Beautiful Boy - Michael Sheen
Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment/Justina Mintz

British actor Michael Sheen has quite an eclectic career, going from small independent movies to blockbuster successes. His films include The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans, Music Within, Midnight in Paris, Tron, The Damned United and The Twilight Saga.

He returns to indie filmmaking with his new movie Beautiful Boy, in which he co-stars with Maria Bello, a heart wrenching drama about an estranged couple whose son goes on a rampage at his high school, murdering teachers and fellow students.

As a father how difficult is it to do this kind of movie? Do you draw on your own emotions with your child?

Beautiful Boy - Maria Bello and Michael Sheen
Kate Carroll (Maria Bello) and Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment/Justina Mintz

That’s a good question because it goes to the heart of a fundamental problem for actors. If you draw on your own experiences, certainly when it comes to being a parent, the danger is you get to the end of the day and you go, ‘It’s not working for me anymore.

I’m thinking of the death of my own child, and that’s not really doing it, because I’ve got too used to thinking about it.’

There’s a cost to that as a person, and it’s not an area you really want to go into.  Yet, at the same time, you’ve got to deal with it, otherwise it’s just acting and then it’s meaningless. So it’s a tricky area.

Can you talk about the way it was shot, the longer scenes and the way the camera moved like a docudrama. Did that help you?

We’d do it and it would be very docustyle and you wouldn’t know when the camera was on you. But what was wonderful was it was like doing a play, because you’d just have to inhabit everything all the time, and you couldn’t go, ‘Oh this is my bit, I’m going to put a bit more into this.’

You just have to do the whole thing, and it certainly gives it a freshness, spontaneity and a life that you wouldn’t normally have. But it took a little while for me to get used to it.

Did you carry the emotions home with you every night, or were you able to drop them on the set?

Beautiful Boy - Maria Bello and Michael Sheen
Beautiful Boy - Kate Carroll (Maria Bello) and Bill Carroll (Michael Sheen) © 2010 Goldrush Entertainment / Justina Mintz

In a way you have to do all the work beforehand, and then it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. When you come to actually act, it’s a game, it may be a very serious game but it’s still a game, and if you lose that sense of play then I think the work suffers.

The danger can be when it’s a very heavy subject matter you feel like you have to come at it in a very heavy way, and it just dies somehow, it doesn’t live, and in order for it to be alive when you’re doing it you have to approach it as play.

In between takes [Maria and I] would chat and I think we never lost sight of what it was we were trying to do, and the seriousness of what we were trying to do, but I think with actors the biggest, heaviest things they work on are actually sometimes the most enjoyable experiences. I certainly felt that on this.

The film opens up and basically you’re an estranged couple, and suddenly not only does your son die but the world is against you. What did you think about that aspect of the film?

I thought it was really interesting that the film doesn’t begin with a couple who are, on the surface, happy and tragedy strikes, and then it all falls apart.

I thought it was a really interesting choice to start the film with a couple who had come to the end of the road, and then the story for me was much more about, is it possible for two people to find each other again?

The journey that they go on to do that in this is a very extreme journey, and they go into some very dark places, but ultimately that’s why I felt it was a very hopeful, positive story.

It’s about an extreme act of tragedy that happened, but stuff happens all the time that’s difficult and painful, and puts a lot a pressure on a couple, and it ultimately is about whether you can find each other again.

So I thought that was a really interesting starting point for it. They’re forced to be together, when the one thing they want to do at the beginning of the film is get away from each other, and that forces certain things to happen that maybe couldn’t have happened in the relationship before.

The emotion of grief is something we don’t often see played out in such a naturalistic way.

It’s interesting that we see death constantly. In the back of your mind spend a day going, ‘Let me see how many times I see people die today.’ Because you will see hundreds of people dying, and then ask yourself how much you actually see the grief process and the consequences and ramifications of death being played out?

It’s not much. There is something wrong there. I’m from a culture that has such a problem with death.

We seem to deal with it in quite a bizarre way, we see people being shot and killed and blown up and we find it funny and we find it sexy, but the reality of it is every day people die and people are really sad and they grieve and they go through a really difficult process.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.