EXCLUSIVE: Michael Sheen on playing David Frost in Frost/Nixon
Michael Sheen who plays famed television presenter and interviewer David Frost in Frost/Nixon, a role he played in the award-winning stage play, has achieved great success in portraying famous people. The Welsh born actor was Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Oscar-winning film, The Queen and he has also played tragic comedian Kenneth Williams and controversial football boss Brian Clough in The Damned United.
Q: Before getting involved in firstly the stage play and then the film, Frost/Nixon, what had your view been of Richard Nixon?
Michael Sheen: I suppose I got most of my information about Watergate from the film, All The President's Men. Having grown up a Brit and not being in the American culture it wasn't something that spent a huge amount of time occupying me. But I did love the film, All The President's Men, so that is where I got most of my information from. Slowly, I started to pick up little bits and pieces here and there. But obviously once we started doing his I learnt more. But my impression of Nixon I guess was the same as in America where he had kind of become the bogey man. He came to symbolise everything that was to do with corruption and greed in power and paranoia and deception. One of the things that this film does is to make him into a human being, an incredibly flawed human being, but then who isn't a flawed human being! I suppose it shows the consequences of flaws in power. It is an interesting area to talk about the accountability of people in power. Should they be a different breed of human being? In some ways the expectations from the rest of the public regarding people in power is part of the problem. If we want people to be these super beings then the fact is that they can't be. That is just denying the truth about what it is to be a human being. The politicians themselves have to pretend that they are constantly in control and constantly know the answer. But if people were a bit more human about it and admitted that they were not sure then maybe we would all feel a bit more comfortable about them, rather than feeling like we are being constantly duped and manipulated.
Q: After getting under the skin of David Frost for the best part of two years, how difficult was it to switch off at the end of each day?
A: Well it is very easy to switch off; the problem is that sometimes he [Frost] does not want to be switched off. Part of the whole process of playing these characters is that ultimately I am just playing myself in different circumstances. So I look for what I might have in common with the character and then take that part of myself and just make it bigger. So it becomes sort of impossible to switch off because it is part of me. So for that period of time that part of me becomes more dominant in my personality. But with Frost especially he is not just a character, he is a way of life. It became more enjoyable to be Frost than it was to be me for a long time. So I would find myself slightly talking like that... he does an uncanny impersonation of David Frost... and adopting that kind of laid-back persona. It is a lot more fun being like that than it is being the hyped up, paranoid, insecure actor that I am.
Q: When you had played David Frost in around 400 stage performances, how did you go about making him as fresh as you have done for the film of Frost/Nixon?
A: A lot of that is to do with other people around you an actor. The brilliance of Frank Langella, and all the other actors who were completely fresh to the film - actors like Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen and Rebecca Hall are all wonderful actors - and their fresh take on everything meant that all I had to do was listen to them and react to them. Acting really is about reacting and if you have the courage and the faith to be in the moment and trust and listen to the other person, then how you respond to them is always going to be fresh. The bigger challenge, I suppose, was for me and Frank who had already done this play on the stage, to find something fresh in it for ourselves. But then, every single performance we ever did on stage always felt fresh and that just continued into the film.
Q: What would you like viewers to take from the film?
A: I hope that they have a really exciting experience. Someone asked what this film was about and I think that if you can say what the film is about then there is a problem. Hopefully there is a multi-layeredness to it and hopefully, ultimately, it is about human beings and people interacting with each other because that is the only thing an audience is going to relate to it. I hope that they have an exciting, thrilling, dramatic experience. The most amazing thing would be if people's pre-conceived ideas about these people [Frost and Nixon] were slightly challenged, and maybe our understanding about each other as human beings is developed a little bit and expanded.
Q: Do you think that Nixon really made the drunken phone call to Frost as it appears in the film?
A: Well Nixon made a lot of drunken phone calls apparently that he wouldn't remember the next day. Apparently a memo went round the staff saying that if Mr President calls you in the middle of the night you have to let us know but you don't tell anyone else about it and you forget what was it. So I think that when Peter Morgan [writer] found that out he thought it would be great if he called Frost. But there is no evidence that it actually did happen.
Q: What do you think that it says about Frost that he went off to the LA premiere of The Slipper And The Rose the night before the biggest TV interview of his life?
A: A lot of people see him as devil may care and not really on it. But others think his attitude is really brilliant. Going to that premiere I think it gets to the heart of Frost in a way. There are two ways of looking at it. One is that it is very irresponsible and that he was not taking things seriously. The other way to look at it is - and it is one that I can emphasise with - the idea that it does you no use fretting and worrying about something. You do all the work and preparation and then in doing what you do you have to be totally relaxed. That is Frost's real strength, he gets stuff out of interviews a lot of the time because he is not sitting looking at his notes, he is just having a chat and then he is in the moment. When we had our opening night in the West End Frost was invited and he said he couldn't come because the next morning he was interviewing Tony Blair and he didn't want to be seen at the premiere of a play about him the night before he did this huge interview. He did the interview and that was when he supposedly got an admission from Blair that Iraq had been a disaster. So it is interesting the way these things weave into each other.
Q: Have you ever considered how brave you are to tackle so many roles that are of real people?
A: I think you are only described as being brave or courageous if it works. If it doesn't work you are seen as being stupid. So long may it continue working. People ask why I like playing these real life characters and part of it is because it is really scary and challenging and I like being challenged. I always have a moment with all of these characters where I go into the depths of despair and think that I can't do it.
Frost/Nixon is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday, May 18th.