10/07/2009 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Michael Sheen gets real again in Damned United

Yes, Michael Sheen says, he did his own stunts while playing English football legend Brian Clough in the new film The Damned United - including making a couple of bicycle kicks (that went into the goal!) and suffering a cheap shot that left him in a heap on the pitch.

"My shoulder is still sore from taking that hit," says Sheen, 40, with a smile that's at least part wince. "But this was the opportunity for my two passions to come together, so I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to display my football prowess."

He pauses, thinking back to a youth in Wales spent dreaming of playing professional soccer (he was offered an apprenticeship by a professional team as a pre-teen, which his father made him refuse). The smile is real as he crows slightly about the skills he's been able to retain as a weekend warrior: "We did my stunts in one take - and I made those shots on the very first try. It's all still there.

"Oh, the fitness level is not as good. But the ball control is still there. When I got on the field, I'd turn up and shout at everyone. I carried on. There was a lot of good-natured rivalry. I said from the outset that I was the best player on the field. As Clough would."

The Damned United, opening Friday (10.9.09) in limited release, tells the story of Clough's rise, fall and rise as a storied British coach in the professional leagues. Relatively unknown in the U.S., Clough caused a media sensation in Great Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s for his provocative media presence, as he took a lowly team to the top of the league, while sparking a rivalry with a perennial champion's vaunted coach.

"Clough was the most outrageous, outspoken, controversial, opinionated, brilliant character - and a master media manipulator," Sheen says. "He pushed buttons. He said things to get a reaction. Interviewers never knew what he would say next. Usually you get one sports cliché after another. But Clough was something else. It was like he'd come from another planet.

"He just jumped out at you. He had a different kind of energy. He made everyone laugh. My dad would shout at the TV when he was on."

Tom Hooper, who directed The Damned United, says, "I think he was our Muhammad Ali. There's that sense of a man who is brilliant at self-mythologizing, who escaped being categorized, a sporting icon who, in his time, was an amazing player. I was interested in why Clough was such an iconic figure."

Written by playwright Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), the film offers Sheen yet another opportunity to play a real-life character in a miniaturist approach to the standard biopic.


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