The Special Relationship: Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair

COULD Michael Sheen star as Tony Blair in a fourth film about the former prime minister?

I met up with Michael at a round table interview in London last month for a feature – still under embargo – to be published next week.

And also attended a special UK preview screening this week of The Special Relationship, the third in writer Peter Morgan’s trilogy about Blair after The Deal and The Queen.

Followed by a late night Q&A with Michael, Peter, producer Tracey Scoffield and Creative Director of BBC Films Christine Langan.

You can read my report from that event in MediaGuardian here, including Michael’s thoughts on a possible fourth appearance as Blair.

Sheen is typically brilliant in the epic and perceptive film, which is broadcast on BBC2 a week tomorrow after its American screening earlier this year.

Nominated for five Emmy Awards, the BBC / HBO co-production looks at how the relationship between Blair and US President Bill Clinton developed and changed, eventually turning Blair into a political superstar.

Dennis Quaid plays Clinton, with Hope Davis as wife Hillary Clinton and Helen McCrory reprising her role as Cherie Blair.

There will be lots more from Michael both in the MEN and this blog next week.

But, for now, I thought some of those interested in Sheen, Morgan and the film who were unable to get to the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank on Wednesday might like a few more extracts from the Q&A, chaired by journalist Simon Hattenstone.

Sheen spoke about his 2009 meeting with Blair at Rupert Murdoch’s house in Los Angeles, before he filmed The Special Relationship.

“He gave me a good old look up and down when I first met him. And he says he hasn’t seen the films. But he has an incredibly good working knowledge of the films. In fact, I understand that he now quotes from the films in his own book, which I haven’t read.”

Earlier this week Morgan said he suspected Blair’s account in his memoir of what was said when he went to kiss hands with the Queen in 1997 was actually taken from his film The Queen.

Asked if he believed Blair when he said he had not seen the films, Sheen replied:

“No. But I understand why he says that, because he says that he’s seen them, then people can ask him whether various things are true or not and he just wants to bypass the whole thing. So it’s fair enough. I don’t find it ridiculous that he said that he hasn’t seen the films. But he clearly has because he talked about them with me. I think he probably likes The Queen best. I wouldn’t imagine that he likes The Deal very much.”

Doe he have to have empathy or sympathy with Blair to play him?

“Yes, of course. Cards on the table. He’s a character that I play. I love him, because I love every character I play. It would be ridiculous if I didn’t. I’m not going to sit here and go, ‘I don’t like Blair.’ It’s gone way beyond a politician or a leader. It’s a character I played three times. The whole point of my job is that I have to connect with this character. Now I don’t know Tony Blair. I’ve met him once. I can’t say anything I know about him. But I know this character that I play and that character has developed and evolved and changed and gone in different directions. How much similarity it bears to the actual Tony Blair, I’ve no idea. And I don’t really care.”

Morgan said: “That’s exactly how I feel about it. When I’m asked about Blair, I go, ‘What do you mean?’ There’s this bloke that I write about who happens to be called Tony Blair and I don’t know if it’s like him at all. In the end, when an audience watches, they’re a much better judge of whether we’re doing it right or not than we are.”

Speaking about why he felt the urge to write about Blair, Morgan added: “He was the first prime minister that didn’t feel like an alien. And he was somebody that I really had high hopes for and investment in. I celebrated when he was elected. I’m sure if I met him, I’d like him. I haven’t ever met him.”

Sheen said: “In America, certainly, people think of Blair as being this really great guy and really intelligent and we all loved him. And then he did this weird thing that we never really quite understood. It was actually very consistent, everything that happened. Just plotting all the things that empowered Blair and that gave him a sense of right and wrong and that he was justified and why he made the choices he made. Nevertheless within that, it’s not like trying to put across a point of view about him. I’m still looking at playing a real living person, who’s three-dimensional and flawed and as much a mystery to himself as anyone else. I can only really play myself through the mask of somebody else.“

Michael Sheen as Blair and Dennis Quaid as Clinton

Asked why his portrayal of Blair in The Special Relationship contained fewer “mannerisms and voices,” Sheen explained:

“When we did The Deal that was the first time I’d ever played a real person that people were very familiar with. And when I watch it now, I cringe, just for what I’m doing, because it’s seems so ‘much.’ I just want to go, ‘Calm down.’ And then on The Queen it started to settle a little bit. And then by this one…having met him made a big difference. Just being in the same room as him and just seeing how he moves the air and how he is with people, physically. Something just shifted for me. And so generally through the three films, I’ve backed off a lot. Also I think I’ve got better at playing him. I’m focusing in different areas. I think I’ve just got better at playing real people. I’ve settled into that more.”

Morgan spoke of how Blair had changed over the years, along with his urge to write more about him:

“I think there was much more social democratic secularism in him early on and that it grew and changed. He was a bit like a paint chart. I don’t think we’ve…the increasing removal away from Cabinet government into sofa government and instinct government. I kind of feel this is what I’ve got to do. This is just the way I feel and I’m unapolagetic. It’s a conviction.”

Would Morgan’s script have been ruder if the film had not been a British-US co-production?

“They see the world through their prism,” he replied. “They have a noble tradition in journalism of fact-checking far more thoroughly than we do. It’s absolutely extraordinary. We were fact-checked to death on this. I’d have been ruder…mischievous. That’s just what it is to be English. I felt some bits were missing.”

Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair

Did Morgan think he had been too kind in his portrayal of Cherie in this latest film?

“I think we probably, on balance, are too nice to Cherie. I don’t mean that cruelly. I think I probably write her more as an interrogating foil to Blair and Blair’s conscience. And so she is written a bit like Rosa Luxemburg.”

“Cherie, I regret sometimes, fulfils a narrative function that I think is probably not entirely true to her character and I think, in the end, paints a rather more flattering picture than is perhaps the case.”

Sheen added: “She’s always good value comedy-wise.”

Asked to name his favourite film of Morgan’s that he’s been in, Sheen replied: “The Damned United. Clough’s my favourite character. I like them all. I mean, I’m brilliant in them all,” he laughed. “They’re all brilliantly written. But that’s my favourite.”

Whether or not he makes a fourth film, Morgan insisted he will not be returning to Downing Street after the Blair years.

Asked by an audience member if he saw similar dramatic potential in the emerging relationship between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, he replied: “It doesn’t interest me in the slightest.”

The Special Relationship. BBC2 9.30pm Saturday September 18.

Peter Morgan: I Can Do One More Blair Film

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