Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared this summer in our Comic-Con coverage. That’s why it’s dressed like a character from Sailor Moon.
For a brief moment in the latest Tron: Legacy trailer, you can catch a glimpse of Michael Sheen in a snow white jump suit taking things way over the top. He must have been the set designer’s worst nightmare, and the make-up department’s best friend.
On the second day of Comic-Con, already confused by a lack of sleep and a mysterious amount of whiskey missing from the $6 bottle in our hotel room, I stepped into a pitch-perfect re-creation of Flynn’s Arcade. Tron the Game stood like the dot on a dusty exclamation point at the top of the room, and plastic covered each game as if time wouldn’t get to them anyway.
I was led through a dark hallway, only lit by blue LED runners, and out into the open expanse of the bright white nightclub set from the new film. Clear bottles with blue liquid in them stood like soldiers in the back of the room, and I sat down next to Michael Sheen on a luxurious couch to talk about his beard, his best David Bowie impression, and his unsnobbish willingness to take his classical training into the genre world.
First off, I’d like to congratulate you on your beard and shoe choices.
Thank you very much indeed.
[Pointing to his beard] You’ve got a little bit more than I do.
Well, I’ve had it for a while, and I’m not trying to keep it as neat and tidy as yours. I’m just letting it go.
Are you growing it for any particular role?
No. It’s for a film that I just did. Until I know for definite that the next film doesn’t want me to have a beard, I don’t want to get rid of it because, you know, it takes minutes to get rid of and months to grow.
Absolutely. I noticed you were beardless in Tron: Legacy, and I wish I could have seen the movie before speaking with you so we could earnestly delve into your beardless character.
But at least in the clip we saw, you definitely…I don’t know the words for it.
It’s a look, isn’t it?
It’s a look.
It’s an albino David Bowie.
I was going for albino Ziggy. That was what we were going for.
Can you explain a little bit about the nature of that character?
The character’s name is Castor, and we’re in – at the moment – a re-creation of the night club set that he owns. He’s sort of like the owner, the host, and the entertainer in the nightclub. So he’s a very big, larger-than-life, over-the-top, grandstanding, showman character. But also, there’s something else going on there as well that I can’t really talk about.
There are layers to the character.
Yeah. There’s a kind of ambiguity to the character, which, again, I liked about the Ziggy/David Bowie thing.
Would you call it a sinister ambiguity?
There are murky depths. I enjoy murky depths. Also, I like the idea – because all the characters of the Tron world are programs – I like the idea of thinking about, ‘If my character was a program, what sort of program would he be?’ and I like the idea of someone who assimilates everything around him and, a bit like a chameleon, is able to change in order to survive. Because of that, he’s a survivor. As all true survivors need to do, their loyalties and affiliations need to be fluid.
So there’s that kind of ambiguity. I like the idea of a kind of character where you hear bits of pop culture, bits of other characters, all coming out of this one character. Again – the idea of someone who’s a shape-shifter like Bowie. It sort of made me think, ‘If he’s a person, he’d be a bit like that.’
There are a lot of characters like this one, and that showmanship is usually shallowness hiding something serious. Is there an anchor to your character? Something that doesn’t change? That’s not mercurial?
There’s definitely something. There’s an underlying…I don’t want to give too much away about it, but there’s something underneath everything that is very different than what appears on the surface.
[We’re joined by another reporter who the publicist keeps pointing out is Canadian.]
So we’re going to double-team. We’re going to have a threesome, as it were.
Your words. Yes.
With the history of this film at Comic-Con, and the actors from the first film returning, did you feel like you were joining a family when you hopped into this?
Well, it felt like Kevin Flynn, Jeff Bridges’ character from the first film, being sucked into the Tron world. It felt like that. That feeling that I’ve been literally transported into this world that I experienced as an audience member when I was 11 years old. It was such a transformative experience for me watching the film, so the idea of now being in it is – excuse my French – a real headfuck.
Yesterday I was doing interviews in Flynn’s Arcade. With Jeff. Sitting next to me. In between interviews, we’re playing Battlezone which was the game they used to play on the set of the first film, and I’m playing against Jeff. This is just really weird.
Every time I got sent a schedule or something like that with the Tron logo at the top…I can’t quite get past the 11 year old self that’s freaked out by this extraordinarily overwhelming experience. When I come to watch the film or at the premier, I think it’ll be complete for me. I think I’m going to disappear. I’ll get de-rezed at the premier, because that’s the only way to top off this experience.
You’re from the same town as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. Do have some favorite films that they’re in?
For Hopkins I would say there’s a few. Magic, which is still really weird. For Whom the Bell Tolls is really enjoyable as well, and I really like Nixon. I find his performance as Nixon is frightening and human and wonderful.
I imagine that came in handy.
It did, yeah. And Burton – Becket is a fantastic film. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1984, and one of my favorite things that Burton did is not a film. It’s “The War of the Worlds.”
He did a radio play?
It’s a concept album with Burton narrating.
Well, thank you so much for the interview and thank you for being unafraid to do genre films.
Oh! Of course. There is so much cultural sluggishness about what are called genre films. I love the fact that some people ask, ‘What are you doing in, you know, one of these films? You’re a serious actor,’ and all that. I take a perverse enjoyment in being able to shoot those people down for about half an hour. My one rule of thumb is that I want to be in things that I want to go and see. I as much want to go and see, if not more, the sci-fi and fantasy stuff as I want to go and see the real serious dramas.
So yes, I will never stop doing this.
Tron Legacy hits theaters December 17, 2010.