Best known as movie Tony Blair, actor plays another real-life role

John Anderson
Newsday (MCT)

Music Within

Director: Steven Sawalich
Cast: Ron Livingston, Melissa George, Michael Sheen, Yul Vazquez, Rebecca De Mornay, Hector Elizondo
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MGM
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-10-26 (Limited release)

LOS ANGELES -- He's quite possibly as famous among some Americans for playing Tony Blair as Tony Blair is for being Tony Blair. Michael Sheen has played the ex-prime minister in two Stephen Frears-directed features ("The Queen" and "The Deal"), and defined the stage role of TV interviewer David Frost in "Frost/Nixon."

Currently at work on director Ron Howard's film adaptation of the Peter Morgan play, Sheen can also be seen in "Music Within," in which he plays another real-life character, Art Honeyman, whose body is afflicted with cerebral palsy, but who's mind is a weapon of minor destruction. Honeyman inspired the movie's main character, Richard Pimentel, in his work on behalf of the Americans with Disabilities Act; he inspired Sheen in his work in Steven Sawalich's film.

If you wanted to distance yourself from Tony Blair -- or David Frost -- Art Honeyman would seem the way to go.

Yes, it's quite different, isn't it? I hope that when people see me in a different role they'll stop thinking of me as Blair. Or Frost.

What was your preparation for playing Honeyman?

I knew there would be two areas of preparation. One was CP (cerebral palsy) itself, getting all the physical symptoms right. The other was about playing another real-life person. Unlike Blair or Frost, he's not familiar to most people. Nevertheless it's largely the same process.

How does the process start?

I did research, reading, watching videos. I went to a CP day center in Santa Monica where they were very generous and let me participate in activities. I had a wheelchair sent over to my apartment and started getting used to that. I took it out to get a feel of what it's like not walking around. And I met Art. That was the real challenge, to let Art's qualities through in the performance.

In the film, which begins in the Vietnam era and proceeds through the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), Art is sometimes relatively easy to understand and at other times he's utterly incomprehensible. How did you folks come to a conclusion to portray him that way?

When I first met Art, I said, "Hello," and about a minute later he said "Hello" back. I said to Steven, "This isn't going to work -- we want to be accurate, but no one's going to understand me." But he felt it was all in the script, and that what we see is Art through Richard, who understands him. We get Art through Richard's eyes and ears. There are a few moments when Art is hard to understand, but that's when the perspective shifts from Richard to the rest of the world.

There's a lot of responsibility involved, no?

It's a twofold responsibility: to the one person you're representing, and to anyone with CP. There's a question, a very valid question, of `Why didn't you get someone with CP to play the part?' And it's a good question. But Richard Pimentel said the idea of the Americans with Disabilities Act was not to ensure that a person with a disability would automatically be chosen for a job, but that the disability wouldn't prevent them from getting one. So that the best person for the job would be chosen. So that's another responsibility, proving myself the best person for the job.

Why take on a role like this?

I've always enjoyed the physicality of acting, which is partly why I've been playing real-life characters. There's a physical transformation that's required. The stage work is inevitably more physical, of course. And I'm drawn to outsiders.

What do you feel you've accomplished with Honeyman?

Art's disability scares people. They don't know what it's about; it's unknown, it's frightening. But if I can portray that, maybe it shows there's not that big a difference between us after all.

In other news, David Frost was on the ("Frost/Nixon") set?

Yes, he was here yesterday. My parents were here, too, so they got to meet him. It was a bit peculiar having the person you're playing watching you through a monitor. On the other hand, he's seen the play many times.

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