Michael Sheen talks hummus, Richard Gere and Masters of Sex
The Welsh actor is in the new movie Norman by Israeli director Joseph Cedar. In an interview with Ynet, he talks about his introduction to Israeli culture on the set of the movie, what it was like working with Cedar and Hollywood star Richard Gere, and the last season of TV show Masters of Sex.
In a phone interview from California, Sheen says he was hoping to attend the Israel premiere, but his knee left him bedridden.
While working on the movie, did you learn anything that surprised you about Israel?
"I am embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Israel... so everything is a wonderful surprise to me. (It was an) opportunity to learn a little bit more about Israel and Israeli culture and to be able to talk with the other actors about how the film industry and entertainment industry works over there.”
Do you like hummus? That's a question we ask all foreign actors. I'm sorry; they won't publish this interview without the hummus question.
"I was a very late developer when it came to hummus,” Sheen says, laughing. “I don't think I even tasted hummus until I was probably in my 30s. I come from a small town in Wales and we didn't have a lot of hummus there when I was growing up. There were a lot of things I didn't experience or taste until I got to London and I went to drama school. And again, some not until I've been to America. Hummus was a very very late thing, but one that I've enjoyed immensely ever since."
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer (Gere), a Jewish-American politico from an older generation—he is innocent but stubborn. Norman invests all of his time and efforts in making connections in the hopes that one day it pays off.
And then one day it does, when he forms ties with a young Israeli politician (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi) who unexpectedly becomes the prime minister three years later. The movie was likely inspired by the ties between former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and businessman Moshe Talansky, who used to be married to Cedar’s aunt.
The 48-year-old Sheen plays a lawyer named Philip, Norman’s nephew, who supports him during his moderate rise and mostly through his tragic fall.
“I read the script and I just thought it was a fantastic story,” he says. “I really liked the relationship between Philip and Norman. There's a strong family bond there. Joseph (Cedar) and I talked a lot about the background and the back story of the character. We talked about the idea that when Philip was a young boy growing up, Norman was a sort of hero figure for him. So much about Norman is presenting the illusion of a personality. Norman likes to cultivate the idea that he is far more than he actually is. And for a young boy, when Philip was much younger, that would have been very powerful. Norman would have been a giant sort of figure to look up to.
"Joseph told me about someone in his family that he sort of based the character of Norman on, this uncle who would meet him in the lobby of grand hotels. Of course you would assume that he was staying there but he wasn't. He would just greet people in the lobby and make it look like he was staying there.
"So the idea that Philip had grown up with Norman being a sort of a hero figure, and as Philip got older and started to see the reality of what is actually going on, he sees through that and sees that Norman is actually not what he pretends to be. But there is still this strong bond with him, because of how he once felt about him."
Have you seen the film yet?
"I watched the film and I really, really enjoyed it so much and I was very impressed by Richard's work. I really hope that Richard (Gere) and Joseph (Cedar) get the support that they deserve for this, because I really think Richard gave his career-high performance. It's so different to what people have come to expect of Richard. From the very first scene that we did together, I really enjoyed working with him. It was clear that he was someone who was really in the zone with his character.
“The finished project is not always what you would hope necessarily, so being able to watch the film and see all of that work pay off, and go beyond even what I expected, was such a pleasure."
But this experience with the world of politics was not foreign to Sheen. He knows a little more about the topic than the average Hollywood actor. Even though he left Wales for Los Angeles to be a little closer to his ex, Kate Beckinsale, and their 18-year-old daughter Lily Mo, Sheen is still very much interested in the social and political developments in Britain. Quite often, he makes comments—on Twitter or when speaking in public—about current affairs in the UK. He’s also very involved with charity organizations and never misses an opportunity to side with the common citizen while rebuking politicians.
Sheen recently discussed in an interview the possibility of abandoning his acting career and his current partner, comedian Sarah Silverman, to return to Britain and enter local politics. He later denied that, however, claiming he was misunderstood. This makes him a lot more cautious in interviews nowadays.
"I'm not sure that I would be getting into politics,” he says. “I think the political world is very difficult to navigate through. I would like to get more involved in social and community issues, as that's something I'm more and more interested in. But I'm not looking to go into politics in any official sort of way."
I'm sure it's not as appealing or exciting as acting.
"I think it's a lot more exciting, because it's a direct relationship with people's lives and there's no scriptwriter deciding how things are going to go. You don't know how things are going to turn out and the stakes are incredibly high because it's about real people's lives. In acting, we always talk about what the stakes are in a scene. You don't have to look at what the stakes are in life, they just are high. It's much more unpredictable and much more important in a lot of ways.
"A lot of people don't feel represented, don't feel like they have a voice or that they have a platform to express what they feel, want and need. As an actor, you have a certain amount of celebrity, you do have a platform and it's important to me to use that platform whenever I can to enable other people to speak through it."
He still finds plenty of time for acting. Among his main roles is that of Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s Blair trilogy about the British politician’s career, which includes the movie The Queen. Sheen also played British journalist David Frost in the movie Frost/Nixon.
On the small screen, he is best known as Bill Masters, the sex researcher on the show Masters of Sex, which concluded last year with its fourth and final season.
But while Masters of Sex is over (spoilers to follow), updates about Sheen and girlfriend Sarah Silverman’s sex life keep on coming, mostly because Silverman enjoys tweeting about the names he gives his penis, or the things she likes to tell him after sex. Their relationship also provides her with endless material for her standup comedy, but Sheen has no problem with that because “No one will ever believe that it’s true.”
Sheen is getting along quite nicely with Silverman’s Jewish family. "On the phone to Sarah, (her father) said that 'Michael's my favorite daughter,'" Sheen told Jimmy Kimmel, Silverman's ex, during an interview on the latter's show. "Before he met me for the first time, he watched all of Masters of Sex, and the very first thing he ever said to me was 'Hey Michael, nice tuches!'"
Silverman was cast for a role on Masters of Sex even before she and Sheen became a couple—she played Helen, the lesbian girlfriend of Masters and Johnson’s secretary, Betty. But before filming even began, reports of the two dating had started popping up in American media. The show’s producers considered recasting the role, but Sheen assured them he had no problem working with Silverman. In fact, they only had two scenes together in the final season and asked for more, which brought Helen to Dr. Masters’ office for a gynecologic examination, a scene they both described as an “interesting experience.”
The fourth season was very good for Bill Masters, he went through so many changes.
"I've always enjoyed playing that character. The story I wanted to tell was of a man who changes so much, and that informed everything. I wanted to start that character as someone who seemed so in control of his life and is doing really well. From the outside, it seemed like he had everything. But he’s actually a man who was completely imprisoned by his own personality and his own character flaws. And then to show a man who changes all the time and is able to break out of that prison and find the kind of freedom and happiness that was cut off from him at the beginning of the story. The devastation of his life and the destruction of what he had built up had to happen before he could break out of that.
"I like the idea that doing a TV series, where you're doing multi-episodic storytelling over a number of years, it gives an opportunity to really explore how change works in a person's life in a way that is maybe a lot more limited on film, where you have to do a lot of shortcuts. Whereas (on TV), you can tell the story in a lot more detail and really look at the idea of how change functions in a person's life all the time.
"Especially in something that wasn't as much plot-driven. Our story is much more character-driven. It's not like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, where the plot and the story is the main thing. So in something that's more character-driven, you really have the time and the space to explore the reality and complexity of people."
Bill even became more handsome, if I may say so.
"Well, I suppose he becomes more authentic, and that's always attractive, isn't it?” he says, laughing. “At the beginning of the series, everything is so controlled, because when he was a young boy he was physically abused by his father and I think that creates a fear of the universe being out of control. If the person that's supposed to protect you is actually harming you, then your universe is out of control, there are no rules. So he was a man who grew up with an overly developed sense of control, but it means that he can't be who he really is. So as he changed, he started to become a more authentic version of himself."
The writers weren't as kind towards Virginia Johnson. She became even more manipulative and aggressive.
"When we first started working on the show, we were very interested in the idea that it was based on real people and real events. People who worked with Bill and Virginia towards the end of their career always talked about Bill as being the one who was very warm and very friendly, while Virginia was a much more difficult personality, much colder and quite frightening. We thought it would be really interesting to start the story with Bill being the one who is very forbidding and quite scary and cold and that Virginia was the one who was very warm and very good with people. And over time, that would change. Because of events, because of what happened, the circumstances would lead them to sort of almost swap identities in a funny way. That meant that the audience felt much warmer towards Virginia at the beginning of the story, but by the end of it they were starting to be put off by her. And that was intentional, obviously."
The look on Bill's face after their wedding, when he realized Virginia invited journalists...
"Yeah. We liked the idea that the thing the audience wants is to see Bill and Virginia finally together. And when they actually get together and they get married, you see that it's potentially a big mistake."
In reality, Sheen says, Masters and Johnson did get married, "but they didn't end their lives married to each other. Bill eventually married Dody, the character that came in on this last season, who was his childhood sweetheart. And Virginia ended up living alone in an apartment in New York, and towards the end of her life she ended up saying that she had never had any feelings for Bill and that he had forced her into having sex with him. So it was a very dark end to Virginia's life."
Sheen says it was hard to say goodbye to Bill Masters. "It was very sad to end (the show), but it was decided that it was probably a good point to stop. Maybe we'll come back and do another bit when we're in our 70s, or something, as old people..."