Beautiful Boy is the story of how tragedy effects a family and all those around them, in every way. A married couple on the verge of separation suddenly find themselves having to turn to each other to overcome unimaginable heartbreak. Under intense media scrutiny following their son’s shocking act of violence that changes the lives of so many, Bill (Michael Sheen) and Kate (Maria Bello) see a chance for happiness again through their common grief.
At the film’s press day, actor Michael Sheen talked exclusively to Collider about baring himself emotionally for this role, playing the emotion of grief in such a naturalistic way, working with a director who established such an honest and collaborative set, and just being open and present in the moment. He also talked about why he loves playing Aro in The Twilight Saga, how he loves playing as many different characters, in as many different worlds as he possibly can, and why he wants to take on Hamlet next. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MICHAEL SHEEN: What’s enjoyable for me, as an actor, is to do as many different things as possible. It challenges me, as an actor. You don’t want to get into doing the same thing, over and over again. I know I don’t. I’ve worked quite hard to give myself those options, I suppose. In terms of building a career and having longevity, that’s good. But, in terms of being more instantly recognizable and branding yourself in some way, that’s not so good. But, I enjoy it all, so that’s good.
In taking on a role like this, where you have to bare yourself emotionally, did you spend any time thinking about what kind of effects an event like this has on somebody?
SHEEN: Yeah, you do. It’s a combination of things. I found with this that the more that me and Maria immersed ourselves in the lives of these people previously, and the more we knew about what their experiences had been together and the journey that the relationship had gone on, up to the point where we meet them in the film, the more we could be in their lives then. Then, it’s about allowing yourself to be affected by what happens in the story, and not try to pre-judge what you’re going to do. You just have to allow things to happen. Part of their story is that they have no road map. They don’t know how to be. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do, or even what they’re supposed to feel about this situation.
Having too much foreknowledge, on our part, would have gotten in the way a little bit, so the most important thing was just to know who these people were and know how they worked and what their dynamic was with each other and what the things were that pressed each other’s buttons. And then, we had to go on the journey for real and see what happened. It’s a mixture of doing preparation and research and being appropriate about what that research is, and then allowing things to happen and trusting that the way you will react will be true to these people and this situation, rather than doing too much work and deciding how they will react ahead of time. It’s more about knowing who they are, and then see what happens in the situation.
Was it surprising to you that audiences never really get to see the events that this couple’s son caused, or was that the appeal of it for you?
SHEEN: Well, in a way, it’s not what the film is about. The film is about whether it’s possible for two people to overcome the huge obstacles that have grown up between them. Ultimately, that’s what the film is about. Even though the more headline aspect of the film is the school shooting, it’s not, in any way, a film about a school shooting. That’s the event that is the catalyst in the film, but the film is not interested in saying, “This is why it happened, and this is how it happened.” It’s a film about two people who have some sort of unanswerable thing that happens in their life and some terrible loss and a very interrupted grieving process.
On the one hand, they’ve lost someone that they love dearly, but that person did something incredibly destructive. There’s something that is impossible to deal with in isolation, that they have to deal with together, and yet it’s a relationship that has already come to an end, it seems, at the beginning of the film. And, through getting their hands dirty with the ultimate stuff of life, they somehow find their way back to each other again, at the end. I think that’s what the film is about. The aspect of the film that’s about who’s to blame and how their son ended up doing this, is a red herring in the film, in some ways. In Hitchcock, they called it a MacGuffin. It’s what allows the action to take place, but it’s not actually what the film is about.
That’s why I think it’s ultimately a very hopeful, positive film. It doesn’t shirk away from the difficult stuff of relationships, when you think, “If only that person stopped doing that. It’s them, who’s at fault. The only reason I’ve stayed in this relationship is because of him.” We mythologize relationships and ourselves, but through this film, they’re somehow able to blow all that out and miraculously get rid of all the lies they’ve told themselves and the stories they’ve made. That’s what was getting in the way. They somehow then are able to find their way back to each other. We end the film in an incredibly hopeful, positive place. It doesn’t seem positive because they’re crying and they’re all over the place, but from an objective point of view, it says that there is hope. You can overcome this stuff. No matter how difficult things are, and no matter how much grief and loss there is, you can turn it into something positive. There are positive things to come after that.
SHEEN: He did what I’ve always responded to the most really, with directors. It was similar with Stephen Frears, who I did The Queen and The Deal with. He starts the right conversations and gets you talking about the things that are very usual areas to talk about, and he beds you into the subject matter and gets you to connect it to your own life. Shawn was very honest about his life and his relationships, and encouraged us to be the same way, and then you’re looking out from inside these characters and their lives, rather than looking at them from outside. You’re suddenly connected with them.
He creates that sort of set. There’s a real feeling of honesty and sharing, and that creates a bond between you. And then, he just allowed us the freedom and was very respectful of what we were doing. He didn’t want to impose on anything. He created a way of working where the camera would just catch things, rather than regular set-ups. He just totally respected what we were doing, allowed us to work and allowed us to just be and inhabit these lives, and then he was there, almost like a documentarian, to capture what he captured. That was a very, very creative and exhilarating way of working.
You had some really beautiful moments in the film with Meat Loaf. What was he like to work with?
SHEEN: He was fantastic. I was blown away by how vulnerable he was and how emotionally receptive he was. I had never met Meat Loaf before, but you think of this big, operatic, theatrical energy that he has. He came in and he was just so humble and sensitive. I’ve seen him in Fight Club and various things, and have always been impressed by what he’s done on film, but there was a real sensitivity to what he was doing. The scene that we did, where Bill opens up to him a bit about what happened, and that phone call the night before, it was a really nicely written scene anyway, but there was a real sensitivity that he had, that really helped me in that scene. It reminded me that it doesn’t matter who’s got the lines in a scene. No matter what happens in a scene, listening is an active thing. There was just a quality that he brought to what he was doing that really affected me. I really enjoyed working with him.
Being a parent, what was it like to put yourself in the skin of somebody going through what these parents go through? Do you draw on your own emotions, or is that a dangerous thing to do, in this case?
SHEEN: That’s a good question because it goes to the heart of a fundamental problem for actors and acting. If you draw on your own experiences, certainly when it comes to being a parent, and you have to imagine your child dying, the danger is that you’ll get to the end of the day and go, “It’s not working for me anymore. I’m thinking about the death of my own child, and that’s not really doing it because I’ve gotten too used to thinking about it.” There’s a cost to that, as a person, to have to imagine the death of your own child. That’s not an area you really want to go into. And yet, at the same time, you’ve got to deal with it because otherwise it’s just acting and then it’s meaningless.
It’s a tricky area. Rather than having to try to dredge it out all the time, on your own. If you’re doing something where there’s a lot of scenes between just two actors and, for whatever reason, it’s not really happening and you’re not really connecting that well, you have to draw on stuff yourself and try to make it happen for yourself. But, in the case of two actors connecting with each other and trusting each other, our bodies have memories without us having to consciously think about it, so rather than think, “Oh, I must think about my daughter dying,” you just let that go and trust that you have all the emotions you need in there, and by losing yourself in the scene, that stuff kicks in without having to spend the day thinking about horrific things happening to your own child. And, it’s about how much the director allows you to do that, as well. If you’ve got a director who keeps jumping in and going, “Could you not do that? Could you do this?,” it stops that process from happening. On this, it felt like we were given just the right amount of freedom and the right amount of guidance.
Did you talk to any parents who have had experiences similar to this?
SHEEN: Obviously, this film is about a very specific set of parents. It’s the parents of the person who perpetrates the act. Even though any parents who are going through dealing with the loss of a child have certain things that are the same about that experience, there are a lot of very big differences for the parent of the child who did it. Personally, I felt very uncomfortable about the idea of trying to get in touch with the parents of someone who had gone through a similar experience. I asked myself, “What do I stand to gain, and is that worth what could possibly be lost?” Ultimately, I felt like our characters have no idea what they’re supposed to feel and no idea what the rules are. That’s part of their difficulty. I thought that feeling of not quite knowing what the rules are would be quite useful, rather than talking to someone and going, “Now, I know what happens.”
SHEEN: In a way, you have to do all the work beforehand. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. When you come to actually act, it’s a game. It may be a very serious game, but it’s still a game. If you lose that sense of play, the work suffers. The danger can be when you have a very heavy subject matter because you then feel like you have to come at it in a very heavy way and it just dies somehow. It’s just not quite right. It doesn’t live. In order for it to be alive, when you’re doing it, you have to approach it as play. So, that is about being in the right place and the right state of mind.
I just try to stay present and open, in between takes. We would chat. We never lost sight of what it was we were trying to do and the seriousness of it, but the biggest, heaviest things that actors work on are actually sometimes the most enjoyable experiences, and I certainly felt that on this. There was an exhilaration. It’s not often that you’re in a situation where you go, “I totally trust this person. I totally feel at ease with this person. I feel at ease in this situation. There’s no other agenda and there’s no ego. All we’re doing is wanting to do the best we can on this. It matters to us and we care about it, and nothing else is getting in the way.” That’s quite exhilarating, and there’s a joy to that. That’s really important. You don’t want to mess that up by going, “But, I mustn’t enjoy this to much because it’s all very heavy and serious.”
The emotion of grief is something that’s not often played in such a naturalistic way. Was it important for you to be real with that?
SHEEN: We see death constantly on film. In the back of your mind, spend a day going, “Let me see how many times I see people die today.” You will see hundreds upon hundreds of people die. And then, ask yourself how much you actually see the grief process, and the consequences and ramifications of death being played out in front of you, and it’s not much. There is something wrong there. For a culture that has such a problem with death, we seem to deal with it in a quite bizarre way. We see people shot, killed and blown up, and we find it funny and sexy and all those things. But, the reality of it is that every day people die, and people are really sad and they grieve and they go through a really difficult process with it.
As uncomfortable as it is and as uncommercial as it may be, as a society, it’s really important that we look at that and we look at the reality of it, given that we surround ourselves with the fantasy of it, constantly. We live in a bubble of the fantasy of death, but the reality of it is something that we obviously all face and have to deal with, at some point. It’s scary. In a way, this is an extreme version of what happens to everybody, when they actually experience death, in some way where you suddenly feel alone and you feel like there are still people walking around in the street outside. You’re going through the worst experience of your life, and the world is carrying on. There is the awfulness of that and the feeling of, “I don’t know what to do. Where is the rule book for how you deal with this stuff?” Not everybody has to deal with a child having done something that they’ve done, but everyone has to go through that, and that’s frightening. So, I think it’s really important that we look at this kind of stuff.
SHEEN: Well, what I love about that character is that I think he’s totally insane. Immortality – living forever – has driven him completely insane, or certainly into an area of sanity that is not really accessible to most people, and yet, part of his insanity is that he thinks that he’s a sentimental, little old lady. He thinks he’s this cuddly grandmother, somehow. In a way, he keeps himself interested in life and people around him by playing this weird game with himself where he role plays and it amuses him to think of himself as being someone who just enjoys watching young people enjoying themselves. He’s like, “Oh, it’s so lovely. I cry at romantic films.” There’s that kind of persona that he has, when actually he just wants to kill people and eat them. It’s this weird game that he plays. So, I love that. There are a lot of places to explore with that. Underneath it is this insane animal, but on the surface is this very sophisticated, cultured, sentimental character. I just think he’s great. I love it!
Do you feel like he always has a personal agenda and that he doesn’t do anything unless it’s self-serving?
SHEEN: Yeah. He’s incredibly intelligent. The viewpoint that he has is from someone who has been alive for centuries upon centuries, and so he sees things in a very different way. He’s a great chess player, in that respect. He’s lots of moves ahead of everyone. It’s all a game that he plays and enjoys. He’s a fascinating character.
Because there’s not a lot of information on Aro, did you get any tips from Stephenie Meyer about playing him?
SHEEN: I took what Stephenie had written, and there was enough there to get my imagination going. There were enough things there to explore. And then, I wanted someone to tell me, “Actually, no, that’s not an area that’s appropriate for this character,” but on the whole, until that happened, I just kept going. Stephenie was always very supportive. I really enjoyed just letting it go and develop, and go further. Thankfully, no one told me to stop.
How fun is it for you to play these fantastical character and be a part of these big franchises, like The Twilight Saga and the Underworld films, or even something like Tron: Legacy, and then switch into playing real-life people?
SHEEN: What it is on the surface is just set dressing. They’re all stories about how we relate to each other, and what it is that resonates about these people’s lives and their journeys, and what’s going on for them. They’re not that dissimilar, under the surface. They just seem very different, on the surface. Hopefully, any character I play has an anchor in reality. The more fantastical characters, or fantastical worlds that they inhabit are really fun and allow you, in some ways, to tell stories and reveal things about our lives that would be harder to take, in a more realistic setting. That’s the great power of science fiction and fantasy. It purports to tell you stories about other worlds and other lives, but actually it’s about our world and our life. It’s just a different way of looking at it. So, I love being able to play as many different characters, in as many different worlds as I possibly can. That’s what I really enjoy.
Why take on Hamlet next?
SHEEN: Well, it’s a play that I’ve been asked to do a few times, and the circumstances, for whatever reason, weren’t quite right. It’s one of the greatest plays ever written. It’s one of the biggest challenges for an actor. I started working with a director (Ian Rickson) who I really liked and who I thought would be a good director for that project, and found the right theater (Young Vic), so I thought, “Well, I should probably do it now, before I get too old.” So, we’re going to have a go at it.