Sam Smith’s voice is like honey seared in raw pain.It vibrates on a level of vulnerability previously not known to human beings.They reach in and grab you by the throat, the heart, the soul, and stain you.If there is pain to feel, they’ve felt it deeper and harder.Propelled by these uncanny abilities, Smith – gender queer who uses they/them pronouns – has won four Grammy’s, three Brits, three Billboard music awards, a Golden Globe and an Oscar.It is also the reason that my burly builders working in my basement turn up to early every day because they know that I am playing the new Sam Smith’s album Love Goes.
They wave me off like I am the Queen going to launch a ship when they know I am going to meet them for the interview which is in management offices in Hampstead.
“I am good with builders, they are my fan base.”We agree their fan base is as wide as his inspirations. “Ever since I was a kid I have listened to women singers, I think I see myself within the lyrics, within the stories.”(Amy, Britney, Bey Madonna, Christina.)
“Singing completes me. And during Covid I was singing all the time, I just came to this place where I was falling in love with singing again.”
The album Love Goes is nostalgic, referencingends ofrelationships, but not the end of love.They are comfortable embracing extremes – young and a very old soul. They like to mix the euphoria of disco and the pain of loss.They like crying and dancing at the same time.Their birthday is May 19th, Taurus, stubborn.And do they like to use lots of fabric conditioner?
“Yes!Yes!I have got very sensitive skin.”
They love to feel softness around them.They are delighted when I tell them as soon as they came out as non-binary I was listening to their music on Alexa who immediately referred to Smith as they/them.
“Wow, I did not know that and it is clever and lovely.”
I tell them that I have messed up a few times with the they/them.
“I mess up, my mum messes up, my family messes up.What I have learned over the past year is that it is not an ideal world.It would be wonderful if we could change lanes like that. When people correct themselves it is a wonderful feeling because people try.”
Do they feel more comfortable in their own skin?
“Yes.I have always been non-binary, I have always felt the way I’ve felt and just hearing other non-binary stories made me suddenly feel seen and I felt this is a way that I can live, where if I tell people this is how I feel and this is how I like to be treated life is easier.”
Did they have to change their name and title on their passport?
“I don’t think you are allowed to do that yet which I find sad.I am pretty sure mine says I am male and you have a choice to be male or female.It would be wonderful if it could change, hopefully in my lifetime.”
They are wearing a soft grey sweatshirt and jeans.Their thighs are very shapely, girlie and they like that.Was there a moment that inspired the pronoun change or was it a process?
“For me, what triggered everything was the work I was doing with my body issues.I always had body dysmorphia.As I started to address that, I started to address my gender and realized that I was holding myself to these ideals of how a man should look.As I looked into it, I did therapy, I realized there was more to it.I have got girl thighs and I have got girl breasts too.It started to awaken this conversation that had always been in the back of my mind.”
Years ago, he went to Amelia Freer the nutritionist that James Corden and Boy George used and he lost many pounds.
“In the words of Rhianna, I have been gifted with a fluctuating body.I can lose weight I can put weight on quickly, I am a shape shifter.When I read Rhianna I felt very seen.”
“Seen” is a word they use a lot.I think for them it means being accepted, but it’s paradoxical too, as a famous pop star losing and gaining weight is a shackle.Do they have a love/hate relationship with fame?
“I wouldn’t say that I love fame.”
“Fame means I can get certain messages across which is a wonderful thing… but it’s very invasive.”
The songs are so confessional anyway, how much more can they be invaded?
“It’s a weird life change, it’s quite traumatic.I was 21 when fame happened (28 now) and my whole world changed.I didn’t realise how much of a home body I was and how much I loved my privacy.You can’t go back. I have gotten used to it and aware of how lucky I am… also I have to be cautious.
“It was very difficult, I remember I got papped when I was 22.I have always looked at myself with affection no matter how big or small I am, but I saw this and I felt ashamed.So now, I don’t look at pictures or read anything about me, good or bad.”
A few years ago they had a file on their phone called Crack where Instagram and Twitter lived.
“I have changed it now. I am still on those things, but I have stepped away for sure.I keep it mainly music focused, all the information people need is in the albums.When I sing and tell stories – I write everything I do.I don’t think people really realise because of the pop umbrella, that the way I make music is organic and from the deepest part of me.”
On the album their favourite song is Another One.It is very trance-y.It is about loss and hope.My favourite is Dance Until You Love Someone Else.
“I think I was going through a breakup when I was writing the album, it was after my main relationship of my life.”
They were together with Brandon Flynn from 13 Reasons Why for 9 months in 2018.
“That was my longest relationship basically, so there was a catharsis going on.When you write songs you may start with an initial inspiration but then it becomes something else –a story that everyone can relate to.I also found it hard that the relationship was public.”
This was a big conflict.They wanted the relationship known because they were proud, they’re are not so many gender queer couples, but they didn’t want it because it put pressure on the relationship.
“I think there are ways to get around it, where you can maintain a level of privacy, but it was hard.I was 25 during that time and in many ways I seem a lot older but when it comes to relationships I am still a bit of a teenager.”
The relationship was played out, at least for a lot of the time, in California.
“I actually do love California. I didn’t love California.”
They were lonely there.
“Even though you could always find me in West Hollywood dancing down the streets.”
Is it more important for them to love or be loved?
“Before it was more important to me to love – that is part of the reason the album is called Love Goes.I was addicted to the melancholy of love– you are putting yourself through pain to be inspired because it is a creative space.Now I understand what love is – for me it is something that you nurture and someone is nurturing you and there has to be an equal amount of nurturing going on.”
In their songs they break up with people, but they still love them.Isn’t it much easier to hate the people you break up with?Their deep eyes twinkle.
“I have tried to look at every relationship as a different experience and something that has helped me understand myself.I have had a lovely time with the people I have been with and there is a lot of love there.Love doesn’t go away, I will always love these people and by putting them into songs it will live on, although when I listen back to The Thrill of it All or The Lonely Hour I don’t think or feel for those guys at all now.It is just like looking through an emotional photo book. Sometimes I listen back to my music and think, ‘I was so childish’ and so thought I knew everything about love.”
They are single now.
“On the front line.”
Just now they are more in love with their album.
“I want it to be an empowering break up album.Just step in and own that heartbreak.
“When my parents broke up, I was very lucky.There was not a lot of nastiness and I know divorces can get very nasty.My parents still love each other very much even to this day.”
They use this theme of love outlives the relationship as a blueprint.
“You let the relationship last as long as they are going to last.They got 26 years and 3 kids… they are happy now, it is a lovely, happy, dysfunctional family.”
And what does the family think about the theyness?
“They fully support the theyness.My mother has always known I have been that way and so has my dad.A lot of people just know me from my first record, but I was wearing makeup and female clothes from the ages of 15 to 18.I was fully glammed up every day for school.My dad, before school a few times, would say, ‘You need to powder your face because you look orange.’My family want me to feel happy and settled so they are incredibly supportive about my pronouns.They say live it and enjoy it.
“It is not my job to be an activist. My job is to make music and I needed to enjoy being out as a non-binary person for a bit.”
Do they feel responsibility for their young fans who may be struggling to come to terms with their identity?
“I think there is a lack of education and a lack of understanding. No one ever talked about queer sex or queer love growing up and I have been put in dangerous positions because of the lack of education and understanding from society.I feel that if my music or gender expression helps anyone of any age who feel like they see themselves in me, or it helps them understand… because if I were a young kid and I was a non-binary artist talking about this it might have saved me a bit of heartache and pain. So, if I could be that to someone that’s wonderful.
“I am a singer and I am very human.The concept of being a role model is wonderful, but it is not something I am looking for.I make mistakes.I am flawed.”
Are they looking for a relationship?
“Of course.I am not looking, I am hoping – it is like wading through water and trying to catch a fish with your bare hands.I am just sitting by the side of the pond now.Being single during lockdown was not fun.I spent it with my sister and felt very lucky because we get along so well.”
Do they think about the future?Do they want to have kids?
“I am trying to seize control of things and let life happen, but I would love to have kids, I want to have a kid before I am 34.”
How are they going to acquire one?
“There are lots of options, adopt, surrogacy, I have got friends who have done both.”
They have friends who are non-binary and friends who are not.
They won an Oscar in 2016 for the Bond track Writing ‘s on the Wall.
Billie Eilish sings new Bond No Time To Die.
“Billy is absolutely beautiful and it is a beautiful song.”
Were they overwhelmed during their Bond period?
“I was.My whole life changed and I was trying to navigate through it.I hadn’t been home because I was touring and I found it a strain on my mind and physical body.”
“I would wake up and think what is going on?Chemically? You go on stage every night, your adrenaline is off the roof, and then you walk off stage into a dressing room of complete silence.It’s addictive because the feeling is amazing, but it doesn’t warrant for a steady mental ride. You are made to feel you are very important then you realise you are like everyone else with the same issues and boyfriend problems.”
“I have got some wonderful queer friends in London, but my closest queer friend is in New York.During lockdown we had FaceTime dinners and cocktails.
“I love food as much as music, I am a foodie.I am staying healthy now, I have got a plan to move to rural Scotland someday and enjoy eating.
“My skin is very Celtic, the sun and I don’t get along.My grandmother’s mum was French and there is definitely Scottish and Irish in me, perhaps I was a non-binary Celtic Viking.”
We talk about The Three chimneys on the Isle of Skye.
Excitedly they say, “I went last year with my cousin and her husband on a road trip all around Scotland.Very special. Skye is wonderful, very haunting, then I went to the outer Hebrides which is wild.Scotland is my favourite place in the whole world, my family were from Whitley Bay (Northeast of England).”
I remind them they once said, “Life is like a Richard Curtis movie because I am so romantic”.At what point in the year do they start watching Love Actually?
“All throughout the year.I am obsessed with Sense and Sensibility at the moment.I am a romantic – I think I could over romanticise things – I would adore to write a soundtrack to a Richard Curtis movie, and one day I would love to make a queer romantic film.I see romance in different ways, always have.Life to me is romantic, the ups and downs, the sadness and happiness, I look at the whole and sometimes i can get carried away.I have OCD so I try not to linger on too many thoughts for too long.”
They still get a thrill from heels.
“OMG!I love heels, love heels! I was starting to wear them every day last year,but it was exhausting.I am 6’2” so there is a lot of weight on a heel and a lot of height. I find I don’t want to stand out that much. One walks differently in heels. I strut.I look fabulous in a heel. But OMG, I am a size 13. I have to go to specialist drag shops or places to get boy heels.Or they heels.They is a beautiful word.”
They love clothes from Random Identity – all gender fluid clothing.
“Also I like Ella Boucht, she is incredible, she’s a they/she.I say I am a they/them but many people like to be known as they/he or they/she – all beautiful words.”
I met Mica Paris back in the day when she was a famous pop star, beautiful voice and gorgeous girl. I always knew she was more than just hot glamour and great vocals. We met again recently, just before lockdown via mutual friends, she had cooked amazing Jamaican chicken with rice and peas. This woman can cook. Celebrity Master Chef semi-finalist doesn’t even tell you the whole story. I think you can actually taste love on the plate.
First off, you think ‘what a strong powerful woman’, but her strength comes from vulnerability and faith. She stands tall and confident, but on the very day we met, she’s nursing a heartache. Her best friend – Paul Field – an editor for the Mail group had unexpectedly died. They saw each other all the time and were working on a book together about female singers who rocked the world. Right now, she is about to rock the world with a BBC documentary: Mica Paris and Gospel Music. It’s built around six songs about suffering and redemption over three centuries. Mica has always had faith. She grew up in the church; she and her siblings were brought up by their Pentecostal grandparents. Her grandfather was a pastor and everything was very strict. From a young age, she sang in church. I’m eating her delicious Jamaican chicken: “I’m a food person. I cook really good. I can cook anything – Japanese, Jamaican. I cannot bake to save my life”, then she lets out a big dirty laugh. Rylan was her rival semi-finalist, she loved him: “he’s a wonderful guy, I was very pleased about my Jamaican chicken dish, everyone was saying how wonderful it was. But then I saw flour, milk, eggs and sugar and I thought I was gonna die. It meant baking. I couldn’t even breathe because I knew I was going to get kicked out, and I made the worst crepes ever.”
This week (June 22) she releases the song In Broad Daylight- vocals that reach inside your heart and all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter and Mobo Music awards Charitable Trust
And she’s made the definitive gospel music documentary full of detail and resonance– everyone can relate to these songs. Hearing her sing brings a warm shimmer to the soul, it seems particularly fitting that this program should come out just post-lockdown. Watch it, and even though you might not be religious, you understand why churches need to open. “It’s produced by Lenny Henry’s company. I wanted to do two programs, one talking about gospel music and the other talking about all the women singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston – who had been tortured in the business. The BBC wanted me to do the gospel first because it’s my heritage, it’s about me. The program opens up with Stormzy at 2019 Glastonbury performing a rap version of ‘…’. It’s moving, and he literally brings the entire Glastonbury crowd to church. “Church was like a little community. It was a social event, it worked for me. When I was a kid, I felt I had a party trick. I would hold that note and the room went ‘oooommmm’. I felt like Bill Withers on ‘Lovely Day’.
“I come from a family of six, I desperately wanted to be noticed, so you had to do what you had to do.” Growing up, she had to be extremely well-behaved.
It’s normal in Caribbean families that the children are looked after by the grandparents. She saw her parents all the time: “my grandparents were lovely but super strict. As my grandfather was a pastor, we were the first family of the church so we had to be really circumspect. My Sunday clothes and Sunday shoes could not be touched for the whole of the week and on Sunday we had to have a beret to cover your head for church. Everyone looked at the first family for leadership. So when my parents were playing out, I was not allowed. I was in the house doing choir practice. A Victorian house in Lewisham that’s five bedrooms, a garden, a dog, a rabbit, a chicken and a cat. We still ate chicken rice and peas – just not that chicken. Everyone came to the house so there were lots of activities like a Monday prayer meeting, a Tuesday Bible study, so going out wasn’t even an option, but there was always something going on at home. It didn’t even feel weird. When I got to fifteen, I suddenly wanted to go out with my friends. And I did. And my grandmother followed me to my friend’s house. There was this dark figure darting around the street, watching me, going around the corner. She was very strict. But in a weird way, I don’t think she was controlling, just protective. And I’m actually thankful they were like that because a lot of my friends ended up really messed up. And going into the music business actually really helped me. I moved out when I was sixteen and signed my first deal at seventeen.”
She was studying art at Vauxhall college, and went to live with her sister in Brixton. “My grandparents had a complete meltdown and said ‘you’ve got to come back home’ it was horrible.” What were her parents doing at this point? “My mum and dad would visit us at weekends. They were total sixties children, all about the party – so imagine the contrast. The very strict Pentecostal upbringing. My grandad always wore a tie at home, we would have three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and were never allowed to eat between meals. Dinner was served at six o’clock, and then you don’t eat again until the morning. When I used to go visit my mum and dad at weekends, it was curries, goat, chicken all the time and dub music, and people walking in and out of my mum’s house. I actually didn’t like it. I preferred the quiet and chill of my grandparents’. It’s a very Caribbean thing, that the children were looked after by the grandparents. It was about stepping in and looking after the children while the parents work. I remember getting told off by lots of people – mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles. A line of people were telling me to behave myself. You didn’t say anything, it was all about ‘respect your elders and shut up’.” For anybody this would be hard to take, but for Mica, who is all about self-expression and telling it like it is, she found it impossible: “I couldn’t take it. I got to sixteen, and I moved out. I left the idyllic quiet life and strict upbringing and I thought ‘this is great’.” It’s always a woman to embrace extremes and feel quite at home in both of them. She was the youngest of the girls and then three boys followed. The three sisters sang together. Her elder sister, Dawn, has a PhD and is a lecturer The next sister, Paula, is a well known gospel singer.
Singing in church and singing with her first record label were a lifetime apart, much further than the distance from Lewisham to Brixton. “My granddad said ‘you’re going to become a harlot’. I had to look up in the dictionary what that meant. And I told him I was prepared. I had had fifteen years of Jesus and I was prepared.” Curiously, she can still quote with precision and passion from the Bible. She might have left Jesus, but I’m not sure Jesus ever let her go. “No, it never does. In fact, it got me through the pitfalls. You know, how one minute you’re loved and everyone wants you, and the next minute you’re just gone. I’ve had many peaks in my career, and many lows.” Peaks included her debut single My One Temptation – it was a worldwide smash, and two seasons of hosting What Not to Wear, as well as successful Radio Two presenting shows, Mica Meets and West End musical like Fame
“There have been many lows, and it’s my faith in God that gets me through that. I don’t go to church, but I pray. I pray in the morning, I pray in the evening. And I have a faith that is unshakeable. I believe there is something bigger than us, I’ve seen it work in my life many times.
Just yesterday I was speaking to Chaka Khan who is one of my oldest friends, and God-Mother to my eldest, Monet. She wants me to do some shows with her in America. I remember when I lost my second deal with EMI records. It was a time when they had Robbie Williams and they decided he was their next king, and anyone else didn’t get a look in. I made this album ‘Black Angel’, produced it, wrote it, did everything myself. And EMI said ‘this album is too urban we don’t know what to do with it’, I was devastated. I had been making this album for two years, I was with Raphael Saadiq and James Ingram. I suffered for that, it was 1997. Horrible times.” I wonder if anyone would say that these days, ‘it’s too urban’
Urban was a dirty word .it meant unplayable. Despite how far we’ve moved, clearly racism still hurts us all. “I went mental at EMI and said ‘I’m gonna be here after this building is gone’, I walked out, went back to my flat, and suddenly thought ‘what have I done?’ I haven’t got a deal, I haven’t got any money. And that’s when I got a phone call from Chaka who was in London doing a play, Mama, I Want to Sing! and she said ‘I hate it, the only way I can get out of this play is if you take it’. No problem, so the other day I said ‘you know, Chaka, you saved me’. I had no money, and I had paid thousands for this record, then lost the deal. Then I got this, that’s God.
I was in that show for six months and one day a producer Mike Peden, who produced I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, by The Chimes came to the show and wanted me to do another U2 song called One. I’d never heard the song (even though it’s one of U2’s most famous) so I did my version without being influenced by the original, and it was a massive hit. Bono wrote me a beautiful letter saying I did a great job. It just shows you how, in this business, you have to have faith, everyone had written me off, saying I had had my moment then I had a resurgence.” Here’s hoping that Black Angel will now have resurgence along with her new career as a documentary maker.
She has two daughters, Monet and Russia, and for now she’s a single mum. We reminisce about a man she loved very much, Max Beesley. “We were together for four years, but Max then was not who he is today (a sought-after television actor who starred in Suits) he was playing in Paul Weller’s band. I was just splitting up with Monet’s father, and I was heartbroken then I met Max and we totally fell in love, I couldn’t help myself. I had had a lot of dalliances in my life, Max was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The problem was the timing, I was so traumatised by the breakup of the marriage to Monet’s father it didn’t matter that Max saved up for four months to buy me a ring, he was only a session musician. But he was a legend, the best step-father and the best boyfriend you could ever have. But did I see it at the time? No. I was still traumatised by the previous relationship.
“He’s making another record and he wants me to get involved, which of course I will. He’s married now and living in LA. But if I could rewind the clock… Divorce is not easy, I was 25, had this little girl, Max was amazing, though I couldn’t see it then. We’re still friends.”
Gospel is all about stories of suffering and redemption, you feel it hard when she sings … .. she’s been through it.
In the program, she’s in a house in Memphis, which was a safehouse for slaves seeking their freedom. It was a basement. When the screen goes black and you imagine the darkness that they lived in and their fear for life itself Mica cries, anyone who watches it will cry. It’s no surprise that Mica rose up from nervous breakdowns: “I had a nervous breakdown after I split from Max.”
What happened? “I had a mass of anxiety attacks after I split from him. A doctor came round and called it ‘an anxiety attack’ I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die. They gave me morphine and told me I’d taken on too much. I was financially supporting many people and I was getting over the breakup. I had to stop being mummy to everybody, it was killing me. I hadn’t realised how much emotional support Max had been giving me until we split, and that’s when it all fell apart.”
Her pop career was still soaring she became close with Prince he wrote if I Love You Tonight for her. and had had a couple of encounters with Whitney Houston: “I’d just had my first hit record, My One Temptation, and you used to have to go to Germany to do this TV show. – it was like German Top of the Pops. Whitney was there. We had to do several rehearsals because the shows were not live, and all of a sudden we’re waiting in the greenroom and a big stretch limo turns up outside. I mean, you’ve never seen a limo as long as this, it took up the whole street. My record was killing it at this point, I was starting to get the bodyguards and that lifestyle, but not a limo the size of a street. Who’s got a car that big? Six bodyguards walk out, and then Whitney. She sang I Wanna Dance with Somebody. She was beautiful, super thin. Really shy. And awkward. Not comfortable in her own skin. We decided we’d go and have dinner afterwards. I told her ‘I think you’re really great.’ At the dinner table, she was playing footsie under the table, I think she was really into me but I had just come from the church and I was like ‘what? I don’t get it.’ I’m from south London, we don’t do that.”
They had stuff in common, they both came from a church background, “. I was 18, and although I loved her to bits, I was freaking out. Our next encounter was a year or so later when I got invited to Wembley when she was doing a concert. When I met her backstage, I said ‘good to see you’ I thought ‘this woman is so beautiful’. Forget the pictures, in real life she was so mesmerising, and I’m not even gay.” At that time, she was having a relationship with one of her female managers, Robyn. She was the best. She was strict with her but took good care of her. And then Bobby (Brown) came along: “he and I were really good friends, he liked my voice but he fancied my sister. We had a great time and lots of laughs and then Bobby met Whitney. Let me tell you, Bobby was a really good person, but he was influenced by others who were naughty. Do I think Bobby changed when he met Whitney? No. I think when Robyn was kicked out, Whitney went down. I don’t blame Bobby for Whitney, he just wasn’t strong enough to help her i think
The documentary shows the power of singing and redemption in a world where there was none. In a world where there are so many Black Lives Matter protests, it becomes all the more poignant. “We’ve got to remember, my thing is – and this is very hard to say as a black person – I love people, I love everybody, I don’t understand racism. I’ve even been told by my own people that I’m ‘not black enough’ because my children are mixed race. People even told Whitney she was ‘too white’ and that’s why she made the record Your Love is My Love, because she was trying to be black.” Whitney was famously controlled by Clive Davis and tamed into a pop princess. Mica’s record boss was Chris Blackwell at Island Records, who didn’t try to change her. “Bobby was fun, and an amazing performer, but he still had to go home to Whitney. And I don’t think women should ever have to apologise when they’re more successful than their man. He loved her, yes, but he wasn’t as big as her, and he was massive at one time. But he was with the queen so he wasn’t as massive. I feel the same thing happened with Amy Winehouse. I put her on my live show at Jazz Café which accompanied my Radio Two show called Soul Solutions. She wasn’t known at the time.
‘Gospel and women performers are my two loves. And this is the book I was writing with Paul, about why female singers are so tortured. Amy was always apologising for being successful. “Paul and I were best friends for 18 years, we met when my brother Jason was shot three times and killed by gun-crime. It was a massive story. Everyone was asking for the exclusive. Paul called and said ‘just wanted to say Should Have Known Better is one of my favourite songs of all time.’ I had had hell with that song because no one wanted to release it because it was ‘too black ’, it was also Whitney’s favourite song. I was so impressed the journalist even knew it, it had been relegated to a b side – so I said yes to the exclusive. And we became best mates, every month we’d have lunches that would go on for five or six hours. We’d go on holiday with his children and wife Michaela who is adorable Two weeks before he died we had a lovely dinner, and for the first time ever we went out raving afterwards. We were both passionate about food so going to a club was unusual. although he was also passionate about music – he had over 7,000 vinyl records. We went out and danced for two and a half hours, he died right after that. He was my best friend, I loved him. He’d take a bullet for you, in fact for lots of people. His dad had died in November 2019 and I don’t think he ever got over that. He was so good to so many people.”
She’s emotional, composes herself and talks about new projects. Her last Radio Two series was Mica Meets, where she interviewed people like Gladys Knight and Sister Sledge. And before that she took over from Trinny and Susanna presenting What Not to Wear. In an industry which is sexist and ageist, she’s coming into her time again – documentaries, acting and more.
Her cousin is boxer Chris Eubank: “he’s always said the British write you off when you get to a certain age, but if you’re passionate and you want to be relevant you still can.”
In Broad Daylight is out now.
The Gospel According to Mica is out July 25 on BBC 4.
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.
I first met Rupert Grint over 5 years ago – the Harry Potter films were already over but a whole generation still felt they owned him. He was their friend, their brother, their personal wizard. As we sat having coffee in a tucked away street a dozen people in the course of an hour called out “Ron! Ron! Ron!” and asked for selfies. He didn’t seem irritated by this level of invasive fame, he just obliged. Today, it’s been nearly a decade since Harry Potter ended and he’s managed some personal wizardry – people still stop him every day, he is still one of the most famous people in the world and still responsible for revitalising Ginger. Curiously, he has managed to keep such a lot of his life private, for instance, he has been together with actress Georgia Groome (from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) since 2011, but nobody knew they were a couple until about a year ago.
He is next on screen on Apple TV in which is possibly his first fully fledged grown-up role. The show is addictive, creepy, twisty, turny; I was going to watch 1 episode but binged 5, I couldn’t believe it was so good. Shyamalan says that Rupert was pivotal. He’s not the lead role, he’s the main character’s brother, but he steals the screen in such a way that he makes it his own. In the show, as Julian, he wears his snazzy suit, one of them a blue tartan tweedy affair which is both ridiculous and charming – a bit like him. His sister is Lauren Ambrose, flame-haired actress from Six Feet Under. They actually look as if they could be related: “ever since I saw her in Six Feet Under, I always wanted to play her relation” – see, he manifested it.
Today when we meet in his room in a smart London hotel he is wearing a thick black jacket and black roll-neck and a necklace with a few charms, one of which is a heart that says ‘happy birthday, Anne, 1967’: “I have no idea who she is but I like to think about who she might be. I got it at a vintage market in Philadelphia. I’m a bit of a collector”. Indeed, he’s got a rare elephant bird egg, a skeleton of an ostrich which stands in his dining room, and several ancient bones. Is Antiques Roadshow his guilty pleasure? “Not so guilty – not guilty at all, I love it. I love hearing the stories of the relationships people have with these objects. And I’m into… stuff. Fiona Bruce presents it and she’s really good, I don’t know if I could do it better but I’ve not got a bad knowledge and I can identify bits of ceramic so I wouldn’t mind being a presenter.”
He’s 31, as ginger as ever, and with naughty twinkling eyes. He doesn’t feel 31 (or particularly look it), but because of Potter, he has a weird relationship with age. Potter overtook his childhood so he has a strange relationship with age. When it ended, did he have an identity crisis? “Yes, I suppose so. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do anything like it again, or act again. I was quite keen on having my freedom back, I had my tonsils removed straight away”. Does he mean so he couldn’t talk and it was a celebration to have his voice removed? He replied “kind of, but I had massive tonsils, and I had to get them out. I felt like a man – it was good. You can’t speak for a few days and you shouldn’t eat ice cream, you should eat scratchy things.” Why? I thought the whole point of having your tonsils removed was so you could eat ice cream for a few days? “That’s completely wrong, you’ve got to encourage chewing and swallowing textured food. But I did have ice cream as well.” Ice cream has always been important to Rupert – he once wanted to be an ice cream man: “because I always loved the van, it was my first car and I learned to drive in it. It has pictures of 99s on it. Whenever I rode it out it was chaos with people wanting ice cream, but it was a great choice of transport. I still think it would be a nice job, but the ice cream men are very territorial – there’s a whole mafia, you get into trouble if you go onto someone else’s patch.” What’s your favourite ice cream? “I like ‘em all, my favourite’s a 99 and a Raspberry Ripple”. He makes me laugh a lot, his is cute and endearing but he’s also old-soul smart. In Servant his sister suffers the loss of her baby and replaces it with a Baby Reborn doll as part of grief therapy. The doll is made of silicone, hand-crafted, weighted and very realistic. Although his character Julian is brash, he’s the man you’d want in a crisis: “he’s always two steps ahead, and he’s always popping in for tequila. It felt very natural playing Lauren’s brother – I used to imagine we would be relatives in something.” Reborn dolls are real therapy dolls and used when women really want to conceive and they can’t or when they’ve suffered a cot-death. Rupert tells me “I have a Reborn doll, but it’s like a vampire. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing, but the dolls are really realistic and when you hold them you can’t stop bouncing them.” Perhaps being Julian will finally make people realise he’s Rupert, not Ron, or even Ed Sheeran – who he’s always being mistaken for, including once by Leo Sayer at a car rally who kept asking him about his latest album: “I just played along, it was easier. Being Ron, though, it’s strange. It’s never quite died down. And now a whole new generation is finding Harry Potter. They have this kind of ownership of me – they see me and they think they know me. And, of course, Harry Potter still lives on because there’s a theatre play, and a ride at Universal Studios which I went on at the opening and it got stuck. It’s amazing what they’ve built: a Hogwarts castle, a train and King’s Cross, it takes you straight back. I am very proud to have been part of it, but it could be a bit claustrophobic, especially when we had finished the last one, nearly 10 years ago now. There wasn’t any real period of adjustment. Suddenly everything was over and it was overwhelming. It was the right time to finish – there are no more books anyway.”
Is he aware of the rumour that was circulated that there was going to be an original cast reforming on another Harry Potter? “I don’t think that would happen but I’d never say never.”
“I’ve got a whole new perspective on those years now. We were in this protected bubble but we didn’t really see it. We didn’t really feel that famous. I didn’t hate it but it had its own challenges. I did struggle, I think, because I had naturally merged into the character of Ron. I felt a very strong affiliation with him.” Does he feel that he merged into his character more than Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) or Emma Watson (Hermione Granger)? He thinks long and hard: “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s because he’s the better actor. “I’ll take that… but I still feel him. I feel protective over him. When I went to see the play (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) and someone else was playing me I didn’t feel right. But on another level it was really fun – great to see him reimagined.” Is he still in touch with Emma and Daniel, who were his closest companions for a decade? “It’s been a while since I’ve seen either of them… I see Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy). I see them as family but more like distant cousins – it’s great to reunite when we do, but we’re not with each other all the time. It was an intense period.”
Coming out of a role that he played for so long, it must have been difficult to choose projects or characters that were different enough. “It’s never been a conscious thing to remove myself from that world, but I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be a wizard again. I enjoy stuff that’s grounded in reality.” Although, Servant is grounded in the creepiest reality. And his Reborn doll doesn’t seem very realistic because “it’s a vampire doll with little fangs. You still want to look after it and handle it carefully. Reborn dolls are a real form of therapy, although I can’t say that I would recommend it.” Why did he acquire his? Was it therapeutic? “No, because people know I collect weird things”. The presence of the babies on set made him actually quite broody: “as well as the dolls, on set we had triplets. They were always around. I love kids, I really do want children one day. Servant taps into this primal fear we have about protecting our young, and that’s how the show twists that part of the brain.” At the moment, though, he is happy to be a Cat Dad to a pinky-white sphynx cat called Milk, “it’s a myth they are hairless, they do have hair, but it feels like suede. And he loves skin-on-skin contact. He’s white but he’s got a pink hue and a bit of red fur on his nose.” He did a campaign for Milk a few years ago, so he obviously feels very close to him and that they have a likeness. He shows me his picture – he looks like a new-born foetus (if that’s possible). Milk doesn’t like to wear outfits but has a special heated bed that he likes, “he’s got beautiful blue eyes as well – owners do look like their pets, don’t they?”
As well as having a confused relationship with his age, he has an even more confused relationship with money. He made several million, some reports say £28 million from the Harry Potter franchise but has no idea how much money he has: “it rings a bell, yes, I couldn’t actually tell you. Money is something that happens in the background. Milk has got very expensive tastes but I haven’t had an issue with money from such a young age, it makes it weird. I think I’m thrifty, I like a bargain – but maybe that’s just because I’m getting older. What age do I feel? I couldn’t put a number on it. Younger than 30 and also forever.” Is it true that Julian is your first grown-up character? “I think you always put a bit of yourself in the character, but Julian is removed from everything that I am. He is hugely confident and not hugely likeable.” I find the lack of confidence alarming. He’s shy and blushes easily but he has every reason to be confident – he is very funny and smart, and has something special as an actor. He has managed to be grounded and private, even as one of the most famous faces on earth. “I think I have a very normal existence, it’s a malleable level of fame and I enjoy it. The Harry Potter films had a profound effect and deep meaning to people, especially of my generation – they get tattoos of it. It’s a real marker of their nostalgia, I’ve learned to embrace it.” Some drinks and some chips arrive, but he’s far too polite to eat them, or maybe he’s just not hungry. His brother now rally drives and his father used to: “my dad used to sell Formula One memorabilia on QVC. I’ve always liked cars, but I haven’t got the ‘car gene’ as intensely. As well as the ice cream van, I’ve got an electric car. We all go through different phases, and this year, I started beekeeping.” He keeps the bees in his garden in North London: “I let the bees have the honey, they’re just amazing things to watch – inspiring and so busy. They’ve all got jobs, there’s an undertaker bee who carries out the dead bees, and the Queen is massive and has a green dot which they paint her with. You’re born a Queen, it’s a fascinating society – the hierarchy of the hive. I’ve got a lot of bee paraphernalia, a bee suit and smokers.
Does he mean he wears a black and yellow stripe suit to tend them?
“No!! a protective bee suit!
“When you open the hive you have to smoke them because it relaxes them, otherwise they can get quite aggressive. It’s a primal thing, they think it’s a forest fire so they stay in the hive. I’ve never been stung. Bees really don’t care about you, they’ve got so much to do: filling the hive with pollen. This year there were mites that hurt the hive, so we’re building them back up and next year we will be able to take some honey.”
Next up, he will go back to Philadelphia for another series of Servant, where he will collect more antiquities and books: “I’ve mainly got David Attenborough books, he’s got an elephant bird egg as well, and I’m sure he likes bees. I would love to meet him, I think we would have a lot to talk about.” I wonder where Attenborough would stand on the Reborn doll.