Actor leads cathartic re-examination of past

It’s always a tough call when an actor must play a part everyone thinks they know. People will forever compare the performance to the original: “Oh, he doesn’t have the voice right. And those ears!”

But then, those people aren’t thinking about acting; they’re judging impersonation.

Welsh-born Michael Sheen has had to consider the distinction more than most other actors have (beginning with his father’s sideline career as a Jack Nicholson look-alike). Though one could scarcely have had a more thorough education in classical theater (National Youth Theater of Wales, Bristol Old Vic School, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), an unusual number of Sheen’s roles have included actual figures, some of them still alive.

“I’ve seen myself here as ‘the Tony Blair look-alike,'” Sheen says, referring to his BAFTA-nominated portrayal of the former British prime minister in 2006’s “The Queen.” “I don’t think I look anything like him at all, but it introduced me to American audiences, and I’m happy for the recognition.”

Actually, Sheen resembles Blair more than he may want to admit. At 39, Sheen has the similar mix of impeccable manners, alert intelligence and trim, youthful elan. He’s verbally adroit and, yes, those ears are canted toward fine-tuned listening.

Like a politician, an actor is acutely conscious of being seen. But while an actor playing a fictional role can content himself with studying motive and behavior, an actor playing a real person needs to understand literal developments and facts. And here, Sheen becomes a close reader of history.

“I wouldn’t presume to know anything about the real man,” Sheen says of Blair. “But he has always said that he got into politics to change things. In a way, that led to his downfall over his association with George Bush and the war in Iraq. It was one thing for Francois Mitterrand to criticize the war, but he wasn’t in the room, where the decisions were made. Bush was, and that’s where Blair wanted to be, too.

“It’s comfortable for people to look at politicians as symbols,” Sheen adds. “They don’t understand the reality of political life, which is endless compromise. You sign 200 pieces of paper a day. You can’t know everything that’s in all of them. Six months later, one of those signings erupts in a major issue. How were you to know?”

It’s that sense of a principled man’s distaste for compromise, and the gray, uncertain spaces between choice, that has given Sheen’s portrayal of Blair such nuance: He caught the underlying discomfort of a graceful, well-intended figure.

For his current role in “Frost/Nixon,” Sheen looks to a pivotal moment in American and Western European history, when TV media imagery took on overwhelming critical importance.

“Nixon was never comfortable with that,” Sheen says, “beginning with his 1960 debate with JFK. People listening on the radio thought Nixon had won. People watching it on TV thought Kennedy won. The whole process of black-and-white depictions, of form overwhelming content, was something relatively new. It changed the face of politics. The presidency became something marketed and sold. When Watergate happened, he lost control of the image.”

Conversely, David Frost, whom Sheen portrays (opposite Frank Langella’s Nixon, as he did in the London and Broadway stage productions of Peter Morgan’s play), was a figure eminently at home on television — a political interviewer along the lines of PBS’ Charlie Rose and host of “That Was the Week That Was,” the groundbreaking satirical news hour.

“You have no idea how iconic a figure he was in England,” Sheen says. “He became a power broker. The British Prime Minister had no choice but to come on his Sunday program ‘Breakfast with Frost.’ He was the epitome of a jet-setting figure, always seen with some beautiful young woman on his arm.”

The famed Frost/Nixon interview of 1977, reconceived for the stage and the current Ron Howard film (also written by Morgan), catches the mano-a-mano encounter where Nixon attempts to explain himself back into popular redemption, and Frost wants to counter the growing perception that he was just, as Sheen says, “a vain, superficial lightweight.” Both, as it turns out, shrewdly understood the calculus of ambition.

“I wanted to get under the veneer of lightness,” Sheen says.

Over time, Sheen has had the good fortune, rare in film, of working with the same people, as with a repertory company in which different artists develop a working vocabulary that allows them to get more out of themselves and each other. Stephen Frears has directed the first two Blair films: “The Deal,” which aired on British television, and “The Queen.” A third is on the way. Andy Harries and Christine Langan have been part of the team as producers.

“He never tells you exactly what he wants you to do,” Sheen says of Frears. “He allows you to feel your way along. It’s very empowering to the actor.”

And of Morgan: “It’s refreshing to have a writer write for an actor instead of a director. It’s like a composer writing for a player instead of a conductor.”

Sheen was something of an athletic prodigy as a boy, good enough to be offered an apprenticeship in professional soccer at age 12. But his father intervened, and Sheen feels he’s lost nothing in the transition to acting.

“I always look first for the physicality in a character, and to see him as part of a team. If somebody says, ‘I didn’t care for that play or film, but I liked (a certain actor’s) performance,’ I think that actor has failed. He’s made himself more important than the overall effort.”

Yet he also says: “As a footballer, I always had flair. I like to think I have that, too, as an actor.”

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