This weekend Michael Sheen‘s latest work, Beautiful Boy hits cinemas with some of the most stunning acting you’ll see this year. Sheen’s performance is risky, subtle, and without trying to show off, builds into a beautiful cathartic piece. Though he was great fun as the self-absorbed, American, Anglophile in Midnight in Paris, this type of role is really where Sheen shines.
I had trouble going into this interview because there was a side of me that didn’t want to ask him any questions about the role because he left his work on the screen, everything you needed to know about how and why was there. I began the interview by asking about just that and then it evolved into one of the best acting lessons I’ve probably ever had! Check it out…
When your performance is so clear, is it hard to talk about it?
I sometimes do find myself being asked a question and I say to myself “well the film is the answer” or “the performance is the answer.” If I had anything worth while to add to it now than I’ve missed something out in the film. That has to speak for itself. So it is quite difficult to talk about things sometimes. I mean you can talk about the research or the experience of doing it, but if you need to ask something about the character or the story than it means that something was either missing from what we did, or you weren’t paying attention! [laughs]. Either one! I don’t know!
Do trailers ever bother you? Do you ever feel like they take away from the work you’ve put in to developing your character? And is more frustrating when you’re in the trailer you’re watching?
On Woody’s film Midnight in Paris they absolutely left out everything that you would think would be the thing that would hock people into seeing it. Which is really brave really. I suppose, my character benefited from it because almost my entire performance was in the trailer, so it made it look like I was the star of the film! With this trailer, which I watched a long time ago, I found the trailer very moving.In a way, any tagline or anything that’s written about this film, when people saying “what’s this film about? Why this is the film about the parents of a teenager who killed people in a Columbine style shooting.” So, immediately that’s there in the trailer. It kind of needs to be there I guess.
And yet you hear that pitch and yet there’s a lot more to it, why do you think people should see it?
Ultimately, maybe I shouldn’t say this, weirdly the film is much less about a shooting then it is about, “is it possible for a couple who have come to the end of the line in their relationship, is it possible for them to overcome that huge wall that is built up in a relationship. Is there hope in a situation like that and I think that’s ultimately why this is a very hopeful film. These people go on a journey where they think they know each other, they think they want to call it a day and move on in some way, and then events happen that bind them together, and through going on a very difficult and isolated journey, into a territory that they have no rule book for, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, they can only rely on each other, and how it brings up everything that has been getting in the way between them. And there’s that pivotal scene in the hotel room where it all comes out and seems like there is no hope here because how do you come back after you’ve said those things and shown them things. And yet those are the things that were in the way.
What drove your character to the finally break?
For my character it’s the fear that he never loved his son, that he wished that he’d never been born, that his son was the problem, that’s what kept him in the relationship that he didn’t want to be in for years — and all those things come out. And suddenly, without him realizing it, it was a way for him and his wife and him and him – because he’s totally disconnected from himself at the beginning of the film — suddenly all of that stuff comes out, it leaves the possibility of moving ahead! Suddenly, he’s just a different man after that, he’s able to become vulnerable and start feeling things a bit more, and that allows him to find his way into the vulnerable position so that he can say to his wife “I want you to sleep with me, I want you to stay in this bed with me, don’t leave me.” Where at the beginning of this film he could never say anything like that. I think you’re right, it’s not a film that says “isn’t it sad that…” it’s actually saying “relationships are really fucking hard.” And There is hope and you can find your way. And tragic events can have positive outcomes in a way. So it’s an incredibly hopeful film in a way. And all those things like love, hope redemption, are all in this film, you just have to work for it a bit.
You allow yourself to simply take in the scenes and almost appear blank, which adds up to so much more. Many actors would be far to afraid to allow themselves to do nothing in front of a camera. When did you make that choice?
It was something that kind of evolved. I thought there was kind of a blankness about him, about a man who was so frightened of what he feels that he has to disconnect from what he feels becomes kind of blank in a way. They’re quite subtle things. He’s asked what side of the bed he wants to sleep on, and he can’t choose. He can’t make choices because he doesn’t know what he wants because he’s cut himself off from his feelings, and he’s cut himself off from his feelings because he’s so frightened because he’s thinking things like “I wish my son had never been born. I hate my wife. I hate my life.” All those things that he’s living with are just too frightening to deal with so he’s in a limbo at beginning of the film that gives him that blankness. And then in the motel scene, you hear all these things that have been going on in his head, and you haven’t seen those things happening. I suppose it was a risk that I took to play him as a man who just kind of receives and remains kind of blank and yet there’s this whole world going on underneath that I didn’t want to let people into. And that’s what’s so frustrating for Maria’s character, that he doesn’t let her in.
You were giving her a lot to deal with!
Yeah! It was sort of the absence that I wanted to explore. And the risk is that you just look a bit wooden, but hopefully it doesn’t come across like that.
It doesn’t. When do you get to a point in your acting where you feel comfortable enough to just let yourself be on camera?
It’s a combination of things I think. Yeah it’s experience, and being in front of the camera more and more. but it’s also about the people you’re working with. You have to be allowed to do that in a way. What I find most annoying is when a director or whoever sort of says “can you do this?” and I say “I’m already doing this, is it not coming across?” and they say “Oh! Maybe I wasn’t watching it right.”
Yeah! And the difference is, between doing something that is quite subtle and comes across and other people respond to; and then banging people over the head. It’s such a fine line, and so you have to be allowed to just be and take those kind of risks. Whether it’s being big and over the top and obvious in some ways, you can still do that in subtle ways and have complexity to it — or whether it’s doing very, very little. So the director, and the other actors, all make a difference. It’s a group effort. And you have to have the courage and conviction. And you have to be able to convince people of it. The more that you do this, the more that you realize that it’s an accumulative art form. Anything I do in one individual scene, only works in the context of what happens all together and, which like you said, in this film you think “well that’s an interesting choice” and only later realize “oh that’s why!” It’s working towards something and putting yourself in the hands of other people because the director and the editor are going to chose what take and it all goes together. So I’m trying to build a performance in a way. You work out the architecture of this and you have to have a guiding vision so that it’s moving forward. but then you also have to just stand there and let it be and hope that a director can kind of look at what you’re doing in that one scene and even though it doesn’t necessarily make complete sense in that scene in the context of what you’re trying to do it does make sense. And they allow you to do. Rather that doing your whole performance in every scene. Because there’s no trust in that!
Is there a difference between the big budget film where they say you just have to come in and do your jobs and on these small indies you can play — is there any truth to that?
No, no, I don’t think so. It’s not necessarily either way. Obviously there are things that you’re dealing with on a big budget film that you’re not dealing with on smaller budget, independent film. We shot this film in three weeks and I’ve shot things in shorter times than that and I’ve had more time on big budget films and that’s not necessarily a good thing… sometimes! It depends. On TRON for instance, I just did what I did! I wasn’t told to do that. I was just given certain perimeters and then I come on and do what I do.
In a way you have to overcome things as an actor that are not necessarily being put on you, but you feel them. I remember the first film I was ever in, MARY REILLY, I was playing a fairly smaller part in it and I remember all I had to do was, I was playing a servant, all I had to do was walk into the room with a tea tray and put it down. And I was so aware of the pressure of getting it right, and there was such a big crew and it was all so expensive and I went “ahhuauh” and I messed up. Now that continues with something like TRON where I wasn’t playing one of the main parts, so there was a feeling of, “oh god, I mustn’t mess this up for people” and there’s a huge set up and what not. And you you need to go, no! I need to feel free and take risks, and hopefully they’ll pay off and if they don’t hopefully I won’t be too criticized and lambasted so that I can still take those risks.
It’s not necessarily something that’s coming from the outside. Inevitably on a big budget film you feel more pressure, but the job of the actor, I think, is to fight to do whatever it takes to give yourself the space and the freedom to do your work. And that’s usually not going to be when you’re doing what you’ve been told to do, but when you take risks. So!
Thank you so much!
Beautiful Boy is in theaters starting today, June 3rd!