The nomadic life of an actor can surely be calmed down a little if they operate within a specific creative range, but where’s the fun in that? For more than 20 years, Michael Sheen has gone the other way playing a series of real and concocted heroes, villains, and everything in between. From a vampire to an angel, to the UK Prime Minister, and in his new series, Prodigal Son (which premieres Monday at 9 PM on FOX), an imprisoned serial killer trying to reestablish a relationship with his criminal profiler son.
There’s no snobbishness to Sheen. That’s clear when I briefly mention Twilight, Robert Pattinson, and the idea of actors being pigeonholed and he shares a thought about (evaporating) industry snobbishness toward genre projects. This before mentioning the literary titans who have, throughout the years, worked in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and in comic books and managed to focus on the biggest issues of their (and our) time while still entertaining. Telling us, “I think people sort of underestimate that at their peril, really.”
Sheen’s lack of snobbishness is also on display when you realize his commitment to the issues that impact his community in Wales, specifically efforts to help the homeless and those from areas impacted by the retreat of coal mines and steel mills. Sheen also founded the End High Cost Credit Alliance, which is focused on pushing back against predatory lenders that have hard-hit those same communities and people in his life. While acting is a passion, Sheen is clear about his need to make these causes a priority in his life. We spoke with the actor about staying engaged in those pursuits while committing to a network show. We also explored his deep dive into serial killer research for Prodigal Son, the impact that can have on the psyche, and his theory on why we’re all so fixated on stories about murder.
The show is very interesting. I wasn’t expecting some of the twists and turns. I’m not usually one for procedurals, but this is actually a show I think I can see myself turning back into week to week.
Yeah, I’m not particularly one for procedurals, either, so I wouldn’t have been that interested if it was that, you know what I mean? But I think having that element adds to it, but I was drawn very much to the stuff that’s more threaded through, I suppose.
Yeah, it definitely has a darker edge. It definitely seems to go to some places that most shows don’t, without giving anything away. I was stunned with one particular moment when [redacted]. But I won’t put that in the interview. It was stunning, though, and really kind of made me sit up in my seat a little bit. “Okay. All right.”
“That’s where we’re going to go? Okay. Yeah.” Even having done cable stuff, I still, in the shooting of this stuff, I still, every now and again go, “Wow. This is dark!” [Laughs] The idea of it being on a network I think is really great. I think it really does make me sort of feel like, “wow, anything could happen.”
Was it an initial concern that there would be some limitations because of it being on a network?
No, not really. I mean, you know what it’s like with a pilot episode of something, you’ve only got that one episode to go on, and so you’re looking — as an actor anyway — for what’s possible. What’s there to explore? If I’m potentially going to be doing this for a long time, hopefully, is there enough in here in this one episode to suggest that there’s enough territory to explore? And if that’s the case… and then a combination of talking to the people, the creators, the writers, the showrunner, and if they’re open to collaborating on that, you think, “Oh, these people are interested in going to some interesting places with this.” Then it doesn’t matter where it is, or what sort of platform it’s on, I’m there. I’m interested. And that was the case with this when I read this first episode. I just thought as a show, it had a lot of components. Some that I think were quite familiar, and that can work in your favor, you know, [because] people sort of know where they’re at with it. But there was enough in there that seemed different, and unusual, and fresh.
With the character, I just thought, I’m really interested in the idea that what we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg here, and that there’s so much underneath that’s to be explored, potentially. And the idea of this man who we know is a monster… We know he’s done horrific, terrible things. We know what he’s capable of, and [what he] would probably still do if he wasn’t locked up in a cell. And yet when you’re with him, he’s sort of charming, funny, interesting, warm, and appears to be loving, or that he wants to kind of have a close, intimate relationship with his son. And yet how can someone who is capable of doing what has done and would still do, presumably… How’s he able to be those things? I found that fascinating, and the amount of that that was in there in that first episode, I thought “all this is definitely worth exploring.”
That kind of character’s obviously very compelling for audiences. Why do you think we’re so fascinated by wolves in sheep’s clothing and that kind of thing? And in murder, in general? Because, obviously, there’s so much television specifically about murder, and investigating murder and things like that.
Well, I suppose… I mean from the beginning of human beings telling stories to each other, even if it was telling a story about cosmology, or the story of your tribe or your village or whatever it is, the central figures are the ones that give life and take life away. We build religions on the ones that give life, or indeed, the ones that take life away. We’re fascinated. When the greatest danger and the greatest fear to you is a wolf coming in and eating you. Then you pay attention to that wolf. So what we’re talking about are people who kill us, who prey on us. On the one hand, I think that’s part of the fascination. That we want to somehow understand that. We want to kind of integrate that into our experience, because it’s so frightening, and we want to kind of normalize it somehow and be okay with it. But on the other hand, I think on maybe a slightly deeper level, we also recognize that it’s us, that this is not some other. We call them monsters, and we sort of try to make out that it’s something that is other to our own experience, but actually, I think we recognize that it is part of what it is to be human. It may be rare, it may not be activated in everyone, but it is part of the human experience, and therefore that might be the single most terrifying thing about it, and therefore we are drawn, compelled, fascinated, repulsed, and repelled by it, as well, I think at the same time. We always have been and we always will be.
How did the role morph and how did you inject your voice into it? At the start and as you’ve filmed more episodes?
From the beginning, [series creators] Chris (Fedak) and Sam (Sklaver), we sort of ended up immediately getting into kind of deep conversations about all the themes of what’s going on here and the whole serial killer genre. I had spent a few years working on a project that ultimately… well, I haven’t done yet, but it’s something that I wrote myself about a serial killer — a real-life, true case. And so a lot of that work was useful for this. It gave me sort of a starting point to think about this character. Not that this character is similar to the character on the thing that I was writing, but there was certainly enough shared landscape to be able to kind of orient myself in this. And so that really helped. And being able to talk to Chris and Sam about possibilities with this character and what his motivations might be, what he’s drawn to, what his desires are, and the kind of psychological landscape of this man… we sort of got into [that] very quickly. So it became clear, straight away, that this was going to be a good creative collaboration. I was really looking for that. After the experience that I had doing Masters of Sex where it was so collaborative and I was able to have so much input into the character and the journey, I was really hoping that that would be the case for this, and it’s proved to be so.
You talk about going and researching for a couple of years deep in this kind of murky area with serial killers and true crime and now obviously doing this show and exploring that. Is it harder to hang that kind of work on a hook and leave the office at the end of the day than it is with another kind of role?
Yes, absolutely. Undoubtedly it is, because this is, for as fascinating as it is… Not this show particularly, but this area of research; it does take a toll on you if you’re spending too much time in that world of so much darkness. It definitely does. You have to find a way to be able to let it go, and it’s not as easy as that. I think in order to be drawn to working in this area, you have to already have a sort of an interest and a fascination with it, I think, and you do have to be careful that that interest doesn’t lead you into being in that world for too long at any one go, because it does affect you. Definitely.
What’s interesting with this character, though, I think, and with the show, I think as well, is that what I found with the character is that… Obviously a killer, or if you look at nature, any predator has certain techniques that they use in order to lure their prey. A monster doesn’t go around signposting the fact that he’s a monster. Wouldn’t work. So there’s this element of camouflage and disguise, and it becomes very important. And so with Martin [his character], the fact that he is so likable potentially (there’s lots about him that people can warm to, and enjoy, and he’s funny, and all those kind of things), that’s all part of his camouflage and disguise. And so whilst being, I think psychologically accurate, it also helps me in that you’re not always playing just the darkness. It helps in the performance of it, and it actually helps with making an entertaining show for people, as well. That you can explore the darkness of it, but there is certainly a strong vein of humor going through it. It may be a dark humor, but there’s definitely humor there, not just with him, but also with the family relationships, as well. In some way he is not the only monster in the show. [Laughs]
Yeah, I think that’s also something that helps the show to stand out from the procedural pack. There is definitely that kind of energy running through it, and like you said, with the extended family.
Yeah. There’s definitely a sort of gallows humor to Malcolm [Tom Payne’s character, who is Martin’s son] as well. That I think makes him a more interesting character.
You have a known commitment to social issues and causes. How does the time commitment of a broadcast show jive with that other side of your life and the other things that you’re committed to doing? Was that also something that kind of gave you pause going into this?
Yes, absolutely. Over the last few years, the work that I do as an actor always has to have a certain amount of flexibility in it, and that is something that I talk about absolutely up front with people and say, “Look, is there a way to be able to be flexible about how we do this?” And so with this character, because he’s in prison, there’s a certain amount of flexibility there, and we can sort of condense certain episodes for me. It gives us a bit more freedom with that character to come in and out a little bit. Also, I think it’s better for the show in a way. You don’t want to see too much of the shark in Jaws.
You want to use an appropriate amount of Malcolm and Martin in this, I think. So, we’re still sort of playing around with that.
One last question, just for my curiosity, because I have become seriously addicted to The Crown, and I know at some point I’m sure they’re going to do a Tony Blair story. Obviously you’ve worked with Peter Morgan, you’ve played Tony Blair two times? Three times? Two times?
Three times. I’ve played Blair three times, yeah. I’ve worked with Peter many more times than that.
If down the road they tapped you on the shoulder and wanted you to do it again, is that something you would be interested in?
It would completely depend on what the story was and what the script was. All the other real-life characters I played, whether it’s Blair, or David Frost, or whoever it might be, it’s never because I’m particularly interested in playing that person. It’s always because of the context, the story, the script that they’re a character in. I found the story around the Blair character in each of those three things fascinating, so I wanted to do them. I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of playing Blair again, but if it was a story that was worth telling and seemed to have a sort of urgency about it, and was revealing a sort of surprising aspect of things as I think the other three did, then I would certainly be interested in doing it. Yeah.
Prodigal Son premieres on FOX Monday at 9PM ET