Award-winning actor talks about his latest film projects, including the ensemble film Midnight in Paris and the drama Beautiful Boy.
Actor Michael Sheen
Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Michael Sheen to this program. The star of films like “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen” can be seen now in the much talked about new Woody Allen film, “Midnight in Paris”. And starting June 3, you can also catch him opposite Maria Bello in the film “Beautiful Boy”. Here now a scene from “Beautiful Boy”.
Tavis: This film represents for me, Michael, the worst agony that I can imagine any parent ever having to go through. You agree?
Michael Sheen: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I always remember my grandmother when she buried her son who died of cancer saying – you know, my uncle – saying that, you know, a mother should never bury her child. It’s unnatural somehow.
You know, I have a 12-year-old daughter now and I think there’s a kind of biological imperative that, when you become a parent, you somehow imagine the worst things happening to your child in order to stop them from happening, I guess. It makes you more alert. But when something like that actually happens and becomes a reality, it’s just unthinkable.
Tavis: Now that we’ve jumped into this so fast, we should back and explain what the movie’s about [laugh]. People are like okay, what, what, what? What did I miss here? So the story line is?
Sheen: Well, it’s about a couple who, when we meet them at the beginning of the film, are on the verge of separating anyway. This is a relationship that’s not just in trouble, but has come to the end of the line. They have a son who’s in college and the unthinkable happens.
There’s a shooting in the college. Someone goes into the campus and shoots indiscriminately and they’re waiting to hear about whether their son has survived it or not. Then the knock at the door comes and it’s bad news. But it’s more than that. It turns out that their son is the one who did the shooting. So then we follow the story that we never get to hear about, I guess, which is the story of the parents of the person who’s actually, you know, perpetrated the crime.
This is just sort of the untold story; really, of what happens to a couple where there’s no rule book, the grieving process. They’ve lost their son too, but the grieving process is so much more complicated by the fact that they’re having to face who their son was, how could he do what he did, were they responsible, where’s the answer lie, is there blame to be apportioned? Do you blame the other parent? Do they blame each other?
The extraordinary thing about this story, I guess, is we see a couple who literally, you know, have got nothing left to share with each other, going through real hell and darkness and getting their hands dirty, somehow find each other again at the end. So there’s a very kind of positive journey that goes on, but it goes through a lot of darkness.
Tavis: This is not a question I ask often because I could ask it literally of every movie star that comes on the program. But I’m particularly interested and curious as to how you, Michael Sheen, go about researching a role like this.
I’m asking that because of your point earlier that there really is no rule book here. I mean, you hate for any parent to be in this. But I do think sometimes when I see these stories on the news about some kid or any person going in and killing a bunch of people, I often wonder what the parents must be dealing with, how they must be processing that their child is the one at whose hands these other persons were murdered and maimed.
The news has just broken, I guess, here that Gerald Laughner, the individual accused of shooting Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and killing that federal judge, the ruling has come in that he is, by reason of insanity, not able to stand trail. We’ll see what the American public has to say about that in the coming days, I suspect.
But what must his parents feel about the fact that this is their son who did this heinous act? How do you research a role like this?
Sheen: Well, it was difficult. Thinking about it beforehand, it was a 30-day shoot. We made the film in 30 days.
Tavis: That’s a quick -
Sheen: - that’s a quick shoot, yeah. So thinking about that, thinking about the fact that actually the focus of the film is about this couple, this journey that they go on as opposed to – it’s not really a film about a shooting in a school. It’s about a couple trying to grapple with something that is ultimately unanswerable. So I felt like the idea of trying to do – you know, of getting in touch with families, say, it felt inappropriate somehow and not necessary in this case.
I thought in a way the main thing that me and Maria could both concentrate on is the back story of this couple, what was it like when things were good, how did it change once they had a child, you know, what’s been the trajectory of that relation, how did they arrive at the point at which we meet them at the beginning of the film? The more we could bed ourselves into that, then when the events of the film happen, just to allow that to kind of affect you and see what happens.
It’s that feeling of total confusion, of feeling like not only don’t we know what to do now, you know, the press turn up outside, there’s no press agent coming to say you should do this or that. They just don’t know what to do. At the same time as that’s going on, they don’t know how to feel.
How would you feel about a child who has done something so destructive and yet you have unconditional love for them? How does that work and where do you go in your head and your heart when that happens?
So that’s what we sort of see happening. It was more about being in the right frame of mind and the right kind of open state to work with another actor in such an intense way over a very short period of time, 30 days.
Tavis: You are obviously an actor, so this is not a real life situation for you, thank God. But given what you saw on the paper and given what you offer us onscreen, what is it about this trauma, this tragedy, that allows this couple to come back to each other, to rediscover each other? What do you sense that is?
Sheen: What I sort of found is that, you know, in thinking about it myself and us talking about it as a group about our experiences and relationships, I realized that we do a lot of self-mythologizing.
You know, we’re each the hero of our own story and we perceive what’s going on around us, and especially in a relationship, from the kind of viewpoint of, well, this is my story and I’m the hero of that and I justify what I do around it. You start to build a myth that you live by, I think, and that myth can kind of help you find your way through the life and the relationship, but it can also imprison you ultimately.
I think, certainly my character in this film , he’s told himself the story that he’s only stayed in the relationship because of the child, so he resents the child, he resents his wife. Actually, this huge wall that’s got built up between them, which is this kind of myth that he lives by, needs to come out because that’s what’s in between them.
There is sort of a pivotal scene in the film where all the things that have been unsaid just explode out. Even though it’s the most painful and difficult scene to watch, in a way, it’s the most positive because, once all that’s gone out, there’s the possibility of moving on and they somehow are able to do it.
They’re somehow able to see each other again in a kind of more vulnerable way because they’ve gone through this really difficult, difficult journey. But I think that’s ultimately it. You’ve got to somehow find a way to just get all that stuff out, you know, because it blinds you.
Tavis: What’s the takeaway – I don’t know how to ask this and it may be a two-part question. Is there a takeaway from Michael Sheen, the person, and is there a takeaway from Tavis, the rest of us, the viewer, when we see the project about humanity? I don’t want to color that question much more than that. But what’s the takeaway? What do we learn here about humanity?
Sheen: Well, I suppose, you know, I guess the aim of all art, of all performance and storytelling is it should deepen our understanding of each other. It should bring us closer together rather than pushing us apart and it should somehow allow us to be brave enough to not take the easy answers.
In a way, I can understand that we want to apportion blame. We want to understand why these things happen because, if it’s senseless, if it’s random, then that means we live in a random universe and it’s just chaos and there’s no meaning. That’s a truly frightening concept.
So the idea of wanting to somehow find the answer is an understandable human urge. But at the same time, I feel like, you know, there may be answers for why these things happen, but I’m not entirely sure that we as a species are kind of there yet [laugh]. So I’m not saying there is no answer, but I’m saying that easy and quick answers just to be able to feel better about keeping the chaos at bay doesn’t necessarily serve us.
So I hope that this film is able to expand the understanding of people and somehow say these are not monsters. You know, even the person that does it is not a monster and it only serves us to try and understand as opposed to just push away and isolate.
Tavis: And finally, since this Woody Allen project has so much buzz on it and you are in it as well, your character in the Woody Allen project is?
Sheen: I play a character called Paul who is an American who wishes he was British [laugh] and he’s a self-proclaimed expert on all things, as all Americans do obviously [laugh]. We got rid of you; you just want to come back.
Tavis: “Beautiful Boy” and the Woody Allen project, Michael Sheen is a busy actor in two projects out around the same time here now. Michael, always an honor to have you on this program.
Sheen: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Thanks for your work.
Sheen: Honor to be here.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.