Michael Sheen: ‘I find it very hard to accept actors playing Welsh characters when they aren’t Welsh’

Unforgettable: Michael Sheen - Andy Gotts/Camera Press
Unforgettable: Michael Sheen - Andy Gotts/Camera Press

Michael Sheen has had it with the Prince of Wales. Not the man, but the title. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s just silly. I see no reason why the title should continue. Certainly not with someone who’s not Welsh.”

“That’s not the majority view,” he adds, with resignation. “So, whatever the majority of people want, I’m sure will continue.”

The star of Frost/Nixon and proud son of Port Talbot is chatting via video from a bucolic spot close to his hometown (a deer has just wandered into view), but even at a distance, it’s not hard to see that Sheen is a man of strong convictions.

He has spoken in the past about the opportunity to retire the title after the death of Elizabeth II, as a gesture to “put some of the wrongs of the past right”. In 2020, he returned the OBE he was “honoured” to have received in 2009 when he felt it would make him a hypocrite to give a lecture about how the English king Edward I “put a stranglehold on Wales” at the turn of the 14th century.

When we chat, he’s about to begin shooting his TV directing debut The Way – co-created with playwright James Graham and documentary-maker Adam Curtis, about a family caught in a civil uprising, set in and around Port Talbot. The BBC project is the first from the production company that he set up with Sherlock producer Bethan Jones to focus on telling Welsh stories because, “You can shout about how bad it is, but if you want to see something be different then do it, you know?”

Michael Sheen returned the OBE he received in 2009 - Johnny Green/PA Wire
Michael Sheen returned the OBE he received in 2009 - Johnny Green/PA Wire

The 54-year-old is one of the actors of his generation, a stage star in his twenties (The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called him “outrageously charismatic”) who went on to create unforgettable screen portraits of Tony Blair (The Queen, The Deal), Chris Tarrant (Quiz) and Brian Clough (The Damned United), alongside his David Frost in Peter Morgan’s play and film about the 1977 interviews that brought down the US president. Recently, Sheen has gained a whole new tranche of fans playing a very arch angel opposite David Tennant’s insouciant demon in Amazon’s Good Omens – not technically gay characters according to the Terry Pratchett-Neil Gaiman source novel, but seemingly in love.

Tennant and he have a natural chemistry on and off screen, Sheen says, adding that “he stops me being too grumpy”. He is a little on the grumpy side. In one exchange, in which I suggest he is a supporter of Welsh independence, he responds hotly: “Show me where it says that. I don’t believe I’ve ever said that.” Sam Mendes compared Sheen to fellow Welsh stars Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton – “fiery, mercurial, unpredictable”.

But he shares a warm screen chemistry with Sharon Horgan in Jack Thorne’s moving new four-part drama Best Interests. They play the parents of a child with congenital muscular dystrophy, the adorable Marnie (played by Dublin actor Niamh Moriarty), who suffers a seizure that leaves her without brain function. The couple find themselves on opposite sides of an unbearable decision: whether or not to switch off their daughter’s life support. Very few will make it through the drama without tears, but the issues it raises will be familiar to all who have followed recent legal battles over 12-year-old Archie Battersbee and baby Alfie Evans.

'He stops me being too grumpy': Michael Sheen with David Tennant in Good Omens - Sophie Mutevelian/BBC
'He stops me being too grumpy': Michael Sheen with David Tennant in Good Omens - Sophie Mutevelian/BBC

Best Interests is “heartbreaking” at times, he admits, which makes the humour that he and Horgan bring to it all the more important. They hadn’t worked together before. “That relationship had to do a lot of heavy lifting. Sharon and I didn’t know each other very well… but straight from the off, we had a very similar sense of humour and made each other laugh.” Moriarty’s is a break-out performance – one scene involving make-up beautifully captures the parent-child relationship. She has cerebral palsy that affects her legs, a condition called spastic diplegia, but she’s not the only disabled actor in the piece.

Bafta-winner Lenny Rush, 14, who in real-life has a condition that affects his growth, is brilliant as George, who sets his cap at Marnie. Mat Fraser, who plays a legal advocate in Best Interests and portrayed Shakespeare’s Richard III in 2017, has a thalidomide impairment, which likely gave him an insight into Richard’s sense of “my deformity”.

Thorne, who experienced a chronic medical condition in his twenties, has said in the past that disabled people have been “utterly and totally” failed by the TV industry. In Best Interests, one parent of a child with a disability states baldly that people “hate” disabled people. “I think people can feel very uncomfortable around people with disabilities,” Sheen says. “A lot of the time it’s just to do with ignorance about, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t know, what should I do?’ It can make interaction quite awkward at times, and it can bring out people’s fears.”

The fact that there were several people with disabilities working on the project, he says, was striking because it brought home how rarely he had seen it before. It leads into a discussion of how far actors can credibly play identities they don’t personally inhabit. Sheen has thought about it: “You know, seeing people playing Welsh characters who are not Welsh, I find, it’s very hard for me to accept that. Not particularly on a point of principle, but just knowing that that’s not the case.

“That’s a very different end of the spectrum, but a part like Richard III is such a great character to play, it would be sad to think that that character, you know, is no longer available or appropriate for actors to play who don’t have disabilities, but that’s because I’m just not used to it yet, I suppose. Because I fully accept that I’m not going to be playing Othello any time soon.

“Again, it’s not particularly a point of principle, but personally, I haven’t seen many actors who have come from quite privileged backgrounds being particularly compelling as people from working-class backgrounds. If you haven’t experienced something, you know, the extreme example is, well, if you haven’t murdered someone, can you play a murderer?”

Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen - Samuel Dore/BBC
Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen - Samuel Dore/BBC

In 2021, it was reported that Sheen intended to be a “not-for-profit” actor, after selling his own properties to ensure the Homeless World Cup that he had organised in Cardiff in 2019 went ahead when funders withdrew. So, what is a not-for-profit actor?

“There’s no such thing,” he says. “In that interview, I talked about how the ideal I was aiming towards was working like a not-for-profit company. When I put the money into the Homeless World Cup, since then I only owe money, so in terms of profits, there are no profits. I put as much of the money I make as I possibly can into either funding and supporting what other people are doing that I believe in, or starting up projects myself.”

It’s a measure of Sheen’s confidence that he knows the parts will keep coming. He has become a father again in his 50s; he and his partner, 28-year-old Swedish actor Anna Lundberg, have two young daughters. “My knees creak a lot more,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to get up and down off the floor when you’re playing with the baby.”

Sheen also has a grown-up daughter, Lily Mo Sheen, 24, from an earlier relationship with British actress Kate Beckinsale. “When my eldest daughter was born, I was still trying to make my way in my career and having to make harder choices about whether to work away from home and how much time to be away and all that stuff,” he says. “This time around, that’s not as difficult as I’m more established as an actor. Physically, it’s hard. But the one thing that is always the same is, you know, poo doesn’t smell any better.”

Episode one of Best Interests is on BBC One on Monday 12 June at 9pm, with episode two the following day