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Q&A – Michael Sheen Geeks Out in Preparation for The Damned United

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These days, it seems like Michael Sheen is the king of the biopic, having played Tony Blair in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and now in The Damned United, Brian Clough, the dynamic but doomed soccer manager of the Leeds United. Sheen talks to about tackling real life personas and how YouTube helps.

Q: How much prep did you do in advance to play real people?

A: I knew I was going to be doing this film about two, two-and-a-half years before we actually shot it, so I had a long time to think about it. I started doing bits of work beforehand, but more in earnest about three or four months beforehand. The day after I finished Frost/Nixon, that was my first day of research on Clough. So I pop his name into a search engine on YouTube, and the first thing that pops up is a Frost interview with Clough! It was a nice segue.

But I always do a lot of work, whether it’s a real-life person or not. I did a film called Dirty Filthy Love, about a man with OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome, and that required as much research as something like The Damned United. I always want to get to the stage where I don’t have to think about how much like this person I am or not; I want to be able to get there and be me. There’s this whole transformation process that happens, and it’s too late to do it once you’ve started filming.

Q: What does all that research enable you to do?

A: It’s like I have a computer file I can draw on, to come up with
stuff that’s not in the script, but it’s all coming from the man
himself. There’s a scene on the pitch, on the training ground, and
[director] Tom [Hooper] asked me for an in and an out on it, apart from
the actual scene as written. So I’m walking across the pitch, and I’m
complaining about the players I’ve bought, and coaching the players.
With a film about a fictional character, you feel freer to improvise.
But with a real person, you can be compared to them. So suddenly, on
the day of shooting, you’re in a panic. “I don’t know what he’d say. I
need an expert to come tell me.” Well, I’d need my own expert all the
time. So that’s just me. I’m my own expert.

Q: What do you do with all that stuff about your character in your head after filming wraps?

A: When you get to the end of the shoot, and the director says,
“That’s a wrap,” I have nowhere to go with it all. I should have a
little convention of people who actually know as much about Blair,
Clough, Frost, Kenneth Williams, or whoever it is, so we can sit around
and talk about it. I’m the ultimate geek when it comes to these people,
but there’s no one to talk to about it! 

Q: How does Clough rate against Blair, Frost, other characters you’ve played?

A: I enjoyed Clough more than the other ones. He’s more complex.

Q: And yet still unknowable.

A: Exactly, yes. What I like is that on the surface they all
seem more accessible — Frost seems more accessible than Nixon, Blair
seems more accessible than the Queen, and yet, by the end, you think
there’s something far more ignoble about them, something much more
deceptive. With most of them, you think there’s the Minotaur in the
maze — Nixon, the Queen — and here’s our hero going through. Clough
is both the Minotaur and the hero.

Q: It’s interesting to see Frost interview Clough, considering Clough’s relationship with the media…

A: Frost is smooth, and Clough is jagged. I loved watching
Clough’s press conferences, because he’d be like, “Here’s your
headline, and what I just said, here’s an out for you.” He writes the
pieces for them. He was the master of spin before people knew the word
spin. Frost was the complete opposite. And yet both of them had a
complete eye for what would make the news and get them ahead. When you
watch the actual interview with Clough and Don Revie, which I believe
is on YouTube…

Q: Everything is these days…

A: … which is good for me, because people can then watch it
and go, “He really is Brian Clough!” [Laughs]. I can’t imagine that
interview happening anymore, someone going in on their day of defeat
and the man who is his greatest rival is there, when he didn’t know
he’d be there, and they sort of have it out. There’s something very
tragic about it. It’s hubris. It’s the man who stole fire from the god
and the gods punished him for it. The simplest way of looking at it is
that here’s a man who is considered to have more self confidence than
anyone else, and is actually a man who has not enough self confidence.
It’s not enough to know he’s better than Revie, he has to take Revie’s
job and do it better than him. He set his own trap.

Q: If you made a movie in only 44 days — the span of
Clough’s career as manager of Leeds United — that would be considered
a success…

A: That’s true! 

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