Beyond the pale: Michael Sheen takes one last bite in the Twilight zone ,
From Blair to Caligula to Twilight’s Aro, Michael Sheen loves getting his teeth into bad-guy characters. He tells Tara Brady why he relishes playing the villain
AND NOW the end is near. As Stephenie Meyers’ mega-franchise takes a final bow with Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Michael Sheen, superstar thespian and the sequence’s resident villain, is preparing to say goodbye to Aro, his maniacal alter-ego of some four years.
“It’s good that it’s definitely going out with a bang,” he says. “It’s the best of the bunch. It’s certainly the film that I’ve enjoyed watching the most.”
Sheen has a particular weakness for the franchise, partly because he loved channelling those twin horrors “the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine”, and partly on account of his 13-year-old daughter, Lily.
“She’s grown up with these stories so I know from her how important they are. The supernatural elements, in some ways, gives a scale for the epic feelings that you feel at that age. Viewers have somewhere to put those feelings that make sense. They’ll always associate their teenage years with those characters.”
Sheen gets the appeal and he also understands the gender politics that underpin a good deal of anti- Twilight vitriol.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a huge backlash and snobbishness against it,” says Sheen. “We’ve come to think of fantasy as nerds and geeks and what-have-you. And most of those are teenage boys. That’s not the prime audience for Twilight. It sticks out because it’s for young girls who are becoming young women and because that’s what it’s about.”
By now, we’re so accustomed to seeing Michael Sheen play iconic Englishmen – Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams, Brian Clough – its almost a shock to hear him speak in his own melodic Welsh accent. He rarely, as he notes, gets recognised on the street. Maybe it’s the beard. Maybe its because he disappears so completely into his better-known biographical portraits. His depictions of, say, HG Welles or David Frost convey the essence of those subjects without resorting to cheesy impersonation. It’s all down to “finding out as much about their lives as possible”, he says.
On this side of the Atlantic, Tony Blair made Sheen a household name; the actor has played the former British PM in TV’s The Deal and in the Oscar-decorated The Queen. Across the water, he’s rather better known for Lucian in the Underworld series or Twilight’s Aro. For a proper Shakespearean actor, he seems awfully comfortable in entirely pixelated worlds.
“Growing up, I was a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and Philip K Dick and Stephen King. My taste has always been with science fiction and fantasy, so its been great to be able to do the Underworld films and Twilight and Tron.”
More despots to add to the collection. Sheen seems to love a good villain. To date, he has essayed Caligula, Nero and Oedipus across various platforms.
“I like characters that challenge the sympa- thises of the audience. I always enjoy trying to find a way to play them in a three-dimensional way, so they’re in a grey area. Look, nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. You’re always the hero of your own story. It’s always about working out what’s important to them.”
Michael Sheen was born in Port Talbot into a colourful showbusiness family. His greatgrandmother was an elephant trainer; his father is a Jack Nicholson impersonator; many of his ancestors sound like they waltzed right out of Celtic mythology.
“There were certain things and relatives I heard about growing up that stick with you,” says the 38-year-old. “You have the more sensational things like my grandfather who was drunk in the gutter and the moon spoke to him and he became a street preacher. Or my great-grandmother who was a lion and elephant tamer in the circus. But I got to do one of those genealogy shows recently and I got to learn all about the family that came from Ireland during the famine. And those stories are just as amazing because once one story comes out, you’ll find another and another and another. It all adds to the texture.”
There must be something in the Port Talbot water supply. Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins both came from there. What is going on?
“It’s not necessarily somewhere you’d associate with the theatrical profession,” says Sheen. “It’s an old steel town and very working class. It’s not bohemia. But because Burton was such a legend in the area, there was always a huge amount of support for doing what he did. I suppose that was a catalyst. Tony Hopkins
was very inspired by Burton and that made a big difference, and likewise for myself: I knew I was following those two. So there’s a nice feeling of tradition because Tony knew Burton a little bit, and I’ve gotten to know Tony a little bit.”
Sheen had yet to graduate from Rada when he landed his first professional gig opposite Vanessa Redgrave in 1991’s And She Danced at the Globe theatre. He’s never been out of work since and his multimedia resumé stretches to hundreds of entries when you add up the stage, screen and radio appearances.
He had, he says, “no interest really in anything but theatre” until he followed his daughter Lily and ex-wife Kate Beckinsale to Los Angeles. The divorce was famously lacking in acrimony – Sheen has since worked with Beckinsale’s director husband, Len Wiseman – but the location has entailed a shift toward the silver screen.
“I had always done bits in films,” recalls the actor. “I made Mary Reilly with Julia Roberts as long ago as 1994. But I was never going to walk into a romantic lead and I wasn’t all that interested. After I moved to America, and after I started working with Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears on The Deal, things kept coming my way. From that, I went on to do The Queen and that opened doors."
He insists he’s not prepared to differentiate between high culture and low and is quick to defend critic Mark Kermode who recently came under fire for making positive noises about Twilight.
“I think Mark is a brilliant defender of genre films and of children’s films as well,” says Sheen. “I think the point that he always makes is that you have to judge films and everything else on their own terms. It’s pointless judging a film that’s meant for 12- and 13- and 14-yearold girls with the same criteria as a film that’s aimed at 30-year-old men. I remember Mark making a very good defence for Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
He laughs: “Now I don’t personally care for the film but it was a good argument.” ❙❙❙ Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is out now on general release and is reviewed on page 13
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