A light and dark Michael Sheen
These days, Michael Sheen seems likely to turn up anywhere — and everywhere.
The actor who gained attention and acclaim with a string of roles drawn from real-life characters in films such as “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Damned United” also has demonstrated a fondness for turning more commercial films on their heads — delivering joyously odd performances in vampire franchises such as “Underworld” and “Twilight” and sci-fi outings such as “Tron: Legacy.”
“I suppose it reflects my taste as an audience member,” said Sheen, 42, regarding his seemingly unlikely range of roles. “I’m as likely when I’m deciding what film I want to watch to go to the small art-house cinema as I am to go to the big multiplex. And I don’t see why my acting career shouldn’t reflect my taste as well. I do things that I would like to go see ultimately. They’re all things that I’d like to watch myself, and therefore I should like to be in them.”
Sheen’s latest round of projects is particularly eclectic. He had a recurring role on the sitcom “30 Rock” as Wesley Snipes, a mismatched love interest to Tina Fey . In April, he appeared in a 72-hour-long performance of “The Passion” in the small town in Wales where he grew up. And Sheen appears as a blowhard academic in Woody Allen’s new “Midnight in Paris,” turning in a bone-dry comedic performance as a know-it-all intellectual and romantic rival to Owen Wilson’s unmoored Gil.
“He’s a stock character in Woody’s films, someone who the Woody Allen character can feel both superior to and inferior to and complain about,” said Sheen, who’s been making a cameo appearance in the gossip pages thanks to his relationship with his “Midnight” costar Rachel McAdams. “If I’d ever thought about doing a Woody Allen film, I would have thought it would be in New York, not Paris. It was a surprising experience in a lot of ways.”
Then there is his powerful turn in “Beautiful Boy,” which opened in limited release on Friday after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
As Bill, the father of a college student who died committing a bloody campus shooting, Sheen, alongside Maria Bello as his wife, Kate, cycles through all the conflicting feelings and self-criminations one might expect from the emotional aftershocks of such a devastating event.
Like Lynne Ramsay’s upcoming “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” about a mother coping with the devastating consequences of a son’s violent, lethal outburst, “Beautiful Boy” tackles a hot-button subject matter. But for first-time feature writer-director Shawn Ku, the story was principally a portrait of a marriage in decline, watching two people forcefully thrown together at the very point they are most distant from one another.
“Initially we set out to write a story about a relationship, with two people who didn’t know each other as well as they thought they did,” Ku explained of the process with his co-writer Michael Armbruster. “And from that we came to this idea of having them be parents of a campus shooter. We’d never seen that before, even in press coverage. We tend to vilify these people when those things happen, so they’re not open. The Columbine kids, those parents didn’t speak for more than a decade.”
While the film touches on events with real-world echoes, Sheen said he didn’t prepare in the same way he did for his turns as Prime Minister Tony Blair in “The Queen” or TV personality David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.”
“There’s always something you can research, and I can do this as much as anyone, but you can start to do research for the sake of doing research. Almost for the sake of being able to say, ‘yes I did research’ in interviews to make you sound like a proper actor,” he said. “But sometimes it’s just not appropriate. It felt in a way that it would be more useful not to know anything because they have no idea what to do. They’re lost.”
“Beautiful Boy” was shot in just 18 days in late 2009 — “Basically Michael and I had to pay them in order to be in this movie,” joked Bello — and Ku acknowledged the difficulty of the low-budget production.
He mentioned that Sheen had to shoot one of his most emotional scenes, a poignant voicemail message Bill leaves on the phone of his dead son, in a rush at the tail end of Sheen’s first day of filming.
The production schedule also didn’t give Sheen and Bello much rehearsal time to build up the small shorthands that make them seem so much like an authentic couple in the film.
“We didn’t have a lot of time, but we got a lot done in that time,” said Sheen of his working relationship with Bello.
“It is rare, even when you connect with another actor, to have such a level of trust as we had. Because of what we worked on before shooting, talked about with Shawn, we were very honest with each other about our relationships and our own experiences and that connected us, I think. I’ve never felt more comfortable with another actor.”
Sheen and Bello determined that in the series of scenes featuring just the two of them together, each actor would always be at some differing point on the emotional scale in an effort to make the film more than just a one-note chamber piece on grieving.
“I read this book on grief beforehand because I had heard that the grief process when someone loses a child takes years,” Bello said. “Here we have to fit it into two weeks [of on-screen time] and go through grief, rage, denial, all the levels. Michael and I wanted to be sure we weren’t playing the same emotion at the same time in the same scene. So when he was in anger I was in denial, or I was in sadness when he was in rage. It was interesting to figure out how to get all these levels in there so you’re not just playing shock.”
Although his performance in “Beautiful Boy” shows off Sheen’s dramatic skills, it is his versatility that might be most notable about his work overall. In “Tron: Legacy,” for example, Sheen turned a small role as a duplicitous nightclub owner into a spectacular piece of showmanship that was purposefully drawn from David Bowie at his most chameleonic.
“All these things get put together and out of it comes this weird thing,” said Sheen of the self-aware playfulness he tends to bring to his roles in bigger-budget films. “And until someone says, ‘No, stop it,’ I’m just going to keep going. It was the same with Aro in ‘Twilight.’ There’s this character who is ultimately completely insane who was driven mad by being immortal and plays games with himself.”
He’ll reprise the role of the menacing vampire leader later this year with the release of the first installment in the franchise’s two-part finale “Breaking Dawn,” and Sheen noted that the majority of his time on the shoot was spent on a single battle sequence, which should promise to be a showstopper.
“People talk about the characters being camp, but there’s just a sense of self-conscious theatricality about them because they are playing games,” he said. “There’s a sense of joy there but also an anger and darkness as well.”
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