that Frost was at and just before I went into the party I saw him walking down the street and I followed him just to watch how he walked. But I don’t think he’s aware that I did that. And I took a picture of him from behind. But that was closest I got to him until we opened the play. I became his stalker for the day.

What happened when you did meet him?

He was quite shaken by the whole experience but very supportive about it (pictured below, Sheen as Frost with Frank Langella as Nixon). You could see Frost the people-person at work. Something about him was quite traumatised and yet he was aware he was with people who have egos and insecurities so he very generously was very positive about it, but he was also I think aware that this was something that was going to have a long life and it would be better for him to be on the side of it rather than against it. There was a lot going on when I met him. I was doing a photo-shoot really early on when we were still doing the play, and I was in the make-up room and my phone rang, I picked it up and he said, “Hello, Michael, how are you?” I said, “I’m good, thanks, who’s this?” He said, “Of all the people in the world that would recognise my voice, I’d have thought you would. It’s David.” I thought that was quite funny.

frost-nixon-cp-2825677The other time I really liked was when we were doing the film my mum and dad came in for the last bit of filming and you’d go into the monitor room where Ron [Howard] would be sitting – Ron has a very open set and likes people along so you never quite knew who you were going to meet – and one day there’d be Mr and Mrs Smith whose house the interview took place in. And then one day I went in and my mum and dad were there and I knew that Frost was going to be there that day as well and they're sitting on all those directors’ chairs which are quite tall – and my mum is only 4ft 11 so she was sitting there with her legs off the floor and Frost with his legs off the floor and my dad all with those huge head-cans on looking like Mickey Mouse. That was quite an image for me. I always slightly worry what they’re going to say when they’re around people, ever since I saw my mum grabbing Kenneth Branagh by the ears and going, “Oh, it’s lovely to meet you, Ken.”

Watch the Frost/Nixon trailer:


What for you were the differences in the two Frosts, stage and screen?

The script is hardly different at all. One of the hard things playing him onstage was that you’ve got this outward persona which is very relaxed and laid-back and yet underneath something else is going on all the time. Onstage it was harder to get that across because the outward persona was so much more to the fore. Whereas on film because the camera is right in there you see what’s going on.

Were you literally playing only the man in the script?

It’s a mixture. At some point I leave the actual man behind, I suppose. That’s why I do a little disclaimer whenever I talk about any of these characters. They are characters. And the character is a mixture of the actual person, me and the person who wrote it. I’ve got no control over it any more. It’s as much me as it is them.

BRIAN CLOUGH

‘I think there is something similar about his genius at being a manager and Brando’s genius in being an actor’

How did you prepare for Clough?

With Clough for the first time I actually looked like him without having to do anything. I looked at photographs of him when he was younger and they could be pictures of me. Weirdly I did all my preparation in LA. I was in a hotel room watching a lot of Clough. I didn’t really get to meet anyone. It was just him on a screen or me listening to him or reading about him. But I did meet John McGovern when we were filming. I’d heard lots of what McGovern had to say about Clough. He first met Clough when he was 16. To see McGovern holding the European Cup up knowing the history of them together - he’s the only one I think who played at every team Clough managed.

Were you aware that it could be a panto performance with Clough?

Yes, because he’s so larger-than-life and it is a self-created persona, a lot of it. The persona that the public were familiar with through chat-shows and interviews and Match of the Day is very different to the persona away from the camera. It’s so self-conscious as well, what he does. It’s already a performance, so if you start performing a performance there are just too many layers on there. So I was aware of that.

Michael-Sheen-in-The-Damn-001Compared with Blair making the people’s princess speech, was he acting?

It’s a common thread with all these real-life characters: this idea of the public and the private. There is an interview at the beginning of the film that he did for Calendar on the day he was turning up to take over Leeds and the real-life interview begins with Austin Mitchell shows footage of Clough being injured in the injury that ended his career. On the screen you just see this footage of him rolling around in the ground in agony – it’s horrible to watch – and then the camera cuts to Clough in the studio watching the footage on the monitor and he’s not aware the camera is on him and you see this look on this face is just so vulnerable and hurt and then he realises the camera is on him and he suddenly changes into Clough. Arrogant, brash, confident. I remember thinking, that’s him. That’s who I’m playing. That’s that man. The combination of those two things.

Is there any sense of identification on the grounds that you could have been a contender?

Well, a bit in so much as I know what it’s like to go out and play football and have that feeling of succeeding in it. The strangest thing for him was that it was cut. It was my choice to stop playing whereas for him that was all he cared about, to be the greatest goalscorer in the country. And he was on his way to being that and it got ended.

The way he got treated after that, he felt he had been dumped on by the whole Football League and everyone involved in it, the directors of the club and Sunderland and the others players. There is a bit in his book when he says, “From that moment on I decided I would live my life for revenge.” I think there is something similar about his genius at being a manager and Brando’s genius in being an actor. There is a disrespect for the thing that they do. Brando always said he had no real respect for acting and that’s what allows him to be very irreverent with it and that’s the genius of it, and Clough had that as well.

Watch The Damned trailer:

Do you have an irreverence for acting?

I try to but I kind of care about it too much. I want to be the kind of actor who can have that kind of relaxation and that ability to take risks but I find it harder because I suppose nothing has happened to me to make me have that attitude towards it. That’s a battle. The more I’ve done the more I’ve realised that for stage acting you have to have something in you in the moment of acting that takes risks, where you can risk everything and risk failure and risk losing everything. And when you really care about it and have a fear of making mistakes which I do, then it’s hard to cultivate that attitude. But everything I’ve learned about acting teaches me that that is where you have to go to, that’s the place where you get the good stuff.

Watch The Special Relationship trailer:

Comments

Great interview.

This interview was such a joy to read. Thank you!

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.