Theater News

On the Sheen

In Frost/Nixon, Michael Sheen once again tackles the role of a real-life figure with consummate skill.

Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon
(© Joan Marcus)

Welsh-born actor Michael Sheen has practically made a career of playing real-life characters. In the past few years, he’s been on stage as the Roman emperor Caligula at London’s Donmar Warehouse and as composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the West End and Broadway revivals of Amadeus. He has also played British prime minister Tony Blair twice, in the 2003 TV drama The Deal and in last year’s Oscar-winning film The Queen, opposite Dame Helen Mirren. And he’s racked up a shelf full of awards for these portrayals.

Now, Sheen has returned to Broadway playing another famous personage: television interviewer David Frost in Peter Morgan’s London hit Frost/Nixon, directed by Michael Grandage and co-starring Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. Sitting in his dressing room at the Jacobs Theatre, Sheen proves utterly engaging. Like many great actors, his passion for his work is infectious.


THEATERMANIA: I’ve read that you once said, “In searching for monsters to play, you often end up playing leaders.” True?

MICHAEL SHEEN: These are the kinds of characters I like to play: Caligula, Nero, Mozart. Geniuses who are larger than life — who sometimes are monsters and madmen, but are also great leaders.

TM: Is there a difference when you’re playing a live person like David Frost or Tony Blair and a dead person like Caligula?

MS: The major difference is the familiarity of the audience with the person. No one knows what Nero or Caligula sounded like, so you’ve got a bit more leeway. When you’re playing someone like Tony Blair, people are very familiar with him, so you have to do a lot of research. But you also have to go beyond that because, when you walk out on stage or face the camera, the audience expects something. If you don’t deliver that, they get disappointed.

TM: What’s your research process for those sorts of roles, like Blair or Frost?

MS: I watch footage and spend hours and hours studying and reading about the person — not just to try and copy what they do or imitate them, but like with any character I play, I have to connect. The only way I can relate to the characters is by recognizing things in them that I recognize in myself. They may be more exaggerated, but you have to find that bit of you and then bring it out. You do the same with a made-up person and a real-life character.

Michael Sheen in The Queen
Michael Sheen in The Queen

TM: Do you do this before you begin rehearsal, or do you wait until you start?

MS: You can’t be spending your time in rehearsal researching. At a certain point, you have to let all your research go and begin acting and telling the story. In fact, the research can sometime get in the way of telling a story. Frost/Nixon is not about me playing David Frost or Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon; it’s the story of Richard Nixon and David Frost doing these television interviews. That’s the story I have to play. It’s the same with Tony Blair. In The Queen, it’s not about me playing Tony Blair, but about Tony Blair at a certain time in a certain set of circumstances.

TM: You’ve worked with Michael Grandage and Peter Morgan before on other projects. What it’s like working together again?

MS: I understand why actors and directors and playwrights want to work with the same people over and over again. We have developed a familiar language and a wonderful way of working together. I’d go anywhere to work with them.

TM: British actors have a reputation of coming to the first rehearsal off-book. Do you do that?

MS: The only time I ever did it was for Caligula with Michael. The part was so enormous that he suggested I learn it beforehand, so I could began rehearsals just working on the character. So I did. Luckily, I’m very fast. I read through a scene once and I have it memorized.

TM: Do you come from a theatrical family?

MS: Our family is a mixture of preachers, fairground people, carneys — and, somewhere back there, my great-great-great-grandmother was an elephant and lion tamer with Barnum and Bailey. She used to come to America with the circus. She got kind of mauled by one of the lions who took off her left breast; the claw of the lion is still on a chain around the neck of someone in our family. I think there was an acrobat also, but really, I’m the first person who’s gone into acting.

TM: When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?

MS: When I was 14. I joined the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre in Port
Talbot, where I was raised, and I really enjoyed that. You stayed in a big house and rehearsed and slept there in dormitories. Then you would do a public performance at the end of two or three weeks. There was one summer course and one Christmas course. That’s all I lived for. It seemed like the most glamorous exotic thing ever, but there was not one moment when I thought this is what I wanted to do. I still wanted to go to University

TM: But you ended up going to London to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts?

MS: Port Talbot is this small, working-class, mining town, but it’s the same town that Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins came from. And Dylan Thomas came from the city next to Port Talbot. So I felt like I was part of a tradition. Acting was considered a manly thing to do there, because Burton and Hopkins were both men’s men.

TM: During your second year at RADA, you were awarded the Society of West End Theatres/Laurence Olivier Bursary for outstanding performance. Were you instantly recognized as special at RADA?

MS: I don’t think so. At the school, the staff goes out of their way to make sure they don’t single people out — which is great, because there is no hierarchy when you’re there. I played Oedipus when we did our first public production, but it was very democratic.

TM: What was your training like at RADA?

MS: It had a good mixture of British theatre training technique and voice production and modern American acting training. We studied Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, and Stanislavsky, so I felt like I got the best of both worlds. I left RADA early to do When She Danced by Martin Sherman with Vanessa Redgrave in the West End. It was an amazing first job.

TM: Do you have a wish list of parts for the future?

MS: I’d like to play Richard III and Othello and, eventually, Lear. But mainly, I want to continue to work on whatever comes my way.

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Closed: August 19, 2007