I couldn’t help but conjure up the image of Tony Blair when I saw the Welsh actor, Michael Sheen, striding down the Four Seasons Hotel corridor. After all, in spite of his rich career in film and theatre, he is mostly known for portraying the former British Prime minister in “The Deal”, “The Queen“, and “The Special Relationship.”
Michael Sheen has also portrayed David Frost in “Frost/Nixon”, but none of those portrayals were as enjoyable as playing the enigmatic football manager “Brian Clough” in Peter Morgan’s adaptation of David Peace best-seller, “The Damned United.”
“No disrespect to Blair or Frost, but it was far more entertaining doing research on Clough,” he quipped. “Clough is such an extraordinary character. Luckily there is a lot of footage of him. He became a manager in the sixties when he was very young, so you can trace his whole career right up to his death. He was always there and always has something to say: in press interviews, talk shows, had a column in a newspaper, wrote a book. So I had to go through all of it, over and over again. It was fun and entertaining.”
Michael Sheen talks passionately about Clough’s unpredictable personality and massive contradictions. “He didn’t give a shit. He got people going, got them feeling stuff. On one hand he was capable of great cruelty and on the other hand he was capable of huge kindness and generosity. He just never got over the fact that his playing career was cut short and couldn’t be a great player.”
In order to understand Clough’s complex character, Michael Sheen asked himself “What would’ve happened if I was 23-24 years-old, the best actor in the world, everything was going well for me and was loving it, then suddenly something happened, like a motorbike accident, and stopped me from doing all that?”
“All this anger, frustration, bitterness and pain was inside him and he covered it with arrogance and confidence,” Michael Sheen explained. “He was also motivated by it and you can see the healthy side of it with pulling Derby from the bottom of the league, and then with the obsession with Leeds you see the dark side of all this.”
“This is what I found interesting in him, that vulnerability that is in there because of what happened to him and it was coming out,” Michael Sheen enthused.
He insists that this film is about an extraordinary character, not football, but he admits that he always dreamt to make a football story. In fact, he started his life as a football player.
“I was obsessed by football. I played it, thought about it and dreamt it,” Michael Sheen said. “Then my obsession with football turned into acting, but I never left football behind completely. I knew one day I will do a football story. I thought it will be George Best story, but it turned out to be Brian Clough.”
But Michael Sheen’s real talent is bringing to screen real-life characters. How does he do it?
“I can’t get it right, because I can never be that person,” he exclaimed. He tries to connect with the person by finding his spirit without slavishly copying him and hopes that the audience will have the same feeling when they watch him and watch the other person. When he worked on Clough’s character, he watched hundreds of times the footage of Clough’s interviews. Not in order to copy him, but in order to stop being distracted by what Clough is doing or saying and start listening to something else, as if Clough is giving himself away to him.
“So if I watch him so many times, I know every word he says and every move he makesâ€¦that is not the important thing, the important thing is that I got passed that and started hearing something else coming of him, something invincible. It’s the spirit of the man,” Michael Sheen explained. “Then that’s what I try to do in the film. There is no perfect thing, I just try to inhabit him.”
The Damned United was Michael Sheen’s sixth collaboration with multi Award-winning writer, Peter Morgan. They both read Peace’s book and talked about it for months, trying to figure out what should the story be about, what is important, should they make it about Clough and Tyler or Clough and Revvieâ€¦and so on. Then Morgan would write a draft and come back to read it with Michael Sheen. They would discuss it and then Morgan re writes it.
“We do this all the way through, even while we are shooting” Michael Sheen said. “We have done it on six projects with brilliant directors, Stephen Frears, Ron Howard and Tom Hooper. It was a fantastic relationship, but we might never work again with each other, who knows?”
Read the Damned United review: www.ukscreen.com/filmreview/0/698