This week, I spoke to actor Michael Sheen about his upcoming film, Beautiful Boy, about two parents left to pick up the pieces after their son guns down classmates in a campus massacre before killing himself. We talked about first-time director Shawn Ku’s style, as well as some of the bigger differences between his big budgets projects like Tron: Legacy and the Twilight movies and the smaller films, such as the one I was speaking to him about.
All in all, I learned that, when I’m getting sick, I apparently give great interview. Check it out below the jump!
How did you get involved with Beautiful Boy?
I got sent the script, and it was a film that wasn’t completely set up yet. It’s a bit hit and miss when a script comes in like that, an independent film. I read it, and I knew that Maria [Bello, his co-star] was attached to it at that point, so obviously I was aware of her work and a big fan of her work. Then, when I read the script, given the subject matter, I find it very surprising and not at all what I expected was going to happen. The fact that you’re seeing this subject through the eyes of the parents of someone, rather than other films that have dealt with similar areas.
Ultimately, I felt it was a very beautiful script. It was very unsentimental, while still being moving, and I suppose that, at the end of the day, it was saying more about the relationship of these people. Is it possible to overcome the kind of wall that gets built up between two people over a long period of time when you get to a place where it feels like it’s insurmountable? It’s just too much and too much history. This, I guess, shows, or charts, the journey of two people to kind of meet each other again through tragic circumstances. Somehow, that leads them on a journey that they wouldn’t be able to take in any other way. I felt like it gets it’s hands dirty, this film. It doesn’t take any easy options.
That’s one of the things I really loved about it, and I actually wrote about it at great lengths in my review for this [which you, gentle readers, can see next week]. It very much deals with the fact that there are no easy answers for this situation. You’re not going to go, “Oh, he killed all those people because this.”
I know! Because I think that we, as a culture, desperately want to have answers. Confusion and chaos is too scary, in a way. So we’re looking for answers, and I think it’s interesting the way the film throws out possibilities for people to hang onto. [Maria Bello’s character Kate] is overly critical. She corrects people’s novels, and there for people’s mistakes. And that’s what Bill [Shee’s character] says. “You picked at him. You, with your red pen!” And she accuses him of being absent, and he has problems accessing his emotions, and those kinds of things. But, they’re sort of red herrings, in a way. They offer up the possibility of an answer, but there isn’t. There are no answers here. There may be answers, but I don’t think we’re evolved enough as a species [laughs] to come up with them at the moment. But I understand the desire to have answers, because the alternative is it’s random and chaos and there’s no meaning in the world.
Just too terrifying.
That’s too terrifying. Yes. So I think you’re right. It addresses the fact that we look for answers, but there are no easy answers here. And yet it’s also, it would be an easy answer to say, “Oh, it’s all random!” That’s too easy an answer as well. There’s some middle ground that, ultimately, we have to have humility about, I think. It’s just saying we’re not clever enough to have those answers yet.
This was [writer and director] Shawn Ku’s first film. You’ve worked with a lot of really big name people. How was the experience of working with a first timer compared to those more established directors and filmmakers?
It was a really good experience. I think he has a really good quality, which is that he has the confidence and a strong enough grasp of the vision for the film and what he wants to make to not feel like he has to have all the answers all the time, and I think some directors feel like, “I have to know the answer to everything the actor asks, otherwise they’ll think I don’t know what I’m doing.” That can be a problem. The better directors I’ve worked with have confidence in what they’re doing and knowing what story but are open enough to go, “I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that. What do you think?,” and explore it together, and he certainly had that. He was also able to create a very creative context for us to work with. Me and Maria both felt the same way. We felt very safe with him and very trusting with what he was doing, and he was very respectful of what we were doing. So, it was a very good experience with him.
I really love that concept that there needs to be a certain level of not-knowing with the director. It’s the only way that the two of you, well, him and the cast can really get together and discuss the material, as oppose to him showing up and saying, “Ok, here’s this for this reason, and you’re doing this for this reason.”
Yeah, yeah, it’s often something a director does that comes from an insecurity. Like, “It feels like it’s my job to have all the answers,” and the actors won’t trust you if you don’t have the answers and say, “I don’t know,” but I feel it’s the opposite. I feel like an actor is much more likely to trust a director that says, “I don’t know.” And he’s very honest, in that way, and allows you to go on that journey together. So I think that’s often a misunderstanding that directors have, certainly at the beginning for first time directors. Shawn didn’t have that at all.
I found, and I didn’t know this at the beginning, when I finally watched the film, I really liked the style of shooting the film, the relationship of the camera to the actor. When I read the script, it reminded me, actually, of Alan J. Pakula’s films, where you see a lot of action going on in rooms, and you’re looking around a door at them, you know, and you partially see into the rooms. That was the feel I got from the script, and it ended up that’s how they shot it as well, which I thought was perfect.
Yeah, that whole sense of that you happen to be walking into a room, and someone’s having an argument. So you really want to walk away…
…but you still want to watch as well, yeah. Seeing things through windows, from outside, and at times being respectful and giving them distance, and at other times feeling like you’re a voyeur somehow, or you’re one of the journalists looking in through the windows, and then other times you’re right there with someone. I thought that was very well done for a first time filmmaker.
On a similar note to that, you’re an actor that’s worked in a lot of really big budget movies, you know, like Tron: Legacy or Twilight. What’s the experience going from something like that, just massive budgets and things, to the smaller indie picture. What’s the experience between the two, the really big differences between the two?
There’s the danger with the bigger budget films that there’s a pressure to not take as many risks, I guess? I’ve found that that’s not necessarily the case, with something like Tron where I was coming in for just a couple of weeks and it’s a huge production, and there’s a lot of money involved. There’s a perceived pressure to kind of go, “Well, I musn’t upset the boat. I’ve got to fit into this.” And yet, the character I was playing, I had to kind of break out of the box a little bit. So there’s some perceived pressures that don’t actually exist necessarily, but that come with the scale and the size of things. Then, on the other hand, there is more room to explore certainly more darker, more problematic, and more challenging material in the smaller independent films. The fact that we shot this in thirty days give a certain flow to it, and there’s certain problems with that, obviously, because you don’t get as much time to work on things, but on the other hand, if you’ve got the right components, for instance, me and Maria did a lot of work beforehand, and we got on very well and trusted each other, and we connected better. Having a shoot in thirty days is fantastic because you can flow through it. It’s got a freshness and a spontaneity to it. With a bigger budget film, where you’re doing a lot of setups and taking a lot of time with over things, it can weigh it down sometimes and it can be a problem. So having more money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got more conducive elements.
Gives you a bit of a theater feel, in that there’s a bunch of you, together in a room, and you’ve just got to get it going by the end of the night.
Yeah, rather than more worked on and composed and setup. There’s wonderful things you can get from both, as long as you understand what it is you’re working with and make the most of it.
Lastly, what are the next couple of projects down the pipeline for you?
Well, obviously, Beautiful Boy‘s coming out, Midnight in Paris is out at the moment. The next thing I’ll be doing will be Hamlet onstage, but there’ll be other films coming out. I did a film called Jesus Henry Christ with Toni Colette with another first time filmmaker, and then Breaking Dawn, the last lot of Twilight movies, I guess at the end of the year.