Michael Sheen: “The whole fame thing, it’s a bit like a pinball machine… I bounce back and forth between wanting that, and not wanting that”

Michael Sheen — the often praised star of Frost/Nixon and Midnight in Paris, and also known as the best Tony Blair out there (he’s appeared as Blair three times, including in The Queen) — is one of those actors who has a long list of impressive credits but is far from a household name.

It’s an interesting dynamic that Sheen admits he is fascinated by in an interview with The Guardian, although he does confess a certain desire to have a bit more fame than he does now.  Or does he?

Sheen, though highly praised for his acting abilities, actually claims that he is “increasingly repulsed by acting.”  What does he mean by that remark?  He can’t stand it when he sees himself deliberately acting.  He clarifies, “I mean ‘ac-ting’ as opposed to reacting. The first time you watch yourself on screen you think, oh my God, is that really what I look like, is that really what I was doing? And I pushed myself to get through that, to be able to watch it as objectively as I can, so I can learn from it. And the more I’ve done that, the bits that repulse me the least are the ones where it doesn’t appear like I’m trying to do anything. I’m not having an idea. Otherwise I’ll watch it and I’ll think, I remember I had an idea about that bit – and now I’m watching it, all I can see is me having an idea. I’m not connected to what’s going on, it’s just not happening.  There’s a time for ideas, but it’s earlier on. You have the ideas, you put them all in a pot, and at a certain point you have to forget about them all, and the ones that stick on the whole work, and the ones that don’t you have to let go of – and it doesn’t matter how fantastic an idea you think it is, you just have to let go of it. And then slowly, hopefully, it becomes a very fluid thing. And when I watch myself now I can tell the difference between things that have that quality, and things that don’t. And the things that don’t, I call acting. And I’ve become more and more repulsed by that.”  

You’d imagine that part of that disgust with “acting” has left Sheen with a general dislike of attending so-called “Hollywood parties,” and you’d be right for the most part.  However, while Sheen sees fame as being “a bit like a pinball machine,” he admits that at some points he wishes he were a bigger star.

He confesses, “I bounce back and forth between wanting that, and not wanting that. So I’ve never consciously tried to avoid it. But at this point in my life, I suppose I have to accept that maybe unconsciously I have. I can’t take any credit for it, I don’t have some innate integrity. There have been times when I would have absolutely loved to be more of a star – and still now, every day, there are times. Just times when it would help to be a bit more well known, or have a bit more of a – you know. Cos obviously it helps to get another job.”

Part of that desire for a little more name recognition comes from his first years in Los Angeles, in which he received many compliments… but few parts.  He recalls, “I was going up for films, it was just audition after audition, and people would say: ‘Well, you’re the best actor we’ve seen, you’re perfect for this part – but the studio needs a bigger actor, they need a bigger name.’ So there was a lot of that for a period of time.”

Except for a tabloid-fueled break-up with actress Kate Beckinsale, Sheen has remained remarkably out of any scandals on either side of the Atlantic.  Part of the reason for that is that Sheen feels a responsibility to the work.  He explains, “I think you have to have a certain level of self-awareness and honesty and courage to go, well, this is my experience and I’m going to bring that to bear in the work I do. But you can’t get up on stage and do Romeo and Juliet, or Henry V, or Caligula or whatever, having been out the night before. Certainly I can’t. And the longer that goes on, it becomes very clear that you’re running away from something. And that doesn’t lend itself to good acting. Running away, not wanting to see the truth about yourself, doesn’t necessarily – I don’t think – make for good acting. It might make for quite fireworky acting and it might make for some kind of, I don’t know, apparent danger or whatever. But what I’ve found is, for me anyway, it doesn’t work.”

The Shakespeare references hint at Sheen’s current project: Hamlet at London’s Young Vic Theatre.  Now what does Sheen think he can bring to the Prince of Denmark that hasn’t been done in the countless productions of the play already?  “What’s extraordinary is you can have so many different productions and actors and directors and their different visions, but it seems to kind of respond to each; it seems to adapt, and that’s what I’ve found. What’s quite freaky about it – it is actually a little bit scary – is that it feels like a living organism, it’s like a thing that actually adapts. It’s this weird thing where if you came along and said, well, I think Hamlet is actually about crocodiles – well, then it does seem to be about crocodiles. As long as it’s within the realm of possibility, it somehow seems to throw up these things and you go, well yes, I think this is what Shakespeare actually meant! But not everyone can be right, so it’s weird. It seems to kind of meet you in a way that other plays don’t. It’s an incredibly unusual experience.”

Michael Sheen stars in Hamlet at the Young Vic Theatre from October 28 to January 21.

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