If you’re younger than 20, you may only know him as the hairy Lycan from the Underworld franchise, but Welsh actor Michael Sheen’s résumé is stuffed with meaty roles as real-life legends of British culture from high to deliciously low. For English television, Sheen has played H.G. Wells; Kenneth Williams, the comic actor famous for his campy roles in the Carry On! films; and later this year, he’ll star as he preternaturally lampoonable football team manager Brian Clough. In 2006, he drew great notices in this country for his uncanny Tony Blair in The Queen, and now appears opposite Frank Langella as British television’s durable king of smarm, David Frost, in Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s movie version of Peter Morgan’s Tony-winning play. So you’d expect Sheen to be a good mimic, and he does a great imitation of Frost — and much, much more. Tarted up in a horrid ’70s hairdo and loud striped shirts with pointy collars, Sheen both oozes Frost’s ingratiating charm and cancels it with his nervously watchful eyes, forever alert to the main chance.
As a member of a British generation that amused itself doing bad imitations of the talk-show host’s adenoidal whine and obsequious hand-rubbing (I always thought of Frost as a snake in Uriah Heep clothing), at first I found Sheen’s rendering oddly muted. That was strategic, insists the elfin, curly haired actor, who lives in London but keeps an apartment in the Valley to be near his daughter with his former girlfriend, actress Kate Beckinsale. “The film would collapse if the audience is sitting there thinking, ‘God, this guy’s smarmy and oily,’” he says as he arrives from a joint interview with Frost.
Sheen, who also played the role on stage, avoided meeting Frost while he was working up the character and was disconcerted when he spotted the endlessly self-renewing celebrity — now host of a talk show on Al-Jazeera television — tucked away among an unusually unresponsive audience during a Frost/Nixon preview at London’s tiny Donmar theater. After the show, they met in the theater bar, where the unflaggingly ebullient Frost was “complimentary but slightly reeling,” and later commented that 10 percent of Sheen’s portrayal wasn’t true. “It went up to 12 percent in our interview this morning,” Sheen says cheerfully. The actor did copious research for the part but says, “I have no idea what David Frost is like. He was one of my reference points. You borrow, turn down the volume on certain things, turn it up on others. I don’t think Frost was as successful a playboy as I play him. But he was a jet setter and a dandy, there were women, and that helped.”
Another reference point was Morgan’s script. “Peter riffs like a jazz musician around the audience’s preconceived notions,” Sheen says. “In Britain, that works because the audience knows Frost and has preconceptions. In America, they don’t, or what they do have is wrong, because they think Frost is intelligent and sophisticated. In America I had to educate the audience about who this man is in order to do the riffing. My role is to carry the story of the film, which you’re seeing through Frost’s eyes. I liken it to the journey of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Theseus travels through the labyrinth to get to the monster — who turns out to be a traumatized child.”
Indeed, the tragic joke of Frost/Nixon — gradually revealed in a confessional late-night phone call to Frost by a soused Nixon — is that these very different men have more in common than they or the audience has realized. “Nixon was so uncomfortable in his own skin, and Frost was incredibly good with people,” Sheen says. “But both were extremely insecure outsiders.”
Nixon longed to enter John Kennedy’s charmed Camelot, while Frost, a Methodist minister’s son, was repeatedly rejected at Cambridge University as a vulgar arriviste by his cooler college mates from Beyond the Fringe, among them Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Stephen Frears and Ian McKellen. “So here you have two men desperate for acceptance,” Sheen points out, “a man of weight wanting to have more lightness, and a man of lightness wanting to have more weight.”
To the chagrin of his former classmates, Frost went on to become the avatar of a brash new Cool Britannia, famous for his annual parties and breakfasts, where he hosted the country’s rock stars and power elites. When I remark that Frost would have made a good American, Sheen nods his head vigorously. “That’s why people don’t like Frost in England,” he says. “He’s too American. He refuses to be ashamed of being ambitious. He wants success for its own sake. He doesn’t respect divisions between high and low culture.”
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In the movie, as in life, Frost is seen sloping off to the premiere of the Cinderella movie The Slipper and the Rose (on which he was executive producer) the night before his first go-round with Nixon. The real Frost turned down an invitation to the opening night of Frost/Nixon because the following morning he was interviewing Tony Blair and didn’t want history to repeat itself. “In a Pirandellian way, we affected him,” Sheen says proudly. “He got an admission from Blair that Iraq had been a disaster.”
Sheen’s scaled-down take on Frost is a shrewd combination of the cerebral — in the British tradition, as he puts it, of “acting from the neck up” — and the intensely physical American style. Both come from his background and training. Sheen grew up in the town of Port Talbot, which also produced Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, now a friend, whose 70th birthday party Sheen attended with his parents. He comes from a long line of street preachers and carnival workers, his family dabbled in amateur operatics, and his father still moonlights as a Jack Nicholson impersonator. Sheen is careful to point out that neither acting nor mimicry is required of a look-alike, “though I don’t want to do him out of work.”
A gifted and obsessive footballer, Sheen turned down an offer to join Arsenal’s youth team when he was 12 because it would have meant his whole family moving to London. Instead, he attended a local youth theater company that he considers one of the best in Britain, if not the world. Having flunked entry to Oxford to read English by telling his interviewers that his favorite writer was Stephen King, he ended up at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and he was on his way. If the youth theater gave him discipline and a work ethic, RADA broke down his tendency to be “too formed and performance-oriented.”
“It’s no coincidence that I’ve ended up playing these real-life characters,” says Sheen, who wlll star again as Blair in the third part of Morgan’s trilogy, focusing on the P.M.’s partnership with Bill Clinton. “On the one hand, it requires a lot of discipline, research and technique to do the imitation part. On the other hand, there’s the absolute spontaneity of being in the moment. Playing real-life characters puts that combination of control and spontaneity to the test. People can say, ‘He really is like him, yet he doesn’t seem to be acting.’” All that is pretty exhausting, which may be why Sheen says he hates acting. “I love lots of things about it and I love being part of the profession. But if I’m enjoying it too much, I’m doing it wrong.”