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Actor As Biographer

April 13, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, just before I left for Europe, I wrote a blog entry about the British actor Michael Sheen. I was concerned about Sheen being type-cast as Tony Blair. Turns out I was missing the point entirely.

For one thing, Sheen has actually played the ex-British PM not just twice, but three times. He originally essayed the role in a TV documentary in 2003 entitled The Deal. For another, the issue isn't really to do with Sheen impersonating Blair; it's much broader -- to do with the actor's dedication to embodying real-life historical figures in his work on stage and screen.

Sheen's resume features an staggeringly high number of biographical roles. These include everything from David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Brian Clough (I saw Sheen play the famous British football manager in the captivating, newly released UK film, The Damned United, when I was in London last week) to Henry V, Mozart and the Emperor Nero.

Now I'm slightly concerned that this versatile actor won't get to play fictional characters as often as he should in the future, having made a name for himself as a "biographer."

What does it mean to take on a real-life figure as an actor? How does one prepare for these kinds of roles? What are the various challenges of playing someone who's still alive versus someone from the distant past? And -- perhaps most interesting of all -- how much of the imagination can an actor bring to such a character or does he have to act more like an impersonator/caricaturist?

Of course, Sheen isn't an impersonator -- not in the traditional comic impersonator sense of the word. In an article for The Times, Frost is correct to view Sheen's turn in his shoes as being more 'impressionistic' than outright impersonation: "You can't have an impression for two hours of drama -- that wouldn't work," Frost said in the piece. "It's not David Frost, but David Frost-inspired."

There's also a nice story I recently heard while in London in connection to Sheen's portrayal of Frost. Apparently, when the interviewer called the actor up on the phone one day out of the blue, the actor asked for the caller to identify himself. "You of all people should recognize my voice," Frost is reported to have said.

POSTSCRIPT: Matthew B, a reader of my blog at, kindly located the video clip in which Sheen tells this story to Jonathan Ross. Thanks Matthew.


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