Welshman Michael Sheen broke out in the U.S. as Tony Blair in 2006’s The Queen, then followed it up with a juicy role as journalist Sir David Frost in another Best Picture nominee, Frost/Nixon. But it’s safe to say that most people probably recognize Sheen as Aro, the telepathic leader of the Volturi vampire clan in a little movie called New Moon. Down the line, he can be seen as a nightclub host in Tron: Legacy and again as Blair (for the third time!) in HBO’s The Special Relationship, but first up is this Friday’s Alice in Wonderland, in which he voiced the White Rabbit. Sheen spoke with Vulture about advising the Twilight kids, his dad’s Jack Nicholson impersonation, and those other famous Sheens.
What was your experience like on Alice in Wonderland?
Tim wanted all the animal characters to be very realistic. I was hoping that I would get to put my rabbit suit on and jump around, but it wasn’t required, unfortunately. I mean, I was filmed as a reference. Tim wanted me to perform it, not just to think about it as a voice part. They used a lot of my hand movements and that.
You had the motion-capture suit on?
It wasn’t as complicated as that. It was just a video camera, literally to use as a guide, but when I watched the film, I was kind of amazed to how close to my physical movements it was.
There was some controversy over the movie’s limited-release schedule. Did you pay attention to that at all?
I didn’t, to be honest. It seemed like lots of people who both stand to make or lose lots of money, none of which involves me. So I could sort of care less, really.
You were also in New Moon. What’s that phenomenon look like from the inside?
Very exciting — and pain free, in my case. I just got to turn up for a couple of weeks, went around as the top vampire with everyone sort of bowing down to me, and then turn up the premiere and enjoy lots of screaming people. And, meanwhile, becoming the coolest dad in the world.
Did you give the movie’s young stars any advice?
The stuff that they’re having to deal with, I’ve never had to deal with. That kind of huge, sudden popularity. I wouldn’t know where to begin with to advise someone on that. For me it’s been a long slow build, and I’m very glad. It can, I can imagine, be very overwhelming, to suddenly find yourself as one of the most sought-after, popular, read about, gossiped about people in the business. It would be difficult for anyone at any age, but certainly for teenagers it must be very difficult. I don’t envy them, but I do admire them very much for the way they seem to be handling it.
Do you have any thoughts about the last Twilight book being split into two movies and shot in 3-D?
I hear about this through people that are interviewing me. I have no idea. But for the fans, I would imagine they’d love the idea. I don’t know anything either way, really.
You’ll be playing Tony Blair for the third time in The Special Relationship. Have you gotten feedback from Blair on your performances?
No. Well, I met him once last year — which was obviously fascinating to me, someone that I’ve played and know so much about — but when he was asked, he said he hadn’t seen the films. He had a surprising amount of knowledge about the films for someone who hasn’t seen the films. But I understand, if he says he hasn’t seen the films then people can’t really ask him questions about them. But in doing the research for that last one, I watched a couple of interviews with him which have come out after The Queen, and at one point he was asked whether it was true that when he went to meet the queen the day that he became prime minister, did he get the protocol wrong and kiss her hand? And Blair gets a bit sheepish, doesn’t really know what to say, and then he says, “Well, what do they do in the movie?” In other words, that’s exactly what happened. That was kind of interesting, to see him referring to my performance in order to answer questions about his own life.
You broke through in America at a late stage in your career. Were you surprised as to how and when it happened?
I suppose it was a surprise. I spent a few years in L.A. trying to do more films, trying to have an American film career, an American film presence. I suppose the surprise was, when it came, it was through doing a British film, and playing a quintessentially British character in a quintessentially British film. I thought if I was going to have some kind of American film career it would come from doing American studio films. Only when it was when I had let go of that and thought, Well, this isn’t going to work out. I’ll just focus on doing the sort of work that I want to do, and I’ll give up on the idea of a film career, then as soon as I did do that, it seemed to take off. There was a lesson in there somewhere, for me.
There was also Frost/Nixon, which you started with on the stage.
Yeah. I started in a small rehearsal room in London and ended up at the Oscars.
I read online that your father is a Jack Nicholson impersonator?
That’s right. Weirdly, it’s sort of come around full circle, but it was because of Tim Burton. When the first Batman came out, suddenly overnight people came up to my dad saying, “you really look like Jack Nicholson.” He started working as that, sort of as a hobby, really, and it took off. He’s traveled all around the world, done some fantastic things. And now here I am, up working with Tim Burton.
Do you ever get mistaken for a member of the American Sheen family?
Oh, yeah, all the time, I always get asked about that, and of course their real name is Esteves. And I met Martin once and I got to ask him about where he got the name. Funny enough, the only other Sheen I’d ever heard of was a man named Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin said it was Bishop Fulton Sheen, who was a TV evangelist in the fifties. When Martin was looking for a name — he’d been advised that his name was a little too ethnic to get on — he thought Bishop Fulton Sheen spoke very well on the TV, so he took his name.