Michael Sheen interview: The Queen (2006)

Welsh actor Michael Sheen talks to James McLaren about his starring role as Tony Blair in the 2006 blockbuster The Queen.

Last updated: 01 December 2008

Backstage before a performance of Frost/Nixon at Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse, Michael Sheen is finding his time ever more invaded by interviews and press interest. Small wonder - he's one of the stars of a big cinematic hit, The Queen, and a rising British actor, both on stage and screen.

Your theatre work appears to run parallel to your film and TV work. Do you place the same importance on both disciplines?

I guess so - I've been slightly limited in the last few years as to how much theatre work I can do because it takes me away from my daughter who lives in Los Angeles. So I've done a lot less theatre in the last few years - for the first 10 years or so I pretty much just did theatre and now I do a play every couple of years.

Would you say they're very different disciplines?

They're very different, but I wouldn't say I enjoy one more than the other. I've come to enjoy film more than I used to - I guess it's just the type of projects I've been able to work on have changed. Now it's great to be able to do both - doing too much of one can get you down a bit.

You say you enjoy films more than you once did, which is surprising because early on you did films like Wilde, which must have been fun to do.

Oh it was! But it's just through playing larger parts - getting to spend more time in front of the camera. You enjoy it the more relaxed you are in front of the camera; it's less intimidating. As I've played more leading parts in films, I've enjoyed it more, relaxed and got into it more.

Is that an ego thing?

No, it's just a getting used to it thing! In some ways the larger the part you've got in the film, the easier it is. If you've got just a couple of days to do something, you feel so much pressure, you have to fit in with what everyone else is doing and it's incredibly difficult to feel relaxed.

But if you're in front of the camera every day you feel more relaxed. And also it's more to do with how challenging the parts are - I've been able to do some great, challenging parts and I've really enjoyed it.

Quite a few of your parts are playing other 'real' people and you've been largely praised for those roles, in mannerisms, and attention to detail. Is that something you find easy to do?

Well you have to do a tremendous amount of research and if you're playing someone who's a real life person, especially someone who's alive or recently alive. The audience is going to be very familiar with them, so you do have to meet the audience's demand for familiarity with the character. Because I've been playing a lot of real-life characters, that's something I've got more and more used to. It seems to have worked out okay!

Is that purely accidental or have people seen roles you've done and cast you for that skill?

There's two things really - one is that once you've played a real-life character (the first time I did it was as Tony Blair in The Deal), people have seen it and are thinking of you in terms of being able to play real-life characters; and also because quite a few of the projects have been written by the same man, Peter Morgan.

He wrote The Deal and The Queen, and the play I'm doing at the moment as well. So that's a large part of it - we developed a working relationship together and he enjoys writing for me and I enjoy playing the characters he writes. And also because I enjoy doing it too! If a script comes along that's about real-life people, I like the script and I think it's going to be a challenge, I'm more inclined to do it.

Obviously Tony Blair is a role you've reprised for The Queen. How has the time difference between The Deal and The Queen altered the way in which you play him?

I think it's probably three or four years between the productions... The story of the Deal was about the time Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, and The Queen is about the time just after the death of Princess Diana.

With Blair in The Queen I wanted to bring a bit more maturity to him - not quite so fresh-faced and puppyish. Obviously he was still a very youthful prime minister but just to bring a more understated, quieter performance in The Queen.

Also from having played him in The Deal I wanted the opportunity to be able to bring something slightly different to him this time, to make him less able for people to laugh at him; a slightly more grown-up quality to him.

Do you get any ribbing for playing someone who in the minds of many has sold out that traditional Labour ideology?

No! I mean, just because I play him, doesn't mean I agree with him. And both roles as Blair, in The Deal and The Queen, aren't particularly rosy portrayals of him. He's a character who's very ambiguous in terms in what his motivations are.

And there's a lot of humour as well. All I can do really is allow people to see what they want to in the portrayal.

What are you expectations for The Queen?

Well we were at the Venice Film Festival a couple of weeks ago where it was a huge success, and won the Best Screenplay award, and the International Critics award and Helen [Mirren] won Best Actress. Now it's opened in Britain and is number one at the box office.

It's going to be opening at the New York Film Festival at the end of this month and it's had very good reviews in America, but we're waiting to see how well it will do box office-wise. Potentially, on paper, it could do really well in America because Americans will all know the Queen, the royal family, and Blair - all the characters will be recognisable to them.

It's a modest budget for a film, but the potential audience is massive. Obviously so far it's done incredibly well critically but we'll have to wait and see how popular it'll be with people in America. I know there's a lot of potential and opportunity for it to do quite well Oscar-wise as well.

All of which brings your name and face more to the fore. Your career appears to be building quite nicely just at the moment...

Well definitely I'd say over the last month I've noticed a change. I think there are moments in your career where you realise that it's an important point. It's one of those points now, and also because a few things I've done at different points have all seemed to come out at the same time.

The Queen came out, I'm doing Frost/Nixon, I did a programme about Nero which came out last week. All of which raise your name in people's awareness. I've been doing a few American studio films over the years, but because of the nature of this film, I'm certainly aware of the fact things are going in an upward direction for me.

How Welsh do you still feel? Will you ever do an Anthony Hopkins and settle down completely in America?

I can't see that happening. I've lived off and on in America for the past seven years. And while I enjoy spending time there, Wales and Britain is my home. Just culturally, that's the thing I've missed most while in America; the people I meet don't share the same cultural references.

That's what makes you feel anchored and makes you feel like you belong somewhere. You can never say never but I can't see myself moving lock stock and barrel to America; I would miss Britain far too much.

I'm Welsh, it's what formed me, and it's what my interior landscape is made from. I love Wales passionately and it's the biggest influence on me.

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