United is written by Peter Morgan, the scribe who also helped Sheen become Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon. (The pair also worked together on an earlier Blair film for the BBC, The Deal; later this year brings a third installment, The Special Relationship.Trilogy alert!) Like those earlier films, The Damned United meshes a fascinating sliver of history with a deft character study. Clough is a brilliant strategist and a plucky underdog, but he’s also a self-imploding narcissist and a glamour hound. It’s a tricky performance to pull off, but Sheen makes you adore Clough even after you realize just how completely he’s destroying himself.
Sheen talked to EW.com about The Damned United, why playing real people isn’t too different from playing vampires, and the secret ingredient for making Volturi leader Aro scary (hint: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) For historical accuracy and because it sounds cooler, “soccer” will be referred to as “football” throughout this Q&A.
EW: Most people in America probably haven’t heard of Brian Clough before. What did you know about him before you started work on The Damned United?
MICHAEL SHEEN: I knew him originally as the man on the TV my dad used to shout at whenever he came on. When I was growing up in the 70s, he would be on chat shows, and people were doing impersonations of him on entertainment shows, and he’d be on the football shows as well. So he was kind of everywhere. A very entertaining, but quite unsettling presence for me. There was something about him… I don’t know, it was like there was a kind of a desire in him. You could tell he was much more alive than anyone else that you saw on TV. There was something sort of restless. He required something of you when you watched him. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
He later became a very big alcoholic, and there was obviously a hole that he was trying to fill. There was a desperate kind of need, a sense of wanting to achieve something, even if he didn’t know quite what it was. That came across: that need to have your attention, that need to get a response from you, kind of jumped out of the TV screen when I was watching him as a kid. That was entertaining and interesting and mesmeric, but also quite unsettling and quite scary. He’s one of the great iconic figures in Britain, not just in sport but in our culture. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know him, in a way.
After watching the movie, I searched for Brian Clough on YouTube, and it does seem like there’s an infinite array of TV clips of him.
He never refused an opportunity to be on television.
It seems like you’re interested in people who to live their life on TV: Tony Blair in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and now Clough. What attracts you to playing these very public figures?
It’s useful, because it means there’s lots of TV clips to watch them on. But I think what I’m drawn to, because I’m a part of it as well, is the idea of someone who has as much of a public life as they have a private life. After awhile, they sort of bleed into each other. I’m interested in how, in performing for the public or being on display somehow, people blur their identity to themselves. With characters like Blair, Frost, and Clough, there was always the question of how much of what you’re seeing is authentic. How much is real? Can you take them seriously? Does they have any substance? Or are they all ambition? With Clough, it was: how much of the persona that he put on was all to court the media and to make himself into a star?
But with sport, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For the most part in his life, Clough was one of the greatest achievers in the game. What he managed to do with teams that are nothing, to take them to the very top, is something that will never be surpassed. The sort of managers that are around today won’t be picking up second division, third division teams and taking them to the top. They start at the top.
You can’t question Clough in that respect, because he really did deliver. But this film concentrates on that one time in his life, when someone who’s used to winning and used to achieving suddenly can’t do it. That was fascinating to me.
It doesn’t feel very much like a typical sports film; it’s much more about the interesting power dynamics behind the sport itself.
Exactly. I remember when The Queen first came out, it was quite a hard sell, because people weren’t that interested in watching what they thought would just be a biopic about the Queen. Same with Frost/Nixon, where people thought, “Do I really want to see a film about an interview?” There’s always a hard sell aspect to the films me and Peter Morgan make together. [Laughs]
Are you a big football fan?
I was obsessed with football when I was growing up. When I was 12, I was offered a place on the Arsenal youth team, which would have meant coming through the ranks and hopefully, eventually, coming to the first team. That would’ve been a long way off, but nevertheless, I was given the opportunity to take it up as a career. That would have made me very, very happy, at the time.
But it would have meant moving from Wales to London as a family. It was just too big an upheaval, so my father said “no” on my behalf. I was very upset by at the time, but very grateful for later on. The chance of actually getting through to the first team and playing professional football in the Premiership is so slim, really, and your career is so short.
It seems like there’s these two very divergent strands in your career right now: playing these true-life figures, and playing decidedly unrealistic characters: vampires, werewolves, and now, the White Rabbit in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. How is your preparation different for the more fantastical roles?
It’s all in order to achieve the same things: an imaginative connection and an emotional connection. In the case of playing the real-life people, it means watching as much footage as I can, reading about them as much as I can, maybe meeting people who knew them. I’m ultimately just looking for the bits in me that correspond to them.
Every time you play a more fantastical character that’s been done many times, like a vampire, you’re kind of riffing on what’s already gone before. You’re partly using what the audience already know and expect in order to slightly subvert their expectations, to play with that. Which is sort of what Peter Morgan does in the films that we’ve done about the real people.
When I was doing Aro in New Moon, [I thought about] certain characters that scared me as a child, like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the Blue Meanie in Yellow Submarine. It was their voice, and it was a certain softness that you could tell could turn nasty at any time. I think it’s a fantasy parent figure in a way. A parent can seem very kind and gentle, but as any child knows, as soon as that parent gets stressed, they can suddenly turn and get a bit angry. And that, writ large, can be very, very scary.
Are you excited to return to planet Twilight for Breaking Dawn?
I am! The whole Twilight juggernaut has been focusing on Eclipse for awhile, which I’m not in. They haven’t turned their attention to Breaking Dawn yet. But I’m looking forward to donning the red contacts again.