Michael Sheen: “I basically turned into a social enterprise, a non-profit actor”
I was doing pretty well with the girls at the time. I was trying to make my curly hair look like John Taylor’s in Duran Duran, but it didn’t work for me. Still, I was fighting a good fight with a lot of hairspray. I mean, I think you could have your own climate change talk about my teenage years.
I had a large extended family in Port Talbot in South Wales. I grew up with a lot of cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents around me. I really liked it. Over the past two years, I have had a greater appreciation for family reunions. I took them completely for granted when I was young.
I loved growing up in Port Talbot. It is known to be a not particularly beautiful place, with a lot of heavy industry, steel mills and a chemical factory when I was young. But it’s by the sea and there is a lot of countryside nearby, and I loved it there. I just thought it was the most beautiful and wonderful place.
I don’t think I would be surprised as a teenager that I had the life of an actor. By the time I was 17
I liked to play a lot and I was very calm. I was starting to feel confident in my abilities. What would surprise him would be to say, you will leave, but you will come back to live here. I loved the place, but never questioned the fact that I was going to go and go in the world. The idea that I would choose to come back and live in the same neighborhood – and not at retirement age but at the height of what I’m doing – I don’t think I would be able to explain to the 17-year-old what it is.
I realized over the last few years that I wanted to be one of those people who help others like so many people have helped me. I don’t want to just be someone who enjoys the fruits of what other people have done and then pull the drawbridge and go, well, it’s okay Jack, I had a great time. I’m at a point in my life and career where I have a window of opportunity that will probably never be so good again. I can bring people into a room, I can open doors. I don’t want to look back and think, I could have done something with this platform. I could have done something with this money.
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Doing Passion in 2011 [a 72- hour National Theatre production through the streets of Port Talbot] was a turning point in my life. This project involved the whole city and it was a big wake-up call for me. I got to know people and organizations in my hometown that I didn’t know existed. Small groups that were trying to help young caregivers, who had just enough funds to make a little difference in a child’s life by having one night a week where they could go out and go bowling or watch a movie and just to be a child.
I would come back to visit three or four months later, and find that the funding was gone and that this organization no longer existed. This stuff doesn’t make the news, but it makes a huge difference in the lives of children. I realized that the difference between this child’s life being a little better or not was ultimately a small amount of funding. And I wanted to help these people. I didn’t just want to be a patron or a supporting voice, I actually wanted to do more than that. It was then that I thought I should go back to live in Wales.
The other big thing that changed my way of thinking was the 2019 Cardiff Homeless World Cup. I had promised to help organize this and then suddenly, with little time, there was no more money. I had to make a decision – I could walk away from it and it wouldn’t happen. And all these people from all over the world who were planning to come and have this amazing experience, maybe a life changing experience, wouldn’t have it. I thought, I’m not going to let that happen.
So I put all my money to continue. I had a house in America and a house here and I set them up and did whatever it takes. It was scary and incredibly stressful. And I will pay it for a long time. But when I got out on the other side I realized I could do that sort of thing and, if I can keep making money, it’s not going to break the bank. There was something pretty liberating about going, okay, I’m going to put big sums of money into this or that, because I’m going to be able to win it back. I basically turned into a social enterprise, a non-profit actor.
If I could have another conversation with anyone, it would be my childhood friend Stephen. There was a period in my life between the ages of five and eight when we moved from Wales to Liverpool because of my father’s job. Then my father found another job and we went back to Wales.
There was that three year period when I had a best friend and his name was Stephen. He lived a few blocks away and we did everything together. Then my mom and dad suddenly told me we were leaving Liverpool. So the next day I had to tell Stephen, okay, I’m going away. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time. But we moved and I never saw him again. So if I could, I would like to have a conversation with him, so that I can remember things that I had to forget. The world of a seven year old… we used to go on our bikes and play all day and I have very few memories. I wish I could talk to him and ask him, what do you remember?
If I could go back and relive for a moment … well, there are the births of my children. And meet all the women I’ve loved in my life – the moment you go, oh my god; I was very lucky to have had this with some wonderful women. No matter what happened after, this moment is amazing.
But I would say the only time would be in 2006. I had played Frost / Nixon at the Donmar Theater in London, then I got on a plane straight to Venice for a press conference on The Queen, which had been a huge success at the Venice Film Festival. I was traveling with Peter Morgan who had written Frost / Nixon and The Queen; we took a flight and then got on a speedboat for the press conference. We were already talking about turning Frost / Nixon in a movie and on the flight Peter said, I found the next one for you; it will be Brian Clough. I will adapt The damned united.
There was a moment when we were on that speedboat and roaring through the canals of Venice, my long hair flying behind me, and Peter looked up at me and yelled, “Remember that moment!” And I always will.
Michael Sheen stars in Last Train to Christmas. Premiered December 18 on Sky Cinema; available to stream on NOW.
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