It might surprise those who know Michael Sheen from his portrayals of Tony Blair in the Peter Morgan-scripted "The Deal" and "The Queen" to see the 39-year-old actor looking downright rugged in his suit, long hair and scruffy beard. Having just flown in from London, where he learned the British Independent Film Awards would honor him with the Variety Award for "bringing global recognition to the British film industry," he sat down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to discuss his current collaboration with Morgan, "Frost/Nixon," opening Dec. 5 (the original broadcast of the Nixon interview will be out on DVD that week as well). In Ron Howard's film, Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their acclaimed stage roles as British interviewer David Frost and President Nixon, respectively, as the heretofore lightweight TV personality finds himself in a battle of wills with the disgraced politician on and off camera.
How excited were you when Peter Morgan said, "I want to do a whole play about David Frost -- played by you -- conducting a sit-down television interview"?
I have to say I was very underwhelmed. It was really early in the shoot for "The Queen." I read ["Frost"] and I thought, "Oh, God, another thing written by Peter Morgan where I don't get the best part." Then I thought, "It'll only be eight weeks, I'll do it as a favor to Peter." Little knowing, two years later, I'd still be doing it, it's been such a success. It just goes to show, never ask me if anything's going to be a hit or not.
You were about 3 years old when the Watergate scandal broke. How closely was this followed in Britain?
I was 8 when the interviews aired, so it wasn't high on my list of things to watch. But obviously people in Britain are very aware of what goes on in America politically because it has a huge influence on what happens in Britain and in the world. But it's interesting, reactions to the film in Britain -- people don't have the same emotional relationship to those events and that man as they do in America, obviously. People get very, very emotional about it here, and understandably so.
The film works on many levels, not the least of which being an acting duel between you and Frank Langella. It's set up like a prizefight and you're Rocky.
I used to describe it as "Rocky" for journalists but, actually, it's sort of more complex than that. At the end of "Rocky" [except the first one], you go, "Yeah! The best man won!" At the end of this film, you kind of go, "How do I feel about this?" Which I think is great. It pushes all the buttons for an audience: "The underdog's gonna win!" But what has he actually won here? How much do I want to get behind this guy? What are his values? I can't imagine there are many people who won't feel some kind of empathy, if not sympathy, for Nixon. That's going to be a bone of contention for a lot of people, presumably, who have a lot invested in seeing him as a symbol of evil and corruption. But just to humanize someone doesn't excuse them.
I understand Frost has been very supportive of the whole thing, despite this warts-and-all portrait of him. What has been your favorite of his responses?
We were just in London for the opening of the London Film Festival and were doing the big junket in the hotel. He said, [going into a florid David Frost, much more of a broad impression than Sheen does in the film] "Hello, Michael, how are you?"
"I'm very well."
"How long are you here for, in this country?"
"I'm going to be here for two weeks."
And he said, "How wonderful for the people of Britain" [laughs] . . . with no sense of irony. I thought, "That's it, that's how you get to be David Frost. You say things like that and you make people feel very special."
Are you waiting for Peter Morgan to write you a swashbuckling role with lots of fights and sex?
A couple of months ago, I finished a film that Peter had written about a British soccer coach called Brian Clough, it's called "The Damned Utd. [United]," and I play Brian Clough. So he's given me that one -- but no one in America will see it.
Are you finishing the Blair trilogy?
That's the plan, yeah.
Tony Blair and America, finishing his story -- that'll be the best part then, right?
Ah, well, I'm not really allowed to talk about it . . . but no, it's not. [laughs]