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Michael Sheens many roles, from Caligula to Blair, have always been full-blooded. But now its social injustice that really gets him going, says Tim Lewis
One of the things the actor Michael Sheen likes about being famous is that he can get in touch with other famous people who he likes and tell them that he likes them, especially on social media. Its like totally platonic dating in a way, he says, his voice rich and rolling like the Welsh hills. Most of these exchanges, and the ensuing meet-ups when they happen, go well. David Lynch, Sheens all-time favourite director, was one: Oh God, as a David Lynch fan, he was everything you could possibly want. Terry Gilliam was this mad old uncle or something, so that was great.
Then there was Laurie Anderson, avant garde artist, composer and partner of Lou Reed. Now, says Sheen, when I was 11 or 12 one of the first singles I ever bought was O Superman. Ive played it all my life to people, it used to drive them mad, and Ive made my daughter listen to it, so she has a weird thing about it now. Its had a huge effect on me.
Not long ago, Sheen was at the opening of a Velvet Underground exhibition in New York (he is friends with John Cale, the Welsh multi-instrumentalist in the band, of course he is). Anderson was there, too, so Cale introduced them and Sheen launched into a particularly breathless version of the gush above. And I could see her just glaze and go Uh-huh, and she left, he recalls. I felt terrible, and I remember John turning to me and saying, Well, you did better than I did.
Sheen, who today has a semi-tame beard flecked with white and hair that curls into cherubic gunmetal ringlets, roars a big throaty laugh that fills the London hotel room where we sit. But it was my fault, she must get that all the time, he goes on. I handled that one badly.
Still, Sheen has no regrets. He recently turned 50, and if he has anything to prove as an actor, its not clear what that would be. He is best known for his dramatic turns, especially an astonishing run of biopics in the mid to late 2000s where he contorted into Tony Blair (three times), Kenneth Williams, David Frost and Brian Clough, often with the help of writer Peter Morgan. In the theatre, hes been a kinetic Caligula, one of the defining Hamlets. Latterly, hes again showed his range in Masters of Sex and The Good Fight. He can do stage and screen, serious and silly; anything really.