Movie-star math: Michael Sheen is to the Martin Sheen acting family as Adam Baldwin is to the Alec Baldwin acting family - no relation.
The Welsh actor may soon be as well-known as any of them in America, however, with the release of “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s movie adaptation of the London and Tony Award-nominated Broadway play about celebrity interviewer David Frost’s landmark 1977 TV interview with former president Richard Nixon. Sheen and Tony winner Frank Langella reprise their roles from both productions.
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Sheen - best known stateside for playing Tony Blair in the best picture Oscar nominee “The Queen” (2006), and for losing significant other Kate Beckinsale to “Underworld” director Len Wiseman when she and Sheen (who played werewolf-clan leader Lucian) starred in that 2003 movie - has been an acclaimed mainstay of the British stage. His other films include the little-seen “Music Within” (2007), in which he devastatingly essayed the real-life role of Art Honeyman, the writer and severe cerebral palsy sufferer who played an instrumental part in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained Sheen, who was born in Newport, Wales, and raised primarily in nearby Port Talbot, spoke with Frank Lovece.
Q. When you play a number of real-life figures, you run the risk of journalists asking what it’s like to play real-life figures. What do you say to such unimaginative journalists as that?
A. (Chuckles) Well, I guess I’d say I enjoy the challenge of it, I enjoy the research and the amount of work I have to do beforehand - which can be anything up to about three months preparing - and I enjoy the risk of knowing you’re going to be playing someone who a lot of people are going to be very familiar with, and yet to try and not to do an impersonation.
Q. And how do you not do that?
A. Well, impersonation is all about concentrating on the exterior - the voice and the mannerisms and all that kind of stuff, drawing attention to that and wanting people to see how much like the person you are in that way. Whereas what we’ve been trying to do is draw attention to the interior, to what’s going on on the inside. People get bored with an impersonation after a few minutes. It’s like a trick. It’s a very skillful trick and requires a lot of work and I’m not denigrating people who do impersonation, but it’s a very different thing from acting.
Q. Wasn’t your father, as a sideline, a Jack Nicholson impersonator?
A. No, my father was a look-alike. He doesn’t do an impersonation of him. He’s a professional Jack Nicholson look-alike. It’s not anything like what I do. I mean, he looks like him, he dresses up like him, does an approximation of the voice, but it’s not an impersonation.
Q. You were 8 years old when the Frost-Nixon interviews ran in May 1977. Before embarking on this for the London play, did you know much about Nixon beyond the name?
A. I think maybe it surprises people in America that people outside of America know quite a bit about American history. Maybe because so many Americans don’t really know about history outside of their own country. I knew all about Watergate, a bit about his upbringing, I know about him leaving the presidency and being pardoned. I knew quite a bit about him.
Q. And even more, I’m sure, about David Frost. How did he react to your playing him?
A. He came to see the play the first week of previews, and has seen it many times in all its incarnations. He came to the film set, and he’s around while we do publicity for the film, so I’ve seen quite a lot of him.
Y’know, a lot of people say it’s very hard to know what David’s really thinking or feeling. He’s said he likes that I don’t do an impersonation, but there are things in the film that I guess make him a bit uncomfortable, things that (playwright and screenwriter) Peter (Morgan) has used in order to help the narrative.
Q. After all these rich roles in prestige movies and a storied career on the stage, you’re reprising your role as the werewolf Lucian in “Underworld 3: The Rise of the Lycans.” Umm ... why?
A. Wow. (Taken aback) That’s a (chuckles) - now, there’s a huge amount of snobbishness about a film, isn’t there? What’s so awful about those films? The only thing that matters is whether (a character) connects to people, whether it speaks to them about something that has to do with their experience of what it’s like to be a human being. Y’know, there is an audience that these stories speak to, and for one person to say that what speaks to one person is less valid that what speaks to them is the height of ignorance and snobbishness and arrogance, I suppose.
If I’m playing a werewolf and I play it in such a way that it has resonance and it has richness and complexity, then it has as much validity as playing Blair or whomever.