THE BIG INTERVIEW
October 17-23 1998
He’s an acclaimed Mozart, he’s British theatre’s big new hope and he’s only 29. So what now for Michael Sheen? If he had his way, says Imogen Edwards-Jones, it would be a clinch with Sharon Stone (on screen, of course). Portrait: Mitch Jenkins
Sitting in the hessian-clad confines of the Theatre Royal’s star dressing room in Bath, I am waiting for Michael Sheen. Having just stormed the matinee performance as Mozart in Peter Hall’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (to a packed house of very appreciative blue rinses), he’s at the stage door, chatting amiably to his old drama school teacher from his pre-RADA days in Port Talbot.
Smiling and apologising as he enters, he appears very different from the swaggering, chintz-clad character on stage. Dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans, a thick silver necklace, rings and a Ralph Lauren jacket, he looks more like a DJ on his night off than an actor between performances.
“Funny things, matinees.” he says in the lightest of Welsh lilts, as he flops on to the chaise longue next to me, framed by the giant, bulbed make-up mirror behind him. “You get a very specific kind of audience – older people, actors who’ve got shows and students. It’s a strange mixture.” He lights a cigarette. “If you come down too much from the matinee, you’re really tired for the
one in the evening, but then again, if you keep up too much, then you can tire yourself out as well.”
Playing opposite David Suchet’s excellent bitter and jealous Salieri, Sheen’s wonderful and beguiling portrayal of the child prodigy corrupted by wild pleasures is enough to emotionally exhaust any audience. What it must do to the man himself is anyone’s guess. “Oh I know,” he smiles with mock exhaustion “But it’s a great part, isn’t it? There’s such a great journey in it. The challenge is to try and make someone who is so obnoxious and arrogant on the page into a real person and not a caricature.”
And in that, Sheen succeeds beautifully, without once resorting to the burlesque. “The key to it.” he explains, “was the way that Mozart was brought up as a freak. Not having any other children to relate to, other things just didn’t develop. I don’t think he had the ability to say how he was truly feeling. Any doubts or anything like that, he would not have known how to communicate those. He just wants people to like him and he can’t understand why they don’t. What Peter Shaffer has written for Salieri and for Mozartis two people who are trapped in their own personalities,” he continues. “Their essence is good, they want good things and they are good people, but because of their circumstances and their personalities, they get into this situation. There shouldn’t really be a bad guy in the play.”
And there are certainly no bad scenes, either. Salieri plots and hatches evil plans while Mozart pens beautiful operas that die after the opening night. “I didn’t really know much of Mozart’s music,” says Sheen, “just all the obvious ones that all we plebs know. But his music becomes more and more extraordinary the more you listen.”
Sheen’s entrance has him coming across like an over-sexed cat. chasing his girlfriend on all fours, frotting the furniture in some kind of kinky game. It has to rank as one of the most bizarre theatrical entrées. Sheen cringes. “It’s the most embarrassing thing you can do. Your first entrance and you’re going: ‘Miaow. I’m going to pounce, pounce.’ It’s just terrible.” He laughs. “On the first day of rehearsals Peter Shaffer was talking about the play, and he said the big problem with doing a play about someone really famous is how do you get them on stage to begin with? Because you can’t have someone saying, ‘Oh hello, Mozart.’ Or ‘Oh Mozart, there you are. Written anything today?’ So he thought the best way to bring him on was not as himself. So he brings
him on as a cat. Which is brilliant.”
Sheen did practise cat movements in the flat in Kensington, London, he shares with his actress girlfriend of four years, Kate Beckinsale who announced her pregnancy earlier this week. “A little bit,” he admits, “because me and my girlfriend have got five cats, so I used to watch them to think of things I could bring to it. Because if you don’t really go for it you just lay yourself open to being really embarrassed.”
As a graduate of the youth theatres of West Glamorgan and Wales as well as a RADA-trained actor who won the Laurence Olivier
bursary in his second year, he has done his share of improvising. ”I remember once I decided to be a black widow spider.” laughs Sheen, “because I realised they don’t move very much, they just hide in the rafters and drop on animals and kill them. So I just sat on top of the piano, not moving at all, and this one lad came up who was doing a Labrador puppy, barking and I just jumped on him, off the piano.”
Charming, witty and loquacious, this 29-year-old from Port Talbot (proud home town of Richard Burton and Antony Hopkins) is theatre’s great young hope. His rise has been nothing if not meteoric. A middle-class boy from a working-class area, his parents, Meyrick and Irene, worked in personnel but were big on performing.
“In fact,” says Sheen proudly, “my dad is Britain’s leading professional Jack Nicholson lookalike, so there’s a bit of glitz and glamour in there. He’s starting to get more publicity than me. He’s going round the world doing it now.”
Having turned down a potential professional footballing career at Arsenal after being talent-spotted on holiday by Tony Adams’s father, Sheen chose drama school over university. Such was his talent that in 1991, aged just 21, he left early to play the West End opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Martin Sherman’s When She Danced.
“I went from classes one day to a read-through with Vanessa Redgrave,” recounts Sheen, with a mixture of awe and irony. “I didn’t know any better. If I’d done one or two jobs in rep, or l hadn’t worked for a while then, it probably would have freaked me out more, but as it was I took it entirely in my stride.”
And once he had set foot on the West End stage, it seemed that casting directors couldn’t get enough of him. He has played Romeo at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, and Peer Gynt in Yukio Ninagawa’s 1994 RSC staging of the play. He premiered opposite Ian Holm in Harold Pinter’s Moonlight at the Almeida in 1993, only to return to Pinter at the National in the Sixties classic The Homecoming with Lindsay Duncan three years later, when he also played Daniel in The Ends of the Earth at the Cottesloe. Then most recently he has played the king in the RSC’s Henry V, before touring with Amadeus.
With such a career behind him, it would be forgivable if Sheen found the idea of artistic mediocrity as expressed in Amadeus tricky to get to grips with. “It’s your own sense of mediocrity that drives you on,” he says, “as soon as you start thinking ‘I’m great I am’, then you’re lost. You’ve got to have self-doubt to push yourself forward. I feel the most mediocre actor around, most of the time.” So far, Sheen’s success has largely been confined to the stage. He has flirted a little with the silver screen, playing opposite Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly and as Robbie Ross in Wilde with Stephen Fry.
“The reason I haven’t done more film is because nobody ever asks me,” he admits with disarming honesty. “It’s quite a hard thing to get into, mostly because I’m sort of not available. You have to keep going up for things and eventually one will come off.” He smiles. “But I love doing film. I don’t really fancy doing telly that much. Everyone has to compromise on telly these days and there’s such a factory mentality to it.”
At the end of the day, the theatre is Sheen’s true love. “I’m passionate about what theatre is there for.” he explains. “Why it was invented and potentially what it can be. I also develop much more as an actor through doing plays in the theatre, than anything else. You just learn much more about storytelling – how to tell it without drawing attention to yourself, so that people leave thinking about the character and not you.”
And how about all that lovely live applause? “Oh no,” he says. “I always find that a bit embarrassing, actually. I become a moody little b***** at the end of a play. Maybe it’s because you have to come out as yourself and not in character at the end. It would be quite nice if you could sit behind a screen and hear it from there.” He pauses. “You must remember that theatre started out as the most communal thing you could do. It was no accident that actors wore masks, there were no stars then, it was all about the story. To get back to that a bit more would be great.”
Sheen has a remarkably mature attitude towards fame. “I’m driven by it as much as everyone else,” he admits. “I’d be a fool to say I didn’t want to be famous and successful. But at the same time I think there is too much of a temptation, in a society where stars are the new aristocracy and the driving force is stardom, to forget the reasons you became an actor in the first place.”
Living with Kate Beckinsale, not only does he see the downside of celebrity, he also knows that it is nowhere near as glamorous as it may appear. “We sit in our flat every now and again,” he says, “and wonder why it is that we’re not loaded. We haven’t stopped working. I haven’t made a great deal because I work in the theatre, but we can’t spend that much on going out for meals, surely? So we sit around moaning.”
In the meantime, Sheen is taking advantage of his success in the theatre to branch out from acting. With actress Helen McCrory and director Robert Delamere he has started a production company called the Foundry. Here, not only does he direct instead of act, but he also promotes the work of new writers. He also runs another company, Thin Language, set up to promote Wales’s image, which presented Bad Finger at the Donmar Warehouse last year.
“I feel strongly about where I come from,” explains Sheen. “So we wanted to set up a theatre company to do existing Welsh work and create new Welsh work.” He pauses while I giggle. “I know, Wales is the only place left in Britain you can still take the p*** out of,” he says, clearly disapproving of such lack of solidarity in a fellow Welsh person. “But we just want to let people hear a bit about Wales. I think that we’ve been a bit too insular for a long time and a bit scared of trying to prove ourselves outside of Wales, but that can only be to our detriment.”
Being so sought after means that Sheen has had little time to perfect the traditional speciality of actors, ie, the art of resting. In fact, he doesn’t appear to have ever had any time off. Working continuously since leaving RADA, he has done jobs back to back – there have even been periods where his work has overlapped. “But I have been unemployed,” he protests. “When I finished Henry V before Christmas, I didn’t really do anything for four months, which is quite a long time.” he looks pleased.
“I can find it very easy not to work, to be honest. I find it hard to relax, but once I do there’s no end of things I like doing. Like playing on my Playstation …” he begins, trying to think up some activities that will prove he really does know how to waste whole days. “Playing pool with my mates, slobbing around, plenty of Richard and Judy. It’s great. That’s why I love the National,” he says, “because you only have to do about four performances a week.”
Surely he must have done something to mess up his fabulous career? Has he failed? Had a hangover? “I’ve done it on a hangover once and never again,” he admits. “You really have to look after yourself. If you’re playing leading parts like Mozart, you’ve got to be on top form. In fact, you’ve got to be rather a good boy.”
So would he prefer to be the fêted but untalented Salieri, or the undiscovered Mozart? “Oh no, I don’t want to die at 35 in poverty,” he says. “But there’s this thing with artists that in order to have integrity, you have to really suffer, and if you feel like you’re doing too well, then you’re not on the cutting edge.” And if it came to it, would he rather paint himself blue and run around naked on stage or clinch with Sharon Stone? “I’d like to do both to be honest. Paint myself blue and s*** Sharon Stone.”