I’ve interviewed Michael Sheen twice in the past 10 months, but it also feels like I’ve interviewed two different Michael Sheens.
Last November, I sat down with a gregarious, mustachioed, wild-haired Michael Sheen, wearing a red smoking jacket, to talk about his final time playing Volturi ringleader Aro in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.” In that interview, Sheen was full of quips and laughter.
This August, at the Beverly Hilton, I chatted with a clean-shaven Michael Sheen, hair neatly coiffed, dark suit perfectly fitted. In this interview for Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” Sheen was erudite, introspective and effusive on his craft.
Probably it makes sense to find light amusement when you’re talking about an ageless, telepathic vampire in a blockbuster YA franchise.
And probably it makes sense to be thoughtful and, at times, fiercely protective when you’re promoting a high-minded Showtime drama about pioneering human sexuality researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. In the drama, which dazzlingly avoids coming off as exploitative despite the titillating subject matter, Sheen plays the intriguingly internalized Masters opposite Lizzy Caplan’s more outgoing Johnson.
For Sheen, it’s a performance crafted from precise line-readings, precise mannerisms and brief moments of telling openness. In our conversation, Sheen sets me straight on the differences in playing internalized and externalized characters. He talks about the challenges of setting the right tone on the set and the role that he played in establishing that tone.
I think it’s a fascinating interview, even when Sheen was telling me I was confused about things.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: So I have memories of when I was probably 13 or 14, going and looking for a copy of “Human Sexual Response,” working off the assumption that if it had “sexual response” in the title, it might be sexy and then reading a few pages and realizing that it really was not…
Michael Sheen: [Chuckles.] Oh yeah.
HitFix: Did you go to that part of the source material? Did you look at the actual research that came out of this period of his life?
Michael Sheen: Oh yeah. Of course! Yeah. Yeah.
HitFix: What does that give you about this character? What does reading that and seeing the way that his mind works do to help you craft the character?
Michael Sheen: I think it was practical, insomuch as it was a subject that was so taboo at the time and so controversial as a study that in order to be accepted into the mainstream, it had to be very scientific. So I think in order to create a respectability for the study, I think they tried to make it as dry as possible. That was the whole point of it. Otherwise, they could have spiced it up or something, but then it wouldn’t be acceptable, the scientific community wouldn’t allow it. It was already going to be very difficult. He was a very pragmatic man in that sense. It also played into him as a man as well, where he wasn’t the most obviously kind of user-friendly person, but I think it was mainly a pragmatic thing.
HitFix: Ah. I wasn’t sure if you could read the book to try to get any sense of his voice or sensibility were actually like.
Michael Sheen: Not really. Like I say, it plays into him as a personality anyway, but it’s when things come together like that that things take off, I suppose. So the fact that he was the right person at the right time with the right qualities that lent themselves to it gaining respectability and all that kind of stuff is all part of the serendipity of it. But yeah, if there was a whiff of cheap, exploitative sensationalism about the study then it would have been thrown out, immediately. There was no way that it would be accepted. That’s part of what we see in the series is at a certain point, without giving anything away, it isn’t responded to in the way that they hope it will be and it’s described as pornography and all that kind of stuff. So I think they were very clear that… Or he was very clear that they had to anticipate that and make it as absolutely bone-dry as he possibly could and reduce it as much as he possibly could. Now, of course, what’s interesting is that it suited him to try to separate sex from all the complexities of human interaction, which wasn’t his strong point, so of course it suits him to get rid of all that and deny all that and say that there’s no validity to that. He was a man who, certainly as I play him, is a very compartmentalized man. He likes to keep things very separate, but life doesn’t work that way and so I think as soon as you try to create a kind of false barrier between certain things, life has to come and strip that barrier away and that is a very painful process for someone. I think that’s what we see in the series.
HitFix: How much of his compartmentalizing and his desire for control can you relate to in your own process as an actor?
Michael Sheen: What I’ve learned is that the good vein of work comes from trying to attain a balance between control and loss of control. So on the one hand you’ve got the kind of research that you do, the preparatory work, which is very much a controlled aspect where you’re building up a kind of analytical, intellectual understanding of the role and the character and what makes him tick and all of that kind of work. But then, when you actually get on-set and you start acting, you have to let go of all that. You can’t play your research. You have to just trust that it’s there and that it’ll inform what you do and then you have to be in the moment. You have to give up control. So the interplay between control and the lack of control is always, I think, the interesting area as an actor. And actors tend to fall more one side or the other. You’ve got the actors who like to do lots of research and work and then are a bit restricted by it when they come to act and then you’ve got actors who want to fly by the seat of their pants and are very unpredictable and come up with anything and are very spontaneous and yet it lacks discipline and rigor and doesn’t really hold up to examination. I think it’s the balance between the two that is the big challenge for an actor.
HitFix: Does it balance change for you part-to-part? Looking at your work, you have some roles where it does feel more controlled, where it feels more internalized. And then you also have the roles where it looks like you’re having a ball and anything goes.
Michael Sheen: I think you’re confusing what comes off a character, what the appearance of a character is, with what it requires to bring that about as an actor. My job as an actor is to not let you know how I’m doing it, is to not let you see the wheels turning underneath. If a character appears to be a controlled character, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m being any more controlled as an actor doing it. I’m still looking for exactly the same balance. Oftentimes people, I think, make the mistake of seeing a character who appears spontaneous and very larger-than-life and very animated and think that that’s the most fun to play. It’s not! No character is more fun to play than any other character, as far as I’m concerned. The way a character expresses himself is as a result of a dynamic that is going on underneath the surface. That’s always challenging as an actor. How it expresses itself bears sorta no relation to how much you enjoy it or not. For me. So no, regardless of what the character appears to be like, the process for creating that character and expressing that character is always the same for me.
HitFix: Is there any difference in leaving the character behind? In fullness of immersion on and off the set or before or after production?
Michael Sheen: I think that’s something that is more, as I’ve found anyway, is more to do with experience. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve done more work and I’ve changed as a human being then it’s become easier, I think, to let go of that kind of thing and find a way that’s a healthy relationship towards the work that you’re doing, rather than kind of carrying over into other areas. I feel like the more completely you invest in what you’re doing at the time, the easier it is to let go of it, funnily enough. It’s often when that process is blocked in some way that it needs to manifest itself in your life somehow as well. Whereas if you can completely let go of it in the moment of doing it, then it doesn’t need to somehow find expression in other areas of your life.
HitFix: With Masters, there is some video footage that exists so you could study and see how he moves and talks and whatnot. How much of that did you do and how much did you just want to build the character?
Michael Sheen: It was very little. It’s not like playing David Frost or Tony Blair or someone who’s very, very — certainly for a British audience — very, very recognizable. I didn’t feel that I needed to address that so much here, which is good, because that’s always the least important aspect of it when I’ve played a real person before. That’s sorta just like a little game, where you know you have to kinda deal with that because that’s the initial thing where an audience will go, “Well, he doesn’t look like him” or “He doesn’t sound like him.” Ultimately that’s not the thing that’s gonna remain with an audience or be satisfying to an audience. I think it’s more to do with kind of going on a journey with that character and feeling able to do that. So this character, it was good, because I felt I didn’t have to. That’s sometimes a distraction. With this character it was more to do with looking at his life and who he was and what he did and trying to kinda work out what maybe was motivating him and what might be the interesting areas to explore this character and whether that’s possible, whether the things that I connected with and that piqued my interest and my imagination, whether they could work within the parameters of the framework of his life that is known and that’s the kind of area that I was more interested in.
HitFix: When you have a character like this where you know what he’s going to be doing five years later or 10 years later, is there any risk or danger or threat of playing the future, of projecting that onto him?
Michael Sheen: Yeah! Well, I don’t think it’s a threat. I think it’s important. I think you need to look at a life holistically and try and understand why he became what he became and why he did what he did and what that journey is for him. So obviously the more you know the entire life, the more that can help. So I don’t see it as a threat, really, no.
HitFix: But if you know, for example, the destinations of Masters’ relationship with Johnson, do you approach those scenes in the beginning with that knowledge anywhere in your mind? Or can you completely elide that?
Michael Sheen: Yes, I think you can approach it with that knowledge in mind, but that knowledge only informs your understanding of what they’re doing in the moment, so that can only be an impediment if you had a very kind of incomplete understanding of how life works.
HitFix: And for an actor, that could be an impediment.
Michael Sheen: I guess, or just not a very clever person. You know? If that means that because you know they get married down the road then they’re in love from the beginning? It just doesn’t work like that. So no, I’m not so worried about that. Knowing that that is a possibility, that is something that becomes a possibility for them eventually gives you certain options when you’re coming to make choices of how you play certain scenes. But it doesn’t overpower in any way. It doesn’t dictate that you therefore have to play *this* in *this* way. It just adds to the overall color of it.
On Page 2, Sheen discusses working with Lizzy Caplan and pilot director John Madden, as well stting as the tone on set.
HitFix: With Lizzy, obviously the Masters and Johnson relationship is everything here, but it’s also the beginning of the relationship. Do you have to be comfortable with your fellow actor to look uncomfortable and awkward initially? Or do you prefer to have genuine discomfort or awkwardness?
Michael Sheen: You have to be comfortable with the other actor. There are certain shortcut things that you can have if you don’t get on, if you’re not comfortable. But ultimately, over a period of time, that’s going to run out. People often say that if you really dislike someone then it can give a kind of intensity to a love scene between you. Alright. You can get away with that once, maybe. But over time, that’s not gonna work. It’s gonna be destructive and more of a problem than it is gonna be a help. So I think we became very, very comfortable with each other very, very quickly and that, I think, really helped what we were doing.
HitFix: Was there a moment where you guys realized you had the right understanding, that you were simpatico?
Michael Sheen: It’s not really one moment. It’s just something that grows, I think. You find you connect, you enjoy each other’s company, you find you’re able to share quite personal things with each other in terms of how you relate to the work and because of the subject matter of this piece, it lends itself to being quite frank and open about certain things. We were at certain points in our lives where there was stuff going on and we could kind of help each other and support each other — not just me and Lizzy, but Caitlin [FitzGerald] as well — so we all became very close and I think that fed back into the work, ultimately, and really helped.
HitFix: So much of this show is about tone and getting the tone right. What was John Madden’s responsibility on the pilot in making sure that it established the right tone and the right feel on the set?
Michael Sheen: Well, I don’t know that the right tone is established. I think that’s something that takes a lot longer than one episode. I think that’s something that if you’re lucky, by the end of the first season maybe you’ve got somewhere near that. I think that’s where we’re at now, that having finished Season 1 and waiting to find out if we get the opportunity to do Season 2, in-between I think we’re gonna learn a lot about what the tone is. I certainly don’t think you can get it in a pilot episode. But I think John brought… John is an incredibly experienced, incredibly classy director. He’s done great work. You know it’s not gonna go for cheap gags and cheap effects. It’s thoughtful, it’s considered, it’s beautifully done visually. There’s definitely a sense of period and a sense of character. But in terms of the tone, the big challenge with this piece is that no one’s really done this before. There are elements. Yes, it’s set in the ’50s, a bit like “Mad Men.” It’s about a kinda grumpy doctor, a bit like “House.” It’s people talking about sex, like “Sex and the City.” But it’s not like any of those. So in terms of the tone, there’s no blueprint. There’s nothing to go, “Well, it’s like that.” We have to find the tone that suits this. How do these things go together? I’ve never seen a show before where you’re seeing what I guess should be a sexually exciting scene between two people with nudity and everything and then a kinda gynecological scene where someone’s got their legs in stirrups. We’re notoriously uncomfortable as a culture about stuff like that, that juxtaposition. So finding the right visual tone, the right emotional/psychology tone… How do you show the sex? All of that kind of stuff is, I think, a trial and error thing, really. We’ll see how that goes.
HitFix: You talked on the panel, though, about with the sex scenes and the nude scenes, the respectful atmosphere on set. That’s the kind of thing, it seems to me, where if it goes wrong initially, there’s way of getting it back.
Michael Sheen: Yeah, but that’s different to “tone.” That’s to do with a working environment. “Tone,” I see as being “How does the heart of the story manifest itself visually within the structure of the piece” by “How do things sit? How do people relate to it?” When I was talking about that, that’s more to do with just working practice and how people feel. You could get the right tone for a piece with everyone feeling incredibly uncomfortable making it. The two don’t necessarily have to go together. But in terms of as an attitude towards how you approach doing this kind of work on this kind of subject matter, then I think, yeah, the important thing is to be able to communicate freely, to not allow gray areas to exist, to not let anything go unspoken or to assume anything. You have to make sure that everyone is comfortable and that everyone knows where they’re at and everyone knows what’s expected and if they have a problem with that, to feel supported enough to be able to voice their problem and to work your way through it, much like any good relationship.
HitFix: And do you take a personal stake in that?
Michael Sheen: Yeah, because I’m the lead actor on the show. As much as we’ve got very caring, sensitive, compassionate, intelligent people running the piece, they’re not always around. They don’t have as close contact with the other actors, maybe. So when you’ve got people coming in onto the show and they’re only doing a few days, as I was saying, it’s hard to stick your hand up and go, “Actually, I’m not comfortable with this.” You want to fit in. And with the nature of this show, it’s really important that if anyone has a problem, if anyone’s uncomfortable, that they feel able to say that. Now I have the opportunity to be able to kind of give someone an outlet for that, that if they don’t feel comfortable saying it to the producer or the director or the first or whatever, they can say something to me, maybe. Or I’ll keep checking in with them. I feel like that’s something that’s a responsibility.
HitFix: In terms of the external aspects of this character, was there anything that really helped him click for you? The hair? The collar? The tie? Was there a piece of the external side that was particularly helpful?
Michael Sheen: The one thing that we know about him and that you see in every picture is he always wore a bow tie. But just wearing a bow tie all the time doesn’t particularly make me click into a character, but trying to think about what that represents and what that symbolizes to me and having a sense of that does help. I’m not gonna tell you what it is, because that’s secret for me. To be honest, it’s not anything external. It was internal things, it was finding certain things that would become like talismans in a way and that I would go back to and that are at the core of everything he does. So once I found out what that was for me and what I thought seemed right then that becomes the engine for the whole thing. And it’s always what then dictates certain external things. When you’ve got infinite choice, you have to have some kind of compass in order to got “Well this is what’s right, as opposed to this,” I think. Or, “This is more right.” That internal stuff dictates that and allows you to go, “Well, the reason I would wear this kind of hat, rather than that kind of hat, is because is that somehow relates to this internal thing.”
HitFix: You talked on the panel about viewing television as being at the pinnacle of storytelling these days. How long had you been looking for a TV project?
Michael Sheen: I hadn’t. I hadn’t been looking for one at all.
HitFix: Had you been explicitly *not* looking for a TV series?
Michael Sheen: No, no. Neither way. Nothing had really come my way in that sense or if it had, it hadn’t really resonated with me for whatever reason. This came along at a time when I was looking to maybe be in one place for a longer period of time, not have to move around so much, ideally here in LA where I live and where my daughter is, so that was very attractive. That kind of put it up on my radar a little bit more, I suppose. Ultimately, though, it was what came along at a moment where it resonated with me and I felt like it would be a challenge, the right kind of challenge at the right time. So yeah, it wasn’t something I’d been looking for or not looking for, really.
“Masters of Sex” premieres on Sunday, September 29 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.