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LUSTRE FOR LIFE; the sunday interview Welsh actor Michael Sheen is living life to the full and tells RACHEL MAINWARING about his new film Frost/Nixon and how his childhood football obsession could have ended his illustrious acting career before it had even begun....


MICHAEL Sheen is one of Wales' greatest ever actors, playing roles as diverse as a vampire, a cerebral palsy sufferer and some of the world's most famous personalities.

So it's quite difficult to imagine the curly-haired method actor doing anything else - especially kicking a ball into the back of a net in an Arsenal shirt.

Yet if a 12-year-old Michael had pursued his love of the beautiful game rather than turn his attentions to drama, that's exactly what could have happened.

But the 39-year-old actor, who gives a stunning performance as roving reporter David Frost in his new film, set around the televised interviews between Frost and former US president Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal, insists he made the right decision.

The Port Talbot-born star said: "From the time I could kick a ball, I was obsessed with football. That's all I did and that's all I wanted to do. All my spare time was taken up playing football. If someone had said to me when I was seven, 'Do you want to be a football player?' then yes, that's a given.

"I would have given anything to do it and when I was 12 I was approached to join the Arsenal youth team. At that time it would have meant leaving my town in Wales and going to live in London and my family having to move there as well.

"So my father, quite rightly, thought that it wasn't a good idea and that if they were still interested when I was older then it was my decision.

"But by that point I had got into acting and I didn't want to do it anymore. I loved football and loved sport but it didn't use all of me. I see acting being every bit as physical as football, as sport. I love the physical aspect of playing football and in acting I've always been interested in the physical side of that, as well as the fact that it engages me completely.

"It engages me physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and philosophically. It engaged every single bit of me and I think that's what it was. I found something that used all of me.

"When I got into acting, I found my body was engaged, my mind was engaged, everything was engaged, but everything I'd learned through playing football served me well in acting too."

And does he ever wonder what might have been?

"Yes, a part of me is always kind of thinking, 'What would've happened if I'd gone down that road?' But I'm very glad that I didn't. I'm very glad I did what I did. I love doing what I do and I think it's the best job in the world.

"I don't regret it at all. My career would have been over years ago now.

And, anyway, it's only a very small percentage of people who actually get to the top of that profession and there are no guarantees that I would've got that far."

But Sheen, whose daughter Lily lives in Los Angeles with her actress mum Kate Beckinsale, was delighted when he landed the role of Brian Clough in The Damned United, as he got to relive some of the football passion which consumed him as a youngster.

He said: "That was one of the last films I worked on, so for the very first time I got to use both sides of myself, my football stuff and my acting stuff as well. So that was interesting, being able to do that. My mind is willing now, but my body is unable to go where my mind tells it to!"

In his latest movie, Sheen reprises his West End and Broadway role as broadcaster David Frost and admits the role has left him fascinated by interviewing techniques.

He said: "I love to watch people who are interviewing, having picked up a few things I suppose. Frost's interview technique was quite a spontaneous and instinctual one, where, instead of having a list of questions and referring to them, he's more concentrated on making the person feel like they're having a conversation.

"And now, when I'm doing an interview, I find it interesting to see if people have questions or not, and whether they are guiding me towards talking about certain things."

Prior to filming, Sheen and his co-star Frank Langella, who plays Nixon, did eight shows a week for a year-and-a-half, so he said it was fantastic to put that stage experience into a film.

He said: "When you've been doing a play, eight shows a week for 18 months doing a film of it is such a joy. I knew the lines for a start and I knew this character inside out, as did Frank.

"I think because of the relationships we developed as actors together it allowed us to joust with one another on screen. It was like a chess game, not just between the characters, but the actors. We trusted each other enough to have a sense of play and really test and push one another.

"In the big climactic interview in the film, where we're interrupting each other and talking over each other, hopefully it seems spontaneous and real, almost improvised, even though it's not. We're so in rhythm with each other that we're able to make it real and fresh and yet, at the same time, serve the story and make sure the audience hears certain things.

"It's important that at no point should you lose the fact that there is respect between Frost and Nixon. There's so many layers going on there that I just can't see how two actors who hadn't worked together could have had that.

I'm just so grateful we got to do it together."

Despite high-profile roles in films such as Oscar-winning The Queen, Sheen is happy to admit he can walk down the streets without an autograph hunter in sight.

He said: "Part of my career so far is that because I play such different characters and do transform a lot, people tend not to recognise me that much. It depends on how I look in life at that moment.

"I always say that I've got my bearded career and my clean-shaven career and I've got my fat career and my thin career. I've enjoyed the anonymity up until now and if people do recognise me and say they've enjoyed something I've done, that's very nice.

"If I'm walking around one day and I'm not feeling particularly great about things and then a complete stranger comes up and compliments me, it's great. That makes me feel good."

Sheen has four films out in the coming year. After Frost/Nixon, released in the UK in January, he will be on our screens in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, The Damned United and Alice in Wonderland.

And he's filming The Unthinkable, alongside Samuel L Jackson and The Matrix actress Carrie-Ann Moss.

But the actor, heralded as our greatest since Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, said he's actually working less now than he ever has.

He said: "As my career has progressed I've always been fortunate that I've worked a lot. Years ago, when I was doing more theatre, I would sometimes be doing two plays at the same time or maybe filming and a play at the same time but now I just do one job at a time and have some time in between.

"I'm definitely getting more interesting work in America now with the success of The Queen and the anticipation of Frost/Nixon and that's creating more work for me.

"But I've always kept my options open. I enjoy working in theatre, film, television and radio. So it's a case nowadays of me trying to work less and spending more time with my daughter, family and friends. And I'm grateful for that."


GUNNER BE AN ACTOR: Michael Sheen turned down the chance to join Arsenal; RESPECT: Frank Langella as Nixon, Michael Sheen as Frost; DOUBLE TAKE: Michael Sheen, left, with David Frost
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 23, 2008
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