I interviewed Michael Sheen in New York for The Times in April 2015
Michael Sheen on politics, Britain and Far From the Madding Crowd
“Someone said, ‘Well, he can’t even be bothered to live in Britain. Why should we listen to anything he has to say?’” Michael Sheen is reflecting on his recent experiences of putting his “head above the parapet a bit”, referring mainly to a headline-making speech he gave about the National Health Service, not far from his Welsh hometown of Port Talbot. He laughs in disbelief, eyes widening. “It’s just that idea that I could be all like, ‘Britain? Nah, I can’t be bothered with it.’ Like I am literally just sitting by my pool in LA, sipping champagne, pontificating about British politics.”
In a deep blue suit and crisp shirt, his unruly mane neatly styled and swept back, Sheen looks too debonair for politics. In New York for the weekend to talk about his upcoming film Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel, he recounts how an American journalist just enthused to him about the grand old house in the film, and how “it’s so beautiful, so romantic, so great that it’s still around”, doing a voice that sounds oddly a bit like Richard Nixon. He smiles mischievously. “And I said it’s great that there’s still evidence of such gross inequality in British culture.”
Talk with Sheen for a while and you sometimes sense echoes of past characters, such as Nixon-inquisitor David Frost, Tony Blair (whom he has played three times) or football manager Brian Clough, the real-life figures he is frequently associated with, following his arrival on our screens in the early Noughties after a successful decade in theatre. He once described acting as being like a sound desk, fading sliders up and down on aspects of your personality until you had someone, which goes some way to explaining the intense believability of the characters he creates. In person, he’s quick-witted and eloquent, with an enviable ability to talk in tightly twisting, fully formed sentences.
I always remember Stephen saying, look, regardless of what you think of Blair and Brown, these people are smarter than you. It was important for me to hear that as an actor, because you can come at these people from a place of judgment.”
For Madding Crowd, Sheen brings his heft of experience and talent to William Boldwood (played by Peter Finch in John Schlesinger’s celebrated 1967 version, which also starred Julie Christie), a handsome but withdrawn middle-aged landowner (“like a Citizen Kane character”), whose ardour is roused by the free-spirited young Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan). It’s a complex, compelling role he brings to life with subtlety and precision, alongside a similarly nuanced performance from the talented 29-year-old actress, with whom he improvised his character’s tragic backstory in rehearsal, and is clearly thrilled to work with, describing her as someone who is “very brave, takes risks and works really hard. But in the moment of acting, she’s very open and alive and responsive.
“On the whole, actors tend to either do loads of hard work, and then ‘play their research’, which is very informed but a bit leaden,” he explains. “Or they do no work at all and it’s all about ‘what’s in the moment’ — which might be eye-catching but is quite shallow. To have the combination of those two things is very special.”
As for himself in that regard? “Well, I’m that as well, which is why the scenes are good,” he responds, laughing in surprise at himself.
Thomas Vinterberg directs, not the first person you might imagine tapping for a rural Victorian love story given his record in contemporary sex abuse dramas Festen (The Celebration) and The Hunt, and as originator of the avant-garde Dogme 95 film movement alongside fellow Dane and cinematic provocateur Lars von Trier. “He’s definitely an unconventional choice,” Sheen agrees, “but then I wouldn’t have been interested in doing a conventional period drama — I’ve been offered a lot and never done them.”
For those who might have, as such, been expecting a more contemporary or political take on Hardy, Sheen counters that creativity dances to its own drum. “What I’ve learnt from working with people like Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears [Frears directed two of Sheen’s Blair films, The Deal and The Queen, and Morgan wrote them, as well as The Special Relationship], is that ultimately your artistic instincts have to rule the day,” he says. “I always remember Stephen saying, look, regardless of what you think of Blair and Brown, these people are smarter than you. It was important for me to hear that as an actor, because you can come at these people from a place of judgment.”
Sheen made political headlines of his own in March this year, when he took to the stage at a St David’s Day rally in South Wales in support of the NHS. A raw-throated defence of Aneurin Bevan’s founding ideals, it was also a call for a return to honest debate in today’s electoral “morass of bland neutrality”, thundering at politicians of all stripes to “by God, believe in something”.
On the one hand, he says his talk was about standing up for your beliefs, “on the other, for the political class to be honest about what they believe. If you really do believe in dismantling the state, then you should say that, and not do it by stealth . . . If you want capitalism to be completely unfettered, then you should say that, so people can argue with you.”
If you really do believe in dismantling the state, then you should say that, and not do it by stealth . . . If you want capitalism to be completely unfettered, then you should say that, so people can argue with you.”
A cynic might suggest that a RADA-trained stage actor at the height of his powers should be able to deliver a bloody good speech, and he concedes that passion alone is not enough (“Hitler was passionate”). Anyone who doubts his commitment, however, might be persuaded by his thoughtful stance on Welsh independence, or watch his documentary about the politically disillusioned inhabitants of the Valleys. “It is very difficult to make an argument to those people about why we should stick together,” he says. “But my experience in Wales is that the breaking up of mining communities, breaking up trade unions, and the privatisation of things has not helped people. And so my heart says that it’s better to stay together, but I understand why people feel like they want to break away.”
Some of his online followers have asked him if he will enter politics; I notice they haven’t had a direct answer, so I ask him myself. “I would be ripped apart,” he laughs. “I have not led an exemplary life . . . If someone wanted to discredit me or make me look stupid, all they need to do is show a clip . . . You don’t need Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. I’m sitting there naked, scrubbing my balls with bleach in Dirty Filthy Love. They’d have a field day.”
Sheen has lived in Los Angeles since 2003, where he moved with his then-partner, the English actress (and perennial catsuited lycanthrope-hunter) Kate Beckinsale. They split soon after, although they remain friends, and he decided to stay in LA to be near their daughter. He has recently been dating the American comedian Sarah Silverman. As well as the successful television drama Masters of Sex, he has guest-starred as Wesley Snipes, the amusingly named boyfriend of Liz Lemon (series creator Tina Fey) in the acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock, and is no stranger to fantasy epics, whether as a mind-reading vampire in the Twilight saga, a virtual-reality nightclub host in the Tron reboot or a warring werewolf in the Beckinsale-starring Underworld franchise. He says he loves sci-fi, citing the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who would write about Olivier as Richard III one week and Eric Morecambe the next, as a “huge influence” in his decision not to discern between what is considered high art and low art. “One of the big influences on the production of Hamlet I did was Philip K Dick,” he says, referring to his well-received title role at the Young Vic. “I love all that and will continue to do whatever excites me, whether it’s considered posh stuff or not posh stuff.”
He talks with some emotion about how hard it was to leave his family and friends behind. “And when I came out to LA, I didn’t have a career. I had a theatre career in London, which doesn’t really translate. I had to start again. It worked out, but there was no guarantee it would. My relationships with my best friends suffered, and my relationships with my family suffered. . . Having said that, I would never do anything differently because I wanted to be with my daughter.”
They love visiting Wales together, he says, adding that she will be college-age soon. Will he then move? “I can’t see myself staying in LA. A lot of British actors love it and prefer it. I’ve never been one of those people. Sunshine is nice, but it’s not the most important thing to me. I like being able to be part of British culture.”
Being able to do more theatre is a draw, too, of course, though he swats away the suggestion of running one. “I think everyone is doing a pretty good job in Britain and I see no reason why someone who is not as good as them should take over.”
Next, he’s lined up to play the mountaineer George Mallory, who died climbing Everest in 1924, but says he has been most focused on his own projects, including writing a script called Green River Killer, based on a true story that took place over two decades in the Seattle area. After so many memorable roles and projects, which is the one that has meant the most? “The most meaningful experience for me was The Passion,” he says, referring to the remarkable 72-hour immersive production that took place in Port Talbot, included a cast of more than 1,000, and which ended with him crucified on the seafront. “I worked on that for two years. I had a whole town to work with… My family and friends and teachers were in it. It was life-changing in every way: artistically, creatively, personally. Nothing could surpass that, really. It inspired me to get more involved in things to do with community, which directly led to me getting more involved with Unicef and speaking out more. It made me want to do work that is more personally meaningful. But it’s very hard — once you’ve done that and you’ve done Hamlet, it’s hard to find something to live up to.”
Tonight, there is a Bafta screening with on-stage Q&A session, a late flight back to the west coast, then straight into filming Masters of Sex the next morning. The following weekend, he pings back to New York for the film premiere. “I am very fortunate. I have a very privileged life compared to a lot of people and I am not pretending it’s not that, but the idea that I’ve turned my back on Britain or something is ridiculous,” he says, returning to his earlier theme. “I’m very lucky that things worked out for me, but I didn’t come here to become a film star.”
Published in The Times, 25 April 2015