Michael Sheen, who plays Chris Tarrant on Quiz, talks about his getting a unique perspective on the Ingrams’ guilt and what it was like playing British TV legend Tarrant.
Q: Did you remember this scandal?
A: In Britain, I think I was probably similar to most people here who remembered it because it was such a big deal at the time, and the tabloid newspapers were all over it, and it was such a huge show… I think, like most people, I seem to remember watching the episodes when they came out. But they never did come out. They’ve never been shown, so the whole of the country pretty much has misremembered watching the actual episode. What actually came out was the documentary that ITV put out, which is very sort of ITV’s agenda, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?‘s agenda, so very kind of biased towards their guilt — and then that’s connected to the other part, which is my memory of them before I read the scripts for this where I had no question that they were guilty. I just totally remembered that it was this terrible thing and they did this thing and they got done for it and all that. So that’s what I remembered before I read the scripts.
Q: What drew you to the show?
A: How I came to the project was through [Executive Producer] Stephen Frears. Stephen called me. I was in New York and he was coming to New York and he said, “Let’s go and have dinner. Something I want to talk to you about.” And so we went out for dinner, and he told me that he was doing this project and would I think about playing the part… He’s probably my favorite director to work with and he’s had such a huge effect on my life. The first film I ever did was with Stephen, a film called Mary Reilly many years ago with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich… so obviously if Stephen says he wants me to do something, I’m there. But also in this case it was written by James Graham, who I’d been working with for a little while on another project. So I know James and I’m a big fan of his work and his writing, and I was aware that it had been a play before, which I didn’t see but I had been aware of him. I knew it was a very popular play. It had been a big success. So I was already predisposed to liking it, so Stephen said, “Right, I’ll get the scripts sent to you.”
So before the scripts got to me, I watched that documentary again, and this was before I knew what line the script would take, so I just watched the documentary, thinking they were guilty because that was my memory. And the documentary just seemed so over the top trying to make out they were guilty. By the end of it, I was like, “There’s something not right about this.” And then the script came and I read the scripts, and the scripts are not about trying to say they’re innocent, but they’re certainly trying to say there’s more to this story than people would like to believe, so my instincts from watching the documentary were sort of borne out by the scripts. And I just remember reading all three episodes just straight through. They worked so brilliantly on the page… And so I said straightaway, “Absolutely, I want to do this.”
Q: How do you go about playing a real-life character?
A: Whenever I’ve played real people, my process is always the same really. I just spend as long as I possibly can not trying to be like them, and just watching them and reading about them and trying to find out as much about the person as I can, looking for points of connection, looking for ways in. And I try to put off, for as long as possible, trying to do anything like an impersonation of them or to sound like them or to be like them because, the more I immerse myself in the person and them doing what they do, eventually something starts to kind of grow, something starts to take shape without me having to force it or make it happen. It just inevitably starts to happen and certain things start to make themselves apparent. I start to see certain patterns emerge with the person or things that are going on underneath the surface, and then eventually, once I do then start to sort of try it out, there might be one little word or a phrase or something that becomes a little key thing for me and I’ll hook onto that and I try to let it kind of grow, as organically as it can… Impersonators and impressionists are trying to make you admire how much like them you are on the surface, whereas, when you’re telling a story, you want the audience to be aware of what’s going on under the surface and you want them to just go along on the story. There’s crossover obviously, but it’s a very different process and a very different thing that you’re trying to do.
I always feel like I have to do as much work as I possibly can in the way that I’ve described to eventually get to the point where I am very like the person, so that, when the audience first meets me in the story, all their expectations about wanting to see how much I’m like the person are met, I hope, but I also hope that, in a very, very short space of time, they just forget about it and just go on the journey and just are in. They just believe you. And so I love it when people — like, when we were filming on the set, other actors would say to me, “You know, I forgot it’s you. And I’m not thinking it’s you being Chris Tarrant either. I just accept that you are this person.” That was the greatest compliment in a way. It can be just as much of a problem if people are too obsessed about how like the person you are because that can get in the way as well. Ultimately you don’t want anything to get in the way of the audience just going on the journey with the story.
Q: What were the challenges of playing Chris Tarrant?
A: The challenge in a way was when I’ve played other characters like that — like [Tony] Blair or [David] Frost or Brian Clough in The Damned United and people like that — are usually the main character or one of the main characters, so all the work that you put in to try and inhabit this person who everyone was very familiar with, you get a fairly broad canvas to be able to do that, whereas, with this, Chris Tarrant is a supporting character, but it still requires the same amount of work. I’m still playing this very familiar person. Whether it’s for one scene or 50 scenes, you still have to do the same amount of work to be them, so that was quite challenging — not having quite the same sort of broad canvas to play with when I did it.
But, as with all the characters I’ve played that are based on real people, it’s incredibly frightening right up to when you start being the character in the scenes and you start filming and even then it’s incredibly frightening because you’re aware that everybody on that set is watching you and doing what the audience is going to do, which is judging whether you’re like them, whether they believe you as the person, so it’s very scary. And then after about a day, a couple of days, then you start sort of getting comfortable with it and then it’s okay. That was the case with this. The very first day of filming I did was the courtroom scenes, which is towards the end really for me in the story, but that was the first day of filming, so that was quite scary because most of my research had been watching him doing the show, so I was much more comfortable with being him in his Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? mode rather than him being in court, which is sort of odd. So I think I really settled down once we walked onto the set, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? set, which was recreated so perfectly and with all the effects and the lights and the sound effects and all that kind of stuff. Once I was on that set, then I think I got really comfortable. Then I was able to kind of really feel I was in his shoes.
Q: It looked like you enjoyed playing Chris Tarrant. Did you?
A: You should never guess at what my feelings are about playing the character. I’d be failing if that was the case. I think what you’re seeing is Chris Tarrant enjoying doing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which is one of the things that I saw in him. I could see that he relished it. He was brilliant at it, absolutely brilliant. And he kind of ran that show perfectly and was able to capture all the drama and the suspense of it, but, at the same time, put the contestants at their ease, make the audience laugh. He was like a ringmaster of the show. And so, in watching him, I could see that he loved it. He really enjoyed it. He was really good at it. And there were certain bits that I could see that he liked more than others. He had a very, very popular radio show here for many years as well, and he was very good on the radio. And when the contestant uses the lifeline of Phone a Friend, the phone call goes and then you hear this disembodied voice of the person on the other end of the line and Chris Tarrant speaks to them. I always used to think he enjoyed that more than any other bit in the show because it was more like doing a radio show. I could see him kind of really enjoying that. So things like that, I pick up on. Over the two episodes with the Major, the first episode with him, he really didn’t think much of the Major. He thought he was a bit of an idiot, but then, by the second episode — because it ran over two episodes — he really started to change his attitude towards him and you could see him starting to really admire this guy, the risks he seemed to be taking and how brave and bold he was in the way he was doing it. By the end, when he won the million pounds, Chris Tarrant is shouting out things like, “What a man! What an amazing man!” I’ve heard him being interviewed and he said, “I sort of fell in love with this man. I just watched him and I had huge admiration for him by the end of it.” So that was interesting as well — you see him enjoying what the Major is doing, so I think that’s what’s coming through.
Q: How did you like being on the Quiz version of the Millionaire set?
A: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is still going on, but it was a different set that they used at the time, so the actual set I don’t think exists anymore, the one from that period, so it had to be recreated and it was done absolutely to the last detail. It was perfect. And when we did the stuff of the show itself, Stephen Frears wanted to — and this is quite unusual — he wanted to do it with all the lighting and effects and the sound effects and everything. There’s that sort of heartbeat pulse going on at me and there’s all that weird music going on. Now, normally in filming, you wouldn’t have any of that because it makes it hard to cut and all that kind of stuff, but Stephen wanted it all to be happening, so that added to that feeling of total recreation of the actual show. It’s amazing. It was great for me, and I think for Matthew [Macfadyen] as well, to have all that stuff going on. To have the the set itself and of course it was in a studio, like the set itself would be in a studio, so there was nothing to remind you that you weren’t actually on the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which is a gift, you know, for us because there was nothing to break you out of the spell. So it really felt like you were in the show.
And the other thing that really struck me was that — so Tecwen Whittock, the person in the audience who was supposed to be doing the coughing to help the Major, I could see where he was. I mean, I could see exactly how close to Tarrant and how close to the Major he was. I could see where Sian [Clifford], who was playing Diana, where she was sitting in the audience. It was like the most brilliant courtroom recreation of a crime scene, because I could sit there and go, “Right, oh I see, so Tecwen Whittock was sitting behind Charles, so Charles couldn’t see him.” But he was right in Tarrant’s eyeline. I could see him right there. And Diana was sitting up there, so I could see her as well. So the people who were supposedly helping Charles out, Charles can’t see, but Tarrant’s got them right in his eyeline, and Tecwen was really close, much closer than I had thought he would be when I was just reading the scripts. When I was actually there on the set, you think, “How on earth could they have gotten away with this?” Tarrant would have just seen this guy coughing. It was very hard to imagine how they could have got away with it. So that was interesting because that would never have occurred to me. In fact, I suppose no one apart from me would know what that was like, apart from Chris Tarrant who wasn’t aware that it was going on, so really I had this extraordinary opportunity nobody else has ever had to make up my own mind about what I thought about the situation in a way that nobody else could, so it was a very privileged position for me.
Q: So, do you think the Ingrams were really guilty?
A: I don’t know. I certainly think it’s not as black and white as it was made out to be at the time. Like I say, having sat in the middle of it all, I don’t know how they could have done it. And remember, it’s never been proved how they did it. I mean, they were found guilty, but they’ve never admitted it. They’ve never said that, “Yes, we did it, and this is how we did it.” And the TV company — the coughing thing was just a theory. They’re not sure that that’s what it was. They were just absolutely sure that they had cheated in some way, and the coughing was one of the things they thought. So I still don’t know how they did it, if they did it and, like I say, from being on the most perfect crime scene recreation you possibly can be, I’m not convinced that the coughing was what was going on. So there’s certainly a lot more ambiguity and gray area than people felt there was. And of course that was the other big aspect of it at the time — not only was there the actual trial but there was the trial by public opinion as well because it became such a big tabloid story. So I think that kind of wave of belief in their guilt that was kind of fueled by that documentary, I certainly don’t think it’s as clear-cut as that. So, who knows?
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