Michael Sheen awoke early Thursday to a pleasant surprise: a Golden Globe nomination for his role on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” Playing influential sexologist Bill Masters on the freshman drama is both familiar territory and an exciting challenge for the Welsh actor, who’d never before had a regular part on a television series but who has come to be known for portraying real-life figures — most notably former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who he played in three different films (“The Queen,” “The Deal” and “The Special Relationship”). On Thursday morning we caught up with the Welsh actor, who opened up about awkward moments on set and warned that his impressive locks may not be long for this world.
How are you feeling this morning? Or afternoon? Which time zone are you in?
I’m in Los Angeles. It’s morning here. I was risen from my slumbers at 5:45 this morning by my phone ringing, which I completely ignored and then went to sleep. And then when I did get up finally about 9 o’clock there were lots of lovely messages and so then I was then able to work out why my phone was ringing at 5:45.
I guess it would be presumptuous for someone to get up at 5 a.m. expecting to be nominated. What’s your approach to nomination announcements?
I didn’t know the nominations were coming out. I try to keep away from all that stuff, partly because if I’m doing a film or a play, I keep away from any reviews until after it’s done. Until at least after I’ve finished working on the piece. You don’t want that to affect what you’re doing, whether it’s positive or negative. You just want to get on with it. I’d never done an episodic TV show before, but it’s ongoing. So there is no “after it’s finished.” It could go on for seven years, and I can’t wait seven years. I thought once we’ve finished filming, I’ll watch all the shows. In terms of the other stuff, I’ve just tried to keep my head down a little bit. Now people are afraid to let me know about certain things, so I just didn’t know the nominations were coming out.
Luckily the show has been well received.
It’s been fantastic. People coming up to me when I’m going about my business and saying how much they’re enjoying it, it’s great. Ultimately you just want enough people to watch it and enjoy it that it gets to keep going. It’s not necessarily going to be a show for everybody, but as long as the people who do watch it enjoy it and we get to keep making it, it’s fantastic. I know what I’ve loved about doing it is to be part of such an amazing team. I genuinely mean that. When I watched all the shows — I watched them pretty much all in one go — as it went on I started to feel more and more empathy for every character. The work that everyone was doing has a cumulative power. I was so moved by the work that we were doing. There’s been a couple of moments with almost every character where I’m moved to tears. I feel like it really earned the investment that I was giving to it as an audience member. I felt very proud to be a part of it. I’m so glad the show has been recognized. In a way, for any individual element to be picked out is difficult because the work that we did was such an ensemble, such team work. Even though I’m playing Bill Masters, everything I’m doing is a result of every other actor, especially Lizzy [Caplan] and Caitlin [Fitzgerald], it’s impossible really to divide it up into individual actors.
This is your first regular series role, right?
I did a couple of episodes of “30 Rock.” I loved playing that character and working with Tina [Fey] and that whole team. It was wonderful. But to be able to think of something on a broad canvas of an entire season and having so much input into the creation of it, and where it’s going, this is my first experience of that.
Did you have any reluctance over the commitment doing a TV series demands?
Sure, I was a little nervous. I had a lot of trepidation about it because on the one hand, you hear so many stories about TV shows being pulled after a couple of episodes. On the other hand it could be going for 7 years or something. You’re committing to that on the basis of one pilot episode script so it’s a big deal to sign on to something. But also to think about playing one character for that long, and wondering whether it’s a character and a story that’s going to be interesting to me for a long time. And also the team of people that you’re working with.These are your work colleagues you’re going to be with every day and you have no idea if you’re going to get on with them or not. So I’ve been very, very fortunate.
Your character is a very complicated guy. Was that part of the appeal?
That was the thing that drew me to him. Reading the pilot episode, looking for what are the possible different directions I can explore, it was absolutely the complexity of the man. It’s so hard to get under his skin, he seems so shut down and defensive and forbidding. From doing the research about the man himself, and gleaning different things from his life, I started to get a picture of a man who has huge amounts of vulnerability and a very complicated relationship with himself that has been covered over the years. The idea of being able to unpick and unlock this man was I thought a really interesting challenge and one that would really suit the form of 12 episodes in a season, then hopefully season after season, where you can really start to look into this intricate mechanism that this man has become.
In real life Masters was bald. Were you relieved you didn’t have to shave your head?
Well, I still want to! I said from the beginning, I want to look like he looked. He went prematurely bald and prematurely white and I was advised away from that, which was probably wise. Nevertheless, I’ve always had it in my head we will get there at some point.
You’ve come to be known for playing real-life figures. Is that by design?
Well, it’s mainly because in the past they’ve been written by one man, [screenwriter and playwright] Peter Morgan. We did I think six or seven projects together all based on real people. That included all the three [Tony] Blair films, “Damned United” and “Frost/Nixon,” both onstage and on film. I think because of doing those, I suppose, you’re someone who comes to mind for other parts. In this case, with the show it’s very different in that you’re not working with a huge amount of familiarity in terms of the way the character sounded or looked. That’s not something that I have to be overly concerned about. But there is a template there. You’ve got the facts to use as a springing board, but at the same time, Masters was such a private man, such a difficult man to understand, in a way it’s required that you have to invent. No one really knows what was going on inside. It’s a perfect combination in a way of a real-life person but also being able to explore and invent.
You and Lizzy come from very different acting backgrounds. How has that worked out for you both?
I think great. From the beginning people have always remarked on the chemistry that the characters have. I think given the subject matter, inevitably you’re going to love each other or hate each other and fortunately it’s gone the positive way for us and we’ve become very, very close. Watching the series, you can see that that’s coming through, the trust we have in each other and how much we enjoy working with each other. It was similar to working on “Frost/Nixon” where you’ve got these two actors, and to a large extent the piece depends on how they work together. With me and Frank [Langella] doing it on stage, then on film, that spark was always there. It’s the same sort of thing with Lizzy. I think it’s partly to do with the fact that we come from different backgrounds, acting-wise, and yet we really connect.
Obviously sex is a big part of the show. Any funny or wonderfully awkward moments? I imagine there’s probably one every week.
Exactly, that’s what the show is about, it’s difficult to not have funny or awkward moments when you’ve got a group of women in front of you masturbating with an enormous glass dildo. It’s going to get fairly funny and awkward from the beginning and move on from there. For me and Lizzy a lot of the sex scenes came further on. We felt very close, it made it a lot easier to do it like that. Although the worry was we get on so well and we have such a laugh that maybe we’d just find each other ridiculous funny. But actually it was fine and it worked out very well. If we hadn’t liked each other, that would have been a nightmare by that point.
Are you going to celebrate tonight?
I’m sure I’ll knock back a few eggnog lattes tonight.
Well, you should. Congratulations.
Thank you very much, m’lady.
Twitter: @MeredithBlakeCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times