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Q&A: British Actor Michael Sheen Fights For The Damned United

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Whether playing former Prime Minister Tony Blair (The Queen) or talk show host David Frost (Frost/Nixon), veteran actor Michael Sheen has become known to American audiences for playing an incredibly versatile range of characters from werewolves to now, football coaches.

Though football -- oops, soccer to us Americans -- hasn't won the legion of fans that are found worldwide, director Tom Hooper's The Damned United tells a story that is virtually universal in the world of sports. Hell, it's universal to men everywhere. In the film, Sheen plays legendary coach Brian Clough whose powerful alliance with coach Peter Taylor (Tim Spall) -- his right hand man -- forges such a deep and abiding friendship that it leads them to success and a totally platonic love affair.

Though men don't bond the way women do with their history of kaffee klatches and knitting circles so well reflected in a show like Sex In The City, they do unite through certain shared experiences, such as playing or being a fan of a sport. Passions run high for soccer, and Clough is driven to take his team, Derby County, out of the lower ranks to spitting range of the top title -- especially because of an imagined snub by the title-holder, Leed United's manager Don Revie (Colm Meany).

In '74, when Clough is offered the helm of Leeds United, England's top football club, this previously successful manager's abrasive approach and dislike for the team's dirty playing style creates such friction that his job is doomed.

Glimpses of his earlier career help explain his hostility and how much he is missing Taylor, who loyally stayed with Brighton and Hove Albion -- a team that he and Clough were supposed to managed after Clough was summarily dismissed from Leeds. Though this story is from an early part of Clough's illustrious career, it tells a tale of enormous ego and redemption that we all can appreciate, whether we be football fans or not.

Q: Your ability to play disparate characters like Clough and Frost is uncanny; though both have big egos they are very different people. You've been able to play people with big egos in very different ways. You don't see you as Frost, you see Frost. What do you pick up on in the people that you play?

MS: [That's] part of all the proprietary, preparation work -- which is usually like three or four months before we start filming. Most people think that's me trying to copy the person, trying to do an impersonation or get their voice right. Actually, what that work mainly is about is trying to make an imaginative connection with the person.

On some level, as I immerse myself in their world and find out everything I can find out about them--watch them every day, listen to them, read about them and talk about them--slowly, slowly, slowly, I start to unconsciously make a connection with them.

The things that I'm drawn to in these characters [are] qualities that they share. There's ego, obviously; there's a certain kind of facility, a charm about them in a way; there's a public image and then a private image -- there's a big gap between what they're trying to put across to the world and what they're actually feeling underneath. These are all things I can relate to myself, and they're all things that I am aware of as being part of my daily life as an actor or as a human being.

Parts of my experience will start to mirror parts of their experience, so that by the time we come to film I'm playing me in different circumstances. I just want to be transformed enough in the process so that when I get there I'm playing me with a different voice and I look different, and I grew up in a different place, and I had a different set of things happen to me in my life. That's what I'm aiming for, so that when I'm doing the film I'm not acting, I'm just playing me.

Then, of course, I get cast as these characters because Peter Morgan obviously sees that I can portray certain elements of what he's interested in. A lot of his films are about power, and about fame, and media. And there tends to be two opposing characters in them, whether it's the Queen and Blair or Frost and Nixon.

Clough is interesting in that those two figures are both in him in a way. There's Taylor on the one hand, and there's Revie on the other hand. but Clough is his own good guy. He's a hero and villain all in one; there's something very self destructive about Clough.

That's what was exciting about doing this one -- the opportunity to not just be the Blair/Frost type character, [but] that I could also be the Nixon/Queen type character at the same time, that both those sides come together.

Q: How do you prepare to be someone like Clough compared to to being a vampire in New Moon -- the sequel to Twilight?

MS: I enjoy doing things that involve research because it's part of what I enjoy about acting. The vampire thing, I might watch every film I can find with vampires in it, just to see what other people's takes are on it, or to get inspired.

When I played Lucian [the Lucan pack leader in Underworld] I read about the history of wolves in Europe and the history of the werewolf as a symbol, and all that other stuff. So I'm trying to find a context within which I'm going to perform.

If I'm playing a real-life person, then obviously the context is their actual life. I did a film called Music Within about a guy who had extreme cerebral palsy and he was a real person. So not only did I spend time with him, but I felt his responsibility to represent people living with cerebral palsy as accurately as I possibly can.

But if I'm playing a fictional character, there's always stuff you can do. I did a film called Dirty Filthy Love about a man who had Tourette's [syndrome] and OCD, so obviously there's research to be done there about OCD and Tourette's. I want to get as specific as I can.

So there's always stuff that you can do, and just because it's a fictional character doesn't mean that there's not just as much research, and just as much contextualizing.

Q: At one time you were in three high-profile films -- as David Frost, Tony Blair, and you played Lucian the werewolf leader -- It took me about an hour into Underworld to realize it was you. When did you know that you wanted to do Clough?

MS: Bizarrely, I wanted to be a football player for many years -- given the film we're talking about. When I was 12, I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal Football Club. But, by the time I was 14, or 15, I'd let that go, and I knew by then that acting was what I wanted to do. I never really questioned it before I realized I was at drama school and then I was working. So there wasn't a day when I kind of went, "I want to be an actor."

There was a day I went to interviews for universities when I was 17, I guess, and I remember I was going to do English at university. You get a local authority grant to go to university or to drama school, and you can only get one. I remember coming back from one interview and realizing that if I go to university, I can't go to drama school. That was the first time I had to think about it.

I got home and said to my mom and dad, "I don't want to go to university, I want to go to drama school." My mum said, "Right; I'm going to have a word with your father," and there was a heated discussion downstairs.

Then she came up and said, "We support you in whatever you want to do." So that was the only time I really thought about it. Otherwise I just sort of carried on.

Q: Was there ever a moment when you said, "You know, I can act," like you were really doing work you enjoyed?

MS: Well, I come from a small town in Wales, and went to London and to drama school. When I got [there], I thought that everyone there was going to be brilliant. Then I went, "Actually, I'm probably better than most of these people," and a large part of that was because of the youth theater I'd been in at home. It was a brilliant youth theater, and it taught me not only a lot about acting, but also about work ethic; it was very disciplined.

I took that completely for granted until I got to London and drama school, and realized some people had never even acted before. They sort of auditioned for drama school and got in, but they'd never actually acted in anything. [There were] people who had been maybe in youth theaters, but never really done anything. So I realized I'd already gone through a training before I got there.

There were people there whose parents had never seen them act, which I found bizarre -- your parents aren't supportive? That's when I first realized I had very supportive parents and was very fortunate.

The other thing I realized was that other people didn't really seem to care about it as much as I did. I was completely obsessed about acting, and not only about plays now, but about the tradition of acting, and the history of it, and actors who had gone before in film. I just couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to talk about it all the time, and I wanted to watch as much as I could, and try different things out, and I enjoyed it so much as well.

Other people just didn't seem to be into it that much. There were a lot of people in my drama school who left worse actors than they were when they came in because of taking it apart, I think, and people lost their instinctive joy of it. But my instinctive joy for acting has never left me. In fact, it grows all the time.

Q: I wondered if you're drawn to films that also have late night drunken phone calls.

MS: We were a bit concerned about that with The Damned United. But of course the problem in modern day filmmaking and stories, it's really hard to get around the whole "having conversations on the phone" kind of thing. I hope it's not lazy story telling.

But look at the Jane Austen films and there's always a messenger on horse bringing a message, because that's how they had to do it. Or letter-writing and you hear voice-over as someone's writing as their desk. Inevitably there's got to be a certain amount of that. But yeah, the old drunk phone call is a tricky one, isn't it?

Q: What did you learn about playing this character?

MS: I realized a big thing for Clough -- Clough is the villain and the hero, and if Revie was more monstrous that would sort of detract from that.

The big question was, why does Clough go to Leeds? Why does he say yes to that job? He knows it's going to go terribly for him, it's not going to work out. But he can't say no, he has to say yes, because of the choices he's made in the past. Because he said everything he said about Leeds, because he feels like he has to beat Revie, he has to better him and best him.

Then when he's offered Revie's job, if he says no to it, that's admitting defeat, that's saying, "I can't do as good a job as Revie." So he has to say yes even though he knows it's never going to work out for him. And his own personality is such that when he gets there on that first day with the Leeds players, I wanted there to be a moment before I started speaking to them where Clough really doesn't know what he's going to say, he doesn't know what his tactic is going to be.

They're all standing there, and they know he's said terrible things about them, and he knows that they know it, and in that moment he could say, "Listen lads, I know I've said awful things, but let's put that in the past, and let's move on," and it all could have been different. But he can't because he's Brian Clough. He has to go, "Right then. You lot..." because that's the way he is, that's the way he does things. He can't stop himself.

And that perceived slight, right at the end in that last interview when he says, "You didn't shake my hand," and Revie says, "I just didn't know who you were."

Clough realizes in that moment, "Oh my god, this whole obsession has been over something that he wasn't even aware of. I thought that he was trying to pop me down and he was arrogant and he did it on purpose, and he didn't. He just didn't know who I was."

Q: What did you learn about yourself in making this film and playing this character?

MS: I learned that we create our own traps for ourselves. We make choices in our life and those choices make certain things inevitable in the future somehow. It seems like you're the victim of circumstance, but in fact you're kind of creating your own circumstances a lot of the time by choices you make. It's like we have a blind spot, and that blind spot is this sort of reality maker that's creating our reality for us.

Q: All the dynamics you have describe here is even there with a mythic character like the one you played in Underworld.

MS: One of my big heroes is [the late author] Joseph Campbell, and mythology is my great passion in life. I always find that when people ask about, "You did The Queen, why'd you go off and do this stuff about vampires?" there's a huge snobbishness, an intellectual sort of snobbery about genres.

All these things are stories, that's all they are; they're not documentaries, they're not real. Just because it's Frost/Nixon or whatever, it's not real, it's just a story, and all these characters are are components in a story. And they're all telling a journey, all it is is about going on a journey.

You go back to Greek times and the Eleusinian Mysteries, you go on a ritualistic journey that is ultimately about life, death, and rebirth. We all go through it together, and we all feel a bit more connected, and we're reminded what the important thing is about living. That's it. That's what art is, basically.

So all these stories are about taking on the journey, and there's no more validity about going on a journey being taken by Brian Clough, David Frost, Richard Nixon, or the werewolf Lucian--it's just about a story. And I see things in those mythological terms, I suppose.

Q: What makes you want to be a storyteller?

MS: A number of reasons. One, because stories are, I think, a large part of why it's good to be alive. It's how we communicate, whether we're saying once upon a time or we're just telling a story about what's happened in our day--it's how we actually connect to each other. Stories have always been the things that entertain me and make me feel happy and sad and move me and give me the experience of being able to live many lives in one lifetime. It's the best thing about being alive. So to be part of that tradition is very exciting.

Also, I find the mechanics of storytelling endlessly fascinating--what makes a story work, and what is it about some stories that hook us and make us feel moved, and other stories don't do anything, just leave us feeling cold.

Q: You're in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. With the White Rabbit, you have one of the great mythic figures. Do you get to say "I'm late, I'm late"?

MS: Pretty much, almost.

Q: So did you do any research?

MS: I can't say that there was as much research for that as there was for the other things I've done. I'm a huge fan of the original stories, a big fan of Tim Burton's films, so I didn't really feel like I needed to do too much research. I think I got what was necessary there.

In a way it's great to do it because I said to Tim not long ago, "How is the film looking?" and he said, "I have absolutely no idea," because so much of it has to be done in post-production and built up slowly. So he had no idea what the final thing would look like until it gets right to the end of the process.

So I'm excited about going to the cinema and watching it, even though I'm in it. I'm really looking forward to seeing it because it will be like I know nothing about it, almost. I remember the script, and it was a great script, but it will be fantastic to watch the whole thing.

Q: Do you try to keep a balance?

MS: I suppose, without realizing it, I try to keep a balance, I guess. It's not conscious. But I'm sure that when a script comes along, if I'd just been doing something that's been a very particular type of character and a script comes along that's very different, I'm naturally going to be more inclined towards it. But it's not a conscious thing.

The main reason why I will want to do a particular script, first of all, is if I read the script and I'm just gripped by the story and I find it entertaining, compelling, and all that. That's absolutely the first reason.

The second reason is if I think the character itself is going to stretch me and challenge me as an actor. I don't want to do something that I've done before; I can't see the point of it. So even though I've just played Blair for the third time [The Special Relationship, now filming], I did it again because it was very different. I thought I could explore that character further and hone it more and just show different sides of that character.

Q: Of course it makes sense that you would go from doing a werewolf to a vampire. This must be an incredible challenge, to really give you a chance to play around.

MS: There's also the thing of, vampires are like Nazis. British actors really loved to play a Nazi because there are all these great Nazis. In the past, [it used to be that] you give your Nazi. And in the same way you give your vampire, it's like your Hamlet or something. There are all these great vampire films, and there's a whole tradition of it. And having been a werewolf many times, I thought, I love the idea of being able to go into that whole vampire thing.

Q: You can discuss it with your Frost/Nixon co-star Frank Langella (who played Dracula).

MS: I can discuss with Frank Langella, exactly. And Bill Nighy and Gary Oldman and all these great people. For some reason, vampires attract a lot of actors who are known for doing more serious, classical roles.

For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com