Frost/Nixon's Sheen: Character Chameleon

by Anne Thompson
November 5, 2008 5:24 AM
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Frost460It's an honorable profession, charactor actor. No shame in it.

Brit theater star Michael Sheen is one of those actors still pushing to break out to leading man status. He thought he might get there with Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, the ultimate two-hander. The 1977 television face-off between cheery TV host David Frost (desperately seeking massive ratings) and shamed and embittered ex-president Richard M. Nixon (desperately seeking redemption) was first dramatized by writer Peter Morgan (The Queen) for theater, then screen.

Director Ron Howard decided to keep the London and Broadway stars for the movie. Somehow, what played as an equal match between two fierce adversaries on stage winds up dominated by the external Langella on-screen--partly because Sheen felt he needed to keep things subtle and internal for the cameras.

Somehow Sheen got lost in the Oscar shuffle last time around as Prime Minister Tony Blair in Morgan and Stephen Frears' The Queen, which wound up grabbing six Oscar noms and one win (for best actress Helen Mirren). This time, both Langella and Sheen will be in the hunt for best actor Gold.

But Oscar-blogger Tom O'Neil at The LAT's The Envelope is pushing Sheen to accept supporting actor status. It may not seem fair--without him, Langella couldn't do what he does as Nixon-- but it's likely the strongest shot Sheen has to score an Oscar nom. "These are pundits, not voters," says Sheen's PR rep. "He's a lead, always has been and always will be."

When I saw Sheen over the summer, the Welsh-born actor was wearing long hair extensions for his starring role as a powerful werewolf leader in Patrick Tatopoulous's Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans, which Screen Gems will release in January. Bizarrely, the franchise was launched by the director Len Weisman, now married to Underworld's star vampire Kate Beckinsale, Sheen's ex-girlfriend and the mother of his nine-year-old daughter.

Underworld underscores Sheen's willingness to embrace "versatility," he says. "I enjoy the challenge of playing lots of different characters and having people accept me as that character." But there's a downside to that approach, he admits: you never create a brand identity.

The trick with Frost/Nixon was taking the role Sheen played to such acclaim on the London stage and recalibrating for Broadway audiences the jetset playboy TV host who was far more famous in Britain. Nixon was familiar to both audiences, but "in America, I couldn't take anything for granted," Sheen says. "We did a lot of rewriting, taking out British references that wouldn't track. It became broader as we tried to get audiences to care about this man."

When Working Title and Imagine's film adaptation was announced, Sheen was the first man in, the day after Frost/Nixon opened on Broadway, followed by Langella (after a brief flirtation with Warren Beatty). The Queen's Oscar push helped Sheen to land the role, he thinks, after a year of doing Frost on stage.

As challenging as the transition from London to Broadway was the one from stage to screen. "It's a mistake to try to make things that work on stage work on film," Sheen says. "There's a huge difference in presentation. In the theater, you're going to the audience, you're subtly dominating their attention. Film is about listening, being in the moment, trusting that they will find you. It's counterintuitive. In film, presentation is death. You have to be there, trust that you know the character with so much richness and detail, and let the camera find it. I had to let go of everything and do nothing. It's tempting to play to the audience of 60 people around you on set. But you're finished if you do."

Sheen remains in demand for a wide range of roles. Already in the can is yet another movie written by Morgan, the Brit soccer flick The Damned United, directed by Tom Hooper (John Adams). In it Sheen plays an outrageous, controversial, alcoholic, anti-heroic, arrogant, charismatic soccer coach. "Peter has a knack for making subjects accessible," he says. "Initially, Frost/Nixon and The Queen were both a hard sell."

Back when they shot the TV movie The Deal, the first time Sheen played Tony Blair, Frears talked about finding the right tone, Sheen says. "One foot out of place and it would all fall apart." With The Queen, "we had the confidence that we knew what we were doing."

Next he shoots Gregor Jordan's Unthinkable, opposite Samuel L. Jackson, and is set to play a role in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

[Originally appeared on Variety.com]

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