Hollywood’s preference for neatly categorizing the legions of good-looking thespians that grace our screens every year is fairly obvious. We used to silo the men and women who are cutting a check for acting out fantasies in theaters and on TV as either movie stars or dramatic actors. The former was the hook that studios hung tentpole blockbusters on: charming, impossibly masculine, glamorous, famous as much for their real-life personas as they were for the characters they played on screen. The latter? Those were the Oscar-winners, the critical darlings, the Jeremy Strongs making bold choices, begging directors to tear-gas them on sets in the name of storytelling.
The divergent path has merged some over the years. There’s no clear, defining line separating bankable talent from actual talent. Chris Evans can brandish a shield in Marvel behemoths one second, then don an unkempt beard and heavy demeanor for a limited drama on Apple TV+ the next. Jon Hamm, who rose to fame playing an arrogant, adulterous ad executive in ’60s era Mad Men is now one of the most unpredictably exciting comedic actors in the game. Chadwick Boseman brought a royal Wakandan superhero to life in Black Panther, but he’ll also probably take home posthumous awards for his brilliant turn in an August Wilson adaptation this year.
In Hollywood, you can now be both a movie star and a serious actor, which is what makes Michael Sheen even more interesting. Michael Sheen is decidedly not a movie star. He’s also Welsh, which means he likely doesn’t sport the kind of ego that would make him capable of attaching gravitas to his acting career. He has 93 credits on his IMDb page. He’s played former British Prime Minister Tony Blair thrice, earning awards recognition for his impersonation in the Helen Mirren-starring The Queen. And he’s lit up the small screen with guest stints on everything from 30 Rock to The Good Wife.
Michael Sheen is, by all accounts, a serious, or at least seriously talented, actor. But he’s also weird as f*ck. I hope he’ll take that as the highest of compliments because it’s the truly bizarre character actors that should be propped up on a pedestal. That’s what Sheen really is: a character actor in his prime, a fearless conqueror on-screen, blazing a path by brandishing his quirky habits and secret love for creating chaos while leaving behind a scorched Earth of conventional conformists in his wake. He’s not like the other girls, and that’s become more apparent as time drags on.
My fascination with Sheen’s filmography began, to my shame, late in his career. His current gig is playing an irresistibly charming serial killer and lauded surgeon named Dr. Martin Whitly on Fox’s Prodigal Son. Perhaps the best praise I can heap on Sheen’s performance is that it convinces me to tune into a network drama every week, a rare feat in the age of streaming. But even that adulation doesn’t paint the whole story of what Sheen’s doing on that show.
Sporting the kind of knit cardigan Ransom Drysdale would be envious of and a crop of wild, grey-dusted curls with just enough kink in them to hint at the perverted madness housed underneath, Sheen’s Whitly is charismatic, comical, and shockingly likable. His unnerving ease at see-sawing between philosophical convos on life and love with his son Malcolm (the excellent Tom Payne) and pragmatically outlining how to dismember a body is at once jarring and, oddly, mesmerizing. Sheen plays him as a perpetually amused psychotic genius, an Einstein whose intelligence is so far above those that keep him captive, it’s almost a joke. And we’re in on it, as the audience, gleefully cackling when Whitly gets overexcited about consulting on the most gruesome homicide cases or, even more disturbingly, momentarily forgetting he once stuffed a woman into a box when he shares a tender exchange with his son. And Sheen embraces the strangeness of the man, rejoicing in his eccentricities, adding a musical flair to every “My boy,” he greets Malcolm with and relishing the more awkward moments by exploiting their inherent comedy. Really, when has a slow-rising hospital bed and distasteful Stephen Hawking joke been funnier?
Lest you think playing a serial killing diva was the most oddball acting choice Sheen has ever made, may I point you to the rest of his film catalog. There’s his mustache-twirling clichéd villain in Dr. Dolittle. The eerily robotic bartender of Passengers. The long-haired alpha Lycan of Underworld. The Tony Blairs (all three of them) and the heavily-bronzed game show hosts of Quiz. The Hot Tub Time Machine hating settling soul mate of Liz Lemon in 30 Rock.
And then there are a handful of performances that live in my own brain, rent-free, like when he played Aro in the Twilight series. Other actors would’ve balked at the challenge of turning a 4,000-year-old Italian vampire riddled with boredom and consumed by unchecked power into something more than just a two-dimensional, cartoonish stereotype, but not Sheen. No, while Robert Pattinson flaunted his constipated sullenness and Kristen Stewart fidgeted and fought to make her character likable, Sheen basked in the camp of it all. He over-enunciated, he exaggerated Aro’s mercurial nature with rapid eye movement, twitchy physicality, and shrieking giggle fits. In the franchise’s final film, just before a climactic battle is set to take place, Sheen throws the atmospheric tension every other actor in the scene has worked so painstakingly hard to build into turmoil. It’s like watching Georgia O’Keefe destroy a room full of paintings, or Heath Ledger’s Joker burn a mountain of money, and it is glorious.
In Tron: Legacy he plays Castor, a maniacal nightclub owner with a consuming love for theatricality. As his guests fall into his well-laid trap, he dances and kicks and shuffles and shouts, wielding a neon-tinted cane like a Barnum and Bailey’s ringmaster and a slicked-back shock-white hairdo that turns him into an analog-style Bowie wannabe. His accent careens into the absurd, from high-pitched lilts to German parody to something I can only describe as Marvel supervillain Arnim Zola on steroids.
In Neil Gaiman’s Amazon Prime comedy Good Omens, Sheen played the anxiety-ridden angel, Aziraphale, a heavenly kiss-ass who befriends David Tennant’s demonic Crowley, and together, the two try to save the world. Playing the more uptight celestial being might not be as fun for any other actor, but Sheen has a hell of a time, dealing nervous spasms and twitchy eyeballs and exaggerated gulps with such a heavy hand, you can’t help but feel sympathy for the straight-laced seraph.
And just when I was ready to conclude my research, feeling quite confident dubbing Sheen’s extensive resume as one of the wilder, diverse acting careers in Hollywood, I stumbled upon Michael Bolton’s Valentine’s Day Special on Netflix. It’s here that Sheen truly goes above and beyond in the name of weird, playing a Bob Fosse parody named Carl Flossy: a gruff, chain-smoking choreographer whose manners are as coarse as his constantly-displayed chest hair. Shouting obscenities at Bolton as he tries to map out a musical dilly that will convince punk kids that old-time rock-n-roll is, in fact, badass, Sheen’s growling criticism and shouted anger is muffled only by the ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s an aging Guido-type with an open-neck satin shirt, and inflated confidence, and a mysterious way of drawing out the best in his dancers, one that usually involves throwing the nearest folded chair.
I suppose that’s what’s so great about Sheen’s career so far. He’s happy to sacrifice whatever level of stardom and recognition he may have been afforded thanks to his talent and good looks for something even more elusive that blockbuster fame and Academy trophies: the unique ability to disappear into even the most bizarre of characters; to convince audiences he’s no longer Michael Sheen, affable Welshman and ex-husband of thee Kate Beckinsale, but instead, an amalgam of the oddities and freakish individuals he plays on the screen. Michael Sheen might, in truth, be as weird and out there as the characters he inhabits. That’s what makes him great.
FOX’s ‘Prodigal Son’ returns on Tuesday, January 12.