Interview with Michael Sheen for The Damned United

Adding Brian Clough to his gallery of real-life portraits, Michael Sheen is once again being feted as one of our smartest actors. So, what’s he doing listening to Enya?

Michael Sheen is a proper actor.

Not proper in that he’ll only do Shakespeare, calls everyone ‘Luvvie’, and wears a cravat 24/7. No, Michael Sheen is a proper actor simply in the sense that he’s not in this game for the fortune, the fame, the floozies, the fizzy drinks or the freebies. He’s in it for the frickin’ acting, dear boy.

Like Ryan Gosling, Paddy Considine and a handful of others, Michael Sheen is one of those actors who cares first and foremost about the work. In other words, he’s one of the bastard children that resulted from a mad, passionate, can’t-sleep, won’t-eat affair Robert De Niro had with cinema back in the 1970s. Oh, heady days.

It’s Bobby’s blueprint that drives Sheen and friends. Art is first, life is second. Only do work that gives you a hard-on. Oh, and be a blank sheet off-screen, so you can be anything or anyone you want to be on-screen.

“I suppose there is a certain amount of truth in what you say,” laughs Sheen, when I caught up with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel last Sunday. “Robert De Niro had a huge impact on me growing up – I think his work back then had a huge impact on just about everyone connected to film – and he left a blueprint from those days that makes total sense to anyone who wants to have a long and interesting career.

“So, yeah, I’m happy to be one of Robert De Niro’s bastard children…”

In truth, Michael Sheen is the child of Meyrick and Irene Sheen, a pair of, eh, personnel management experts who finally settled down in the small working class town of Port Talbot in sunny Wales when their son was eight. A talented young footballer, the 12-year old Michael was offered a spot as a youth player for Arsenal, but his parents weren’t keen on moving again. Young Michael kicked a lot of bedroom furniture around that day.

The career in acting was born more out of desperation than design, the spark being a particularly wet and windy 6am litter-gathering trek along the main road leading up to Port Talbot’s first and only Burgermaster, a drive-through fast food operation that a sodden 17-year old Michael was manning during his year off before university. “I just knew, right there and then, as I picked up all these old burger wrappers along the side of the road, I’ve got to get out of here, and do something with my life”.

That something was acting. You may have seen Michael Sheen in such movies as The Queen. Fantabulosa!. Underworld.Frost/Nixon. Before that, he had established himself as a major player on the theatre circuit, the RADA-trained young Sheen’s breakthrough coming with his lead performance in an acclaimed Old Vic production of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus that went on to storm Broadway.

So, you see, Michael Sheen is a proper actor. One who can convince us he’s Tony Blair (in 2003’s The Deal, 2006’s The Queen, and an upcoming feature examining the disgraced former PM’s ‘special relationship’ with Bill Clinton), or Kenneth Williams (in 2006’s Fantabulosa!), the Emperor Nero (in 2006’s Ancient Rome: The Rise And Fall Of An Empire), H.G. Wells (in War With The World, also 2006), or David Frost (in the recent Frost/Nixon).

The thinking man’s Mike Yarwood is at it again, bringing the late, great Brian Clough to life in The Damned United, a wonderful film charting the dangerously outspoken football manager’s disastrous 44 days banging heads with Leeds Utd back in 1974. Having just taken second-division underdogs Derby County all the way to the top, Clough was more than capable of managing England’s biggest team. Trouble was, he hated them, mainly for their notoriously rough tactics.

Based on David Peace’s acclaimed, eponymous 2006 novel, The Damned United deals more with the drama around the pitch rather than on it, following Clough as he bounces, usually red-faced, between the changing room, the boardroom and the living room.

Timothy Spall plays Clough’s trusty assistant manager, Peter Taylor, whilst our own Colm Meaney is Don Revie, Leeds Utd’s previous manager, and, more importantly, Clough’s nemesis. Having had to abandon a promising career as a player due to an injury, Clough lived the rest of his life, Peace argues, in revenge. Is that how Sheen approached the part?

“There’s that pivotal moment, which is in the film, where Brian Clough comes out on his first day to talk with the Leeds players,” says Sheen. “It could have gone either way, and I’ve spoke with a few of the players from then, and they said, ‘We felt, okay, a lot has been said, but this is their new manager, and we’re ready to make a new start. And out he came and just slagged us off, to our faces. And we never really got over that’. And I can understand that. It’s not like we’re trying to do a whitewash here and just say, all these players were really horrible to Clough for no reason. There was a very good reason.

“That’s something I’ve tried to do with the character – and it’s something I’ve tried to do with all the characters. We create these personalities for ourselves, and it’s in order to cope with the world, I suppose, and at a certain point, you get trapped by it.”

So, if Brian Clough’s motivation was revenge, what’s Michael Sheen’s? Applause? Awards? The OBE? Impressing his 10-year old daughter, Lily Mo?

“Well, there’s a bit in The Damned United, where Peter Taylor has had a heart attack, and he’s in the hospital bed, and he says to Clough, ‘You’ve got this thing in you, this demon, and sometimes it’s good, because it gets things done, and other times, it’s terrible, because it messes everything up, and takes away everything that could bring you joy and happiness. I think that’s what I’m drawn to in all these characters, and I’m drawn to it because it’s in me as well.

“I’ve found that a healthy way of dealing with that is by identifying that in other people, and then playing them. And I’ve found that the more honest I am with that, the more I put myself into these people, then the more it seems to connect with other people, and because of that, career things start to happen, and all that. But I’m not aiming for any of that stuff. It’s great that I got an OBE, but I’m still slightly bemused by that side of things. I just have to do this, or, presumably, I’d be like one of these people.

“So, it’s just running to stand still, a little bit.”

He may be taking Hollywood by stealth, piling up subtle performances in movies like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, but Sheen is the first to point out that “just because my last few films have done well, there’s still absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t all just go completely the other way for a while too”. Either way, Sheen’s not that bothered. Fame is all around him – the mother of his child, Kate Beckinsale, lives the full Hollywood life, and dad Meyrick is now, believe it or not, one of the world’s most sought-after Jack Nicholson impersonators – but Sheen’s not interested in glitter. “I’m in this for the long haul,” he smiles.

Our time is up. One quick question. What the hell is a smart, debonair, man-of-the-world like Michael Sheen doing listening to Enya?

“Ah, you heard about my guilty pleasure,” he laughs. “I’m not entirely sure. I was sucked in by Clannad’s soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood back in the 1980s, and that proved to be something of a gateway drug. As a Celt, I should know better. It brings out the elf in me…”

Words : Paul Byrne

The Damned United is now showing at Irish cinemas everywhere