LONDON — Whether it’s Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, John Ford and John Wayne or Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, creative partnerships between directors and their fave thesps are a time-honored tradition in cinema. But the combination of a screenwriter forging a prolific relationship with an actor is somewhat more unusual.
That makes the current Peter Morgan/Michael Sheen dynamic all the more noteworthy.
The two have already worked together on “The Deal” and “The Queen,” both of which were helmed by Stephen Frears and starred Sheen as Tony Blair, as well as Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” in which Sheen plays perma-tanned Brit journo David Frost going up against disgraced former U.S. prexy Richard Nixon.
Upcoming is “The Damned United” based on Brit writer David Peace’s acclaimed portrait of legendary English soccer coach Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day reign at the helm of Leeds United in the 1970s. (Sony has worldwide rights.)
And Morgan is hoping Sheen will reprise his careermaking turn as Blair in “The Special Relationship,” which looks at the former preem’s relationships with U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during their handover of power in 2000.
“Although I seem to spend a great deal of time looking at Michael’s image through television screens, in cutting rooms, on sets and in movies, I never grow tired of it,” Morgan says. “I don’t know how it’s been that we found our way to one another in this way, but I have at least two more films in mind for him.”
The increasingly symbiotic connection between Morgan and Sheen is reminiscent of the relationship between fellow Brits Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant. However, whereas Grant essentially often portrayed Curtis’ alter ego in a number of romantic comedies, Morgan and Sheen have forged a more dramatic path, often re-creating real-life events and characters.
While the risk of simply lapsing into impersonation runs high when portraying events that really happened, particularly when still in living memory, the Morgan/Sheen axis has skillfully avoided those traps.
“Peter writes very human characters,” says Sheen. “Culture today tends to ostracize as well as worship celebrity and power. I think we all feel a bit alienated from it, the political process and the celebrity world. By humanizing these characters in a way that we can relate to as opposed to showing their flaws just to pull them back down to size, Peter makes us feel like we’re all a part of the same thing. That’s why I enjoy doing the stuff that he writes.”
At first glance, the characters of Frost and Blair make an unlikely pairing, the former a playboy TV presenter, the latter a lawyer-turned-politician who arguably reshaped the face of modern British society. Yet in the hands of Sheen, and through the words of Morgan, the two become an unlikely pair of kindred spirits. It takes a delicate actor who can bring out the duality in both.
“There’s an inscrutability to Frost in the way that there also is to Blair,” says Morgan. “I don’t think that there’s any coincidence to why Michael plays them so well. It’s their likability which makes them inscrutable.”