The Remarkable Inconspicuousness of Michael Sheen

An actor so good you don’t know who he is

Sophia Stewart
Jan 3, 2019 · 12 min read

“People are not interested in me,” Michael Sheen told The Telegraph in June of 2016. “It is not through any great decision of mine… I’m not getting papped constantly. It is depressingly easy for me to have a low-profile life. No one really gives much of a shit about me.”

It’s okay if you haven’t heard of Michael Sheen; he’s an actor, but hardly a star. Sheen has never won Oscar or Tony or Golden Globe. He’s never been profiled by the Times or featured on the cover of GQ. He has yet to clinch first billing on a movie poster.

So why is it, then, that I give such an unrelenting shit about him?

Michael Sheen, Canvas

Obsession comes easy to me; it always has. I most frequently fixate on actors — despite my misandrist disposition, the male kind. At all times, I hold a small harem of male performers in my mind. I love the handsome, rugged, frame-dominating kind, like Justin Theroux or Adam Driver.

And then there’s Michael Sheen, who moves me in a way I’m not sure I understand.

A pale, mild-faced Welshman, Sheen tends toward roles that are neither commanding nor overtly masculine. He’s got a too-small chin and too-big ears, a bit of a crossbite and permanent bags under his eyes. His body is nothing to gawk at, and he’s exactly the height of the average white man. He doesn’t have the movie star look; the public figure he most resembles is Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, who got fired after Deepwater Horizon.

That’s not to discount Sheen’s appearance entirely: he’s got a thick head of curly hair and a rich voice. But on the whole, his looks are objectively unremarkable. He’s not unremarkable-looking in the way Josh Duhamel or Timothy Olyphant (who are, in fact, not the same person) are unremarkable-looking. Their Ken-doll facial symmetry renders them bland—technically good-looking enough to be an actor, not handsome enough to be a star.

Michael Sheen, on the other hand, is plainly just-average-looking, like an everyman on the squarer side, plucked from the streets of Wales in spite of his ordinary face. Whereas an unremarkably handsome actor may be pigeonholed as a knock-off rom-com lead or a soldier or a vaguely fuckable dad, Sheen’s not-that-special-but-not-quite-conventional looks render him un-typecastable. He could be anyone. His face is a pale canvas, ready to be painted over.

Sheen is one of our most agile and affecting living actors; few performers have straddled both drama and comedy with equal success. And it is precisely his low profile and unremarkable face — along with his exceptional talent — that are at the root of his extraordinary body of work.

The depressing ease, in the actor’s own words, with which Michael Sheen maintains relative anonymity is a vital asset. He boasts 83 IMDb credits, and has anchored Oscar darlings, starred in a prestige drama series, and appeared in box office hits like Passengers, Tron: Legacy, and three of the five Twilight films. Still can’t picture his face? Good.

Michael Sheen, Welshman

You cannot talk about Michael Sheen without talking about Wales. For a country of just over 3 million, it produces a disproportionate number of noteworthy actors, including Jonathan Pryce and Matthew Rhys. Director Sam Mendes has drawn the same connection: Sheen, he said in 1999, is “Welsh in the tradition of Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton: fiery, mercurial, unpredictable.”

Sheen was born in Port Talbot, a hometown he shares with Hopkins and Burton, forty-nine years ago. At nineteen, he moved to London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the oldest and most prestigious drama schools in Britain. He flipped burgers at a local fast food restaurant to pay his tuition.

Upon graduating, he dominated the West End. Several British theatre critics deemed him the “best young actor of his generation.” By twenty-five, The Independent defined him by his “powerful voice, instinctive presence, and ability to flip between comedy and tragedy at once.”

On stage, he was a natural lead: Peer Gynt in Peer Gynt, Henry V in Henry V, Mozart in Amadeus. Then film and television and Los Angeles came calling. “I was going up for films,” he recalled, “it was just audition after audition, and people would say: ‘Well, you’re the best actor we’ve seen, you’re perfect for this part — but the studio needs a bigger actor, they need a bigger name.’”

Despite his small star and small name, Sheen’s indiscriminate style of selecting roles helped him sustain a film career. He starred as a werewolf in the panned vampire-action trilogy Underworld, sporting a dark nipple-length mane, leather pants, and fangs. Then he wandered into three of the five Twilight movies as an evil vampire, again looking long-haired and ridiculous. He was hailed by critics as the best part of both franchises.

(Indulge me for a moment as I share this wonderful excerpt from Rolling Stone’s review of Twilight: New Moon: “Late in the film, a real actor, Michael Sheen, shows up as the mind-reading Aro, of the Italian Volturi vampires, and sparks things up. You can almost hear the young cast thinking, ‘Is that acting? It looks hard.’ So Sheen is quickly ushered out.”)

The RADA-trained thespian doesn’t regret making the subpar supernatural films that introduced him to American audiences: “I love fantasy,” he said. “A lot of people will think it’s rubbish, but I thoroughly enjoyed making it.”

And while Sheen churned out a half-dozen vampire movies, he also anchored some of the most critically lauded dramatic films and series of the twenty-first century. Unrecognizable to most audiences, Sheen built much of his dramatic career by inhabiting the lives of real people: first as Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, then interviewer David Frost in Frost/Nixon, then sex researcher William Masters in Masters of Sex.

With Sheen at the helm, you never feel that illusion-shattering realization of, “Oh, that’s [insert actor] playing [insert real-life figure].” He brings no extratextual baggage to the role; instead, he truly becomes that person. This applies equally to his fictional roles, as Sheen’s anonymity allows him to fully inhabit and vivify characters, making for a more immersive viewing experience. When you’ve never seen this guy before, it’s much easier to forget he’s really just an actor.

Michael Sheen, B-Lister

The Ulmer Scale — which sorts celebrities into A, B, C, and D listings — is flagrantly reductive and turns the nuanced spectrum of renown into a rigid caste system. That said, I’d place Michael Sheen squarely on the B-list.

In most of his films, he is a stand-out supporting figure, elevating whatever he’s in. But as a B-lister — and a foreign, average-looking B-lister at that — Sheen remains profoundly under the radar. You can imagine, then, that scouring the internet for traces of Michael Sheen is no easy task. You may find some scattered pieces from British outlets like The Guardian or The Independent, or a quick interview with NPR. But on the whole, Sheen’s online presence is spotty.

But then, after days of digging, you might discover a sparkling little gem. This time, it’s “An Ode to Michael Sheen’s Eyes,” a random 2015 post on the Slate Culture Blog. It praises his eye-work across his many roles, including the werewolves and robots and vampires. Of the six comments the piece earned, most were skeptical (“THOSE eyes? Really??? Sorry. Not even close. Nowhere near dreamy. I just have two words for you: Cillian Murphy.”). But it makes me think, and as I revisit his oeuvre, I should look him right in the eyes.

Michael Sheen, Serious Actor (or, Eyeball-Artist)

The first time Michael Sheen floored me was when he made me fall in love with a man I should have hated. At the start of Frost/Nixon, David Frost is a hack. The film’s characters agree that Frost—a tanned talk show host with a playboy reputation and a Bentley in his garage—had “achieved great fame without possessing any discernable quality.” He blows kisses to flight attendants and delights in giving autographs. With a languid English accent and an artificial smile, Frost is glib as all hell, the epitome of a distinctly male brand of phoniness that I cannot stand.

But I can’t take my eyes off him. And when the world is suddenly against him, dammit, I want him to come out on top.

“You know, you have very sad eyes,” a pretty conquest tells Frost to his chagrin. I look at the eyes — his permanently puffy, less-than-enrapturing eyes — and they tell me everything.

In 1977, Englishman David Frost interviewed the recently-resigned President Nixon. The goal: get him to confess to Watergate. Frost/Nixon is essentially a duel. Peter Morgan, who wrote the source play in which Sheen also starred, called it “a thinking man’s Rocky.” Both opponents, Sheen’s Frost and Frank Langella’s Nixon, are profoundly changed by their encounter. Frost, especially, evolves from a callow TV personality to an accomplished muckraker. This transformation is best felt in Michael Sheen’s eyes.

“You have very sad eyes.” These are eyes that don’t fit an amiable television host. Numb eyes that glaze over as he quips about a sausage robbery to his audience. Hungry eyes that sharpen at the sight of Nixon leaving the White House in defeat to helicopter back to Santa Barbara. Eyes that widen brightly as Frost recalls the feeling of “success in America” and lower dimly as he remembers the “emptiness when it’s gone, and the sickening thought that it may never come back.”

In their first interviews, Frost eyes Nixon with the generous attention of a talk show host. He spends most of their one-sided (Nixon-sided) conversation, for lack of a better term, smizing (Tyra Banks’ descriptor for smiling with one’s eyes). Nixon trounces him. In the hours after each lost interview, motionless eyes sit deep in a sagging face. Confronted with colleagues’ disappointment, the eyes glue themselves to the ground in humiliation. These are not the glinting eyes of a charismatic TV personality. Sheen’s eyes betray quiet shame that has seeped to the surface through the eye sockets.

And then, after long nights of study and self-reflection and strengthening, a sudden change. In their final interview, their Watergate interview, Sheen’s eyes are wide and clear and sharpened. They are steady and squinted in focus. They don’t break contact except to review the thorough notes at hand. The head leans closer and the eyes grow fiery as Nixon approaches confession: “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” “I’m sorry?” Frost quietly asks. A slight smile blossoms across his lips, and his brows raise above the eyes. The eyes tense, then release in catharsis, victory. I must have watched that tense-then-release ten times; full-body-chills, always.

I watched for the eyes again as I reviewed his work in The Queen, Masters of Sex, and Midnight in Paris. As Tony Blair, the eyes are warm and steady, sincere and attentive. As Bill Masters, the eyes are that of a socially awkward scientist, cold and precise and quick to avert. As asshole pseudointellectual Paul, the eyes are shifty and always-squinting in judgement, evaluating the comments of others with hostile scrutiny.

Sheen relinquishes his eyes to his characters. It’s an unassuming set, but one that reacts quickly, feels deeply, and reveals everything. You probably don’t know Michael Sheen; but once you’ve truly seen him — that is, once you’ve looked him in the eyes — he is impossible to shake.

Michael Sheen, Anomaly

Michael Sheen, dramatic actor is a shoe that seems to fit well enough. He is a British thespian trained at RADA with roots in Shakespeare and a long history of dominating the West End. Even his campier roles he plays with sufficient gloom and gravity. His eyes plumb the depths of human emotion. He is a serious performer.

But shoes come in pairs, and Michael Sheen embodies a duality that I don’t understand. Sheen is also a profoundly gifted comedic actor, and I simply cannot reconcile the two disparate performers — dramatic thespian and master of caricature — that he seems to be at once.

Who succeeds fully in both comedy and drama? (The crucial qualifier here is fully.) There are comedians who try their hands at dramatic roles: Steve Carell reinvented himself with Foxcatcher and Beautiful Boy, Robin Williams made a convincing leap in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets’ Society. Then there are dramatic actors who want to show us they can loosen up: Jon Hamm’s made his post-Mad Men pivot to comedy, and Tom Cruise was actually, like, pretty funny in Tropic Thunder.

But all of these performers carry with them the baggage of audience expectation: we see Steve Carell and think of Michael Scott or a 40-year-old virgin; Jon Hamm, in my mind, exists inextricably from Don Draper. As we watch them cross over — no matter how convincing they may be — it’s difficult to shake the feeling of Robin Williams playing a dramatic role, or Tom Cruise trying to be funny. Michael Sheen is unencumbered by such baggage.

Sheen’s celebrity identity has yet to crystalize. He has no signature epithet, can’t be boiled down to a snappy phrase (e.g. toothy Scientologist action-hero, foulmouthed badass Tarentino-muse, etc). If we, as a collective audience, haven’t decided (or haven’t cared enough to decide) what Michael Sheen is, then he can be whatever he wants to be. The public cannot corner him into one pole or another; he can move fluidly between drama and comedy, under the cover of obscurity.

Michael Sheen, Caricature Actor (or, Body-Master)

We’ve made strides so far: we know his anonymity makes his performances immersive, his eyeballs are his biggest dramatic assets, and he’s a drama-comedy double threat. That’s all well and good. But there are few performers that can make me laugh like Michael Sheen, and I want to know why.

Sheen’s comedic work is grounded entirely in character. His comedy is never self-aware because, in the eyes of most audiences, there is no pre-existing self to be aware of. (It’s a good thing — comedy that leans too heavily on spoofing extratextual knowledge tends to be lazy, e.g. “Haha look it’s Emma Watson in This Is the End being sooo un-Emma-Watson-like.”) So instead, he creates original, exaggerated characters from scratch.

On his blank canvas body, he paints outrageous caricatures, crafted with the thoroughness of a meticulous thespian. On 30 Rock, he’s a sniveling bachelor named Wesley Snipes who takes serious umbrage with the science of Hot Tub Time Machine. In 7 Days in Hell, he’s a greasy, lecherous talk show host who smokes because he “rages inside like a furnace.” He impersonates Bob Fosse (as a gruff choreographer named Carl Flossey) in Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special and plays a shifty-eyed “homosexual” informant in The Spoils of Dying.

If Michael Sheen’s eyes are the source of his dramatic genius, then his body is the source of his comedic genius. As Wesley, for example, his comedic aim is to annoy (Wesley insists he and Liz are “settling soulmates;” Liz insists, “God, I hate you.”), and his insufferableness is all in the body.

Wesley moves in all the wrong ways at the wrong times. He’s too stiff when he’s telling Liz “I’m your best option.” He’s too animated when he’s pretending to search for Liz’s “better options,” sticking his head out and clasping his hands like a rodent (“An excellent pantomime’s supposed to look idiotic.”) He’s too enthusiastic when Liz begrudgingly brings him to an ex’s wedding, responding to her surrender with a truly bizarre Napoleon-Dynamite-style “yessss” fist-pull. And he’s too clumsy when he crashes his bicycle into the back of a taxi (“Gangway for foot cycle!”).

Sheen’s body finds itself at the heart of the rest of his comedy. In 7 Days in Hell, he slumps over in his chair to make a belly, crosses his legs, dangles a cigarette, and pushes in his chin to double it. He squints his eyes when he speaks and gulps loudly at the sight of his male interviewee’s abs. In The Spoils of Dying, he flitters about his living room in a panic, squealing and convulsing and rattling a cocktail shaker in a brilliantly choreographed meltdown. Even in Tron: Legacy, he makes himself into a sort of intergalactic version of the Emcee from Cabaret, flamboyantly gesticulating and swaying his hips as he walks.

I know I already said his body is nothing to gawk at, and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s not. But the way he uses it — the way he thrashes and hunches and glides — is captivating, calculated to earn our laughter.

And dwelling further on the physical, look back at the eyes — look how he weaponizes them, like he knows they might be all you’ll remember him by. This is what Michael Sheen does. With his nobody-persona and his corporeal control, this is how he lithely prances between genres, how he’s burned himself into my mind without attracting me physically, and how he’s become one of our greatest living actors without anyone noticing.

Michael Sheen, Nobody

I’ve seen all of Michael’s iterations: father, ex-husband, robot, asshole, villain, cult leader, loner, werewolf, sophisticate, doctor, vampire, debauchee, prime minister. This blank canvas man with that blank canvas face, a name with little weight, and a life that receives little scrutiny.

He does it all with those puffy eyes and that doughy body. And he can do it all because he is nobody to anybody, so he can be anybody to everybody. He’s good because he’s good; he’s successful because he’s anonymous. He shape-shifts away just when I think I truly know him. And I want so desperately to know him.

I don’t think I ever will, though I’ll keep trying. I just really give a shit about you, Michael.

The Annex

Cultural dispatches from UC Berkeley

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