I recently sat down with Michael Sheen, who stars as the villainous Dr. Blair Müdfly in director Stephen Gaghan’s Dolittle, opening this weekend. While sitting in his trailer on the Universal backlot, Sheen and I had a wide-ranging conversation about working with Robert Downey Jr. and spending so much time looking at a tennis ball on set, the success of Amazon’s Good Omens, his idea for a Columbo episode, why he agreed to co-star on Prodigal Son, his upcoming limited series Quiz (which is about a huge Who Wants To Be A Millionaire scandal in Britian), being in an episode of The Simpsons, how he’s getting ready to direct a three-part series called The Way, and a lot more.
As you’ve seen in the trailers, Dolittle stars Downey Jr. as the famed doctor that can talk to animals. After his wife dies, Dolittle retreats behind his castle walls until being tasked to try and save the young Queen (Jessie Buckley) from a deadly illness. As he travels the world looking for a mythical island, he’s joined on his quest by a young apprentice (Harry Collett) and numerous animals that are voiced by Emma Thompson, John Cena, Tom Holland, Rami Malek, Craig Robinson, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, and Marion Cotillard. Dolittle also stars Antonio Banders and Jim Broadbent.
Check out what Michael Sheen had to say below.
COLLIDER: I’m going to jump backwards. The last time I saw you was, I believe, Good Omens.
MICHAEL SHEEN: Yes.
And the reaction to that was incredibly positive. What has it been like since that premiered for you? Because there’s a lot of fan love for that series.
SHEEN: Yeah. Extraordinary, really, that there’s a whole community now that I’m a part of, I guess, as well. It’s been amazing. One of the things I was most surprised by (it’s great that people enjoy it) but that it seems to have really connected with a lot of young people who’ve been going through some [troubles]. It might be people coming out to their family, LGBTQ+ people. A lot of people seem to relate to the characters in the story. People with autism. Now, you’d never be able to guess that some people are seeing something and connecting with it and that, in turn, has created this community online that is incredibly supportive of each other. There’s this wonderful community of people.
I think Neil’s work can often connect with people who feel like they’re on the outside a bit and feel like they may be a bit different, a bit out of step with mainstream stuff. A lot of those people are finding each other now through a sort of love of Good Omens. It’s amazing to watch that happening. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that, as well, and seeing how creative people are. The fan fiction stuff that people are writing, the art that they come up with — honestly incredible.
I just sort of go online every now and again and see the stuff that people do. It’s amazing. It makes me, I mean the art is amazing, but also the kind of memes that people come up with and the edits and stuff. It makes me laugh so much.
Also, there’s a lot of cosplay.
SHEEN: A lot of cosplay. A lot of amazing cosplay, as well. But I don’t know, I mean, my experience with cosplay in the past, I’d seen it and I’d seen people doing it. I’ve been to Comic-Con a couple times. But the standard of cosplay around Good Omens is very good. I mean, some of them are better than we were originally.
The thing when I was watching stuff when I was growing up or when I didn’t understand the industry, you really think that there’s this level of detail and professionalism and that everything is so, everyone thinks it’s better than it is.
In actuality, it’s like right behind the camera, it is chaos.
SHEEN: Yeah. It’s all a bit like safety pinned together and that kind of stuff. Whereas people who are doing cosplay, they go for it. It’s amazing and extraordinary to see also at different, not even at conventions. People are just meeting up anyway. But seeing like 20 Aziraphales or 50 Crowleys. Yeah, that’s great. They put the videos online and then I see Neil sometimes reacts to it. I react to it, and it’s brilliant. I love it.
This had to have been an interesting shoot because you have Robert, and Robert is Robert. So talk a little bit about maybe what surprised you about this shoot.
SHEEN: For a film that is so big budget, big studio film, a lot of CGI…
— [joking] So they’re not all real? —
SHEEN: I don’t want to spoiler alert, but yeah. So for a film like that I thought, because of past experiences with things that share those elements, that it would be very […] controlled and not a lot of room for trying things out or experimenting or exploring. It’s like, “Well there’s a lot of money on this and there’s a lot of technical stuff and that takes precedence.” And I understand why that is. So what I was surprised by was, I mean how much you just kind of went with things on the day. A lot of that has to do with Robert [Downey Jr.]. I mean just the way he works. He doesn’t like seeing things that feel anything other than fresh and in the moment; as an actor that’s amazing. As a producer I would imagine that’s quite challenging, but it helps if your producer is your wife (Susan Downey]. So that just seems to work somehow for them, which is amazing.
So I was surprised by that, that the script would be a starting point every day and then you come down and you rehearse whatever the work is going to be that day, talk it through with the camera, the DOPs, the directors [etc.]. But with this, you’ve got your pages, your sides for that morning ,and that just goes out the window and Robert says, “Right, come on, let’s just play around with this. I mean we should do something like this.” He was much more spontaneous and that’s just Robert’s character and I think it works for this character. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know, but it makes it really playful. Now, I can imagine that some actors might find that quite difficult, but I loved it. I loved being able to just turn up and kind of play with it.
I would imagine that if it’s the same experience in every set, you’re going to lose your mind. So the fact that if you can have an experience like this, and I’ve been on some sets where Robert’s working from Sherlock Holmes to Iron Man and seeing the way he does this, this is literally his M.O.
On every project. Where it’s like him and Guy Ritchie did that every day on Sherlock Holmes.
SHEEN: Right, yeah.
I would imagine that people lose their minds working with him.
SHEEN: Like I say, depending on what your role is in the overall thing, I can imagine it can be more or less challenging. I would imagine you if it was someone who, I don’t know, the first AD or something and your job is to be in control of what’s going on that could be quite difficult, I would imagine. But Robert is such a, he’s such a lovely, warm, generous presence on set, which I’m sure you’ve seen him as well. It just works somehow. Nobody’s going to get mad at him.
Well, yes, exactly. I think that they’ll get mad at him behind the scenes, maybe making a joke.
SHEEN: In terms of my role on this, I’m coming in, I’m playing opposite him. I’m the sort of bad guy, the antagonist or whatever, and it was great for me. It was wonderful.
Normally, I would not bring up something in the third act, but it was in the trailer. I love the fact that this movie has a dragon in it.
SHEEN: Ah, yeah. Also voiced [by someone]. I only found out because, of course, every day I find out there are actors on [Dolittle] that I didn’t know were on it. So, I only just found out that Francis de la Tour, who I did my first acting job ever with, is the voice of the dragon. Amazing.
I didn’t know the connection, but for me anything with the dragon is thumbs up. So talk a little bit about what is it like working when you know there’s going to be a dragon there. What was standing there for you to look at? Do you remember?
SHEEN: I think it was just a cross or even a tape. Isn’t that amazing that the bigger the budget film, the cheaper the thing is. So, you’ve got this huge budget film and this dragon but actually what it is, is just two bits of gaffer tape stuck on a curtain off in the distance somewhere that someone has just arbitrarily gone, “Just look there.”
Yeah, it’s preposterous when you think about it. And again, just goes back to what people have no idea.
SHEEN: Yeah. I’ve talked to people like Ewan McGregor when he was doing the Star Wars films or whoever it might be, people who were doing these huge budget films with loads of CGI. Ultimately what you spend your day doing is acting opposite a man with a tennis ball on the end of the stick or a bit of gaffer-taped curtain. That’s the ultimate kind of contradiction in a way. Then, when you watch the film, it’s incredible. But the actual experience of it is very much the Wizard of Oz and don’t look behind the curtain.
It’s interesting because I’ve spoken to a lot of people that have worked in a lot of things and sometimes they do, do a lot of building within CGI extensions and then sometimes it’s just everyone is on a blue screen.
SHEEN: Well you remember on Tron [Legacy] — I remember talking to you on Tron — and that was a film that was all loads of CGI, but actually, my stuff was in pretty much a completely built set. There was CGI in it, but you had a set to work with. Then on other things I’ve done like Twilight: Breaking Dawn, where we did the big battle scene there was very little that it was just green screen all around really. That was about it. So, it sort of varies.
On [Dolittle] the challenge was the animals, obviously. You’ve got such a massive component of a film called Dolittle, Dr. Dolittle, and not having them there. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is going to be tough if my whole character is someone who has disdain, or fear, or whatever it might be for the chaos of these animals and they’re not there. How am I going to do that?” And again, you’ve got a combination of men with tennis ball, gaffer tape, cross, some strange person in the green outfit. All of that kind of stuff going on. But then very quickly, I realized that it’s a sort of a purer form of acting. It’s like being a kid again where you really do have to just make it up. You just imagine it and, because your imagination is engaged in that way, it kind of becomes quite liberating in a weird way; it becomes much more alive and vibrant for you. Robert’s like an imaginary friend anyway.
Absolutely. I saw it last night with a ton of kids and they loved it. And I mean, if the kids aren’t going to enjoy this movie ever, there’s no point.
SHEEN: You’ve got to like Dolittle, and kids are going to, I mean, if they don’t enjoy it.
The thing that I found very surprising about the movie is how well the animated animals were lit and composited in the scene. I didn’t feel like I was looking at these CGI creatures that really were standing out. I mean, they did a great job with the animation.
But you’ll notice this when you finally see it.
SHEEN: Yeah. I mean, I suppose if you’re doing a film of Dolittle, you can only go into it with the confidence of knowing we’ve got the best people doing it. It’s about the animals. So, it’s good to know that. I mean they must’ve — I don’t know because I wasn’t part of that side of it — but they must’ve been really pushing the envelope of what you can do with animals. I mean it seems to be advancing all the time now because of the Disney remakes. The live-action remakes.
So, we’re on the Universal lot. There’s the tram that goes by — it’s literally right outside your trailer — with literally a thousand tourists going by. How much do you have the desire to just go over there by security and just wave at people? Do you ever want to do that or you won’t? Or no?
SHEEN: Funny enough, the first time I ever actually filmed here on the Universal lot, was when we did a scene for Frost/Nixon here and it was a scene that never made it into the film. It was a scene where Frost is in his car and they had me picking up shirts from my shirt maker in Savile Row or something […] and the point of the scene was to show the Frost had a telephone in his car before anybody else did. That was the whole point of the scene. So, on the New York backlot here, they changed it to make it look like London and we shot the scene in his car. I remember, in between takes, someone had said to me when you’re at Universal, if the tour goes past, you have to wave. I thought they were joking. And then the tour went past, and they’re like you really do have to wave. So that was the first time I ever saw that.
The other thing I remember about that was wandering in between takes, just wandering around the corner. I’m thinking, “I know this place, I’ve been here before.” And then I realized it was the Back To The Future town square. That was one of the most exciting moments in my life. The other thing that I love isI love going on the tour myself.
Why wouldn’t you?
SHEEN: I have done it many, many times. In fact, I came up with an idea for what I think is the perfect Columbo episode based on Columbo coming to Universal because the head of Universal Studios has been murdered, and he has to solve the crime. And whilst he’s here, he does the tour and it turns out that the person who did the murder is the guy who does Norman Bates on the tour and Columbo works it out. I think it’s the perfect Columbo episode.
That’s very funny! I get a thrill whenever I see the Back To The Future backlot. I mean, this is where it all is! This movie magic!
SHEEN: Yeah. There’s nothing like it. That moment, when I walked out, I didn’t know that it was around the corner and I just walked into it, was a thrilling moment. And it’s still there. I thought it burned down.
I think they might’ve rebuilt some of it.
SHEEN: Right, because that was very sad. Not long after that I was back home in the UK and I remember, on the news, seeing that there’d been a big fire and I’m sure I remember that it had burned down. So they must’ve rebuilt it again, which is great.
Yeah, I mean that’s such an iconic, even now it’s such an iconic thing. We have to switch gears. So my girlfriend loves Prodigal Son.
SHEEN: Oh great!
How did you get involved in that thing? I haven’t seen it, but [my girlfriend] was explaining to me that you have usually small parts in every episode. So, was that one of the things that got you hooked where it’s like, “I can work just a little bit on each episode”?
SHEEN: Well, I wasn’t really looking to do something like an ongoing TV series or anything that would keep me in one place for too long. I’ve sort of been trying to spend more time back in the UK having been in the U.S. for a long time. I’d done a season of The Good Fight in New York. I’d really enjoyed that and I’d enjoyed being in New York. My daughter lives in New York as well now, so that was good.
I liked the idea of doing something where I could pop in and out of New York a bit to see, to keep an eye on my daughter and all that kind of stuff. My agent said, “Look, there’s this series that they’re interested in you doing the pilot for. They’re very flexible about the character. He’s in prison, so you know, all your scenes are in one place so they’re quite sort of manageable.” That was very attractive to me, the idea of coming in and out. The problem, of course, is once you start doing something and you get into the character, you don’t want to come in and out. You want to be there all the time, and to explore the character and stuff. But it suited me and they’ve been very flexible about it.
I tend to come and do a chunk of filming on it and then they spread it out amongst the episodes and stuff. I’m about to go back now because it’s done so well [and] they ordered an extra nine episodes for the first season, which is great. I’m actually going to go back and I’ll be able to do all of that now in January and February. I’ll just be filming Prodigal Son in New York.
Oh, so I guess you have more screen time if you will…
In the upcoming episodes. That has to be good though. In terms of popping in with, did you see Watchman?
SHEEN: I’ve watched the first couple of episodes and I’ve saved the rest of it for when I can watch it properly because I think it looks amazing.
It’s the best show of last year and of 2019 by a mile. But what was interesting is…
SHEEN: I’m really interested in the way they’re kind of playing off the original material.
The best compliment — and I said this to Damon [Lindelof] — the best compliment I can give that show is that if Alan Moore were to actually watch it, I think he would enjoy it. That’s all I can say, but what I’m saying is with Jeremy Irons, because of the weather in Wales, they had to film all of his stuff at once. So, it’s similar to you with Prodigal Son, where they just filmed Jeremy, bangs and stuff out in Wales and then we went back and filmed everything else.
SHEEN: Huh. Wow. I didn’t realize they shot it in Wales.
Oh yeah. They spent money. And they also went to the moon and they went to other places as well. They really went full-force. You know, I can’t recommend that series enough, like that is just…
SHEEN: Now I’m really looking forward to being able to properly watch that. I heard that Episode 6 [“This Extraordinary Being”] is nice.
Yeah. You know, it’s one of those things where because it’s so layered, because Lindelof really thought it through. Every episode is so thought-out and thought-provoking and the cinematography and the art direction and everything about the show and episode six, is just another level.
SHEEN: Well the opening of that […] you don’t know you’re in the cinema, but you’re watching this extraordinary film. As a fan of the original material you go, “What is this? What am I watching? Where are we?” And then you’re in a cinema. Then you suddenly outside the cinema there’s a riot. I mean you’re like, “What is this? This is amazing.” I mean you get that feeling, I don’t know if you had the same thing, where you can have a lot of concerns going into it, thinking, “What is this going to be like? You know, this is Holy Grail territory.” And then very quickly you just go, “Oh, I’m in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.”
SHEEN: I’m on for the ride. Take me where you want to go.
I mean, they all played with a third rail of a subway and they all came out unscathed.
SHEEN: Yeah. Amazing.
You know the graphic novel, the comic book, it’s just iconic.
So what is this Quiz TV series you did? I saw a picture of you with this crowd.
SHEEN: So, back in ‘97, ‘98 I think, in Britain, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was a huge show. It was a huge show everywhere. But it was a British show originally and it was huge at the time. There was this massive scandal where a guy won the million over two episodes and the show believed that he had cheated. They weren’t entirely sure how he cheated, but they were fairly certain that he had cheated. So, the show never went out and he had to give the million back and there was a court case and everything about it.
This story is a three part series based on a play called Quiz that was written about it. We tell that story, the story of the “Coughing Major,” as he was known. The idea was that there was some sort of code going on between him, in the chair, and someone not in the audience, one of the other contestants that sit around the edge. The way it works is that if you want to be on the show, you call up a number or something and you get registered and you’re told that at some point someone will call you at home, and they will ask you a question and you have to answer the question straight away and based on your answer you might then when to get onto the show.
So, every show, there’s, I think, 10 people who’ve gone through that process and who’ve gotten onto the show and they sit around the edge of the set, in front of the audience, and then on the night the host asks them a question and they have to do the answer and whoever gets the answer right the quickest gets to be in the hot seat, so to speak, for that show. The theory was that the guy who won the million was in somehow cahoots with one of the other contestants and that the other contestant was coughing to indicate the correct answer. So the major, because he was an ex-major, would say, “Well it could be A, might be B, but then again, it could be C.” [mimics cough to indicate C] I’m going to go with C.” That’s basically the code that they believe he was using. But the guy who won the million and then it’d been taken off him, he and his wife, their lives were kind of ruined by this. And, weirdly, his entire family were obsessed with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. They’d all been on it. His wife, his wife’s brother, his wife’s brother-in-law, I mean all kinds of people. So it was a strange thing. There was this shadowy organization called “The Syndicate” who would help you if you wanted to get on the show. There was like people on telephones all around the country waiting to help you with the answer when they called you up at home. It was all whole weird system going on. It’s a fascinating story.
It sounds really interesting. It sounds like it’s also going to be good. What I really like about this, is that in just like Watchman‘s nine episodes, Quiz is three episodes. I like these series that are just six, eight episodes. Just in and out.
SHEEN: Yeah. You go into it and knowing there’s a structure, you know there’s going to be a beginning and middle and end. I like that.
You did an episode of The Simpsons? Was that your first one?
SHEEN: I did, my first and only one. Yeah.
So what the hell is it like getting that phone call? Or did you call them and say I want to do this?
SHEEN: No, they got in touch and said we’re doing a little, sort of, vamp on a Masters and Johnson [his and Lizzy Caplan’s characters in Showtime’s Masters of Sex] because Homer and Marge have to go and get marriage counseling, you know, relationship counseling. So they go to see these characters based on [Caplan and I] and just a bunch of people doing Masters of Sex. Lizzy and I went in and voiced the characters for them. It’s a thrill. It’s an amazing pop culture thrill. Two things that, and being in Mad Magazine. When they did a parody of Twilight, my character Aro was in Mad magazine. [Growing up] Mad Magazine used to be delivered to my house in Wales, in Port Talbot, but when I was growing up, it was the most exciting thing ever. And so to actually see me in Mad Magazine was the other one.
I just wanted to know, what did you pay to be in The Simpsons?
SHEEN: No I didn’t have to do anything. Amazing. They just got in touch and said come and do this.
Yeah, that’s ridiculous. Okay. So my last thing, what’s coming up for you after you do the Prodigal Son stuff?
SHEEN: I am directing a three-part series. I realized the other day, because I looked through emails, I can’t believe that I’ve been working on it since 2015.
That’s par for the course in Hollywood.
SHEEN: I guess it is. Yeah. ‘Cause I’d been saying to people, I’d been working on it for a couple of years. It’s now almost five years, anyway, so yeah, I’m doing that. I’m directing that back in Wales.
Can you say what’s the title and what is it about?
SHEEN: It is called The Way. It’s written by James Graham, who wrote Quiz well enough, and it is about the breakdown of society.
There’s a lot more to follow up on that. So you’re filming later this year.
SHEEN: We’ll be filming during the summer. Yeah.
So have you started casting?
SHEEN: Yes. No one absolutely set yet, but yes.
I got it.
SHEEN: The process is ongoing.
I can see this is going to probably take up a lot of your time.
SHEEN: It’ll take up most of this year.
Well can’t wait to see it. Congratulations on everything.
For all our previous coverage on Dolittle click the link.