If Michael Sheen had his way as a young lad growing up in Wales, he probably would have ended up with a career as a footballer (soccer player) instead of a much-lauded actor on stage, screen and television. The stage parts have included the leads in "Amadeus" and "Caligula" and the co-leads in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Frost/Nixon" (he was David Frost); he just ended a 4-year TV run as William Masters on "Masters of Sex;" and his film resume boasts roles as Oscar Wilde's lover Robbie Ross in "Wilde," the villainous Lucian in "Underworld," Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen," the pompous Paul in "Midnight in Paris," the villainous Aro in "The Twilight Saga," and the sad William Boldwood in "Far from the Madding Crowd." For his newest film, "Passengers," in which he shares roles with only three other actors, he plays Arthur, an android bartender on a long-distance spaceship who polishes a lot of glassware, serves up a strong Manhattan, and provides advice and comic banter for his very few customers. Sheen, 47, spoke about getting into acting and playing a robot by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Q: Is it true that you were only thinking about football as a kid, and that acting came later?
A: Yeah, soccer, as you call it, was my obsession and my passion, and that's all I did. When I was young I had the opportunity to get onto the path of becoming a professional player, but at that time it would have meant leaving Wales and going to live in London. And I was only 12. My parents both had jobs in Wales, so I ended up not going and, within a couple of years, I was into acting.
Q: How did the acting happen?
A: My family were into sort of amateur operatics, doing Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. It was a very social thing, and I grew up going to the theater to see that stuff. So the idea of performance was in the family. And I happened to be very fortunate that my local youth theater was possibly one of the best in the world. I didn't know that at the time; I took it for granted. There was a lot of support for youth arts in the area at the time, and I come from a town that also produced Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. I joined that youth theater when I was 13 or 14, and from that point on I knew that's what I wanted to do. So there was a combination of things that led to me going down that path.
Q: You've played so many different kinds of roles by now, did you find that Arthur was a rather strange character?
A: Yeah, but no more strange than a vampire in "Twilight" or a werewolf in "Underworld" or a (computer) program in "TRON: Legacy." I love playing characters in sci-fi and fantasy films, and characters that are not just human or not quite human or a little bit more than human. One of the things I love about science-fiction as a genre is that it creates the illusion that it's escapist, but actually is just a different way of looking at what reality is, and who we are and understanding ourselves in a different way.
Q: Arthur appears to be almost human but he definitely has a special way of moving: Zipping in and out of the scene as if he were on a track. How was that effect done?
A: It was a really extraordinary rig that that I sat or kneeled into, and was strapped to with a big steel rod around the back, under my costume, to hold me in. It was on a system of tracks, the movement for each scene was all computerized , and then off we went. But it would move really fast, which is why I had to be strapped to the rod, so that I wouldn't move around when I came to a halt. I had to learn to make those movements seem like they were coming from me, to time it all to make it smooth. And I had to wear green tights so the CGI could make it look like I had robot legs.
Q: You split your time between living in Los Angeles and Great Britain, and it's been reported that since moving here you've become a big baseball fan. True? And if so, do you have a team?
A: (Laughs) I really enjoy watching baseball. When I first came to America I watched the fantastic Ken Burns documentary series about baseball, and that gave me a sense of the history of it. And now I just find it really esthetically enjoyable. I love going to watch games and I love watching it on TV. But I can't say that I've got a team.
"Passengers" opens on Dec. 21.
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.