Michael Sheen on Beautiful Boy, Battling 'Unlife' and the Art of Preparation

sheen_bello_beautiful_boy630.jpgThis week, for the second time in a month, Welsh stage and screen veteran Michael Sheen arrives in theaters playing an American with Beautiful Boy. It's about as thematically opposite from his other recent opening -- the light Woody Allen jewel Midnight in Paris -- as you can get: The drama traces the fraught trajectory of married couple Bill (Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) in the aftermath of their son's college shooting rampage and suicide.

Writer-director Shawn Ku's debut feature goes a few places you might expect and a lot more you probably wouldn't; Sheen spoke about the film, his role, his diligence at character "fusion," and the dangers of overpreparation.

This is kind of an unusual role for you. How did it come to you?

I just got sent the script, and I read it. I asked my agent, "What's it about?" Just so I got a sense of it before it comes. And just the description of it, you're like, "Oh, God. [Rolls eyes] Do I really have to read this?" And I started reading it, and almost from page one, I thought, "Oh, I didn't expect that. That's kind of interesting." I just found the whole thing was so originally conceived and always surprising and never does what you think it's going to do. Not that it's a twisty-turny thriller. Emotionally and psychologically and tonally it's very different from what I expected. I thought it was very refreshing in that way: that it took a risk. Taking a very dramatic subject and treating it in a very, very realistic way and not going for a neat, emotionally wrought piece. It's very underplayed; it's about what's not said and what's not done, really, more than anything else.

Of course, you have a first-time filmmaker as well, which is another layer of uncertainty. How did you decide you wanted to go all in with him on a piece like this?

You just read the piece, and if it resonates and connects -- which it did -- and it's different and original and good, then you meet the director. Not in every case do you respond to the material and think that the director in the right person to do it. But meeting with Shawn and hearing how he wanted to approach it all chimed with how I felt.

Like what?

Well, we talked about the idea of all those things I said, I guess. Sometimes you see things in a script, and it doesn't necessarily mean the director sees the same things. And if you think you're going to be making a different film, then that's not gonna work. He very much felt the same way I felt about it and liked the same things that I liked, and therefore the way that we would approach it in terms of the performance was very similar. I like how personally invested he was, and how prepared to draw on his own life he was in order to talk about it. He was trusting in me in terms of what he was telling me, so that makes you think, "Oh, I can take the risk to trust him and go on this journey myself."

Another big part of it was Maria. I've been a big admirer of her work, so meeting with her and talking about it just felt right. It just felt like a good chemical mix.

There really is a wide range of dynamics between Bill and Kate, from estrangement to exile to intimacy--

Right from the beginning, the idea is that this is not a film about a happy couple that gets torn apart by tragic events. That would be a much more conventional way of doing it, I suppose. That they're on the verge of splitting up in the beginning, before any of this happens, is the first kind of unexpected thing that made me think, "That's a really interesting journey to go on." I thought that in terms of my character, Bill, he's in this weird kind of limbo -- this... unlife, or anti-life kind of thing where he can't make any decisions. He can't commit to anything; he feels totally stuck. I thought that was interesting. And the journey he goes on is eventually to make a sort of committed statement about something.

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In spite of everything, these two are in this together after the tragedy occurs. It's like The Defiant Ones; they're outflanking or fleeing the press, trying to find any escape valve from what's happened.

For them and the audience, the entire experience of the film is as a result of their isolation -- because of everything that's around them. It is hard to think of any other situation where that might happen, other than maybe them being bank robbers, like Bonnie and Clyde or whatever. The idea of them being totally isolated and in that pressure cooker all time -- so that when they do get to the motel, something releases... If they weren't fugitives, it would be difficult to keep that there, I suppose.

Maria and I talked about it, and we tried to build up the life of our characters as much as we could with each other and then individually with Shawn -- so that you can at least get these people in the right place to begin with, then wind them up, let them go and see what happens. Because we mostly shot it chronologically, there was very little discussion between me and Maria about what we might do in a scene or anything like that. It was just trying to make sure we started them in the right place and could work off each other. Which, to be honest, is how I felt about most of the things I've done when they've worked very well, whether it's Frost/Nixon or The Queen: You just try to get all the elements in there in the beginning, and then it's all about the other person. I just sit opposite Frank or Helen or Maria or whomever it might be, and I've done my work. You just forget it and go with what they're doing. I think that's when the best work happens. That's when I'm happiest -- rather then, "I'll do this, you do that." Just let it be what it is.

Organically, I guess?

Yeah, something like that. Let the story tell itself. Sometimes, if you haven't done enough work, you can't get out of the way because you're so scared.You haven't done enough work; you don't know what's going on. You don't feel like you have enough ideas; you have to do something. You have to be interesting. Whereas if you do the work, you have the confidence to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Is there such a thing as doing too much work?

Oh, definitely. Yeah. God, yeah. Beforehand, you mean? Oh, yes. But only if it becomes something that you start to wear on your sleeve too much. I suppose... no. You can't do too much work. It's just the relationship to the work you have and the kind of work you do. When I did things like Damned United or whatever, I spent months and months and months working on [Brian Clough]. Not working on how I was going to do scenes or whatever, but just understanding who this man is or trying to find the elements of what was there. Then you've got this very broad palette to draw from. Then, when I'm there in the moment, I don't have to be going away and thinking, "What would he do in this moment?" I want to be like I'm just being myself. Because I've done all that work, it just feels like improvising.

That's funny, because David Frost's downfall in his first interview with Nixon was the agenda he developed from preparing the wrong way.

I guess it's exactly the same for an interviewer, whoever you might be. If you come into something with no preparation at all, then you can just go with what's happening in front of you, but it's probably going to be fairly aimless. There's not going to be any underlying structure informing it. But if you overprepare, it can't ever catch fire. It can't come alive. It's exactly the same balance for acting. In the moment of a scene, I don't want to be thinking about what I'm going to do. I just want to be able to react in the moment. But that's not enough: I need to react in the moment as the character, not as me. That fusing of the character with yourself has to already have happened. There's design, and there's spontaneity.

This is an edited version of a longer interview published during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.

Beautiful Boy opens Friday in limited release.

[Top photo: WireImage]



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