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A Damned Good Acting Lesson From Michael Sheen

A Damned Good Acting Lesson From Michael Sheen (photo)

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Michael Sheen is an excellent interview, not that he hasn’t had the practice. Coming off an acclaimed turn as journalist David Frost in last year’s “Frost/Nixon,” Sheen once again plays a man who sits in judgment as Brian Clough, the brash soccer manager given to tossing out bon mots like “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job” before he’s humbled by a disastrous 44-day stint in charge of the revered Leeds United squad in 1974. Although Clough spends much of “The Damned United” in the hot seat, Sheen clearly relishes playing the alternately cocky and vulnerable tactician who struggles in the shadow of his successful predecessor Don Revie (Colm Meaney) and without the help of his trusted assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who’s since moved on to coach another team. Although Sheen was already comfortable on the practice pitch — he was recruited to play for Arsenal when he was 12 — the actor could also rest assured that “The Queen” screenwriter Peter Morgan would make the most out of Clough’s colloquialisms in their fourth collaboration together. Sheen recently sat down to talk about his relationship with Morgan, the thrill of playing iconic roles and why jawlines are so important.

How did the love story between you and Peter Morgan start?

It started out the same as any other love story, really, with the two main characters not liking each other. Stephen Frears was doing a film called “The Deal” for British TV, about Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and I’d worked with Stephen many years before on “Mary Reilly,” which is the first film I’d ever done. Stephen decided that he was not going to make the film unless I played Blair, but I was doing a play at the time in London, so it meant that they had to change the filming schedule around to accommodate me doing this play.

Peter [who wrote “The Deal] was very annoyed that his film wasn’t going to happen at the time he wanted because of this upstart actor he’d never heard of and never met. So it started not particularly auspiciously, and then we got to know each other on the film and it all went from there.

I’d heard “The Damned United” director Tom Hooper say that you had watched the television interview between Clough and Don Revie that serves as the film’s climax close to 40 times for preparation — what do you pick up on the 40th time that you might not necessarily on the first or 15th?

More than [40 times]. I need to watch it that many times so that I stop listening to the surface of it. To begin with, you’re obviously listening to what [Clough] says and the way he looks and all that stuff and eventually, you go past that. I get so familiar with it that something else starts to speak to me. It’s like there’s some sort of subliminal message in it, but I have to distract my conscious mind in a way so that as I’m watching it and listening to it, slowly as I come to know every word he says, every inflection, every movement, everything that he does in it — not because I want to copy that, I just want to get past that. I need to get to the point where I’m getting something invisible off it, and that’s when I understand what’s actually going on, or I feel like I’ve made an imaginative connection to him.

Looking at your upcoming films as well as what you’ve done in the past few years, you’re portraying so many iconic figures, historical or fantastical. Does it ever get daunting?

10062009_DamnedUnited2.jpgIt’s always daunting, yeah. I think that’s part of what I like about it, the risk factor. At first, when I started playing real-life characters [like Tony] Blair that people were very familiar with, it was frightening. As it got closer and closer to doing it, I thought “oh, no one’s going to accept me as this character. What was I thinking?” And that’s never really changed. [slight laugh] I thought it would get easier, maybe, but it hasn’t really gotten easier at all. But I like that, the thrill, the motivation of it — it makes me work harder, go further and push myself — I’ve come to really appreciate that.

So when you play an iconic character like the White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” or Aro in “Twilight” or whatever it might be, I like the fact that people have expectations, and that you can use those expectations and subvert them.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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