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On Acting: Interviews with Actors (2001)

Michael Sheen was one of the featured actors interviewed about his process and philosophy on acting and theatre in this 2001 book edited by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman. This nine page Q&A contains some fascinating and unique insights into how he approaches his work. Read his interview through either the gallery or text contents below.

Michael Sheen

Born in 1969 in Newport, Wales, Michael Sheen trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, where he won the Laurence Olivier Bursary and launched straight into a West End debut with When She Danced, playing opposite Vanessa Redgrave, in 1991. In 1993 he was nominated for the Ian Charleson Award for his performance in Don’t Fool with Love with the Cheek By Jowl company and played the role of Fred in the world premiere of Harold Pinter’s Moonlight at the Almeida (1993). In 1994 he played the title role in Peer Gynt in Ninagawa’s production in Oslo, Tokyo and London, and in 1996-7 he played Lenny in Pinter’s The Homecoming at the Royal National Theatre. He played the title role in Ron Daniels’ production of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company (1997) and took the role of Mozart in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus on Broadway (1999). His screen credits include the leading role in Gallowglass (1993), a three-part serial for the BBC, Stephen Frears’s Mary Reilly (1996), Wilde (1997), with Stephen Fry, and Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995). His most recent film project was Four Feathers, directed by Shekhar Kapur (2000).

What was your training as an actor, and do you specialize in any particular acting style?
I spent three years at RADA, but I think an actor’s overall training begins when he or she starts acting. I did school plays and attended a brilliant youth theatre at home in West Glamorgan. I think of that as my first real training. I started there when I was about fourteen and I left when I was twenty-one. I did seven years at that youth theatre and it was a tremendously formative experience, both personally and as an actor. I also performed with the National Youth Theatre and tried to do as much as I possibly could before I went to drama school.

I do not think I specialize in a certain type of acting, but people who have seen the work I have done so far would probably describe it in a particular way. I like the idea of being able to adapt to as many different ways of telling stories as possible. One thing that is common to everything I have done is that it has all been quite physical. I do not necessarily mean physical in the sense of Theatre de Complicite, but in terms of trying to bring a physical presence to what I do. In Britain, acting is seen as very technical, text based and vocally based, whereas in America acting is seen as very emotional, intuitive and perhaps more physical. I enjoy trying to become as technically proficient as possible while keeping intuitive and physical.

From what does your interest in the physical side of acting stem?
I have always been a physical person. I have always enjoyed playing sports and the first thing I wanted to be was a football player. When I started acting seriously, I always had the option of expressing a story physically. In some ways, my acting style is quite extreme. There was never a moment when it occurred to me to think physically about acting, but I think I was inspired to use my body by a teacher at RADA called Ben Benison, who came from a very physical background, a combination of tap-dancing and Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports improvisation company. He worked with us on improvisation. You never knew what you were going to do when you went into his classes, but at the same time he had a very definite set of beliefs about performance. It was quite a scary class because you had to take risks, but it was also enjoyable because of his personality. In fact, a lot of what I consider as my method of working was honed or influenced by the stuff we did with Ben.

Most of the work you do is in text-based theatre. What is the role of improvisation in your process of preparation for these types of roles?
The director Roger Michell thinks it is a good idea to improvise anything that is mentioned in the text that you do not actually see in the play. I agree with him, as this technique helps you to develop an actual physical memory of the scene as you are describing it on stage. The director Declan Donnellan also uses improvisation in a creative way. He asks you to put a scene into your own words, which is frightening to do but can be very useful. He often asks you to use the actual text from the play, but to improvise around it and try it different ways. His method is more about keeping the sense of improvisation without necessarily coming up with your own words and I try to carry this spirit of improvisation on stage to every performance. It is not that I try to do wildly different things every night, but that I keep that sense of inventiveness and freedom within a very particular structure. You need the spirit of inventiveness to give a performance that spark of life within the structure of the text and the scenes that you have worked on in rehearsal.

To what extent do you see yourself as your own director? You have directed plays yourself on occasion. Do you ever put your directorial skills into play as an actor?
Directors and producers have told me I should direct, and I have done on occasion. I always thought that developing a director’s eye is just a normal part of being an actor; it is just the way I look at things and it can be both a good and a bad quality in an actor. The good thing is that I have an overview of the whole show and I can be aware of what is happening beyond my own role as opposed to just being totally submerged in what I am doing. However, coming out of what I am doing can be risky, so I have had to cultivate my awareness of what is going on alongside being in the moment with the character. Over the years, I have become less interested in myself as an actor within a show and more interested in the piece as a whole.

Are you ever tempted to direct the other actors in a play you yourself are acting in?
No. Unless you are the director, there is very little you can do. You get into real trouble if you start telling people what to do as an actor. If I am playing a leading part such as Henry V or Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, I have a large influence on what the other actors are doing, because they are reacting off my character.

Henry V is a very good example: you come on, do a big speech and then go off again. There are not many opportunities to act with other people in real scenes, but from the beginning, I knew I wanted to underplay some of the rhetoric and speechifying. I spent a lot of time in rehearsals looking for ways in which I could involve other actors on stage, trying to make sure that no one was just standing there, holding a spear. I tried to get everyone really involved and I like to think that it helped other people in the play to have a more satisfying experience because the speeches became scenes. For me, it was brilliant because it enabled me to respond to people, even though I was speaking all the time. Playing characters who do a lot of talking, like Jimmy Porter, you have to find out what you are responding to all the time. Although I do not direct the other actors in any way, I do quite heavily influence how other characters respond to me.

Actors fall into two groups. There are actors who work quite slowly and put off making choices for quite a while; things simmer inside them and slowly towards the end of the process, their choices emerge. Then there are actors, such as me, who make a choice very quickly, throw it away and make another one immediately. I enjoy trying as many things as possible. You might make a particular choice for the beginning of the scene and then something else when you go over it again before the director makes a suggestion. When I have worked as a director, I have preferred directing the second kind of actor, because it seems a more collaborative process than working with an actor whose choices do not emerge for a long time. It does not necessarily mean that the performance is going to be any better or worse, though.

How important is the sense of ensemble in what you do?
Everything you do on stage has to have the ethos of an ensemble. A really good example of that for me was when I did Look Back in Anger. Jimmy Porter is a huge, dominating character who literally does not stop speaking and the other characters on stage basically have to just stand there, listening to him. It worked as an ensemble piece more than any other play I have ever done because we were a great company of actors. We communicated with each other very well and there were no egos getting in the way.

In terms of my own survival in the role of Jimmy, I knew I had to stop the audience from getting bored by listening to me talking all the time, so I decided to make my monologues seem like dialogues. It was important for the audience to see who and what Jimmy was responding to and I think anybody who talks that much is defending themselves. Then I had to work out what he was defending himself against. My take on Jimmy is that he feels he is constantly under attack; he even regards silence as a form of attack. Out of that reading came a sense of drama; not just an actor doing speeches. Even though the play is very textual, I think the production felt different because the other characters were just as important as Jimmy in the audience’s imagination, telling the story through silence and gesture. If a play is fully explored, every actor on stage makes an equal contribution and it becomes ensemble theatre rather than just a vehicle for some star.

“Acting in mainstream theatre has been fine, but I cannot see myself continuing in the same way for the rest of my life.”

Michael Sheen

Do you think, having spent some time in America, that there is lots more star-vehicle theatre in the USA?
The British and American theatre industries suffer equally from the pressures of commercial success. The financial pressures have completely perverted mainstream theatre on both sides of the Atlantic. Acting on a Broadway stage is the same as acting in the West End; the difference is so minimal as to be totally irrelevant. You are working for a management whose primary motivation is to make a financial success and, aside from the core middle-class audience, you are playing to an audience who is transient and usually touristy. It is a disembodied experience in some ways and you spend your time preaching to the converted. One of the major questions that people in the theatre community have to address is about audiences: why are you doing what you are doing and who is it you are doing it for? You cannot teach anyone anything through theatre; at best you can only reveal or share. I think sharing is the highest aspiration you can seek.

Is that how you would describe your relationship with the audience?
I think so. I think my relationship with the audience has changed over the years and it will keep changing. At the moment, I feel like the most you can hope for is to share and you have to be open and vulnerable to do this. When you work on something, you come to love it and feel that it is important; it comes to mean a lot to you. Then you go on stage and have to give something that means a lot to you to the audience. A lot of the time, the audience does not feel the same as you do. If you think the audience does not understand what you are doing, you start to close up, stop giving as fully as you should and then the performance dies. The hardest thing to do is to keep the channel open for any member of the audience to have the opportunity of sharing with you.

It is really difficult to play to the mass audience of mainstream theatre in some ways because they are not as interested in extremes or anything that is slightly distressing, confrontational or challenging. However, it can be the best audience to play to for that very reason, because what is the point of playing to an audience that is not going to be challenged by what you do? In one way, it is great to perform to an audience who understand everything you do and think it is fantastic and you don’t really want to be playing to an audience full of people who say, ‘I thought that was disgusting!’ Ultimately, though, who are you going to affect the most?

How do you measure audience response? After all, most of the time, it is only the same few London critics who ever write about your performances. Are you attuned to the audience while you are up on stage?
On the most fundamental level, you develop an ability to sense what is going on. There is a frequency that you tune in to and it is literally in the air, a channel between the audience and you. You either meet them there or you do not, but if you can get on to that frequency, you suddenly realize you can feel the audience there. When you are in tune with how the audience is feeling and where they are going, you can play with their emotions. That is the ideal state for acting.

Do you think of the critic as another audience member?
The critic is not just another audience member, but someone who sees a lot of theatre. I might not agree with their tastes particularly, but I have very rarely, if ever, read a review that has not made me think. You have to take what the critics say on board. Sometimes reading a review can be devastating, but I ask myself if I can incorporate any of it into my performance. If I try it and it works, then I have got better, but if it does not, I try something else. You might be upset by what you read, but in the long run it can only help you.

What are the most productive rehearsal conditions for you to work in?
It depends very much on the project. In some ways I think it would be great to have a really long rehearsal period, such as in Russia. I spoke to some actors at the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg who were just about to perform an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel. They had been rehearsing it for six months or maybe even a year, and had adapted every single moment from the novel. The first run-through they did went on for about twelve hours and then they just cut it down to size. If that version did not work, they would include different material and cut out other things. They moved things around like a jigsaw puzzle until they got what they wanted. That way of doing things is an incredible luxury. It is not necessarily a good way of doing things, but it would be nice to have the choice. With other projects, it may be better to have just four weeks to get it on. I certainly felt that with Look Back in Anger; if we had had it any longer, it would not have felt right, and in any case, you learn the most by getting out in front of an audience.

What have you learned from mainstream theatre?
Mainstream theatre is mainstream theatre because it works on lots of different levels and reaches lots of people. I want to find out why that is and how to do it. It is dangerous to say ‘I am going to turn my back on commercial theatre and do something very small and meaningful’, because you end up wondering why nobody is coming to see it. If you get the opportunity to do something different and you mess it up, you may not get that opportunity again. I intend to learn as much as I can from commercial theatre and find out why people respond to it, so when my opportunity comes to do something different, I will be prepared.

I have done well in mainstream theatre. You keep going at something until you are completely dissatisfied with it and then you move on. I am not totally dissatisfied yet; I am still developing and I can still get a lot out of it personally as an actor. It has given me opportunity and choice but this can be a dangerous game, because by the time you are in a position to have enough choice, you need to remember why you got into acting in the first place. Take the example of the actor who says they do Hollywood films in order to finance their theatre work. The more empty blockbusters they do to finance their artistic projects; the more they compromise themselves. There is only so much of that you can do before you will not come back to the art any more.

Can you imagine yourself doing anything else?
I have to act. I can see myself doing other things as well but I can see that eventually I will have to get out of the situation I am in at the moment. Acting in mainstream theatre has been fine, but I cannot see myself continuing in the same way for the rest of my life.

“Each one of us walks around as a mini-version of the whole universe; everything we need is inside us.”

Michael Sheen

How do you build a character?
I am mostly interested in playing extreme characters. In real life, the majority of people would not be able to bear being in the same room as some of the characters I have played, like Jimmy Porter and Mozart. When I act, I try to tell two stories at the same time, to dislocate the head from the heart. You tell one story to the head and another story to the heart and they are in conflict. If the character is complicated and the form of the story is fairly simple and accessible, then the audience is more likely to sympathize with the character. When the audience does not have to grapple with the form of a difficult play, they can engage with the characters more readily.

Let us take the example of Mozart. The surface story is about someone who is incredibly over-confident, arrogant, bratty, scatological, silly and obscene; if you were in a room with Mozart, you would be inclined to see this side of him alone. The story underneath is about someone who has a totally dependent relationship with his father, who is totally insecure, vulnerable and frightened of being on his own. He cannot understand why people do not like him and he is emotionally stunted because he has been a star since he was four. The more you can play the two sides off against each other, the greater the effect of dislocation upon the audience. The part of us that just cannot help being judgmental engages with the surface story, while the story underneath keeps undermining that judgement. However, as soon as you start engaging with the story underneath and becoming sympathetic towards the character, the surface story kicks in and you no longer feel sympathy. The two-way conflict for the audience keeps them engaged and creates a character’s psychological truth.

Personality is to some degree a defence mechanism. It is not an expression of our true selves, it is rather a defence against our true selves. The conflict is there in order to allow you to survive in the world, but in the long run it will destroy you. As an audience member, you watch a character moving through time with this conflict within them. You understand why they have that conflict and you can see it is going to destroy them unless they change. That is what allows you to engage with the character. If they change, then it is a happy story; if they do not change, then it is a tragic story. Either way, an audience member comes away with a greater knowledge of the character and, if they are willing to open themselves up to it, of themselves.

Do you undertake lots of research for a production?
Research is about what you do in the rehearsal room and letting the text work imaginatively on you. Mike Nichols says that the down-time, when you are not working on something, is usually the most productive time, because you let go of the idea of coming up with answers and suddenly things start to appear; suddenly you begin to discover things. You need to spend a lot of time developing ways of making your subconscious come up with ideas.

Beyond that, acting is all about getting out there and doing it. It is about playing the scene and trying something different and playing it again. You have to be as exploratory as possible and doing that requires all your technique, heart, soul, emotion and courage. It is really frightening because you have to be prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of your fellow actors.

You can come up with any excuse to defend yourself from something that is frightening, but ultimately there is no defence. In order to get to the good stuff, you have to go through the frightening part. You simply have to get on with it, so that whenever you need to do it in the future, you can do it quickly. Needing lots of time and apparatus to act can be a dangerous crutch. Personally, I have seen too many people mystifying the acting process to cover their own fears, but ultimately you should have it all in you already. Each one of us walks around as a mini-version of the whole universe; everything we need is inside us. If you can access that, and access it in other people, then that is when the fireworks go off.