Sheen shines opposite Mirren's 'Queen'

Sheen shines opposite Mirren's 'Queen'

Being Blair: Until you see it, you don't know there's more to "The Queen" than, well, the Queen.

As it turns out, while Helen Mirren's stunning performance as Elizabeth II is at the heart of Stephen Frears' outstanding drama, there's also a memorable supporting performance by Michael Sheen as British Prime Minister Tony Blair that also promises to attract Oscar and Golden Globes consideration.

Opening today in Los Angeles via Miramax, "The Queen" kicked off the New York Film Festival last Friday and began its New York run the following day. Produced by Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracey Seaward, its original screenplay is by Peter Morgan. A Pathe Productions and Granada presentation in association with Pathe Renn Productions, Bim Distribuzione, France 3 Cinema and Canal+, the Granada Production was executive produced by Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken and Scott Rudin. Besides Mirren and Sheen, "The Queen" also stars James Cromwell as Prince Phillip, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Helen McCrory as the Prime Minister's wife Cherie, Roger Allam as the Queen's deputy private secretary and Tim McMullan as the Prime Minister's press secretary.

When I had an early look at "The Queen" in late August, there was absolutely no mistaking its considerable awards potential in what at this point is a very wide open race. I was especially impressed with Mirren and Sheen's performances because both succeeded in capturing the essence of public figures that we feel we know really well having seen them on television for so many years.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat about the film recently with Sheen, who called from London where he's starring now as David Frost in the sold-out critically acclaimed stage production at London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre of Peter Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon." Opposite him is Frank Langella as the disgraced former president who in 1977 accepted a lucrative offer from Frost to participate in a series of television interviews about the events that led him to resign the presidency.

Sheen previously appeared at the Donmar in the title role of "Caligula," for which he received a best actor Olivier Award nomination. In 2003, he starred in Morgan and Frears' British television movie "The Deal," playing the role of the younger Tony Blair before he became Prime Minister.

When I asked Sheen how he managed to bring Blair to life on the screen so convincingly well, he referred back to when he first tackled the role in "The Deal:" "About four years ago now I did a TV film called 'The Deal,' which was also written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, in which I played Tony Blair. That was the very young Blair before he was the leader of the Labour Party and certainly long before he became Prime Minister. A lot of my research was done then for that. So coming to play him again in 'The Queen,' I had the opportunity to play the character four or five years on from when I played him before. I watched a lot of television video footage of him from around the time of the film and just read more about him and listened to his speeches and things like that and just sort of got my head back into being Prime Minister again."

Is it more difficult to portray a figure as well known as Blair because the public feels they know him well from exposure on television? "Well, it certainly brings its own share of challenges," he replied, "especially with someone like Tony Blair. Over the last few years, I've started playing a lot of, so to speak, real life characters -- people who are still alive or recently dead and who are certainly very familiar to a British audience. I've been doing a lot of that kind of stuff and I've realized that one of the things that you have to deal with is not just how recognizable the character is, but also people's agenda to do with that character. And that comes into play especially with someone like Tony Blair, who's obviously a political figure.

"People are very divided in this country about how they feel about him. So in terms of playing him as a character, people have a lot of very different expectations, hoping (in some cases) that maybe you're going to do a hatchet job on him. People tend to see the performance through the prism of their own feelings towards Blair as a political figure. So that's one of the things you have to deal with. You always sort of expect you're going to have to deal with whether people believe that you sound like him or look like him or behave like him -- whether they'll buy you as him. But the other thing that takes you a bit by surprise is how much of an agenda everybody has in terms of the performance and people's expectations. So that's the quite tricky thing. In a way, I hope -- and I think it's been the case with 'The Queen' so far -- that people sort of see what they want to see in it and that, hopefully, we don't have too much of an agenda or certainly an obvious agenda or a heavy handed agenda in what we do. Everyone's a sort of rounded human being, I hope."

Actually, Blair comes off quite well as Sheen portrays him in "The Queen" and, if anything, is the film's hero. "Well, exactly," he agreed. "I realized fairly early on that one of the roles that Blair fulfills in the film is as audience representative on screen in a funny way and that his relationship to the Queen during the narrative sort of mirrors what the audience's relationship should be in that you start by feeling a bit confused about why she's reacting the way she is (following Princess Diana's deadly car crash in Paris) and may be a bit frustrated and angry about it and (then you) slowly come to understand her position more and more. And I finally end up sort of defending her position, which is what Blair does in the film. So I knew to a certain extent I had to be very careful that I got the tone right with Tony Blair in that if it was too much of an obvious character or an obvious sort of impersonation that would get in the way of the actual role that character has to fulfill for the audience during the film.
"You want them to sort of go on the journey with you rather than be on the outside of it admiring how much like Tony Blair the performance is. So that was part of it. And obviously Tony Blair was at his most popular (at that time). He was never more popular than he was around that period of time. He'd been voted in with a huge mandate from the people, the biggest since the second World War. By that point and especially with (his) People's Princess speech (that captured the essence of Diana's relationship with the British people) he got the mood of the nation exactly right and was never more popular than he was then. So if you were ever going to see Blair in a sympathetic light it would be probably be at that time."

Indeed, in "The Queen" there's no question that Blair gets what's happening and sees that the British people are increasingly out of synch with the Queen's detached attitude towards Diana in the days following her premature death. As the public mourned Diana's loss and Blair famously labeled her as the People's Princess, the Royal Family showed no public signs of grief and, as a result, were rapidly turning public opinion against the already weakened monarchy.

"In a way, it's one of the major themes of the film," Sheen noted. "In terms of British cultural life, the moment when Diana died suddenly created a vacuum in which everyone got to realize that there had been a big shift in British culture. But it had never been crystallized before until that moment where you had the Royal Family representing tradition, loyalty, duty -- all the things that maybe are a cliched idea of what British culture is about -- and then on the other hand you had the new Labour Government and Tony Blair representing a much more finger-on-the-pulse touchy-feely (group that was out) taking polls, making sure what everybody's feeling and adapting in a flexible, fluid kind of way of doing things. Diana, in a way, was the figure who bridged those two worlds. She was part of the Royal Family and yet she was part of the celebrity culture. When she died, suddenly those two worlds slapped into each other and that, I suppose, is what you see the results of in the film."

Although Mirren and Sheen play the Queen and her Prime Minister, they don't really share many scenes together in the movie: "We sort of bookend the film with our monthly meetings. We have the first meeting between them (right after Blair has become Prime Minister) and then the scene at the end of the film (after Blair's helped the Queen weather the storm following Diana's death). Most of our scenes in-between are on the phone (to one another), which of course we weren't in the same room together when we would do it. So it makes it look like we worked together a lot more than we actually did. It's a shame because Helen is just a wonderful actress and a pleasure to be around on and off the set."

None of us, of course, have ever been able to see the Queen in real life situations approximating what's depicted in the film, so how did Frears, Morgan and the actors know how things would have gone and how they should play them? "Well, Peter Morgan is meticulous in his research," Sheen replied. "He spoke to a lot of people who worked around the Queen in the various palaces and he always says he's amazed at how many people in Westminster are prepared to talk to him. They were spilling out with stories, really, rather than him having to try and get them to speak. And that is sort of the magic of those scenes -- that nobody knows what goes on between the Queen and the Prime Minister and it would be terribly indiscreet certainly for the Prime Minister to tell anyone. And in a way that's the fun of it. I think in a way what we did (is that we) both got to know and get a feel for the characters that we were playing and feel like we could sort of inhabit them.

"In terms of behavior in the scenes, themselves, you just react to what's going on in front of you -- and she was so much like the Queen that all I had to do was just react off her, really, in character. So even though the scene is written, obviously, in terms of behavior there's a lot of improvisation that goes into it. And then Stephen and Peter on the set would decide whether they thought that was a good direction to go in or not and we'd sort of play it like that, really."

Asked how Frears worked with his actors, Sheen told me, "Stephen's attention to detail with script is so huge in terms of telling the story, getting the tone right, making sure that these characters are believable and the situations are believable. So he works a lot on the script with Peter, obviously. And Peter is an incredibly collaborative and intuitive writer. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsal before we started filming, which wasn't really getting on your feet and acting at rehearsal, but more about just making sure that we were comfortable with the scenes and comfortable with what we were saying and working on the text. And then hand-in-hand with that was the research obviously going on and working with a voice coach. And then by the time we start filming we're so, hopefully, comfortable with the characters.

"The rehearsal is mainly about getting the tone right (for) a scene. And Stephen is so brilliant at creating the right sort of atmosphere on the set. It's all about the acting. In a lot of films that I've done you feel like the acting is the last thing on people's minds in a way and that it's all about the technical aspect of it. But on a set with Stephen it's always a very creative atmosphere and everyone's very respectful of that, which is wonderful for an actor."

Looking back at when they were in production, what were the toughest challenges? "Well, one of the hardest ones was to do the actual People's Princess speech outside the church," Sheen said, "because that was my first scene. And that was such an important moment for Blair in the film and in terms of the story of the film. So that was quite nerve wracking -- I mean, to come out and do that straight away. And obviously I watched (television footage of) that speech over and over again. He was accused in retrospect of being an opportunist and (it was said) that he sort of acted it badly and that it was sort of forced emotion and this kind of stuff.

"So I had to watch that over and over again because obviously as an actor I had to make a choice as to what was going on at that point. It sort of got to the heart of the character really in that, is he a man who is ruthlessly opportunistic and ambitious or is he a man who is genuinely trying to do the best thing and trying to lead the nation? There's a lot of ambiguity in the character and so that speech was a really important one for me. It sort of sets the tone for the path that I was going to go down in terms of the choices I make for the character."

Sheen also points to his scenes with Mirren as being very challenging. "The first and last scenes of the film are incredibly important," he said. "If I remember, when we were doing the last scene -- and it's the only time I've ever known it with a film director -- we did the scene and we worked on it and we shot a lot of it one way on me and then we turned the cameras around to film Helen. And then, as is often the case for an actor, when you're doing the off lines -- when the camera's not on you -- you sort of relax a lot more and get freed up. And sometimes Stephen would see something in what I was doing when I was off camera and think, 'Actually, I want to get that on camera,' so then he would go, 'Right, stop' and turn the cameras 'round again. That's unheard of as far as I could tell, but that's how meticulous he is and how seriously he takes it and how alert he is to what the actors are doing. So that was very wonderful."

There also is a second Helen in the film, Helen McCrory, who plays Blair's anti-Royalist wife Cherie. "She's a wonderful actress and we've known each other for years and years and years," he said. "We used to run a production together here in Britain so we've known each other for a long time, but it was the first time we actually got to work together. In a way, we already had a head start because we were very comfortable with each other. And, again, there's all kinds of choices that have to be made in terms of how you portray this couple. People only get to see Tony Blair and Cherie Blair in public. Suddenly seeing them in bed together or in their kitchen eating food in front of the TV and all that kind of stuff, we had to be very careful that we showed that, first of all, these are two very intelligent people.

"Because they sort of in some ways argue a bit in the film, there was a lot of care taken to not make it look like they don't get on and (to show) that they have a very loving relationship and yet at the same time are able to disagree about certain things (like the Monarchy). So, again, it was a question of tone and trying to find a way where you have two people who are able to be quite witty with each other, challenge each other's ideas and (do so) in the context of a very kind of loving and supportive relationship. And more than anything else they were just great fun to do. We had a lot of great fun together."

Focusing on Sheen's work right now playing legendary British TV personality David Frost onstage in London in "Frost/Nixon," he pointed out, "It's Peter Morgan's first stage play and it's been a phenomenal success here."

Here, too, in Frost he's playing a character everybody thinks they know for having seen over the years on television. "It's the same sort of process, really," he explained, as it was doing Blair. "I just start by watching as much footage as I can. Because I'm not an impersonator, I'm not an impressionist -- I find it very difficult to do that -- I have to just completely surround myself with footage of the character and read about him and listen to him over and over again, waiting for one moment where I suddenly make an imaginative connection with the person. To begin with, it's not about trying to listen to how he sounds or watch how he moves or anything like that. It's just literally waiting for something to catch my imagination and suddenly I find instead of being on the outside looking at him, I'm suddenly on the inside looking out imaginatively.

"And then I can start to build it up from the inside and, hopefully, by the end process I am sounding like him and sort of have his mannerisms, but they're rooted in something psychological and emotional instead of being from the outside. And that's the great sort of pleasure of doing something like this. These are great characters to play. I could, I suppose now, interview myself -- that would be Frost interviewing Blair, actually. But that show is still to come."

Has he had any feedback from either Blair or Frost about how he portrays them? "Not from Blair," he replied. "I think it would probably be not politic for Blair to pass any comments on it because then he would obviously (have to) answer questions about things that specifically happened in the film and I don't think he really wants to get into a conversation. But Frost has been to see the show twice and has given me the seal of approval, which is fantastic. And I'm sure no doubt he'll be here again soon, as well. It's at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre at the moment. I think we're just sort of hammering out all the details of a West End run and then, potentially, a Broadway run, hopefully."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Apr. 4, 1988's column: "In this year's Oscar derby there are those who argue convincingly on behalf of 'The Last Emperor,' 'Hope and Glory' and 'Moonstruck' to win best picture. Of the three, it's 'Emperor' that appears to be the front-runner, although where the Academy is concerned anything may well be possible and often is.

"'Emperor' has been honored with nine Oscar nominations, including such key categories as picture, director and screenplay...'I don't think you ever expect that,' (producer Jeremy Thomas) told me. 'It's a very nice gratification and an affirmation that you're on the right track. It's never happened to me before, this sort of recognition from the Academy.'

"Was there a point at which he began to realize things were evolving quite positively? 'When Bernardo (director Bernardo Bertolucci) brought me the project at the very beginning I felt it was always very, very important,' he replied. 'It's very seldom in your life that you have a subject as rich as this covering such an incredible period of history with a character that's so fascinating...'

"Getting 'Emperor' made was not easy. 'It took a long time to make a film in the People's Republic of China, which was on the other side of the world from where we live in London,' he explained. 'And the film was very expensive -- it was $25 million -- for an independent film, possibly the most expensive independent film that's been made to date. It took a lot of belief from our bankers to finance this film.'

"To get it made Thomas brought in financing partners: 'I had been working for a number of years with a merchant bank in London and they headed a syndicate of banks. Eventually five merchant banks were involved. They put up the total amount of money to make the film. Then we sold the film territory by territory, some of them before (production) started and some of them near the time we completed the film...All the rights for the whole world have now been sold out except for some Iron Curtain countries...'

"Was arranging domestic distribution for 'Emperor' difficult? 'When I first came to try to sell the film in America I couldn't really get any proper bidders,' Thomas pointed out. 'People were very interested in the film, but I couldn't achieve the number I needed. Ever since I announced the film, Hemdale had been very interested in it. I announced the film in 1984 and Hemdale was saying, 'If you want to, we want to buy the film. We'd like to distribute the film in America.

"'Hemdale came in with a payment upon the delivery of the film, which was substantial enough that it gave the film life at the beginning. And then they, in turn, passed the distribution rights on to Columbia Pictures.'"

Update: "Emperor" won nine Oscars in 1988, including best picture and director. It also received five Golden Globe nominations, winning in four categories including best motion picture - drama and best director. The film, which opened in limited release in November 1987, went wide Apr. 15, 1988 and grossed $3.4 million at 877 theaters ($3,875 per theater). It ended up doing nearly $44 million at the domestic boxoffice, a relatively modest total for a movie that had been so successful on the awards front.