IR Print Interview: Michael Sheen For “The Good Fight” [CBS All Access – S3 – CBS TCA Winter Press Tour]
Michael Sheen has played the gamut of characters within the structure of his career. From the texture of “Underworld” and “Tron: Legacy” all the way to the essence of Showtime’s “Master Of Sex”, his characters always require a balance (or perhaps imbalance) of personality to give them a unique spin. After conducting a panel with his fellow actors at the CBS All Access TCA Press Day for the new season of “The Good Fight”, Sheen spoke with The Inside Reel about nuance, finding the character and knowing how to walk the line.
Was there a different approach to playing Roland Blum?
Michael Sheen: There’s something incredibly liberating about playing a character like this. Anything that’s put in front of him, he just pushes it over. He can say whatever he wants to say, and just says things to provoke and outrage. The pendulum has swung the other way, and I’m loving it.
On a demonic scale, how does he fare?
MS: The temptation was to talk of him as being Mephistopheles, a devil kind of character. But it actually goes beyond that. The devil was born out of the god Pan. There’s something kind of pagan about it and I love that. I am trying to still play with that a bit more so I’m trying to look a bit more like a forest creature. So there’s an appetite rather than putting up a moral or ethical judgment on him. He’s something that goes a bit deeper and hopefully people will be both attracted to him and repelled by him at the same time. Because he does go very deep into something very primal.
The character does dwell in a certain world of thought.
MS: It’s something very human. I make a joke about it but it’s true…I actually prefer being him. Because he is touching on things that we all have. When people often ask actors who are playing the bad guy, “Oh you must be having so much fun!” Everyone loves a good bad guy. It’s slightly lazy of me thinking like that but there’s something truthful in that we go around living a partly repressed life in order to all get along with each other. That’s what the most civilizations are, isn’t it? But then you have these characters who come along who are essentially parasitic. They’re thinking “As long as everyone else is keeping civilization going on, I can just wreck things”. And there’s something incredibly attractive about that. I think at the moment there’s a lot of disruptors…there’s a lot of people breaking down those pillars of what everyone else is trying to keep up. That’s a scary thing. And so to play a character who is doing that…that both makes people go “I wish could do that. I spend most of my day wanting to do that stuff but I don’t do it.” We are both attracted to that and repelled by that. Roland is definitely one of those characters. He fulfills two sides: on the one hand, he’s the trickster who remakes the world…who comes along and says we have to throw everything up in the air because things are too settled…that it’s unfair in society, both during the past Trump election and the Brexit stuff…about that false sense, that there’s an illusion of how the world is, and we need to throw it all up in the air and remake it. Roland represents the positive aspect of that but also the negative aspect of that, which is just about eroding things that we all really need in order to live a life and not be eating each other.
The mythology of Pan as a metaphor is all about testing people. You’ve explored many characters in “Tron: Legacy”, “Masters Of Sex”, but it is all about the mask…
MS: It’s the idea of tempting in the garden. It goes back to god demons…the idea that the devil comes and goes, but do you want to know more? Do you want to just accept the way things are…or do you want to find out a little bit more? I can help you do the questions, but be curious. A lot of the qualities that we think of as being positive qualities, un-progressive qualities, used to be kind of contained within the idea of the devil and the saint in…and it was because a saint is a Christian construct based on Pan, which has much more to do with appetite and nature as well as its healing qualities…
An expression of culture.
MS: Exactly. So I love that quality of that character. In fact in the first scene Diane [Christine Baranski] has with Roland this season…she learns something from him. Whether he does it on purpose or not, we don’t know but he offers something, a bit of a bit of wisdom, She picks up on that and that becomes a major power of what happens in the season. He is this character who seems like he’s part of the enemy but actually he’s the key to maybe understanding and moving things along.
So with him is what you see what you get or does he have the symbolic side as well?
MS: He’s both total surface in that what you see is what you get, he’s totally that. But he’s also totally a mystery in darkness and you’ll never know. I like the idea that you sort of feel like, “Oh he’s just old service”. And then you realize “Oh no he’s not old service”. It’s very hard to know,
Did embodying the character come together quickly?
MS: It all happened very quickly. I found myself walking into the courtroom for my first scene on the show, having to play this huge, larger than life character. Normally I would, certainly for the characters I played based on real people, spend a massive amount of time doing research. I wasn’t able to do that here. It was like, “Here you go.” And I remember walking through those doors that first day having to kind of essentially take over the whole thing. I was terrified. I’m a confident character usually. You know as an actor you’re always worried you’re going to be found out. I’ve always pretended that I know. For the entire first week on this show, I was genuinely convinced I was going to be fired, that someone was going to stop me and go, “You know what? That’s a good effort, I admire your chutzpah for what you’re trying to do, but ultimately this is a professional job and people have to watch this. It’s just not going to work. Sorry.” Really. Funny enough, at the end of the first week, I had a message from the Kings’ assistant saying, “Uh, Robert would you like to have…uh a word with you.” And I was like “This is it, This is where I get fired.” I was absolutely convinced that was going to be packing my bags and going. That was terrifying.
By Tim Wassberg
Equating the ideas of major networks as well as their cable spinoffs and genre casings poses special challenges as creating edgy fare comes with its own contrivances about how to make things but economically and creatively viable. CBS though seems up to the task.
“The Arsenio Hall Show”, which brings back the once stalwart cool man of late night who abruptly fell off the scene, comes with an interesting delight: how to make this older man who epitomized the 90s into the fold two decades later. He told us two years ago at a cable function in a small group that he was planning this. What is interesting is that he is doing it with the same people as before and by extension the same company with a couple extras. Arsenio himself notes the change in times with the technology saying “Debbie Gibson [back in the day] sent me a FAX that she wanted to sing on my show. That was my text”. Another example he gives is “I remember Barbara Streisand calling me with a Bill Clinton question. Now she can tweet”. Sounding a little too much in the play, he speaks that “with a joke, you are able to Google now”. One of the things that he thinks gave him the confidence to return to this specific fray was his win on “Celebrity Apprentice” because “I have been Number Two at anything I have ever done” so “it was nice to win”. The aspect that also promoted it was the enticement of his son. He relates that he left the late night show he had at the top of his game but it was to spend more time raising his son. He explains “I needed balance in my life” and “the compliment from me to Paramount was that they don’t want you on the air if you know you’re going” which was the reason for the show’s abrupt end. Now that his son is older, when the finale of “Apprentice” came along, his son told him “we could win it!” This showed to him that his son had some investment in what he was doing. Arsenio was known in breaking music acts back in the day but the actuality is that “the stats point that music doesn’t get as good numbers as the talk”. He points that someone who has been supportive is Jay Leno, whom he says many people think as combative but he explains that this is true only when they are in direct competition with him. Jay, Arsenio explains, just wants to win, making the comparison that “Ali & Frazier didn’t get along initially”. His end game is that “at the end of the day, I am a stand up comic and I am there to get laughs” but “I just need to be funny in the way that I do it”.
“The Good Wife”, continuing its much ballyhooed run on CBS, recently received a watercooler boost with the campaigning of the infamous Anthony Weiner back into the New York mayoral race. Robert King, who exec produces the show with his wife Michelle, says that “there is a certain demand in telling the story” but “sometimes the audience is [only] inches ahead of us [and] sometimes yards ahead of us”. In comparison to the real life reflections with the recent Weiner situation, he says “we are the happiest people since we have so much to write about” saying “the Weiner thing hit it right on the head” though “Julianna [Maguiles] creates a good temperature on set”.
“Mom”, a new series starring ever blonde Anna Faris and Alison Janney, seems like an interesting mix especially with its addiction background of the story thrown in the comedy mix. After having her baby with husband Chris Pratt (from “Parks & Recreation”), Faris says “I wasn’t ready to get back to work” but he read it and pushed her to do it. Of her character, Faris admits “She’s so dimensional and a mess…basically like me”. Addressing her longevity in the business and getting that first job, she explains “I slowly came to realize that getting your first job is hard but not as hard as the second one” because “you have to peddle yourself around town”. At this point in her career, she says “there is a difference in that you graduate as a woman into a different element in your 30s”. Asked to what her mom might think of her portrayal on-screen in this series, Faris jokes that “my mom is a prude but half the time she doesn’t know what the vocabulary means” adding that “she says she’s never seen a condom”. Chuck Lorre, who continues to build his empire here after the successes of “Two &A Half Men”, “Big Bang Theory” and recently “Mike & Molly”, concludes with the admission that “I once asked Norman Lear what he did [with all his shows] and he said you go where the fire is burning the brightest and where you are most needed”.
Showtime swoops with interest into the battle with the return of “Homeland” and the texture of how you change up the show with two red hot Emmy winners on the roll. Claire Danes, whose lead character is always on the verge of exploding, says that “Carrie is always sitting on her own personal ticking bomb” adding that “it is an impossible dilemma”. In terms of the recent progression, she continues that Carrie “is not great on the meds and she is even worse off them” posing that “it is pretty bleak”. When asked about her recent quotes about having trouble finding work after her lauded performance as “Temple Gradin” for HBO before she started “Homeland”, she explains that after the former, “I think I emerged energized and emboldened” and “I wanted a similar type of challenge” but “there wasn’t any roles like that” adding that “I didn’t have patience for the regular old stuff”. She says that she guesses “there was a dirth of material in general at that moment” but, for her, “to do a job for the sake of it is a really bad idea”. She postulates that ”we are freelance, dare I say, artists”. Despite the bent of this series, she says “I have not become a political creature” though, for this season, “I have returned to my bipolar books” admitting “they are right near the bed” because “it is our job to interpret the heavy lifting the writers do”. Damian Lewis, for his part as Brody, is not seen for the first two episodes of the new season, which is unusual for the most recent Emmy winning Best Actor – Drama, but he says “it is a function of the story that we have to see Brody”. He explains with a little chicanery that “he disappeared into a tunnel system” because “he is the most wanted criminal in the world so he has to lay low”. Asked whether he sees his character’s bleak end coming in droves, he jokes that “these guys [the creators] have been trying to kill me since Episode One”.
“Masters Of Sex” continues the predilection with an piercing view into taboo and science in the late 40s with a kind of voyeurism that apparently pushes the boundary. Michael Sheen, who plays the lead character Bill who is studying the science of human sexuality in a conservative time, says that, with the series, it is about seeing the time as “prudish” but more about seeing it as a journey about “a sense of control in this man’s life” since “he is a mystery to himself”. The idea for him of this man is that “he has a locked-down desire to keep control”. In comparing the sense of sexuality to our perception of sex today, he explains “the same problem of intimacy applies now”. The key is “with the sexuality of the piece, it has to be realistic” but “your have to find a way to set the tone with all the right things” adding that “you discover through experimentation”. In terms of his relationship with his study partner Jane (played by Lizzy Caplan), he says “you find your way with the chemistry” because “the humor comes out of the situation” because (let’s face it), “it is interesting how sex is done on-screen” but “there is an awkwardness”. From his perspective, in “Masters Of Sex”, “there are a lot risks, not just the nudity”. What he likes about this character and the challenge is that “in the multiple episodic format, you can get to the complexity of a novel”. The disconnect for Bill, he says, is that “he tries to keep sex and attraction separate”. As for his view on sex after doing the series, he says “I found myself talking about relationships more” because “the more you are doing [or watching] a show about sex, you are finding more how you connect with human beings”. The take-away is that “sex is a conduit for any area you feel shame about”.
Lizzy Caplan, from her point of view playing a period woman after she had played many outspoken modern women, says “when you are telling a story in present day, you can [show the modern woman] with clothes and a strategically placed tattoo”. With all the sex and nudity floating throughout the series, she says “some of the situations were ridiculous but accurate” but “there are moments of levity”. She says “the idea of Jane is that every step of the way she is a contradiction” using the comparisons that “she is a secretary but she is also a partner” and that “she is sexually adventurous but she is a mother of two” and most specifically “she becomes close with Liddy [Bill’s wife] but she is also the other woman”. What throws her is that people were told different underlying falsehoods about sex (like masturbation) and, as she puts it, “you just needed to tell people that what you were doing was normal but people weren’t doing that…and that is some bullshit!”
CW closes out with the consideration of “The Tomorrow People” which is based upon a series that Greg Berlanti (who also produces the CW’s “Arrow”) saw as a kid. He speaks of it with glee saying “Julie [Line, the exec producer] and I have been talking about this show since we were in college” adding that “the originals played in reruns on Nickelodeon”. Mark Pellegrino, recently of “Lost” as Jacob, returns to genre here with a multi-facade character teasing that “I don’t consider myself the hero of the story right now” but explaining that “I am protecting the human race and you have to do dirty things”.
The triumvirate in CBS, Showtime & CW continues to show that the separation of brand and knowing the angle at which to engage the audience is decidedly important in facilitating bigger and bigger ratings.