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The Damned United - Michael Sheen interview

Michael Sheen in The Damned United

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Sheen has made a habit of playing real-life characters such as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Now, he turns his attentions to late football manager Brian Clough for The Damned United, a look at Clough’s ill-fated 44-day spell in charge of Leeds United in the ‘70s.

He talks to us about finding the character, developing some bossy tendencies as a result and why he’s a fair weather football fan who has supported many different teams over the years.

Q. Of all the many challenges you faced in this film, how did taking the ball on your chest and volleying it into net on the first take rate?
Michael Sheen: [Laughs] Well, words like ‘natural ability’ and ‘genius’ were bandied around the pitch. Actually, there was a lot of pressure that day. Having said to all the other lads who were playing football in the film: “I am better than you!” I then had to prove it. The good ladies and gentlemen of the press decided to turn up that day as well, so having talked in interviews about my football prowess in the past I felt a bit of pressure, but I came through on the day.

Q. Were you walking in Clough’s shoes a little bit there?
Michael Sheen: Yeah. In the film when I turn round and say: “I’d like to see Don f**king Revie do that, eh?” There is no acting going on there – it was exactly how I felt at that moment.

Q. How much research did you do on Brian Clough?
Michael Sheen: It was probably three months before we started filming that I started doing a lot of the work. The very first thing I did… I’d just finished filming Frost/Nixon, and I went on You Tube and typed in ‘Brian Clough’ and the very first thing that came up was Brian Clough being interviewed by David Frost, and I disappeared up my own backside at that point [laughs]. That was a bit of a weird moment. Having told David Frost: “By the way David, you’re in the film…” And then watching it and going: “Ooh s**t you’re not!” That was also a bit of a weird one as well. So, when David comes to watch it, he’s expecting to see himself…

But yeah, I just watched every bit of footage there is, read all the books, and luckily there is a lot of footage of Brian Clough and there’s a lot of stuff written about him because he was so media friendly and media savvy. It’s kind of extraordinary to watch. I think the first interview I saw with him was a very early interview when he first got to Derby and just to see how he developed in front of the camera and all the way through was incredible journey. I really enjoyed watching it.

Q. Unlike David Frost and Tony Blair, you get the idea that Clough could be capable of some acts of cruelty. How difficult was it for you coming to terms with that aspect of his personality and how important was it to ensure that he still remained sympathetic?
Michael Sheen: I always aim with all the characters to play a rounded human being, hopefully. With Clough, there are so many contradictory things in his make-up. He was capable of huge acts of generosity and kindness to people but he could also be cruel and frightening. I try to be true to the whole person because that’s what made him such a unique character and to just go down the darker road, which I think David Peace does a bit more of in the novel, would not have been as rounded.

I hope that in the film that you recognise a real human being and a complicated human being but one who was able to inspire huge affection, admiration and respect from people. The darkness in the book that I brought into the film in the portrayal… that’s what’s going on inside me but inevitably what you see on the outside is always going to be different. That combination of the confidence, the brashness and the old big head on the surface, there’s something very, very different going on underneath. And that’s what made it sort of interesting for me to play.

Q. Did you ever find yourself taking Brian Clough home with you at night?
Michael Sheen: This shoot was quite a short one and it was very intense. [Between scenes] it’s like turning the volume down on the character a little bit rather than coming out of character. I did find myself being quite bossy during that period of time, but I don’t think it’s something I took away with me too much. I fill myself up with what is now all this useless knowledge about these people. I know all these facts and I know every bit of footage back to front so I can quote everything Clough says in every clip. So, it’s in there all the time and I can’t get rid of it so it’s not necessarily that I’m in character but all I want to do is talk about him and quote him, and it drives everyone else mad. Although it was quite a good reference for Peter [Morgan] at times when we were on set because he’d say: “Did Clough say anything about euthanasia?” I’d rattle through my brain for the answer.

Q. Can you give us an example of being bossy?
Michael Sheen: Some of it is actually in the film. I still to this day think the other actors don’t know but it was my idea to have them running around the football stadium while I’m sat there with my feet up reading the paper. When they were doing it I just shouted at them all the time. Then at the end of that scene I come down onto the pitch and I’m shouting at them again… and that’s all made up, that’s just me being bossy because I enjoyed it. If I saw all the players training somewhere and I didn’t have to do anything I’d just walk over and be bossy with them for a while with the excuse it was good character work when, in fact, I just enjoyed shouting at people.

Q. How easy to block out hindsight when tackling real-life characters? Because the public perception has changed of them from the time you were playing them?
Michael Sheen: It’s an interesting thing to put into the mix of how you play it. I think the way Peter [Morgan] writes a lot of the time is kind of riffing around what people already know of the person. So, the expectations and the kind of stereotyped ideas, or the clichéd ideas about that person, are as much a part of what we use – certainly what I use, and I think what Peter uses in the way he writes about it. It makes a big difference if you don’t know anything about a person but it still works to that extent. People who knew nothing about Frost still got very engaged by the story and I hope people who knew nothing about Clough would still be interested in this man’s story.

But a part of it is also obviously what happened later – you know, knowing that Clough and Taylor went on to do what they did at Forest obviously plays a big part in this, and knowing that they had an argument again and never reconciled by the time Taylor died again plays a big part in it. The fact the film ends with them coming back together, I think, says something about the spirit of that relationship… At one point there was mention of the fact that they didn’t ever reconcile again properly and it just seemed wrong, that that was the wrong way to serve this relationship. So, it can feed into it, what happens afterwards, but I have to be careful that I don’t play stuff that I don’t know yet, if you see what I mean.

Q. How would you feel if you bumped into Nigel Clough in the street?
Michael Sheen: From my point of view, with huge affection. I found myself drifting to the back pages of the paper all the time looking for the Derby results and I was going to ask everyone else if they’d put some of the proceeds from the film towards buying a new back four for Derby because I know Nigel was complaining… reading between the lines, his hands are tied, he’s very happy with how they’re attacking, but at the back there’s nothing he can do about it. So, I’m feeling very drawn to Derby at the moment and Nigel, and it’s amazing that there’s a Clough back at Derby. I’m sure Brian would be very moved by the fact that Nigel is there. But it must be very hard for him because how do you live as Brian Clough’s son if you’re a manager as well? That must be tough. But he’s a really good manager and I hope he can take Derby in the right direction.

Q. Which British football teams do you follow when you’re in America?
Michael Sheen: Well, I have a chequered past with teams. Weirdly, when we recreated the Charity Shield match the Liverpool team I’m walking out next to was my team. That was my team when I was a kid because I lived in Liverpool for three years between the ages of five and eight so I used to go and watch the matches and it was Keegan, Toshack, that team. But then I went back to Wales, and Toshack came to manage Swansea, so in my head I thought: “I can’t support Liverpool anymore because I don’t live there.” No one told me any different because my dad wasn’t really a football fan, he was a rugby fan, so I didn’t have the kind of mentoring that I needed to be a football fan.

Someone should have said: “You can still support Liverpool even though you don’t live there.” So, I started supported Swansea and then I felt bad about that because they were in the first division by then and I’m a fair-weather fan. So, then I supported Chelsea for a bit because Hoddle was player-manager there and he was my favourite player. And now I’m a Derby fan. So, I don’t watch any of it from America because I haven’t found anywhere that shows it unfortunately.

Q. Did you take the part with the mindset that Leeds were a bunch of cheats?
Michael Sheen: Well, Leeds were the big team when I was growing up and I suppose in the same way with a team like Manchester United now, that can inspire a lot of jealousy and envy and wanting them to be taken down a peg or two and all that kind of stuff. But that whole time for me in the 70s is when all these figures loom large in my imagination.

Cloughie is one of them, Leeds United as a team is one of them. I remember often being influenced by who supported them, so people who I knew or friends of mine helped to decide what I thought about them and what I thought about Leeds. It also depended on Panini football stickers, to be honest. If I was doing well with my Leeds United stickers, then I felt good about Leeds. If I wasn’t, I didn’t. So I’m afraid I can’t really say that my feelings about Leeds were based on their actual play, it was more to do with sideline issues – although they weren’t sideline issues for me at the time, obviously.

Q. Did your naturally curly hair cause any problems when playing a man with straight hair?
Michael Sheen: It’s always a problem. All the real-life characters I’ve played have all got straight hair so some poor person has to sit and have a nervous breakdown while I’m going: “No, that bit’s not right!”

Q. Have you ever thought about putting out a mix tape or compilation of all your famous voices?
Michael Sheen: Well, I did think that the way to connect them all is to have David Frost interview everyone. So, maybe I’ll do the David Frost talk show special one day and interview myself as all those characters.

Q. You’re soon to be seen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. What’s that like?
Michael Sheen: I have no idea what the film is going to be like because I don’t actually physically appear in it. So, I haven’t had to do very much in it. In fact, I’ve done nothing in it until this point! [Laughs] I went into a studio one day and recorded some lines and I’m going in again shortly to do some more. I’m sure it’s going to be marvellous though.

Read our review of The Damned United

Read our interview with Peter Morgan