Michael Sheen (Mail Weekend, June 20, 2020)
There have been no lockdown haircuts for Michael Sheen. His hair is big. A mass of charcoal cherubic curls, paired with a bushy beard – not the kind you used to see people in Apple Stores sporting. It’s entirely unmanicured. He says he never changes his hair until he begins a part and then they instruct changes. This was his hair in the lockdown comedy drama Staged, in which he stars with his friend David Tennant, an exquisitely observed drama about insecure male actors rehearsing a play – Six Characters in Search of an Author, to be staged when lockdown is over. Sheen has pretty much been the star of lockdown anyway, his dazzling Chris Tarrant from the acclaimed and wonderful Quiz was the high point of the start of lockdown when we were all at our lowest. For a mercurial, sensitive Welshman, he is curiously upbeat. His new baby, Lyra, with his partner Anna Lundberg, a Swedish actress (around 25 years his junior) is complaining loudly in the background. I ask if she’s disturbed, he says she’s excited – how ‘glass full’ is that?
Sheen and I last met a few years ago in a restaurant in LA, his parents joined us – they were lovely. He was living there because he was working full-time on epic series like Masters of Sex and because his first family, daughter Lily with actress Kate Beckinsale lived there.
Theirs was a deep love affair but didn’t stand the tests of time, fame, or whatever it is that makes people who love each other not want to be with each other. He has had many long encounters with beautiful famous actresses such as Rachel McAdams and Sarah Silverman, but with Anna, he seems properly settled and unphased by lockdown: “it was always my plan to take time off and spend time over here with family, my parents are only 20 minutes away and the new series of Prodigal Son will be in New York but nobody’s sure when”. Does he fill with nostalgia when he sees Netflix + palm trees + Californian blue sky: “we don’t get to watch much TV at the moment, we’re busy with the baby, so we listen jealously when we hear other people talk about a boxset or anything else they’ve binged watched. I do miss it a bit, although the weather at the moment is Los Angeles-like in Wales and we spend a lot of time in the garden. I feel really fortunate that lockdown was in this period of time because I wasn’t going to be working anyway. I was just filming Prodigal Son in New York, we came back to Wales, my plan was to have a break – the plan was not to do any work so I didn’t have to pull out of anything and nothing was cancelled, and because of the baby it’s not massively different to how it would have been anyway. We would have been seeing my mum and dad more – which we haven’t done, but in the context of a really strange time for everyone, I am grateful for the small mercies, and it became weirdly busy”. He also appeared in a production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with key workers, doctors and teachers, where each one of them recited a few words about a sleeping Welsh fishing village (it appears online): “a lot of things came in and a lot of things that people ask me to do I can’t do because I’m working, but they knew I wasn’t working or going anywhere so it was harder to say no, and besides I want to help where I can”. ‘Help’ is in his nature, he’s run several charity football matches: ‘Football Stars Against Actors’ for Unicef. Last year, when he staged ‘The Homeless World Cup’ in Cardiff, some funding dropped out and he had to pay for everything himself. He ‘put it all on the line’ for the Homeless World Cup. He said at the time “we got into a bit of a state so I essentially put everything I had into this, you either commit to this stuff of you don’t. I have the opportunity to earn money, at this point I can work as much as I want. I figured, if I’m not prepared to give it all away, what am I doing?” When he was a pre-teen he was offered a place to train with the Arsenal junior team, his parents decided against it, it was one of those moments where his life could have taken a different fork. And even though he is passionate about soccer, he would have never have been an actor if he had been a footballer, and even at twelve he understood when his father explained how few people really make it big in the Premier League and how short their careers are anyway. His mother, Irene Sheen, was a secretary but was super poetic, and he feels a huge kinship to her. His father, Meryick, was a manager but also a full-time Jack Nicholson impersonator. He’d show up at premieres that Jack couldn’t make it to, and try not to speak in a welsh accent.
When Staged came up (for BBC One): “it was a chance to work with David that I thought would be quite fun. I loved working with David on Good Omens and we became good friends. We knew each other socially, although we hadn’t acted together again. In the period of Good Omens, which was a long time, it was just me and him together for a long period. And then even longer promoting it, going around the world. We both had babies at around the same time. David and Georgia had their little baby Birdy, although he’s got about a hundred other children, and we had Lyra, so we had been sharing baby stories.
On the show, they look like impenetrable close friends, but they are good actors so it’s hard to know, even though Sheen insists he’s playing a version of himself. He left it a couple of decades between children so “we’ve been sharing a lot of different experiences, aside from enjoying each other’s company. People talk about our chemistry as characters and it’s true, we do have chemistry and it’s very interesting to explore that. We are playing ourselves but they’re still characters really. David is straightforward when it comes to working, there’s no ego, no mess-around, he turns up, he’s brilliant. He makes it so easy”. And that’s exactly how Sheen is, no ego, no fuss, just brilliant work. And then he deflects from the compliment: “I think David makes me a better person and a better actor”. He doesn’t even mind, although I mind for him, that his Chris Tarrant was reviewed by some critics as an ‘impersonation’, he’s not an impersonator, he’s a wonderfully nuanced actor who is capable of taking the essence of the person, real or fictional, and showing what matters about them most: “it doesn’t matter if people discredit you, the show was so well received. No one ever imagined, when it came out, we’d be in this lockdown situation. It worked in our favour because people were looking forward to things to watch and this is what brought people together”. That, and Normal People: “like I said, we don’t have much time to watch things, but we are slowly making our way through that, and it’s beautiful”. Sheen famously played Blair three times in The Queen, The Deal and The Special Relationship. He was very good at that, after that he went on to play David Frost in Frost/Nixon on stage and screen versions. And football boss Brian Clough in The Damned United, but playing Blair three times made a close association in the public eye, and one horrific experience for me, after I had interviewed him the first time. This voice came on the phone saying it was Tony, and I thought it was Michael pretending to be Tony, but it was actually Tony. So that only led to an association of personal embarrassment. One reviewer referred to Michael Sheen as Martin Sheen, the veteran actor, so Michael’s reaction was to change his Twitter handle for some time. The name Michael was never meant to be his in the first place, his parents called him Christopher, but when he was in hospital, a nurse put the wrong baby tag on him: “due to some complications, I was separated from my mother for a few days and when my mum and dad came to pick me up and take me home, they said ‘we’ve come to pick up baby Christopher’ and they said ‘we don’t have a baby Christopher, we have a baby Michael’, so they named me Michael Christopher. I also did one of those family tree programs where they said that my ancestors had come over from Ireland and one of them had 20 children but only five of them had survived – all the boys called Michael had died, so I avoided the curse of Michael Sheen because my parents had named me Michael. So, by accident I snuck around the family curse”. At the moment, though, he seems more blessed than cursed, even making lockdown work for him. I wonder, could one really rehearse a play in lockdown so they could be performed? “you could up to a certain point, you could work on it. The first weeks of rehearsing anything is talking through stuff.”
Does he miss the theatre? “I do. I miss doing a play on stage in front of an audience. But when I wake up, doing a play, it’s the first thing that hits me – I’ve got to do a play tonight. It feels depressive and I feel anxious before the performance, even though it’s a couple of hours a day, it takes over your life and it’s hard to focus on anything else. It’s much more consuming than working on film and TV, although paradoxically you only spend a few hours doing it, it takes up more bandwidth. I love the feeling of acting on stage in front of an audience”. And the camaraderie of working with fellow actors? “yes, but you get that working on a film or TV show, especially if they’re long-running ones. When you’re in the theatre, you don’t spend much time with other actors until you’re actually on stage. When you’re filming you’re all sitting around between takes, so there’s much more a sense of the group during filming”. So working in an actual theatre with a new baby was never an easy equation: “yeah, it could be a lot worse. It’s not been as disruptive for us personally, but we’re very aware of how it affects people”. She’s quiet now, less disturbed and excited. On the whole is she a good baby? “she’s a baby, I don’t really divide them into good babies and bad babies, the whole experience is just wonderful. It’s all the fun of sleepless nights and nappies being changed. It’s wonderful to go through it again”. Is it surprisingly different from your first baby-daddy experience? “I don’t think so, when my first daughter was born, it was an extraordinary experience, life-changing. It does feel like one of the most profound experiences you can have. It changes everything. So I can’t say I was surprised but on another level you don’t know what to expect. What has changed since last time is car seats. These days they actually fit. I remember last time wrangling around with the seat belt, now you just have something that fits permanently in the car, it’s easy. Prams and stuff, easy. Technology has changed for the better, but the basics of sleepless nights and poo-y nappies are just as bad and difficult to deal with. But it’s amazing, the best experience ever.
Staged focuses on insecurities and quirks that come up with lockdown: “obviously it tests relationships because there are very few people that would spend this much time together constantly. I’m sure some thrive and some are shown crack. I think it’s important to be able to speak to one another and express yourself and what’s going on. So even not in lockdown conditions, relationships can be better if people share what’s going on. A massive generalisation is that men are not as good as expressing their feelings as women”. Paradoxically though, Sheen is good at expressing emotions. Possibly because he has a direct channel for those emotions in acting, but also because he’s fearless about emotions which is a rarity and makes him rare as an actor. “I’ve been lucky in another sense because my parents are only 20 minutes away. My sister and I take it in turns to do the weekly shop for them. I see them then, they stand in the doorway and I stand two metres away and drop off the food. But I know it’s difficult, particularly for my mum (who likes to hug everyone) and she had to have her birthday on lockdown. And even with the baby, although technology allows us to have contact, with FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, the baby’s changing all the time and my mum and dad are really aware of that, and it’s frustrating that they can’t see her much even though we’re only down the road.
They were never comfortable using technology but a lot of people have had to get comfortable with that and step up. Although, saying that, there have been a lot of facetime calls where I’m faced looking at a wall. But the family have done a group-chat over Zoom, so they’ve done really well to do that, and I’m grateful that we’ve been able to stay in contact”. It seems like Sheen didn’t do some of the lockdown things that were everyone else’s insecurities: the lockdown haircut, the lockdown texting the ex, or have the lockdown anxiety that they were going to kill their partner if they heard them blink one more time. “I have seen a lot of dodgy haircuts going on. Friends of mine have said ‘I’ve let my kids cut my hair’ which is obviously taking your life in your hands, so I’ve avoided that”. He also seems to have avoided neurosis, over-self-examination and fears for the future. There will be another season of Prodigal Son, he doesn’t know when. And another season of There’s Something About Movies, for Sky TV, he doesn’t know when. Perhaps it’s the baby, perhaps it’s being home and close with his parents, he’s become extremely patient.