With a plethora of engaging performances in such movies as The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Damned United, Underworld, Alice in Wonderland and Twilight: New Moon, British actor Michael Sheen established himself as a brilliant character actor.
In his new movie, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, he plays an opinioned academic named Paul, who meets a soon-to-be-married couple, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and Gil (Owen Wilson) in the City of Lights. Inez is immediately infatuated with Paul’s intelligence and goes dancing with him and his wife, leaving Gil alone for the evening.
During a midnight stroll, Gil is transported back to Paris to meet and discuss writing and world affairs with Ernest Hemmingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
I spoke with Michael Sheen about his new movie, working with Woody Allen, and the final chapter in the Twilight franchise, Breaking Dawn.
Did you have to audition for the film or did Woody Allen know your work?
It wasn’t an audition, so to speak.
Woody likes to meet the person in the flesh when he casts someone, if he hasn’t met them before, so I went along to meet him while I was in New York filming 30 Rock.
He just offered me the part, so that was great.
How was it working with Woody?
It was fantastic. He’s a director who has a lot of mystique I suppose, a lot of myth and legend and stories surround him, some of them are true and some of them are not. I was kind of surprised that I’d been led to believe that he’s quite hands- off with the actors and lets the actors do whatever they want.
But actually he was very hands on with the actors, in my experience anyway. His notes were really incisive and really useful and helpful, and I learned a lot from working with him.
The way he works with the actors, he just wants you to be simpler all the time and to not try to do too much. He’s very un-modern in the sense in that he’s not interested in mining subtext and what’s actually going on underneath the surface. He wants you to play the surface as much as possible.
When you’re doing a scene with someone and they’re doing all the speaking, he wants you to constantly be reacting to what they’re saying. It’s quite liberating in a way, to not have to worry about they inner life of the character and the subtext and all that, you just play the surface and the story reveals itself.
What did you think of the role? Paul’s kind of a Mr Know-it-all.
I remember Woody wrote me a card saying, ‘This is the ultimate [academic], I think you could have fun with it.’ I liked to describe him as someone who is very generous with the sharing of his knowledge. He thinks he knows a lot about everything, and he’s very happy to let you know that.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have to scratch beneath the surface of myself to find my inner know-it-all, and release it for the film. But it was great to be able to play someone who’s absolutely got no sense that he’s overstepping the mark or that he’s being a bore, it was great to be able to do that. It was good fun.
How much of Woody do you think is in Owen’s performance?
Everyone who plays the main part in this kind of film in some way is playing an aspect of Woody, and I thought Owen found a really good balance between having the kind of angst and neurosis of a Woody character but, at the same time, Owen has such a laid back quality about him, I thought he had a really good mixture of that in it.
I think of all the people who have played ‘Woody’ he was one of the most successful.
What era would you go back to if you could?
Well, there are many, many periods I would go back to. But I’d like to go back in a bubble of modern life as well, because I wouldn’t like to die of some plague. But it would be very exciting to go back to the Elizabethan era to be around for the opening night of Hamlet; that would be kind of great.
But I’d also love to be here in LA in the late sixties, early seventies, for the music scene and the hippie movement.
I’d love to go back to Europe in the twenties and thirties for the beginning of the psychoanalytic movement and Freud and all that that was going on. The whole nature of reality was changing and being challenged.
I’d love to go back to Greek times and see the birth of theatre. If there was time travel, I’d have my work cut out.
Can you tell us a little about Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn? What have you discovered about the role of Aro this time that maybe you hadn’t before?
He’s more of a presence in this film than he was in the other films, so I got to explore the character a bit more, and probably flesh it out a bit more.
I don’t think there’s anything I’ve learned so much, but I was able to go into the insanity of the character a bit more. I think I got to show what’s under the surface this time.
What was Bill Condon like to work with?
Bill was wonderful, very friendly, warm person, obviously has a very varied and interesting body of work, and he made everyone feel very comfortable. It must be quite hard coming onto a film where the people have already been together for a long time, and each film is a different director. But everyone really warmed to him and thought he was terrific, so I think he did a really good job.
It was huge organizational thing. We had forty new characters being introduced in this film and the big battle scene took about four weeks to film, so it was a huge undertaking and he handled it brilliantly.
The actors in the main roles know their characters so well. Does a new director coming in help you to see the roles in a different way?
Personally I was only on New Moon for two weeks, but I think for the other actors probably there’s a wariness about a new director coming along and maybe not ‘getting’ what they’re doing and maybe changing it too much.
But everyone seemed very happy on Breaking Dawn and seemed very happy to be working with Bill.