Michael Sheen talks about the Oscar nominated pic “Frost/Nixon”
Actor Michael Sheen hits the big screen as Sir David Frost in Frost/Nixon, a gripping dramatisation of Frost’s 1977 TV interviews with President Richard Nixon. No stranger to political dramas, the three-time BAFTA nominee has played a variety of figures, including David Frost in the original stage version of Frost/Nixon in London and New York and Tony Blair in Stephen Frears’ 2003 television film The Deal and again in Frears’ 2006 movie The Queen.
Q: You have lived with David Frost for the best part of two years, first in the stage play and now in the film FROST/NIXON, so does it now feel like you’re letting go? A: Well that has already happened because we wrapped the film about a year ago. Once all this publicity ends it will be peculiar to let go of it. To think, “well that’s it, that’s the end of that journey.” When we were doing the play [FROST/NIXON] in London’s West End, Sir David Frost interviewed me for Al Jazeera TV and I said to him, “I have to be you eight times a week and I’m going to be you for another year or more.” I remember him saying something like, “That’s funny, because so am I” (mimicking Sir David Frost’s voice]. So he has to be him all the time, I only have to be him for a relatively short period.
Q: In the film it says that David Frost defined the age that we live in. Do you think that is an accurate statement? A: He was the first TV star in Britain. If you talk about that era as being the television era, then I suppose that in some ways he does define the age we live in. There is an idea of television being a mixture of low-brow, high-brow, politics, entertainment and all that stuff. That is one of the things that I guess some people don’t like about him, or find frustrating about him, that he cannot be pigeon-holed. He is the cross-over between entertainment and politics. Recently in the United States, Sarah Palin did not come over too well in an interview, and that all goes back to this interview [Frost’s TV interview with Nixon], which was the first time that a major politician got really badly wrong-footed on television. It was trial by television and Frost was there! He invented trial by television! So he is a very interesting contradiction.
Q: After doing the smash hit stage play did you see the film version of FROST/NIXON as a very different and new challenge? A: I saw it as a new challenge, definitely! I think we were all concerned that we ought not to think that just because something worked in one medium [the theatre] it would work in another. There have been a lot of plays and novels that have been adapted for the screen and that did not necessarily make that transfer. So that was definitely a concern. For me, from an acting point of view, once I knew that I was going to do the film at the end of the run of the play, I was just really looking forward to it. Having spent 16 months doing the play it was great to then get to the end of it and start fresh on the film. I gave my last performance on stage on a Sunday afternoon in New York and on the Thursday morning I was shooting the film in Los Angeles. So there wasn’t much of a chance to change over. But having done the play for so long I knew that character inside out and I knew the parameters of the scenes and the story and everything. You build up so much detail and richness and colour for the character, which does not necessarily come across on the stage, so it was so great to trust that that was all there and that the camera would pick it out. So I relished it, I loved it. And, of course, there was a completely new group of actors around us, and that helped a lot. There was also director Ron Howard’s fresh eye. He was just brilliant at seeing what worked on stage and then finding a way to make certain things work differently for the film.
Q: How important was your wardrobe to get into the right frame of mind, everything looks just like the sort of clothes Frost would have chosen? A: Yeah, those suits and shirts! The shirts were all hand-made for me and had my initials on them. All that stuff helps. The hairstyle was also very important. I think that Kim, my hair person on the film, almost had a nervous breakdown because I would sit down and say, “No, that hair is wrong, do it again!’ I was a bit of a taskmaster about that.
Q: Was David Frost a daunting character to approach first time around, especially since everyone thinks they can do an impression of him? But you do not do an impression on screen, you inhabit Frost. A: Well that’s the intention. But yes, at the beginning it is always a bit daunting. People would ask, “What are you doing next?” And I would say that I was playing David Frost. Then they would immediately launch into an impersonation of him. And I would go, “Oh God!” That was a bit scary. But because I am not an impressionist, I was always looking to find just who this character is. All the external stuff is a help but they are only clues, clues to what is going on underneath. In order to make it work as a story and to take the audience on a journey, they have to connect with what is going on underneath, not with what is going on on the outside. So it is always daunting to start something. Whether it is David Frost or Tony Blair or Brian Clough or Kenneth Williams or whoever it might be. You start with the script obviously, but also, I can watch the finished product right from the beginning, when I am so far away from it. And that too is always quite daunting. It is quite scary because it just feels like I don’t even know where to begin with this project. But the place to begin – as always – is the script and it is a character in the story and that’s why I have to serve the story. But progressively you start to feel that you have a responsibility to the real person that you are portraying. There is always a moment – or a period of time – where I start to go to myself, “I am not playing a character any more, this is a version of me.” It looks like someone else and sounds like someone else, but it is actually me. It is me in different circumstances.
Q: We think of David Frost as this very confident and assured man. Yet in FROST/NIXON it seems that it was very important for you to capture his moments of uncertainty and vulnerability? A: That is the great tension of the role, I suppose. You take someone who, on the surface, is confident and assured and in the course of the film you see all of that unravel and you discover that what is going on underneath is the opposite of confident and it is that which becomes interesting. That was what was interesting in the play and it is that which I think is interesting for an audience that watches the film. I always think of it as there being a two-way pull on the character. There is what he is trying to put across to the world, which pulls him one way, and then there is what is actually going on, which is usually the opposite of how things seem and that is pulling him in another direction. All of that pulls something open inside of him and creates a gap, which is where the audience comes in. It is that which allows the audience into this person. But if there is not that two-way pull then there is no room for the audience to come in. This is what we relate to, seeing someone who is feeling out of their depth, feeling as though everything is going to fall apart. We instantly sympathize with someone like that because that is how we usually feel ourselves in life.
Q: What feedback have you had from Sir David Frost regarding your performance? A: I only saw him about a couple of hours ago, which was the first time that I had seen him since he saw the film. So we have not really had a chance to talk about it yet. But I hear that he likes the film. In a way the film, more than the play, shows the real difficulty that he had. In the theatre it was always difficult to get across to the audience what was the popular idea of the persona of David Frost and then what was really going on underneath. That was hard on stage. But on film the camera is right there in your face and you see things going on in the eyes, you see things chasing across his face. You immediately get a sense of that. So I think he likes that about the film.