Michael Sheen, who played talk show host David Frost both on stage and now in the upcoming screen version of "Frost/Nixon," knows that the transition can be scary.
"The great joy and fear about working in front of a camera is that it picks up everything," said Sheen. He rejoined his stage costar Frank Langella for director Ron Howard's adaptation of Peter Morgan's acclaimed play about the 1977 interviews that revived Frost's career and humanized a disgraced Nixon. The film opens Friday.
So when Frost's cheerily sly grin dissipates on screen or a glimmer of despair flashes across his eyes as he bears the weight of turning his hard-won interview with Nixon into great TV, moviegoers see things that theater audiences in London and New York -- outside the first few rows -- didn't get to see.
"In theater, you have to find ways to get things across," said the curly haired, Welsh-born actor. "On film, Frost became more internal. Things could be more fleeting, and more ambiguous. What comes through a lot more is the insecurity and desperation, the desire to be liked and yet feeling that things are going badly."
The 39-year-old Sheen has already proved how good he is at dramatizing the private worries of a public figure with his portrayal of Tony Blair in the fact-based drama "The Queen," also written by Morgan. The Blair/Frost twofer has established him as a chameleonic new star of sorts, although Sheen is quick to point out that an actor's transformation inevitably functions as a mirror.
"I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: Give a man a mask, and he'll show you his true face," Sheen said recently in an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. "Of all these characters, I'm only playing myself. Because that's all I've got. At some point I recognize myself in them, and that's the starting point. I build everything from there."
In prepping to play Frost, Sheen watched footage of the British host's old show, along with other research. (He chose not to meet the man himself until after the play was up and running in London.) But with portraying any real person, Sheen says, what counts is the character the writer envisioned. "You can fight against it, but ultimately the story is the master, and it's always going to be Peter Morgan's Frost," says Sheen. "You have to sublimate yourself to that and accept it."
So far Sheen has done well on that front, having forged a unique collaboration with Morgan that began with "The Deal" (the first Blair docudrama, about Blair and Gordon Brown's relationship as political up-and-comers in the '80s, which premiered on British television in 2003) and "The Queen." It extends through next year's "The Damned Utd," another incident-focused biopic in which Sheen plays celebrated British football coach Brian Clough, and a planned third Blair movie. What Sheen loves about Morgan apart from his gifts as a writer is his responsive presence on set. "He's there with his laptop, and as you're talking about a scene, he's already writing changes. As an actor I love that. It means you've got this beating pulse all the time."
In the Morgan-scripted projects, Sheen has carved a niche out of the shadow lead, the man who acts as a secondary protagonist with modernizing ambitions, pitted against formidable, larger-than-life figures set in their ways. Sheen likens his portrayals of Frost, pressured to turn his sit-down with Nixon into a political trial, and Blair -- who bypassed Labour Party star Brown to become prime minister and who coaxed tradition-bound Queen Elizabeth II to acknowledge public grief for Diana -- to Theseus' braving the Minotaur's maze.
"There's this monster in the middle that he has to meet, and you relate to the story through the hero," Sheen said of playing Frost and Blair. Their weapons, he suggests, are that they're easy to underestimate.
"What I find interesting about both Blair and Frost is that on the surface they seem one thing -- charming, accessible -- and yet there's something else going on underneath. They succeed, and not by being lightweights. That's the paradox that I really like."
Then there's the connection between playing Blair and doing the goth/action "Underworld" movies: the opportunity to explore a character over many films. Next month's prequel, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," centers on the origins of Sheen's werewolf leader Lucian. "I loved the idea of going, 'How does someone become like that?' " says Sheen, an avid fantasy connoisseur who counts as one of his proudest moments telling the "snuff-taking fops" at Oxford during an entrance interview that his favorite writer was Stephen King.
Let 'em see the cost
"Just because it's in the milieu of fantasy, it doesn't mean it's not relevant to the human experience. High art, low art, it's all meaningless.