It is a source of unending amazement to me that so many celebrities regard an interview as an opportunity to boast about their brilliance, in the belief that this will convince readers they are brilliant. This is not a mistake Michael Sheen is in any danger of making.
The scruffy figure draws no stares orÂ sideways glances when he arrives inÂ the bar of the Young Vic theatre in central London. He looks smiley and unguarded, and so unlike a star that, for a split second, IÂ panic that maybe IÂ have greeted the wrong man. Sheen is famous for playing Tony Blair in three separate films, as well as David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and Brian Clough in The Damned United, and is about to play Hamlet here at the Young Vic. Yet as himself, the Welsh actor has managed to remain practically anonymous â confounding the modern Hollywood edict that if you want to get great parts, you have to play the fame game.
His career contradicts another movie star myth, for if creative genius requires emotional demons â as his namesake Charlie, say, would undoubtedly maintain â then Sheen really should not be much of an actor at all. And he has even managed to star in a fair bit of blockbuster fantasy sci-fi schlock, without calling into question his credibility for a role such as Hamlet. All of which makes him a fascinating subject â but of course, being disinclined to boast, Sheen doesn’t always see it that way.
Instead, the 42-year-old launches into an excitable tribute to Shakespeare, with the air of a wonderstruck child. “Hamlet’s a good play. I know that sounds mad, but it really is! I mean it’sÂ really extraordinary. What’s extraordinary is you can have so many different productions and actors and directors and their different visions, but it seems to kind of respond to each; it seems to adapt, and that’s what I’ve found. What’s quite freaky about it â itÂ is actually a little bit scary â is that itÂ feels like a living organism, it’s like aÂ thing that actually adapts. It’s this weird thing where if you came along and said, well, I think Hamlet is actually about crocodiles â well, then itÂ does seem to be about crocodiles. AsÂ long asÂ it’s within the realm of possibility, itÂ somehow seems to throw up these things and you go, well yes, IÂ think this is what Shakespeare actually meant! But not everyone can be right, so it’s weird. It seems to kind of meet you in aÂ way that other plays don’t. It’s an incredibly unusual experience.”
Sheen was last on stage in London inÂ 2006, stage playing Frost in Frost/Nixon, but he cheerfully admits that onÂ that occasion he had no idea the play was any good. He had only taken the role as a favour to the writer and director, because both were friends, “So I couldn’t say no. But I thought, IÂ don’t know if this works, I don’t knowÂ if anyone’s interested, and Frost is a really boring part. I never thought it was going anywhere.”
Having acted since his teens, a surprise like that must be rare for him by now? “Oh God no, I have absolutely no idea! No, even in front of an audience I can’t tell. People have to say tangible things like: ‘It’s sold out’, or: ‘Here are people who want to buy the film rights.’ Or there’s a standing ovation or whatever. And then you go, oh, right, this must be working really well. I can’t tell from just doing it, oh God no, no no no. Cos I’m in it! So I can’t tell.”
Even when the play became aÂ Hollywood movie, he assumed his partÂ would go to a more famous actor. Instead, the film confirmed his place on the Hollywood A-list â so when he said recently that he felt “increasingly repulsed by acting”, IÂ thought he must mean the movie starÂ world of celebrity culture in LA.
“No, I didn’t mean that,” he says quickly. “I mean ‘ac-ting’ as opposed toÂ reacting. The first time you watch yourself on screen you think, oh my God, is that really what I look like, is that really what I was doing? And I pushed myself to get through that, toÂ be able to watch it as objectively as IÂ can, so I can learn from it. And the more I’ve done that, the bits that repulse me the least are the ones where it doesn’t appear like I’m trying to do anything. I’m not having an idea. Otherwise I’ll watch it and I’ll think, IÂ remember I had an idea about that bitÂ â and now I’m watching it, all IÂ canÂ see is me having an idea. I’m notÂ connected to what’s going on, it’sÂ just not happening.
“There’s a time for ideas, but it’s earlier on. You have the ideas, you put them all in a pot, and at a certain point you have to forget about them all, and the ones that stick on the whole work, and the ones that don’t you have to letÂ go of â and it doesn’t matter how fantastic an idea you think it is, you just have to let go of it. And then slowly, hopefully, it becomes a very fluid thing. And when I watch myself now I can tell the difference between things that have that quality, and things that don’t. And the things that don’t, I call acting. And I’ve become more and more repulsed by that.”
The world of Hollywood doesn’t repulse him at all, he says â but then heÂ doesn’t have much to do with it. “I’ve just got no interest really. I just get bored, it doesn’t really do anything for me. Maybe I’ve not got enough confidence in my standing in that world, I don’t know.”
Or possibly it’s the other way around? He grins. “Well, yeah, maybe.” He lives in LA only to be near his daughter, 12, whose mother Kate Beckinsale was Sheen’s partner for eight years, until she left him in 2003 for the director Len Wiseman. The tabloids did their best to whoop the split into a scandal, but were defeated by the unusual dignity with which the three handled the drama, and even now that Sheen is part of another celebrity couple, dating the actor Rachel McAdams, he still barely registers on the radar of the celebrity media machine.
Movie stars always claim they have to invite OK! and Hello! into their lives, because it has become part of the job. So how has Sheen achieved what they insist is impossible, and managed to opt out? “Not difficult at all in my case,” he smiles. “No one’s interested. It’s not for want of trying!” Is he joking? “No, really, there are times when I kind of go, what have I got to doÂ to get attention? There are times in my career where I can see it would be helped by having a bit more of a profile, but it’s not like I refuse to do interviews, no not at all.”
What about invitations to glitzy celebrity parties? “No. Oh, well, yeah, that sort of stuff, yeah. But even when I do that, no one prints photographs of me! They take photographs,” he laughs. “They just don’t show any of them.” He doesn’t look as if he minds, but he goes on: “The whole fame thing, it’s a bit like a pinball machine â or that’s how I feel. I bounce back and forth between wanting that, and not wanting that. So I’ve never consciously tried to avoid it. But at this point in my life, I suppose I have to accept that maybe unconsciously I have. I can’t take any credit for it, I don’t have some innate integrity. There have been times when I would have absolutely loved to be more of a star â and still now, every day, there are times. Just times when it would help to be a bit more well known, or have a bit more of a â you know. Cos obviously it helps to get another job.”
He says this as if he were a struggling actor, but when I check he concedes that he has never once been out of work. A promising actor in Welsh theatre in his teens, he trained at Rada, and won his first professional role in 1991 opposite Vanessa Redgrave at the Globe before he had even graduated. By the time Broadway declared him aÂ star in 1999, playing Mozart in Amadeus, he had already played Romeo, Henry V and Peer Gynt, and starred in Chekhov, Osborne and Pinter productions, winning multiple plaudits and awards.
His breakthrough film role came playing Blair in The Deal in 2003, a part he revisited for The Queen in 2006, and again for The Special Relationship last year â and he has also appeared in blockbusters including Underworld and Tron, the appeal of which are a total mystery to me, but which, being aÂ sci-fi fan, Sheen loves. He is about to appear in Resistance, a British thriller set in a Welsh valley, and has just starred in Woody Allen’s most profitable film, Midnight In Paris.
Even so, when he first moved to LA, “I was going up for films, it was just audition after audition, and people would say: ‘Well, you’re the best actor we’ve seen, you’re perfect for this part â but the studio needs a bigger actor, they need a bigger name.’ So there was a lot of that for a period of time.”
Back then Beckinsale was the bigger box office star, so I wonder if that became problematic for them as aÂ couple.
“Well, it was always a sort of weird combination where Kate sort of felt â she’d never gone to drama school, so she felt like I was doing very worthy work, and she felt unworthy sometimes â which was never true. But on the other hand I felt like: ‘Oh I wish IÂ was having more success in film.’ So that was quite frustrating. And actually it was only once I’d said right, that’s it, I’m going to forget about a film career and just do what I do, then almost immediately it happened.”
I ask if he ever worried that he might be just a bit too well-adjusted to be cut out for the job. “No!” he exclaims, and starts laughing â but agrees that a disproportionate number of cinema’s biggest names have been spectacularly messed up. The symbiotic link between genius and emotional damage is enshrined in Hollywood folklore â and yet doesn’t appear to apply to Sheen at all.
“Well, that is actually something that I’ve reacted to particularly. Specifically coming from where I come from, Port Talbot, after Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, two people who â well, Tony got his act together, Burton never really did, he was very much about demons and all that kind of thing. And also very much part of that romantic myth of the hell-raising, fucked-up thing â and that somehow the great work comes out of that.” Does he agree?
“Absolute bollocks. It’s just such absolute bollocks, complete bullshit. IÂ think you have to have a certain levelÂ of self-awareness and honesty and courage to go, well, this is my experience and I’m going to bring thatÂ to bear in the work I do. But you can’t get up on stage and do Romeo and Juliet, or Henry V, or Caligula or whatever, having been out the night before. Certainly I can’t. And the longerÂ that goes on, it becomes very clear that you’re running away from something. And that doesn’t lend itselfÂ to good acting. Running away, not wanting to see the truth about yourself, doesn’t necessarily â I don’t think â make for good acting. It might make for quite fireworky acting and it might make for some kind of, I don’t know, apparent danger or whatever. But what I’ve found is, for me anyway, it doesn’t work.”
I’ve seldom met anyone more careful to qualify so many opinions with “for me”, or “I think, anyway”, or some other subtle disclaimer to defuse any risk of sounding self-important. IÂ wonder if this has something to do with the family he grew up in. Sheen comes from a long tradition of show business in south Wales â but one thatÂ fell firmly into the category of provincial vaudeville camp. His father is a Jack Nicholson impersonator, his great-grandmother was an elephant tamer, and his great-grandfather became famous across the valleys for seeing a vision of God through the moon. He became a street preacher, and God told him to buy an old disused tin mine, in which a new vein of tin was promptly discovered, making him the richest man in the town.
To a young child brought up on these stories, his ancestors must haveÂ seemed like mythical giants of unimaginable glamour. But Sheen’s success has eclipsed them all â and IÂ wonder if a part of him has always feltÂ guilty, or even disloyal, about relegating the titans of his childhood toÂ comical footnotes in a Hollywood star’s biography. Humility could be hisÂ way of trying to protect his family folklore, so I ask if he has ever felt uncomfortable about outshining them.
“No, I suppose there’s a kind of size that comes with that stuff, that’s the best way I can describe it. Like my great-grandfather, his life had size to it, and scale. You go, wow, the moon, God, tin mines, street preaching â and elephant taming, all that â there’s size to that. And I find that size through the work I do. I’ve already had an extraordinary life, so I don’t think it’s lacked size.”
I realise he has completely misunderstood the question. I didn’t mean that his career lacked size compared with theirs, but the veryÂ opposite.
“Oh, right! Right, right, right. Oh, IÂ see!” He looks astonished. “No, I was seeing it the other way around. That probably says a lot about how I see it. I’m aiming for that! That’s what I’m aiming for, you see. Their size.”
Michael Sheen plays Hamlet at the Young Vic, London SE21, from 28 October to 21 January 2012; youngvic.org. A limited number of day seats will available to buy in person for each performance (excluding previews)