Michael Sheen reprises his role as Tony Blair in "The Special Relationship," about then- President Bill Clinton's relationship with the then British prime minister. HBO's new film concludes the Blair trilogy, written by Peter Morgan, which began with the 2003 drama "The Deal," exploring Blair's early years in politics with his friend and rival, Gordon Brown, and continued with 2006's "The Queen," which scored an Oscar for Helen Mirren in the title role.
You've had a longstanding relationship with Peter Morgan. Did he write these films for you?
The first time I ever worked with him was on "The Deal." He didn't know who I was, and he couldn't understand why Stephen Frears, who directed "The Deal," wanted me to play Blair. Little did he know we'd eventually end up doing seven projects together and it would change our lives and careers. As with all great romantic comedies, it began with the two protagonists not really liking each other very much.
As we worked on "The Deal," me and Peter realized we worked really well together. And at the end of that piece we thought, "This works pretty well." Before "The Deal" no one had done anything like that.
Anything that was about real-life people tended to be historical or a bit further past. If it was about politicians, it was satirical. Or it wasn't very good. The idea of doing a high-quality film, asking an audience to accept actors playing contemporary political characters and watching them at home, no one had done that before, so we had no idea whether it would work. It became clear that this worked, and it opened up a whole new area for Peter as a writer and me as an actor. And so it was at that point that I think we felt we wanted to work together more and there was further to go with this character. And he was already thinking ahead to "The Queen" and the three films. After we did "The Deal," everything [they worked on together] was written for me after that — " Frost/Nixon," "The Damned United."
If you turned the Blair trilogy into a quartet, I suppose the next film would be how "The Special Relationship" with George Bush was his downfall.
But that's what this film is about. This was always going to be a film about Iraq. I think what wrong-foots people is they expect Iraq to be in it, but that's not the point. The point is looking for why certain things happen. The answers are never in the moment. The answers are in what went before, so it requires the audience to do a little bit of work. This film is about showing it's a consistent developing journey that that man goes on.
The real journey started with "The Deal," because he went from being a nice, naive guy who exacted an oral agreement from Gordon Brown that he gets to be head of the Labour Party to a hard-nosed politician.
He's never naive, not even from the beginning. Hopefully, what this last film helps me explore a bit more is that this persona of Blair is a tool. He uses charm getting people to like him, being persuasive. Throughout all three films, Blair always gets what he wants. So he never has to drop the mask. That's what I've found so fascinating about the man, that he can get so many people to think he's one thing when in fact he's not.
Did you ever meet Blair?
I met him last year at a dinner here in Los Angeles. I didn't talk to him for very long; he was charming and exactly what I expected him to be like. He said he hadn't seen the films. He had, but I knew he would say that. If he says he has, then people can ask him questions. He was interested to know what our inside sources were. He admitted that the previous two were pretty close to…. He was in a difficult position. He clearly wanted to talk to me about it, but there were other people there and they were all desperate to hear what was going on. And he was also wary of me as well, obviously, because I'm the guy who plays him. He knew whatever he said or did I'd be aware of or could be used.
I understand that you're in Woody Allen's next film, "Midnight in Paris." What was it like meeting Woody Allen?
Whenever you meet someone you grew up with, part of the film aristocracy and someone whose work was part of what made me want to be an actor, to find yourself meeting them is always a mixture of extreme excitement and fear.
I read that your dad is a professional Jack Nicholson look-alike.
He's been incredibly busy over the years. He started when the first Tim Burton "Batman" film came out with Jack Nicholson playing the Joker. That was in 1989. Since then he's worked all over the world. He does it less now because he doesn't like traveling as much.
Who hires Jack Nicholson look-alikes?
When businesses have an awards evening, they have "Jack Nicholson" giving out the awards. Or at Madame Tussauds, they have some of [the wax figures] "coming alive." He's done bar mitzvahs, he's done weddings, commercials in Europe, everything.
Sounds like he's busier than Jack Nicholson these days.
Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised.