‘It’s exciting’: Michael Sheen on Sydney, success and the best show on TV
With Amadeus, Sheen returns to the play that made him a star - but this time he’s playing the bad guy.
By Robert Moran
In the Sydney Opera House's massive green room, where ballerinas lunch and tradies slumber, Michael Sheen is keeping me waiting while he, hilariously, plays tourist.
Having just landed in Sydney mere days ago, Sheen - along with his partner, Swedish actress Anna Lundberg, and their two young daughters, three-year-old Lyra and five-month-old Mabli - is taking a grand tour of the building that'll be his office for the next few months, through Christmas and New Year's and, notably, the FIFA World Cup, where his beloved Wales will compete in the tournament for the first time in 64 years, all while he stars as the infamous 18th-century composer Antonio Salieri in a new production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.
Somehow it's Sheen's first trek to Australia, let alone performance here, and he's understandably keen to take in the sights. "This is quite a tourist-y area?" he asks - artfully dishevelled in a baggy blue suit and sneakers, hair and beard leonine and greying - as he peers through the windows of his dressing room, across the forecourt of one of the most famous architectural landmarks on Earth. "Oh yep, it's tourist-y," I offer, ever the insightful local. The tender inanities of small-talk, making the world go around.
Sheen and his family are holing up in Balmain during the course of their stay, and there's at least one thing he's looking forward to seeing while here: Bluey, on repeat. "We watch a lot of Bluey," says Sheen, in the kind of lilting drawl that sounds like it should permanently be singing Michael Finnegan. "It's exciting to be where Bluey is."
Not sure what I was expecting, but it's fun to know that parents are the same everywhere, even if they're intimidating actor types. Sheen, dubbed "the most exciting actor of his generation" as far back as 1992, an acclaimed interpreter of Shakespeare and, um, Tony Blair, just wants to watch Bluey. "I mean, I think it's brilliant, it's the best show on television," he adds. "We've laughed and cried at Bluey quite often; it's genuinely fantastic."
At 53, Sheen's decision to come to Australia, like most career decisions with two little children in tow (he also has a 23-year-old daughter, Lily, with former partner Kate Beckinsale), was driven by logistics as well as inspiration.
"When I was younger it was just, 'Am I into this? Right! When are we going?', but more and more, as time goes on, it's about the practical things," he explains. "The idea of someone saying, 'So you're gonna go to Australia and do a play', I would have thought it ridiculous: 'No, of course I'm not gonna do that.' But the timing was perfect. I haven't worked all year, we get to go as a family and have a wonderful time in Sydney, and I'll be at this amazing, iconic place to do this play that I love on such a huge scale. It's exciting."
Directed by Craig Ilott and featuring over 40 performers including actors, opera singers and musicians from The Metropolitan Orchestra, plus costumes by Romance Was Born, the production is being staged as part of the Opera House's 50th birthday celebrations and the relaunch of its revamped Concert Hall. Still, the presence of an actor of Sheen's calibre is a coup for the Opera House, not least because of his storied history with the play.
"As any kind of artist, if you have any worth, you're constantly questioning whether the work you're doing is as meaningful as it can be." Michael Sheen
A fictionalised account of the tense relationship between an arrogant, upstart Mozart and an ageing Salieri consumed with envy over the former's gifts, the play might be best known from Milos Forman's 1984 Oscar-winning film adaptation, but was first staged in 1979. In 1999, after a six-month run at London's Old Vic, Sheen made his Broadway debut in the play as Mozart, opposite David Suchet's Salieri.
At the time, the New York Times raved about a "30-year-old Welshmen named Michael Sheen who projects the kind of air-warping waves given off by blacktop in the August sun", adding: "Attention producers: if you're looking for someone to give physical credence to the romantic idea of the flame that consumes itself, Mr Sheen is definitely your man." Needless to say, the role "broke" Sheen into Hollywood consciousness.
"It feels like a long time ago now, but I got my manager and my agent off the back of it so that obviously made a big difference. Right away I was being put up for things," Sheen recalls. "I'd been doing well as a young theatre actor, about as well as I could be doing within theatre, so I'd never thought much about doing TV or film, really. But then, because of Amadeus, suddenly it just opened up that space."
Twenty-odd years on he's back under Amadeus′ sway, but on the opposite side of its generational and moral divide. Sheen says even while playing Mozart all those years ago he'd had a "little eye on the part of Salieri for one day", noting the idiosyncratic demands of the role, which sees Salieri, the play's villain and narrator, talking to the audience as confidant and friend.
"Peter Brook, the great theatre-maker, talked about the 'living theatre': you're not just seeing something that was alive once being dragged out like a carcass onto the stage and you're all just sort of sitting there and respecting it; you're in that room and it feels like something is happening in front of you right now," Sheen says. "As an actor, to be able to talk to the audience really gives you the opportunity to be alive to what's going on in the moment, and that's what it should feel like all the time."
Sheen was also drawn to the ideas the role allows an, ahem, experienced actor to explore regarding the meaning of artistic success. Salieri - well ensconced in Vienna's cultural establishment for much of the play, as the respected court composer to Emperor Joseph II - goes mad realising his success is meaningless in the face of Mozart who has what he really wants, which is pure, godly inspiration.
The 'scary' new role bringing Michael Sheen to Australia
"Coming to this part now, at the age I am, it's a different prospect. When I played Mozart, I was a young actor, full of excitement and desire and energy, with everything to prove: 'Here I am, I'm gonna show you what I can do.' And now, well, I've had success," Sheen says.
"But I think as any kind of artist, if you have any worth, you're constantly questioning whether the work you're doing is as meaningful as it can be. Is it satisfying to you? Are you fulfilling the potential of the younger actor that you were? Would that younger actor be proud of what you're doing now, or would they feel let down and disappointed? All those questions are there in the role of Salieri."
Is Sheen suggesting he's felt the same professional crises of confidence that he sees in Salieri's response to Mozart?
"What I'm saying is that any artist who's worth anything has to have that crisis every day - otherwise what's the point of doing it?" he says, his onstage intensity peeking through.
"This is not just a job for me. If I wanted a job, I'd go and stack shelves somewhere. The challenge of doing something that is more vocational is there's always the pressure that it turns into a job. And so the privilege of being able to do something that's not a job, that is your passion, is balanced by the responsibility of having to question yourself every day: 'Am I turning this into a job? Or am I still living out the potential of what I think it can be?'"
"When I look back at my career, some of the most meaningful things to me are the things that weren't necessarily recognised as such." Michael Sheen
Does he feel that in every role? I can understand such self-scrutiny around projects you're particularly invested in, but surely some roles (my favourite, for example, his robot bartender in Passengers) are just jobs?
"That's not just in every role, that's every day! That's everything. Otherwise what's the point? Go and do something else. Because there are plenty of people who'd like to be doing what I'm doing," Sheen replies, and I feel I've angered him. He returns to the play.
"Mozart represents someone who doesn't get the recognition of his time and the establishment and the society, whereas Salieri does - but now, no one gives a shit about what Salieri created! Mozart will live forever. So in your time, the fact that you have success is meaningless."
So all the praise Sheen's received from his peers, those awards nominations he's accumulated - the BAFTA for The Queen (2006), the Emmy for The Special Relationship (2010), the Golden Globe for Masters of Sex (2013), not to mention the endless stage accolades - none of them count for much?
"It absolutely does, it's very beautiful," he says. "But at the same time, I don't think there's anyone who'd say the ultimate mark of success is to have that success reflected back to you by your culture. Look at the greats; most of them weren't respected. And so that has to, in some way, make you think: 'Maybe I shouldn't take that stuff as seriously?'
"That's not to say it isn't meaningful, but when I look back at my career, some of the most meaningful things to me are the things that weren't necessarily recognised as such," he adds, citing The Passion in Port Talbot, the ambitious 72-hour play he put on in his hometown in 2011. "Not as many people might've seen it as other things I've done, but that doesn't mean it wasn't successful in its own right, you know?"
And then, there's the question of ageing. Coming back to Amadeus in the older, bitter role of Salieri, having previously played the younger, vibrant Mozart, puts an obvious line under it. Does Sheen feel like he's now playing in a new world where those venerated, wisened, patriarchal figures of the stage, like King Lear or Willy Loman, are within reach?
"Not really. I mean, as time goes on, you start to realise that oh you're playing fathers and then grandfathers, or you're not the young one in the company of actors anymore, but it's a gradual transition," Sheen says.
"I played Hamlet quite late, sort of early to mid-40s, and I know some actors who played Lear very young, like Olivier and Gielgud and people like that. So there's great parts for any age. For men, particularly. For women, it's a bit harder. But men, we're very lucky, I think."
Outside, alongside the throngs of tourists, Lundberg and the kids are exploring the Botanic Gardens. During his Sydney stint, Sheen particularly wants to see fruit bats gather and fly off en masse into the dusk air (another Bluey thing, I imagine). "See, for the family, this is like a holiday. But for me, I get to do the play as well," he says, and heads off to work.