20 Questions With...Michael Sheen
Date: 28 April 2003
Actor Michael Sheen, who ticks off his 'most wanted' list with the title role in Camus' Caligula at the Donmar this week, reveals his respect for critics, his love of the Beatles & his thoughts about existentialism.
In Michael Sheen's first role out of drama school, he played opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the West End; in his second, he was hailed in the national press as the most exciting actor of his generation.
Since those roles in When She Danced and Romeo and Juliet respectively, Sheen has continued to build an impressive portfolio of stage credits, to include: Peer Gynt, Don't Fool with Love, Moonlight, Charley's Aunt, The Seagull, The Homecoming, Henry V and The Dresser, which he also directed.
In 1998, Sheen reprised his Manchester Royal Exchange performance as angry young man Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's 1950s kitchen sink classic Look Back in Anger to rave London reviews at the National Theatre. He followed that up the next year by playing Mozart opposite David Suchet's Salieri in Peter Hall's revival of Amadeus, which transferred to Broadway after its West End season.
In the past few years, Sheen has spent much of his time consolidating his film career with the likes of The Four Feathers, Bright Young Things, Underworld (appearing with his former partner Kate Beckinsale) and, a leading role in Heartlands, which build on earlier roles in Wilde, Othello and Mary Reilly.
This week, Sheen returns to the stage, opening at the Donmar Warehouse in Caligula, playing the power-mad Roman dictator of the title in Michael Grandage's production of Camus' existential modern classic, in a new version by David Greig.
Date & place of birth
Born 5 February 1969 in Newport, Gwent in Wales.
Lives now in...
For the moment, in Kilburn, north London.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA)
First big break
Playing Tom of Warwick in Neath Operatic Society's production of Camelot. That was the first time I was on stage properly. I was about 11. Careerwise, I suppose my first job. I left RADA to play opposite Vanessa Redgrave in When She Danced in the West End. That allowed me to leapfrog over a lot of stuff.
Career highlights to date
Doing Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Exchange when Michael Coveney (critic for the Daily Mail) gave me a very good review. He said I was the most exciting actor of my generation. That was in my second job so it set me up quite well - more people read the review than saw the production. Working with Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl because it was such a great learning experience. Look Back in Anger because it continued a relationship with the Royal Exchange and specifically with Greg Hersov who directed me in it twice, once in Manchester and once at the National Theatre. And, I suppose, Amadeus, which did well here and took me off to America and started an American side to my career. On screen, there's a film called Heartlands, which is about to come out in a couple of weeks. It's my first leading role in a film and working with Damien O'Donnell in a very collaborative way was great for me because I learned a lot about the medium. I feel like everything's a highlight. I've really enjoyed all the things I've done - they've all been special or important in different ways.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Look Back in Anger at the National was great, the most enjoyable thing I've ever done. It was one of those things where everything came together - a fantastic company, we all got on really well, we were all really committed to the piece, it was a terrific production, the audiences enjoyed it, it was critically well received. It was very special. Also Peer Gynt, which started a relationship with (producer) Thelma Holt. We went on to work together a few times and she got me into directing as well. The first thing I directed was with her, a production of The Dresser, in which I also played Norman.
There've been all kinds of people I've enjoyed working with. I met Kate Beckinsale working on a production of The Seagull and obviously that was an important relationship for me. Also, Claire Skinner the first time I did Look Back in Anger; Emma Fielding the second time I did it. They were brilliant.
Declan Donnellan, Greg Hersov and Michael Grandage, who I'm working with now. It's the first time I've worked with Michael, but he's wonderful. Each one of them is totally passionate about what they're working on at the time - you don't feel like it's just the next production that they're doing. And they all have a real respect for what actors do. They are very good in their own ways of pushing you to go further and unlocking scenes, unlocking the part and opening you up to exploring things. That's something that I really really love. I would like to do more directing myself. In some ways, it helps being an actor myself, and in some ways that gets in the way. As you're watching the work, you can't help but see it as an actor, and then you have to translate that into director-speak whereas if you're just a director, you don't have to worry about that.
Shakespeare, Howard Barker, John Osborne. Also Joe Penhall - he's the only playwright I love that I can remember when his very first play came out and I've continued following his career so far which has been great.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I think I've done all the ones I really wanted to do; this is the last one. Since I was 15, I read lots and lots of plays and I had about five parts I most wanted to do. There was Frank McGuinness' version of Peer Gynt, Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Konstantin in The Seagull, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Caligula. That's about it. Now I can just do whatever I want, whatever comes up.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The Complicite show Mnemonic, which is amazing, so inspiring. Every time I see a Complicite show, I think anything is possible on stage, it pushes that boundaries back which I find really exciting. I went to see my friend Alex Jennings in My Fair Lady just before he came off. I thought he was fantastic, him and Joanna Riding. I'm not really a great musicals fan but I thought that was a wonderful production.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
That's a difficult one, that. On the one hand, I wouldn't want to say anything that stopped people investing money in theatre. As has been shown recently, with more money being put into theatre in the past few years, it has helped. But on the other hand, I feel like theatre should be able to secure its own future without so much help from outside. A living theatre will always have an audience because it's not a luxury, it's a necessity for a thriving culture. Therefore, if theatre itself is not fulfilling its function, then it will lose its audience. And no amount of money will help that. Is it fulfilling its function now? I think it's always in the balance. There's always some stuff that's living and some stuff that's dead, theatre that means nothing, that doesn't touch anyone or say anything or illuminate our lives in any way. I've got no interest in going to see dead theatre like that - I don't see why anyone else would. So it's an odd one. In the economic times we're in, theatre does need support from outside, but in an ideal world, it wouldn't.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Paul McCartney in 1966. To be part of that group who were at the eye of storm of change going on all over the world, to be part of creating that change, writing those great iconic songs in the great iconic band in the great iconic moment of popular culture in the 20th century. That would be something. I'm a huge Beatles fan.
Favourite holiday destinations
I haven't been yet but I have two dream holidays. I'd like to go and watch the whales migrating off the coast of New England, and I'd like to go to the North Pole to see the Northern Lights.
The Philip Pullman books, His Dark Materials trilogy. And non-fiction, anything by Joseph Campbell, but specifically The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is about comparative mythology.
Favourite after-show haunts
I tend to just go home because I'm always so tired. So wherever I'm living is my favourite after-show haunt.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I might have been a football player - I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal when I was 12. But I think, if I wasn't an actor, I would have still been involved in theatre. I would have quite liked to have been a critic - one of my big heroes was Kenneth Tynan - that's a profession that's quite attractive to me. I respect the role of critics. Each one is individual and different, but the role they play is really important and interesting.
Which do you most prefer - stage or screen?
I most prefer being able to do both, it's nice to go back and forth so you don't get too much of one. But if I could only do one, then it would probably be stage. Ultimately what I like is being part of telling a story and, on stage, you get to tell the whole story from beginning to end with the audience there. It's very immediate. With film, as an actor, you have much less control over the story and the way that it's being told, and you have no connection with the audience really. But that's exciting in a different way.
Why in particular did you want the part of Caligula in this production?
In this production as much because nobody ever does it so this was the one that came up. I've been involved for about two and a half years. I bumped into Jack Bradley, the literary manager at the National, one day. He said they were thinking about it as a possible thing to schedule, and I said I'd always wanted to do that and it became a reality. Michael Grandage was always going to direct it and once he took over the Donmar, it made since to do it there. Also, I wanted to work with Michael.
Why do you think Caligula is relevant today?
Two and a half years ago, I just saw it as being a great play and a great part. Now it's suddenly become incredibly relevant. On a surface level, just because it's about a tyrant, which is in our consciousness recently. Not just necessarily Saddam Hussein, but the idea of powerful men in powerful positions in general, and the nature of power and the dangers of absolute power. And also the way that the personal and political combine. With Caligula, I think everything that happens is driven by something that happens to him personally, he suffers a huge loss and because he's in a position of absolute power, his reaction to that loss feeds what he does. At a time when a lot of leaders around the world have their own particular religious persuasions - not just Islamic fundamentalism but also Christian militance and all that - that's an area worth exploring. And, again, looking at the nature of power and how it can be used and abused is very valid and topical.
Are you a fan of Albert Camus?
Yes, I read L'Étranger when I was quite young. I've always been interested in him, probably more so than any of the other so-called existentialist writers just because he was more of a humanist than people like Sartres - and because he was a goalkeeper as well.
What are your views on existentialism as a philosophy?
It's rare that you get any kind of philosophy or belief system that can be separated from the personality of the individual exploring it. A totally objective view is impossible. I find that interplay - between someone's life experiences, their personality and the ideology they express - interesting. As far as existentialism goes, I don't subscribe to it at all. There's no one particular philosophy or ideology that I subscribe to.
What's your favourite line from Caligula?
There are some great ones there, and my favourite changes every day. There's a really good line towards the end where he says: "But the real sorrow is to realise that grief doesn't last either. Even pain loses its feeling." I like that.
What are your plans for the future?
During the days, while I'm doing the play, I've been filming this television drama called The Deal that Stephen Frears is directing. I play Tony Blair (to David Morrissey's Gordon Brown). So that's the immediate future. After I finish both of those, I want to get back to finish this screenplay I've been writing and, hopefully, I'll be able to direct that as well. It's an adventure story set in 13th-century Wales. I might write and direct it first as a short film so I can show it around and increase my chances of being able to direct the full-length version. On stage, I don't know but I'll probably be back doing something next year.
- Michael Sheen was speaking to Terri Paddock
Caligula opens at London's Donmar Warehouse on 30 April 2003 (previews from 24 April) and continues to 14 June. To join the waiting list for our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Caligula - including a post-show Q&A with Sheen & director Michael Grandage - click here.