Michael Sheen Talks Getting Inside a Cult Leader’s Head and His ‘Long Love Affair’ With Neil Gaiman
The journeyman actor opens up about his new Netflix cult thriller ‘Apostle’ and his upcoming sci-fi opus, the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens.’
Whether in historical dramas or supernatural thrillers, romantic comedies or Shakespearean tragedies, Michael Sheen is an unfailingly deft and electric screen presence. Having first made his name on the London stage, the 49-year-old actor has over the past fifteen years vacillated between diverse projects like the werewolf-vampire Underworld thrillers and Peter Morgan’s politically oriented The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship (in which he played former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), always bringing an intensity and humor to the material at hand. He’s what character actors strive to be—a chameleon who simultaneously possesses a distinctive charisma, as well as a gift for digging deeply into roles of both a modest and outsized nature.
He receives one of his juiciest parts to date in the newly released Apostle: early-twentieth-century cult leader Prophet Malcolm, who runs a wannabe-egalitarian commune on a remote island with the aid of devoted followers (not to mention an unholy force), and whose decision to kidnap a young woman and hold her for ransom compels her brother (Dan Stevens) to infiltrate the cooperative and stage a rescue mission. A fiery zealot with upstanding intentions but dubious methods, Malcolm affords the 49-year-old Welsh-born actor the opportunity to preach and rage with vehemence. Along the way, he helps make the grim, gruesome film—from The Raid director Gareth Evans—yet another unique feature offering from Netflix, where it is now exclusively streaming.
In advance of that bow, we spoke to Sheen about his fondness for genre endeavors, whether any current real-world demagogues inspired his performance, and his eagerly anticipated co-starring turn alongside David Tennant in next year’s TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s apocalyptic buddy comedy Good Omens.
You come from a theater background, but you’ve starred in numerous genre projects, including the Underworld and Twilight movies, Tron: Legacy and now Apostle. What it is that appeals to you about that sort of material—and is it something to which you’ve always been attracted?
There’s my taste as an actor and then there’s my taste as a fan, I suppose. Whenever there’s a chance for them to cross over, that’s great. (Laughs) I’ve always loved fantasy and science-fiction, and started reading comic books when I got to drama school. Horror has never been something that I’ve explored that much myself, personally. I’m still scarred by episodes of Starsky & Hutch that I saw when I was a kid, so that shows you what sort of stomach I have for it. But my favorite filmmaker is David Lynch, so the idea of unnerving psychological horror is something I’ve loved.
I’m in no way a horror aficionado, although it seems to have been passed on somewhere in the genes, because my daughter kind of is. But with this script, one of the number of things that really hooked me was that it had a combination of elements I’d never really seen before—I think because of Gareth being steeped in Asian cinema, and combining certain elements within Asian cinema with more Western, and certainly British, traditions. The film is clearly drawing on influences like The Wicker Man and The Devils. But there are elements within it that you just don’t see, ever. And I thought, I don’t know whether it’ll work or not, but it’s certainly going to be interesting one way or another.
Also, of course, it’s Gareth Evans. I’ve been following his career, and he’s a fellow Welshman, and a Welsh director out there having success in areas that we’re not used to seeing, really, with The Raid and The Raid 2. The fact that those films came from a Welsh director was so odd at the time. I understand now, but at the time it was really interesting. I’d been following his career anyway, so when the script arrived and it was from him, I was instantly interested. And also, coincidentally, the film was shot in my hometown in Wales, in Margam Park, which is the park I grew up going to. Those were all big draws for me—aside from the fact that it’s a character I just really loved, and it gave me an opportunity to explore the alternative life path that I never took, which was becoming a tub-thumping, barnstorming preacher.
Is that what specifically attracted you to Prophet Malcolm?
I like the idea of a cult leader—that’s an interesting area to explore. I liked the idea that it was not modern-day; that it was set at the beginning of the 20th century. In terms of what was going on in Britain and Wales particularly at that time, there was the Welsh Revival, which is an interesting area to do with religion and the supernatural sort of combining. I worked with Gareth on this aspect of the character—that he’s someone who’s been propelled by a very pure vision. He has a dream of a fairer society and a place for people who have been outcasts, and are on the margins of society. He welcomes them into a community on this island, and it very much is supposed to be grounded in the ideals of equality and fairness and justice.
He’s a political religious figure, and I thought that was really interesting. And to explore the idea of how much someone is prepared to compromise and ignore and look away from, in order to hold on to their dream. Someone thinking that the end justifies the means, until suddenly it doesn’t. Rather than him being this evil bad guy character, I liked the idea that he’s someone who’s been corrupted in the pursuit of a very noble ideal. I thought that made it much more interesting.
Malcolm certainly isn’t a straightforward villain. Is it crucial to play him as if he believes he’s doing the right thing?
In a way, it gets closer to a much more lifelike source of evil, as opposed to a filmic bad guy. Rather than someone reveling in his own badness. People tend to do the most harm in the pursuit of good aims. That can often be the case. We’re all the hero of our own story, obviously. But often the most damaging things can come from people who are really driven by what can start off as noble intentions, but the means don’t really match up to the goal. It’s much more interesting to play that. There’s nothing wrong with playing a sort of pantomime, campy villain, as long as that’s what you’re setting out to do. This was never meant to be that, so I wanted to try and bring as much complexity to it as possible.
Any real-life inspirations—say, current political demagogues in America—for your take on Malcolm?
(Laughs) Not really, no. Like I said, I was fascinated by the idea of what was going on around that time in Wales—that there were two big strands going. On the one hand, you had this Welsh religious revival going on, where things were happening in chapels across Wales that were unexplainable, and thousands of people were coming to these happenings. And the church establishment was both excited by this and had no control over it. And at the same time, there’s this other political strand that the Labour Party eventually grew out of, which has to do with a desire for greater equality for working people. Those two strands, which were actually going on at the time—I wanted to bring that into Malcolm. It helped shape how we looked at that character, and the work we did on him.
Gareth Evans is obviously best known for of his martial-arts Raid films. Were you disappointed you didn’t get to partake in any hand-to-hand combat here?
(Laughs) Actually, it was a relief for me, because it was the first role I played after I’d had an accident on a previous job where I’d torn my ACL, which resulted in me having to have surgery. I couldn’t work for about six months, and this was my first job back. Hence the walking stick…
Was that to accommodate your recovery?
Yes. We developed a whole backstory for the walking stick, and the art department came up with this amazing walking stick made out of driftwood that we found on the beach, and we put that into the film. But ultimately, it was so I could get around when I was still recovering from my ACL injury. So the idea of doing any fight stuff would have been a bit too much for me. It was perfect timing, really.
Next up, you have the Amazon series Good Omens, which just premiered its first trailer at New York Comic-Con. I’ve read you’re friends with author Neil Gaiman—were you also a longtime fan of the book?
I left Wales and went to London to go to drama school when I was 18, and when I got there, one of the people in my year, my friend Gary, said to me, “Do you read comics?” And I said, no. He went, “Alright, here you go. Here’s Watchmen, here’s Swamp Thing, here’s Hellblazer and here’s Sandman.” That introduced me to the world of comics and, specifically, to Neil Gaiman, and I became a huge fan of his work. Then, within the next year, when I was in drama school, Good Omens came out. Because I had already started reading Sandman, I got my copy of the book and read it. And it was the first thing by Terry Pratchett that I had come across, so I started reading all the Discworld novels after that, and continued my love of Neil’s work.
Many years later—I think it was when I was doing Underworld, or maybe around the time of Twilight; I was working on something that was in the fantasy/sci-fi area—in one of the interviews about it, I mentioned that I loved Neil’s work, along with Philip K. Dick and Grant Morrison and other people in the genre area. Then one day, there was a knock on my door, and a huge box had arrived for me, and it was full of rare copies and first editions of Neil’s stuff, with a card saying “From one fan to another.”
That began the long love affair between me and Neil, where we met up and we’ve been firm friends ever since. So the genesis of Good Omens coming to the screen—I’ve sort of watched it happen over the years. I was there when Neil was talking to Terry Gilliam about it becoming a film. And when Neil started writing his first drafts for the scripts of this, he sent them to me, and I got to watch it all grow. So on the one hand, just from a fan point of view, to bring that book onto the screen was already wonderful. But the fact that Neil is a friend and I’ve been a part of the development of it is wonderful as well. It really has been a bit of a dream job for me.
Is it daunting to tackle an adaptation like this, where it has such a devoted following, and it’s been gestating for so long?
There are two sides to it, really. Because on the one hand, yes, as a fan, I feel as much as anyone else that I want it to be done well, and for justice to be done to it. You want it to be the adaptation that everyone has always hoped for. On the other hand, it’s incredibly exciting to just be a part of it, and to get the opportunity to be involved in it. So there are both those sides—the exhilaration and excitement, and the concern and worry.
But having Neil at the heart of it is what gives you the confidence to really throw yourself at it. Having Neil as showrunner—he’s done the adaptation, he’s there every day on set, he’s the key person who’s making creative decisions along with Douglas [Mackinnon], the director. So knowing that he’s at the helm does give you the confidence to really throw yourself into it. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have done it without Neil at the heart of it, because you have to change things, you have to find different ways of presenting stuff because it’s a different medium.
Neil, I think, relished that. Whereas I think someone else would have been really scared—rightfully so, because it’s someone else’s work, and you’re starting to change things. But I think that’s what Neil really enjoyed and was excited by. And it was Douglas who was the stickler for what was in the book, and the tradition of it. That combination between them worked really well, and gave us all—certainly David and I—the confidence to know we were in safe hands with it.
Apostle is premiering on Netflix, and Good Omens is an Amazon original. Are streaming services the wave of the future—and do you find that to be a heartening development?
From the point of view of the stories being made, and with the kind of budgets that they’re able to be made with—they’re able to be told in a scale and with the kind of ambition that projects like Good Omens certainly benefit from. It would be very difficult to imagine how Good Omens could have been made before now. So from that point of view, it’s great that these streaming services are committing to this kind of storytelling and these kinds of genre pieces. It’s fantastic for people who love that kind of stuff—and I include myself in that, as a viewer—and it’s also great as an actor, to be able to take part in it.
I certainly think they’re pushing the boundaries, and forcing change in other areas, which is great. It means that the kinds of stories and projects that might languish otherwise are being told in a manner that does them justice. I think it’s really exciting.