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Sheen, Michael (1969-)


Main image of Sheen, Michael (1969-)

Michael Sheen is a chameleon actor, famed for being able to get under the skin of a widely disparate range of real-life people. Without resorting to caricature or layers of latex, he's portrayed Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams, David Frost, H.G. Wells and football manager Brian Clough. He's known as a subtle and highly responsive actor; writer Peter Morgan, who scripted Sheen's roles as Blair, Frost and Clough, has praised his command of vocal nuance, and actor Matt Smith pays tribute to his ability "to capture the essence of someone without impersonating them". His gift for impersonation has equipped him perfectly for British film and TV's current preoccupation with recreating the recent past.

He was born in Newport, South Wales, to middle-class parents involved in local amateur dramatics. Turning down a potential football career and university, Sheen opted for drama school. He was early marked for success, landing parts on the West End stage before graduating from RADA, and soon established himself with lead roles in Shakespeare, Ibsen and Look Back in Anger. He made his TV debut in the three-part mystery thriller Gallowglass (BBC, 1993), and his film debut in the Jekyll-and-Hyde drama Mary Reilly (US/UK, d. Stephen Frears, 1996). In Wilde (UK/US, d. Brian Gilbert, 1997, with Stephen Fry in the title role) Sheen played Wilde's lover Robbie Ross.

Films roles followed in The Four Feathers (US, 2002), Heartlands (US/UK, d. Damien O'Donnell, 2003) and Stephen Fry's Evelyn Waugh adaptation Bright Young Things (2003). But it was the role of Tony Blair in The Deal (Channel 4, tx. 28/9/2003), Morgan's account of Blair's rise to power, that brought Sheen to fame. He was Blair again in the cinema film The Queen (d. Stephen Frears, 2006), opposite Helen Mirren as HM, and again in The Special Relationship (US/UK, d. Peter Morgan, 2010), about Blair's relationship with Bill Clinton. He was no less convincing as Kenneth Williams (Fantabulosa!, BBC, tx. 13/3/2006), H.G. Wells (War with the World, BBC, tx. 30/9/2006) and Brian Clough (The Damned United, UK/US, d. Tom Hooper, 2009). Frost/Nixon (US/UK, d. Ron Howard, 2008), in which Sheen played David Frost to Frank Langella's Nixon, was a filmed version of Morgan's stage play, with both actors reprising their stage roles.

He has taken on purely fictional roles, too, notably a compelling portrait of an obsessive-compulsive in Dirty Filthy Love (ITV, tx 26/9/2004). Underlining his versatility, Sheen voiced the White Rabbit in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (US, 2010), and played Tina Fey's love-interest Wesley in the cult US TV show 30 Rock (2010).

Philip Kemp

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Thumbnail image of Deal, The (2003)Deal, The (2003)

Controversial drama about the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown leadership pact

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