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Michael Sheen on Beautiful Boy and Role Whiplash

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

In Beautiful Boy, Michael Sheen and Maria Bello play grieving parents who must come to grips with the fact that their son has perpetrated a massacre. It’s a drastic change in tone and content from the last film Sheen had a major role in — Tron Legacy, where he played a peroxide-blond baddie with extreme flamboyance — but that’s the way this Welsh actor likes it. Toggling freely from fact-based dramas like The Queen and Frost/Nixon to vampire movies like The Twilight Saga and Underworld, Sheen (who can also currently be seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) keeps his roles as diverse as possible, and as he told Vulture, there’s a method to his madness.

Are you aware of this film with Tilda Swinton that just played at Cannes, We Need to Talk About Kevin? Who would have thought that around the same time, there’d be these two films about parents struggling with their child having committed a mass shooting?
Yeah, I’ve heard about it. What is that all about? You don’t get anything about a certain subject matter, and then there’s lots all at the same time. I haven’t seen that film, but I’m sure it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful director, Lynne Ramsay, and Tilda Swinton is a phenomenal actress. If the work is good and it’s well made, hopefully there’s room to see a number of films about the same thing. We do see a lot of films about love! [Laughs.]

This is a very controlled performance, but you’ve also played very flamboyant men recently. Do you ever get role whiplash from two wildly different back-to-back parts?
In a way, that’s the thing that helps. To bounce out of one thing that I’m really immersed in, I sort of need something to be totally different to get me out of the last thing I did.

What was the best example of that?
I remember when I was doing Tony Blair in The Queen, the next thing I was going to do was a film about a very well-known actor in Britain called Kenneth Williams, and he was very, very skinny, so there was no way around it: I just had to lose a lot of weight. So, all through The Queen I was losing a lot of weight, and because we shot it all out of sequence, when I watch the film now I can see Fat Blair walk out of a room and then Thin Blair comes out the other side. I also remember Frost/Nixon and Underworld 3 coming out on almost the same day, which was an extraordinary double bill. After Frost, I’d been doing that for two years and then I did the film of it, so I had kind of let myself go on purpose. He needed to look like someone who enjoyed food and the finer things in life, and then I had to get myself ready to play a lean, mean werewolf in Underworld 3. That was quite a switch.

And you just played a Christ-like figure a month ago for a live performance in Wales, so I’m sure there will be some crazy whiplash from whatever you take on next.
For the first time ever, in fact, after doing that I thought I can’t go on to something else after this. It was such an intense experience, so I’m still sort of in my phase where I need a long lay down in a darkened room, really.

Can you tell me about that play? I read that it was essentially a nonstop three-day performance that ended in your crucifixion?
It’s something that I did in my hometown in Wales, and I’ve been working on it for two years. Ultimately, it was one performance that took place over three days, 72 hours of nonstop, continuous action, and it took place all over the town in different locations. It was based around the story of the Passion and it played over Easter weekend, but it was very much set in the modern day and it was about the town celebrating its community. I played a teacher who disappears for 40 days and lives on the mountain above the town, then reappears on the morning of Friday. Extraordinarily, the very beginning of it was at dawn on Friday on the beach, this sort of unannounced happening with about 300 people there who’d heard rumors about it, and then it culminated with about 12,000 people standing on a roundabout watching the crucifixion scene at the end. To see all these people in a town take part in this story, it was an extraordinary experience.

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that your character Wesley Snipes didn’t show up in either the live episode or the 100th episode of 30 Rock.
Yeah! Well, he’s sort of unpredictable, so who knows where he’ll pop up again. That’s what’s enjoyable about the character: The more I played him, and the more Tina [Fey] got used to me playing him, the weirder he got.

Since he directed you in The Damned United, you must have been very pleased with the success Tom Hooper had at the Oscars this past year with The King’s Speech.
Oh, it’s amazing, for lots of reasons. Aside from Tom’s success, there were a number of people on that film who had also worked on The Damned United, so it was great to see them have so much success. And obviously for British film, it was a fantastic thing, and for Colin [Firth] as well, who’s a wonderful actor who’s been around for a long time.

Have you hit Tom up for a role in his next film, Les Misérables?
I only found out the other day that that’s what he might be doing! I haven’t hit him up yet, but I will. [Laughs.] I’m sure that the next time I see him, I’ll start singing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” while we’re in the bathroom or something.

Michael Sheen on Beautiful Boy and Role Whiplash