Interview: Michael Sheen discusses the delicate balance of 'Masters of Sex'
Actor discusses the process of crafting his version of William Masters
I've interviewed Michael Sheen twice in the past 10 months, but it also feels like I've interviewed two different Michael Sheens.
Last November, I sat down with a gregarious, mustachioed, wild-haired Michael Sheen, wearing a red smoking jacket, to talk about his final time playing Volturi ringleader Aro in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2." In that interview, Sheen was full of quips and laughter.
This August, at the Beverly Hilton, I chatted with a clean-shaven Michael Sheen, hair neatly coiffed, dark suit perfectly fitted. In this interview for Showtime's "Masters of Sex," Sheen was erudite, introspective and effusive on his craft.
Probably it makes sense to find light amusement when you're talking about an ageless, telepathic vampire in a blockbuster YA franchise.
And probably it makes sense to be thoughtful and, at times, fiercely protective when you're promoting a high-minded Showtime drama about pioneering human sexuality researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. In the drama, which dazzlingly avoids coming off as exploitative despite the titillating subject matter, Sheen plays the intriguingly internalized Masters opposite Lizzy Caplan's more outgoing Johnson.
For Sheen, it's a performance crafted from precise line-readings, precise mannerisms and brief moments of telling openness. In our conversation, Sheen sets me straight on the differences in playing internalized and externalized characters. He talks about the challenges of setting the right tone on the set and the role that he played in establishing that tone.
I think it's a fascinating interview, even when Sheen was telling me I was confused about things.
Click through for the full Q&A.
HitFix: So I have memories of when I was probably 13 or 14, going and looking for a copy of "Human Sexual Response," working off the assumption that if it had "sexual response" in the title, it might be sexy and then reading a few pages and realizing that it really was not...
Michael Sheen: [Chuckles.] Oh yeah.
HitFix: Did you go to that part of the source material? Did you look at the actual research that came out of this period of his life?
Michael Sheen: Oh yeah. Of course! Yeah. Yeah.
HitFix: What does that give you about this character? What does reading that and seeing the way that his mind works do to help you craft the character?
Michael Sheen: I think it was practical, insomuch as it was a subject that was so taboo at the time and so controversial as a study that in order to be accepted into the mainstream, it had to be very scientific. So I think in order to create a respectability for the study, I think they tried to make it as dry as possible. That was the whole point of it. Otherwise, they could have spiced it up or something, but then it wouldn't be acceptable, the scientific community wouldn't allow it. It was already going to be very difficult. He was a very pragmatic man in that sense. It also played into him as a man as well, where he wasn't the most obviously kind of user-friendly person, but I think it was mainly a pragmatic thing.
HitFix: Ah. I wasn't sure if you could read the book to try to get any sense of his voice or sensibility were actually like.
Michael Sheen: Not really. Like I say, it plays into him as a personality anyway, but it's when things come together like that that things take off, I suppose. So the fact that he was the right person at the right time with the right qualities that lent themselves to it gaining respectability and all that kind of stuff is all part of the serendipity of it. But yeah, if there was a whiff of cheap, exploitative sensationalism about the study then it would have been thrown out, immediately. There was no way that it would be accepted. That's part of what we see in the series is at a certain point, without giving anything away, it isn't responded to in the way that they hope it will be and it's described as pornography and all that kind of stuff. So I think they were very clear that... Or he was very clear that they had to anticipate that and make it as absolutely bone-dry as he possibly could and reduce it as much as he possibly could. Now, of course, what's interesting is that it suited him to try to separate sex from all the complexities of human interaction, which wasn't his strong point, so of course it suits him to get rid of all that and deny all that and say that there's no validity to that. He was a man who, certainly as I play him, is a very compartmentalized man. He likes to keep things very separate, but life doesn't work that way and so I think as soon as you try to create a kind of false barrier between certain things, life has to come and strip that barrier away and that is a very painful process for someone. I think that's what we see in the series.
HitFix: How much of his compartmentalizing and his desire for control can you relate to in your own process as an actor?
Michael Sheen: What I've learned is that the good vein of work comes from trying to attain a balance between control and loss of control. So on the one hand you've got the kind of research that you do, the preparatory work, which is very much a controlled aspect where you're building up a kind of analytical, intellectual understanding of the role and the character and what makes him tick and all of that kind of work. But then, when you actually get on-set and you start acting, you have to let go of all that. You can't play your research. You have to just trust that it's there and that it'll inform what you do and then you have to be in the moment. You have to give up control. So the interplay between control and the lack of control is always, I think, the interesting area as an actor. And actors tend to fall more one side or the other. You've got the actors who like to do lots of research and work and then are a bit restricted by it when they come to act and then you've got actors who want to fly by the seat of their pants and are very unpredictable and come up with anything and are very spontaneous and yet it lacks discipline and rigor and doesn't really hold up to examination. I think it's the balance between the two that is the big challenge for an actor.
HitFix: Does it balance change for you part-to-part? Looking at your work, you have some roles where it does feel more controlled, where it feels more internalized. And then you also have the roles where it looks like you're having a ball and anything goes.
Michael Sheen: I think you're confusing what comes off a character, what the appearance of a character is, with what it requires to bring that about as an actor. My job as an actor is to not let you know how I'm doing it, is to not let you see the wheels turning underneath. If a character appears to be a controlled character, that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm being any more controlled as an actor doing it. I'm still looking for exactly the same balance. Oftentimes people, I think, make the mistake of seeing a character who appears spontaneous and very larger-than-life and very animated and think that that's the most fun to play. It's not! No character is more fun to play than any other character, as far as I'm concerned. The way a character expresses himself is as a result of a dynamic that is going on underneath the surface. That's always challenging as an actor. How it expresses itself bears sorta no relation to how much you enjoy it or not. For me. So no, regardless of what the character appears to be like, the process for creating that character and expressing that character is always the same for me.
HitFix: Is there any difference in leaving the character behind? In fullness of immersion on and off the set or before or after production?
Michael Sheen: I think that's something that is more, as I've found anyway, is more to do with experience. As I've gotten older and I've done more work and I've changed as a human being then it's become easier, I think, to let go of that kind of thing and find a way that's a healthy relationship towards the work that you're doing, rather than kind of carrying over into other areas. I feel like the more completely you invest in what you're doing at the time, the easier it is to let go of it, funnily enough. It's often when that process is blocked in some way that it needs to manifest itself in your life somehow as well. Whereas if you can completely let go of it in the moment of doing it, then it doesn't need to somehow find expression in other areas of your life.
HitFix: With Masters, there is some video footage that exists so you could study and see how he moves and talks and whatnot. How much of that did you do and how much did you just want to build the character?
Michael Sheen: It was very little. It's not like playing David Frost or Tony Blair or someone who's very, very -- certainly for a British audience -- very, very recognizable. I didn't feel that I needed to address that so much here, which is good, because that's always the least important aspect of it when I've played a real person before. That's sorta just like a little game, where you know you have to kinda deal with that because that's the initial thing where an audience will go, "Well, he doesn't look like him" or "He doesn't sound like him." Ultimately that's not the thing that's gonna remain with an audience or be satisfying to an audience. I think it's more to do with kind of going on a journey with that character and feeling able to do that. So this character, it was good, because I felt I didn't have to. That's sometimes a distraction. With this character it was more to do with looking at his life and who he was and what he did and trying to kinda work out what maybe was motivating him and what might be the interesting areas to explore this character and whether that's possible, whether the things that I connected with and that piqued my interest and my imagination, whether they could work within the parameters of the framework of his life that is known and that's the kind of area that I was more interested in.
HitFix: When you have a character like this where you know what he's going to be doing five years later or 10 years later, is there any risk or danger or threat of playing the future, of projecting that onto him?
Michael Sheen: Yeah! Well, I don't think it's a threat. I think it's important. I think you need to look at a life holistically and try and understand why he became what he became and why he did what he did and what that journey is for him. So obviously the more you know the entire life, the more that can help. So I don't see it as a threat, really, no.
HitFix: But if you know, for example, the destinations of Masters' relationship with Johnson, do you approach those scenes in the beginning with that knowledge anywhere in your mind? Or can you completely elide that?
Michael Sheen: Yes, I think you can approach it with that knowledge in mind, but that knowledge only informs your understanding of what they're doing in the moment, so that can only be an impediment if you had a very kind of incomplete understanding of how life works.
HitFix: And for an actor, that could be an impediment.
Michael Sheen: I guess, or just not a very clever person. You know? If that means that because you know they get married down the road then they're in love from the beginning? It just doesn't work like that. So no, I'm not so worried about that. Knowing that that is a possibility, that is something that becomes a possibility for them eventually gives you certain options when you're coming to make choices of how you play certain scenes. But it doesn't overpower in any way. It doesn't dictate that you therefore have to play *this* in *this* way. It just adds to the overall color of it.
On Page 2, Sheen discusses working with Lizzy Caplan and pilot director John Madden, as well stting as the tone on set.