Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, Michael Sheen was a soccer-playing kid with dreams of becoming a professional footballer. Eventually he traded his cleats for the camera, earning kudos as Tony Blair in The Queen and amassing fans as the vampire Aro in this fall’s Twilight sequel New Moon. But in “The Damned United,” the Welsh actor returns to his first love to portray famed English football coach Brian Clough, a controversial figure in British sports history with whom Sheen was already quite familiar. Sheen recalls his childhood impressions of Clough and reveals the insecurities he discovered in the coaching legend during the course of filming.
JEN YAMATO: The Damned United follows Brian Clough’s rise and fall as an English soccer manager, culminating in his disastrous 44-day tenure with the Leeds United club. We never get to even see him as the legendary coach that he eventually became; doesn’t that make this an unusual sort of biographical movie?
MICHAEL SHEEN: Yes! It sort of subverts the idea that a sporting film is all about an underdog achieving great triumph or overcoming adversity – this is sort of the reverse, someone who’s been used to success who fails abjectly.
YAMATO: You played soccer competitively in the United Kingdom growing up. How aware were you of Clough – his outspokenness, his successes, his legend?
SHEEN: Very much so. I think that he transcended the world of football and sports in Britain. He was a cultural icon, really. In Britain when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s I was more aware of his achievements in Nottingham Forest, which were after the events of the film.
YAMATO: Clough had a loose-cannon quality to him, which he displayed often in his post-game television interviews, sometimes even insulting the opposing team – including Leeds United, the club with whom he would have his most disastrous run.
SHEEN: He was a huge figure — someone who, whenever he was on the TV, you couldn’t help but watch. He was always so funny and outrageous and unpredictable – the interviewers didn’t know what was going to happen next, so you always paid attention to him.
YAMATO: Did your childhood knowledge of Clough and his antics make it difficult to portray him objectively?
SHEEN: I certainly had very strong impressions of him; I knew that he was funny. He was always very surprising, he was always very different from everybody else, certainly within the world of sport. He never seemed to be concerned with being diplomatic or saying things to get people to like him. He seemed to just shoot from the hip. You can tell that he seems arrogant and full of self-belief, but at the same time I always got the impression that there was something else going on there that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So he was always quite a confusing presence while I was growing up.
YAMATO: Attempts have been made to “figure out” Brian Clough – his arrogance, his brilliance, why he was so outrageous at times… How did you investigate the hidden Clough, and what did you discover?
SHEEN: When I came to work on the film, I started to find out a bit more of why I found him quite a confusing character. No one could say that it was a fluke that he managed to take teams from nowhere to the top; he did it over and over again. So undoubtedly, he was incredibly talented. It seems to me there was something that he was covering up, and what it seemed to me that he was covering up was how difficult he found it to not be a player any more. He was a football player whose career got cut short, and he was stopped from doing the thing he thought he was born to do. Management-coaching was always second best.
YAMATO: So his quest for attention was part of a greater attempt to regain his former glory?
SHEEN: Yes, this front, this disguise that he put on – arrogance and self-confidence and outrageousness – was all a cover, it seems to me. To cover up something much darker and more painful for him. That is, I think, where his contradictory nature came from. It’s the thing that I found quite compelling, but quite confusing and sometimes quite disturbing, when I was growing up as a kid seeing him on the TV.
YAMATO: Clough’s friendship with his assistant coach Peter Taylor, with whom he had numerous fallings out over the years, is portrayed as a sort of proto-bromance. How would you describe their relationship?
SHEEN: Well, it’s definitely a marriage of sorts, in that they very much needed each other. They depended on each other and relied on each other to be successful. There was a huge amount of intimacy there. They first met as players at Sunderland and were drawn to each other, and went on to have a very complicated, complex relationship.
YAMATO: They seemed to waver between brotherly love and mutual contempt at times, perhaps greatly due to their joint careers and successes.
SHEEN: I think like in any relationship of great intimacy, there’s always the possibility of resentment as well, because of how much you need each other. And that was definitely the case with them. There was love and feelings toward each other, but there was a lot of resentment that built up over the years. You know, I think there’s always a desire on the part of individuals within partnerships to prove to the other that they can be a success without them, and I think that’s what happened with Brian and Peter. It was one of Brian’s great regrets that they fell out again in later years and didn’t speak to each other, and Peter died of a heart attack before they had a chance to make up.
YAMATO: If The Damned United tells Brian Clough’s pre-fame story, what would yours say about your life before celebrity?
SHEEN: Mine would be a story that mends unhappiness and loneliness, as I worked in Wales’ first drive-through burger bar on the side of the freeway at the bottom of the mountain that I lived on. [Laughs] Which was absolute misery and all it made me want to do was get to drama school as quickly as I possibly could.
YAMATO: How long did you toil at this horrible job?
SHEEN: I worked there for about a year, and for someone who didn’t like getting up early in the mornings, at 6 o’clock in the morning I’d be trudging along in the rain and cold in oilskins by the side of the motorway, picking up rubbish that had been left by people who ate our burgers the day before. It was as miserable as I’ve ever been.
YAMATO: You seem to gravitate towards characters who have big personalities – Brian Clough and even your character Aro in The Twilight Saga: New Moon come to mind. How do you explain your fascination with over-the-top personalities?
SHEEN: I’m always drawn to characters who are complicated and complex; I love the colorful characters, obviously, and characters that have a bit of a sense of theatricality about them are always interesting. And I love characters that have complications in them – they appear to be one thing, but they reveal that they’re actually something different underneath. On the surface, Brian Clough seems to be full of arrogance and self-confidence, but underneath there’s a lot of insecurity and anxiety.
YAMATO: There’s something of a shared manic quality between Clough and Twilight’s Aro, don’t you think?
SHEEN: There’s this wonderful phrase that Stephenie uses in the book, that his voice is like feathers falling through the air. I love that idea of softness and gentleness on the surface, but underneath it is something very animalistic and vicious and violent and scary. These are the kind of characters that I always find interesting to explore.
YAMATO: You don’t seem to have given yourself much of a break in the past few years. Do you keep yourself busy on purpose, or is there a holiday in your near future?
SHEEN: It’s not quite as busy as it seems. For instance, I was only on New Moon for a couple of weeks, and Tron Legacy as well for a couple of weeks. But I’ve got no complaints, because I love working and I’ve been involved in lots of interesting projects. It’s good to be busy, but I do want to spend as much time with my daughter [with former partner Kate Beckinsale] as I possibly can.
YAMATO: Is there a sense that you’re slowing things down a bit or taking on less time-consuming commitments to spend time with family?
SHEEN: At a certain point in my career, I think I felt like I needed to work to get my foot in the door a bit more, to open up my options and create a bit more choice for myself. And especially to try and work in America a bit more, because it’s now where my daughter lives, and I can be in America more. I did do as much work as I possibly could for a while, but now I want to try and spend a bit more time with my daughter.