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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

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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