Flight of fantasy with Michael Sheen: 'I’d be happy being a part of anything Neil Gaiman creates'

Micheal Sheen

Micheal Sheen

Michael Sheen finds it ironic that working in a big-budget film entails reacting to the “most cheap-looking environments”. The Welsh actor, who played Aziraphale, a haute cuisine-loving angel on Earth, in Good Omens , has found himself navigating several fantasy worlds as an actor. Be it Tron: Legacy (2010) or the recently-released (and critically panned), Dolittle , where he plays the doctor’s long-time rival. “They use a lot of CGI, so usually it is someone holding a stick with bits of sticky tape on the end, or a tennis ball,” says Sheen, in an email interaction on the occasion of his 51st birthday (February 5). “It becomes a lot more like playing pretend as a child. It is a purer experience in some ways — just having to rely on your imagination, which can be strangely liberating.”

In the dark

Even though Sheen immerses his viewers in a fantasy world, the reactions he gathers are distinctly human. In several interviews after the première of Good Omens — the series adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s hugely-popular novel — the actor said that the show resonated most with young people, especially those who don’t necessarily fit in. “I think the idea of two characters [Aziraphale and Crowley, the demon played by David Tennant] who are separate from humanity but also intrinsically connected to it, is appealing,” speculates Sheen. “They are bonded to each other because of their isolation. All the characters are outsiders in one way or another, and rendered with such compassion,” says Sheen, whose admiration for Gaiman’s works is evident as he gushes about the novelist. “I’d be happy being a part of anything Neil creates. Aside from his extraordinary imagination, I think his work is so full of warmth, wit and humanity.”

A still from The Prodigal Son

A still from The Prodigal Son

Staying grounded

Amusingly, the show also garnered flak from Christian hardliners in the US, who, among several things, criticised that the voice of God was a woman. “People are entitled to their opinion,” he says, adding, “When it comes to religion, I think people, too, can lose sight of principles and get distracted by appearances. A shaky connection to substance can often lead to an obsession with superficial detail.” To keep himself rooted in ground realities, the actor has been invested in political activism, even more since 2016, triggered by the rise of right-wing populism in the UK and the US. Last summer, he organised the Homeless World Cup soccer tournament in Wales. “I now have an organisation that works on issues around homelessness and social exclusion primarily in Wales. [My] work on ending exploitative high-cost credit practices continues and I’m looking at alternative funding models for local journalism,” he adds.

Even as an actor, Sheen has contributed to chronicling political realities. He famously played public figures like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen (2006) and television host David Frost in Frost/Nixon (2008). “I enjoy being able to draw on real-life research for characters who are familiar to the audience,” he says, fondly remembering playing disabilities rights activist and poet Arthur Honeyman in The Music Within (2007).

A still from Dolittle

A still from Dolittle

On Prodigal Son

Currently, the actor is shooting for the Prodigal Son , where he plays a doctor who has committed at least 23 gruesome murders. Ask him if such a role impacts him, and he says, “All characters impact you, consciously and unconsciously. It is the combination that, used well, creates a work of note. But it also shows that what you work on, and give your focus to, can have effects on you beyond your control. This can be a great source of inspiration and creativity, but can also be harmful and destructive if you don’t take that fact on board properly,” says Sheen, who has been lauded for his performance as the villainous Dr Martin Whitly in the top-rated series. For him, darker the material, “the more careful you have to be about being aware of those effects expressing themselves in your life”.

In his three-decade-long career, Sheen has played numerous characters in cinema, onstage and television, but he singles out Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) as a film that deserved more attention than it received at the time. For me, it is Sheen’s recurring cameo in 30 Rock as Tina Fey’s misfit British soulmate, Wesley Snipes, that warranted more appreciation. “I really enjoyed how odd Wesley was, and that the more Tina got to know me the odder he became,” says Sheen, who looks forward to working with Fey again. In a few months, Quiz will be aired in the UK, where he plays TV host Chris Tarrant and his involvement in the cheating scandal on Britain’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? . “If all goes well, I’ll be directing a three-part series for TV this summer,” he concludes.

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 8:54:25 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/micheal-sheen-on-his-51st-birthday/article30742537.ece