Michael Sheen: Anything I do, I commit to

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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.

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Michael
Man of the people: as Tony Blair with Helen McCrory as Cherie in 2005s The Queen. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

As I get older, and theres more behind you than ahead of you, you do start to think, What are the things that are of value to me? says Sheen, reflecting more seriously now on meeting Anderson. When I was younger, I used to think that stuff I really enjoyed watching or listening was just essentially a sidebar to the big things of life, the stuff with real meaning. But progressively Ive realised, No, thats not really true.

The work of certain people has had a massive effect on me: who I am, what I care about, what has inspired me and excites me and gives me solace when Im down or whatever. Those things are to be cherished.

Weve stumbled on to this subject while talking about how Sheen met another of his heroes, the author Neil Gaiman. Sheen had been an admirer since he read the comic-book series The Sandman at acting school in the early 1990s. Sheen name-checked Gaiman in an interview, Gaiman read it and sent Sheen a box of first editions, and the pair agreed to meet in Los Angeles on the night before the Oscars in 2010, when Gaiman was over to support the nomination of Coraline, an adaptation of his novella.

So we were in a sushi restaurant on the edge of the airstrip in Santa Monica, Sheen explains. We had this incredible meal and then the Feds came in, or whatever they were, the Department of Whatever, and we had no idea what was going on. Everyone was arrested who worked there and we had to leave and the chef was in tears. It turned out they were smuggling endangered species in through the back door off the airstrip and selling it. And wed just eaten whale without knowing what it was.

Sheen smiles, So that was how we first met. It was very odd, very odd. Very Neil. But, to Sheens relief, the pair hit it off, became friends and, nine years later, are now collaborators on the most eagerly awaited new TV series in ages: Amazon Primes six-part adaptation of Gaiman and Terry Pratchetts beloved 1990 fantasy novel Good Omens.

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Its a long way from Port Talbot in south Wales to Hollywood, and Sheen has made the journey and now returned. He comes from a long line of performers, if not exactly actors: on one side of his family was a preacher who took investment advice directly from God and bought a profitable tin mine; on the other were carnival folk (a great-great-great grandmother was a lion tamer). These strands united in the larger-than-life form of Meyrick Sheen, Michaels father, an amateur dramatics enthusiast who became a pre-eminent Jack Nicholson impersonator in the 1990s. He travelled the world, attending premieres and once doing an interview in Germany as Nicholson. His business card read: Even better than the real thing!

But for Sheen the inspiration was less his dad who, truth be told, was never very good, but more Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, both of whom grew up nearby. They showed you could aspire to a career as an actor and star on the worlds grandest stages. Sheen trained at Rada and for a decade honed his skills and built his reputation in the theatre.

When Sheen moved to Hollywood in the early 2000s, he was driven not by ambition but family. In 1995, he met the English actor Kate Beckinsale in a touring production of Chekhovs The Seagull, and they had a daughter, Lily. Sheen and Beckinsale separated in 2003, but he relocated to Los Angeles to be close to Lily and the pair continue to set a gold standard for civility and good humour between exes. For Lilys 16th birthday in 2016, they recreated two moments from her birth, which Beckinsale shared with her 3m Instagram followers. In one, Beckinsale is splayed on the kitchen counter: Lily is doing the Yikes! Im coming out of a vagina face, she told James Corden on the Late Late Show, and Michaels not doing very much at all, which is quite realistically what the real thing was like.

Michael
Ice men: with David Tennant in Neil Gaimans Good Omens. Photograph: Amazon Prime Video/PA

Funny women appear to like Sheen; hes also dated the comedians Sarah Silverman and Aisling Bea. He split with Silverman in 2018 after four years, but again remains on enviably warm terms. Sheen was especially annoyed by an article in November last year that claimed, Brexit led to his break-up. At the time, he responded on Twitter: Brexit broke up my relationship??? What utter bollocks!

Now Sheen is more diplomatic, but still irritated. No, I wasnt trying to work out what was happening with Brexit, he says. Where I come from voted Leave, and I wanted to go back there to get a stronger sense of what people were frustrated and angry about. So I wanted to listen to people and see if I could use any of the resources I have in trying to do something about that.

Leaving Los Angeles was a more involved decision than could be summed up in a headline. Sheen never felt at home in America: he couldnt find anyone to talk about last nights TV with, strange things like that. He never had a community like he did back home. So when Lily went to university in New York, Sheen realised he could finally live wherever he wanted. Every year Ive spent a large portion of my year in Wales anyway, because thats where my family are, so that hasnt changed, he says. But Ive been spending some time in New York recently, because my daughters there and Ive got a job there in order to be around her for a little bit. (Hes playing a serial killer known as the Surgeon in the Fox drama Prodigal Son.) But yeah, Im all over the place.

For a man now in his 50s who is technically homeless, Sheen has an admirable clarity. And Good Omens proves that he has lost none of his formidable focus as an actor. Sheen and Gaiman have been talking about adapting the book for years, perhaps even as early as that first meeting over whale sashimi. Now, after many false starts, Gaiman is the showrunner and Sheen plays Aziraphale, a prissy angel forced to team up with a mischievous demon Crowley (David Tennant) in an effort to stave off the imminent apocalypse. A heavyweight cast also includes Jon Hamm as archangel Gabriel, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Frances McDormand as the voices of, respectively, Satan and God.

For a long time, Sheen was pegged to the Crowley part, but as they began to swap scripts, he and coincidentally Gaiman had a change of heart. I like the quality Aziraphale has of being a worrier, says Sheen. Crowley has to be cool, or at least think hes cool. Whereas theres nothing cool about Aziraphale and I like that about him.

Seeing Sheen back on the screen and opposite Tennant, with whom he establishes an immediate, frothy chemistry is a treat. It is also a buzz because Sheen is choosing to work less and less these days. Hes never retired from acting, he clarifies, referring to another misleading interview from a couple of years ago that led to a spiral of spin-off reports. It said something along the lines that I was giving up acting in order to go and fight Nazis in Wales, some nonsense, says Sheen, with a mirthless laugh. But the truth of it was and is that Im trying to find a different kind of balance in my life between acting and the non-acting side of things, so working around social issues. Political with a small p. Activism or whatever that means. I dont really have a word for it.

Sheens new direction takes in varied causes: anything he believes in, has knowledge about or can invest time in. Recently these issues have included homelessness, the decline of local newspapers and Goytre United Ladies, a womens football team he sponsors in Port Talbot that plays close to the steelworks. Yesterday I was in a local housing association office talking to people, today Im here talking to you and tomorrow I might be in Downing Street, he says. Theres a flow of information that is quite useful there, potentially, so Im trying to make the most of that.

Sheen is at his most animated talking about these projects. The eyes flame, the fists occasionally clench; if there had been a table between us, you suspect hed want to rattle it. But its pretty obvious that the publicity wagon is probably the least favourite part of his life right now. He was recently a guest on David Tennant Does a Podcast With and both men joked about how excruciating they had found a promotional photo shoot for Good Omens. I wanted to kill everyone, Sheen confessed, and they both cracked up. Including myself.

Our interview takes place around the same time. On reflection, I dont think Sheen wanted to kill me, but equally, hes probably not distraught when we get the signal to finish up. For now, though, interviews are essential: to promote acting projects and social issues he believes in. I like to be thorough, he says. Anything I do, I commit to. Whether its working on a role or looking into the problems of high-cost credit. If Im going to do something, I want to really properly do it to the best of my abilities. And to give it 100% of my time and energy. I enjoy that.

Sheen exhales a deep, long breath: I dont like being half-arsed about things.

Good Omens is on Amazon Prime Video from 31 May and will air on BBC2 at the end of the year

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