Q & A
The great pretender
Frost/Nixon star Michael Sheen talks about playing an iconic English soccer coach in The Damned United
Last Updated: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 | 1:25 PM ET
By Greig Dymond, CBC News
This article originally ran during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
In person, Michael Sheen doesn’t really look like Tony Blair or David Frost. But talking to the Welsh actor, who was sporting a jacket and tie during our interview at the Toronto film festival, I had a hard time not thinking about those British icons.
Sheen and screenwriter Peter Morgan would seem to have hit upon a winning formula. Here’s how it works: Morgan delivers a first-rate script about a quirky corner of modern history, and Sheen brings a real-life character to life, absolutely inhabiting that person.
It started in 2003 with The Deal, a made-for-TV film about the toxic relationship between Tony Blair and finance minister Gordon Brown; Sheen landed on North American radar by playing the Oxford-educated British prime minister again in The Queen (2006). Then came Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon, which starred Frank Langella as the disgraced ex-U.S. president, facing off against swinging TV host David Frost (interpreted by Sheen as a combination of Austin Powers and Mike Wallace). The play begat last year’s hit film from Ron Howard, which featured the same pair of actors.
Now, Sheen is back in yet another Peter Morgan script. But this time, the character isn’t posh and plummy like Blair or Frost. In The Damned United, Sheen plays Brian Clough, a English football coach who became an icon in the 1970s with his outsized ego and ruthless ambition. Based on the novel by David Peace, the film is about Clough’s disastrous 44-day stint as the head of the Leeds United squad. I spoke to Sheen about his soccer background, the legend of Brian Clough and why doing research about cult leaders seemed especially apt for this role.
Q: There are so many talented people associated with this film, but can you tell me why you wanted to play this role?
A: First and foremost, it was because of the character, Brian Clough. My first contact with the project was when Stephen Frears [director of The Queen ] came to see Frost/Nixon on stage in London. We went out for dinner afterwards and he said, “I’ve found your next part. I’ve got this book, called The Damned United. Go and read it.” I read it the next day, and thought, Yeah, I absolutely want to do this. Then the writer Peter Morgan got involved, and he started working on the script. So really, first of all, it was the opportunity to play that man, because there was no script involved at that point.
I thought what David Peace had done in the novel was really extraordinary, but very dark. As Peter was working on the script, it started to become clear that it was going to be not as dark, it was going to open up a bit and be a bit lighter and funnier. So the fact that it was Peter writing it, it was two sides of my life – football, acting – my two big obsessions coming together, that’s part of what was so enjoyable about doing this film.
Eventually, Stephen didn’t direct it. Tom Hooper did. Tom had a great outsider’s eye in a way because he had absolutely no interest in football. And then actors like Jim Broadbent, Tim Spall, Colm Meaney, it was kind of like a best-of-British cast, in a way. And also it’s about a period of time in British history, I suppose – certainly in sporting history – that seems a world away now. And yet it was just 30 years ago. It’s something that will never return. It was before football became corporate. There was something pure about it, and Clough symbolizes that in a lot of ways.
Q: There’s a scene in the film where you get to demonstrate your footie skills. Can you tell me about your own soccer history?
A: I grew up, as many kids do in Britain, totally obsessed with football. All I did was play football. Before I went to school, whilst I was at school, after school finished, on weekends, that’s all I did. And when I got to the age of 12, I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal, to play for their youth team and then work my way through, but that would’ve meant going to live in London when I was a kid and my mom and dad relocating as well, so my Dad said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” I still love football, but by the time I was 14, I was getting into acting. Football kind of went away after that. But I still love it.
Q: Clough’s ego, ambition and desire for revenge seem almost Shakespearean to me. How much of a legend is he in England? Were you aware of him growing up?
A: Everybody was aware of him — you couldn’t not be aware of him. He went way beyond football and sport in our country and became one of the icons of the ’70s, into the ’80s. His achievements in football are totally unsurpassed. He was able to take teams that were nowhere, in the lower divisions, and turn them into championship-winning teams – winning the European Cup twice, as he did with Nottingham Forest. So not only were his achievements huge, but he also tapped into something that the British love, which is the underdog. In a sense, he was the ultimate underdog, but he didn’t act like an underdog – he acted like he was God. Someone said to him, “When you die and you go to heaven and meet God, what will you say to him?” And he said, “You’re in my chair!”
He manipulated the media in a way that nobody had done before him, and nobody has done as well since. He just was the most outrageous, the most outspoken. He seemed to have no fear, he had opinions, just for the sake of having opinions, just so he could outrage people. Clough was incredibly sharp, witty and funny – also very left-wing, very political. He thought about maybe standing for Parliament as a Labour MP for a while. Clough was kind of a folk hero in a way in Britain. You loved him or hated him, and since he died [in 2004], even the people who hated him now love him as well, because they recognize that’s he’s a once-in-a-lifetime character.
Q: But Clough had a real sense of fair play. Where does that fit into his mythology?
A: Again, that’s part of the folklore, the folk-hero thing. He had a vision of purity, of beauty for the game. It’d be different if Clough as a character was all about winning by any means. He embodies “the beautiful game,” as it’s called in Britain. He said – whether we believe him or not – “I’d rather my teams lost but played beautiful football, than won by playing ugly [violent] football.” He was also concerned with discipline, that his team always looked neat, they always were respectful and polite to the referee.
People said that you can’t win games like that, it’s all very well to be able to play like that, but you can’t actually win anything and he proved them completely wrong. There’s something very powerful and beautiful about that, and I think that’s another reason why people have so much affection for him. He proved that everything you hope is true about life can be true.
Q: On one level it’s a great impersonation, but you go much deeper than that. How did you research him, get into his mindset?
A: It’s the same with all the real-life people I’ve played. There’s a basic way that I work on it — there’s no trick to it, it’s just months and months of research. Just immersing myself in the world of the person, like a sponge. Because I know then when I come to film, I want to be able to at any point, just react spontaneously as the characters would react, as they would do things. So that means there’s a whole process that has to happen before I start filming. I want to be able to just be in the moment. So that means that the emphasis is on the work I do beforehand. I’ll watch everything, I’ll read everything about them, I’ll talk to people.
And then I’ll go off on little tangents about things that just occur to me. For instance, with Clough, I started reading about cult leaders because I could see – the more research I did on how he was with teams – I could see that it was like a cult, really. He would take these players that had been rejects on other teams…you know, he took a player that was fat or players that were seen as only being able to kick the ball with one foot. So he would take these players and then he would break them down, then build them up in his own image, and then demand total respect. They were frightened of him. He was a ferocious man.
Q: Anger always seemed to be bubbling just under the surface with Clough.
A: What I liked about him as a character is that he’s got so many contradictions. On the one hand, he’s capable of huge generosity, and people really loved him. On the other hand, they were very frightened of him. He could be very cruel, very frightening. And very dark. In his later years, alcohol really ravaged him. And that was obviously a factor throughout his career, but one of the central things for me about him is that he was a player first of all, he was a goal scorer. And he got injured and his career came to an end. Not only is there all the frustration of that in him, but he felt that he was very badly treated by the management of that team. And so there was a kind of [life-long] vendetta against management in football from then on. And the way he is as you see him in the film, with the chairman of teams and boards of directors, he has a real hatred of these people, a real determination to beat them. And I think that dark, obsessive quality is always in danger of taking over.
Q: Are there points of comparison with any other real-life characters you’ve played?
A: Something that I’m always drawn to, especially with what Peter Morgan writes, is the idea of someone who has a very public image, or has something going on at the surface, and underneath there’s something very different. So, I tend to play – in Peter’s scripts – characters who seem on the surface to be very charming, to have great facility, great confidence and to be ambitious, but underneath there’s a kind of insecurity and anxiety and something very different going on.
I can see that Blair, Frost and Clough all have a very particular public persona, but what’s going on underneath is actually very different. Frost, who seemed to be very confident, very laid back, actually has a huge anxiety and insecurity going on underneath. Blair, for someone who seems so charming and ambitious in a way, has something quite jagged underneath. And what I found most interesting about Clough is for someone who was known for being arrogant, opinionated and smug, I looked for that insecurity — where is that anxiety, where is that fear going on underneath? So I can see there are similarities between them.
The Damned United opens in Montreal and Toronto on Oct. 16, in Vancouver on Oct. 30 and throughout the fall in other Canadian cities.
Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.