Dolittle antagonist Michael Sheen has been crushing his way through all forms of entertainment media for a few decades now, from theater to movies and lately, television, the latter taking up most of his time in recent years. Depending on your interests might determine the work of his that you’re most familiar with, whether it’s “The Twilight Saga,” his work with writer Peter Morgan (The Crown) on The Queen and Frost/Nixon or some of his television work, like Masters of Sex – or fan favorite Good Omens.
In the new family fantasy-adventure Dolittle, Sheen plays Dr. Blair Müdfly, doctor to Queen Victoria and the ersatz arch-rival of Robert Downey Jr’s titular Doctor John Dolittle, a physician with the ability to talk to animals who has disappeared from the public view after the tragic death of his wife, Lily. Dolittle’s only friends are the animals that surround him at his estate until a young lad named Stubbins (Harry Collett from Dunkirk) stumbles onto the grounds. When Victoria (Jessie Buckley) falls ill, Dolittle is called back to London, but in order to find a cure, he must travel with his animals to the far sides of the globe. Of course, Müdfly isn’t happy about Dolittle’s interference.
Besides those mentioned above, the cast includes Antonio Banderas and Jim Broadbent, as well as a slew of actors providing their voices for various animals, including Emma Thompson, Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani and Craig Robinson.
The Beat had a chance to get on the phone line with Mr. Sheen last week, and we did throw in a question about his possible return as the angel Aziraphale for any sort of follow-up to Amazon’s series based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel, Good Omens.
THE BEAT: I saw your name on the list of possible interviews and I put in a request to talk to you, not even realizing whether you were voicing an animal, in which case I might have less questions for you. There’s only so much you can ask about being someone reading lines in a studio, as I found out speaking to Craig Robinson.
Michael Sheen: That is true. No, I had to show up every day.
THE BEAT: Besides working with Robert Downey, what was the personal appeal of playing Dr. Müdfly? Is that the proper pronunciation?
Sheen: Well done. Well-pronounced. That umlaut is very important to him. It was fantastic to work with Robert. He was just great with his amazing energy on set, and this character is a great character for him. It was just lovely to be with him every day. It’s a big film, big budget, and a lot of pressure to make sure that it’s as good as it possibly can be. Robert just makes everything a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed that. That was great, so we had a good laugh, and it was great to play a character who is in opposition to him, that I get to be his nemesis. Or he’s my nemesis, I suppose. That was fantastic, and I really enjoyed playing the character. He’s [very] uptight… he’s the complete opposite of Dolittle. For all of Dolittle’s chaotic spontaneity, Müdfly is very, very pinned down. For all his animosity towards Dolittle, he’s actually just really jealous of him. He really feels very inferior to him and wishes that he can be more like him, and that’s always a nice dynamic to play.
THE BEAT: I think a lot of conflict comes out of jealousy. It’s very motivating factor. If you’re a doctor, I’m not sure you could ever be considered completely evil…
Sheen: Exactly, yeah, so it makes it easier to play as an actor. It gives you the engine that you’re doing, so the more that Robert’s chaotic fun energy was happening in front of me that feeds the jealousy and that makes it a lot easier to play. It was really enjoyable.
THE BEAT: I was a little surprised that Stephen Gaghan wrote and directed this. I have spoken to him before, and he did Syriana and Gold, so this seems very much out of his wheelhouse.
Sheen: Very different, yeah.
THE BEAT: Were you surprised when you got the script, which I assume was fairly early on in the process of coming onto the film?
Sheen: Yeah, when I first saw his name involved with it, I thought, “There must be two of them. That can’t be the same guy that did the things you mentioned,” but no! Then I discovered that he was one who came up with the project in the first place (I think). It seemed like an odd match but then once we’re on set, you can see how passionate he was about it and how much he cared about the story, and it was great.
THE BEAT: I was curious what it was like on set, since you obviously have a lot of scenes with Robert and some of the other human characters, but there’s all these CG animals around at all times.
Sheen: Well, yeah, exactly. The very first scene we shot on the whole movie was a big set piece scene in Queen Victoria’s bedroom with loads of characters, loads of background people and a big, big set in the palace. Just as we begin the scene, suddenly Dolittle bursts in with all the animals. That’s the scene, and there’s chaos in the room. This was the very first scene we shot. Of course, Robert comes in, followed by lots of people with sticks with crosses on them, basically. [chuckles] You kind of go, “Right! This is the film we’re making. The main characters are not going to be here.” You realize that it’s back to playing make-believe when you’re a kid. You really do have to pretend. All acting is pretending, obviously, but I think when you do this kind of thing you really realize how much it is to do with having a child-like sense of pretend, because you have to do all this reacting to nothing, essentially. It was a mixture – there was the old tennis ball on the stick kind of thing and then there was someone in a green suit for the gorilla and then I think there was a little wooden duck on a stick that rolls along, so it was a mixture of things, but essentially, you just have to pretend. You’d have to say to Steve, “So where are the animals at this point and what are they doing and what are they reacting to?” I thought at first that it was going to be really hard, but actually, quite quickly, you get used to it, and then you start to see what the deliberation of that is. You can start reacting to things that you haven’t been told are happening, and afterwards, you can say, “Well, I was just imagining that one animal was doing this or that,” and they can use it or not. And then they can animate around what you’re doing sometimes. There was a lot more freedom to it than I thought.
THE BEAT: Were the people in green suits actually performance capture actors or did they just have gaffers or whomever else was available?
Sheen: There was only one person. It was only the gorilla character that had a person in a green suit doing it. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think it was somebody doing proper gorilla acting. It was just literally to have a body and space in that size. I may be doing this person a terrible disservice. They may have been studying gorillas for all their life. I’m not sure, but from the scenes I remember, there wasn’t a lot of “gorilla acting” going on, so I don’t think it was that, but I’m not sure.
THE BEAT: I was surprised that Queen Victoria was played by Jessie Buckley. I’m not sure if you’ve seen her movie Wild Rose, but she’s amazing in that. I didn’t realize that was her since most of her scenes are her lying in bed.
Sheen: Yeah, she’s an amazing actress. A fantastic actress doing all kinds of interesting things, so it was great. Also, a lot of the time, especially on a film like this, you spend a lot of time hanging around off-set waiting to come on and do stuff. A really important thing is who are the actors that you’re going to be spending most of your time in a green room with. What are they like, and are they fun to be around? So on this, a lot of the time, or certainly for those sorts of scenes, there was me and Jessie and Jim Broadbent, and that was great. Jessie is a lot of fun, she’s a lovely person, full of stories, and Jim is just amazing. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve worked with Jim now? It’s always wonderful to spend time with him. This was a good one for that, and for the rest of the time, I was just with Robert, who is just amazing to be off-set with, just a really good laugh. I was very lucky on this job with the people I was hanging out with.
THE BEAT: Was it all soundstage work or was there some work out and about on location?
Sheen: All the stuff I did was soundstage – we did a little bit on a dock-side set, but that was still on a lot, so it was all controlled in a way. But I kind of like that kind of a thing for this kind of a film. I like the big set. It’s so great when you walk in and you just see this huge set. It always fills me with excitement seeing that they’ve actually built it. It’s always amazing to see the work that people put into the sets, the detail is just incredible. It does make me feel like a kid again.
THE BEAT: Was the line about Müdfly’s fixation with his chin in the original script or was that something you came up with? I even notice that his chin is mentioned in the press notes. I never thought you had a bad chin, so it’s an interesting quirk or tic he has.
Sheen: I think that was in the script, although because Robert likes to keep things fresh all the time, so the script would change a lot. He likes to keep things spontaneous. It’s hard to remember what was on the page originally and what came out of just playing around with Robert on set. I think the chin thing was already there. [chuckles]
THE BEAT: Craig Robinson has a pretty big improv background, and he mentioned that he was able to do a lot of that in the studio as well, so it’s interesting to see how Stephen pulled that together with what Robert was ad-libbing on set. Recently, you finished up Good Omens…
Sheen: We finished that up a few years ago now. Yeah, that was a while back.
THE BEAT: It was pretty well-received, and I know they’ve been trying to adapt Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book for a long, long time. I really liked the shows, so have you heard anything about trying to do more? I know there isn’t any more source material.
Sheen: Well, there was only one book written, and such a special project for Neil, because he wrote it with Terry. With Terry no longer being with us, I’m not sure how Neil feels about writing any more without Terry. I know Neil talked about the idea that Terry had actually talked about further stuff for those characters in that world, but they never actually wrote it. But they had talked about ideas, so it would be completely up to Neil and if he felt able to work on it without Terry. Not that he couldn’t – he’d totally be able to, creatively-speaking – but I think emotionally, it might be quite difficult. I haven’t seen Neil for a while, but I don’t know about that, but I know originally the intention was that it would always be a one-off thing. But who knows? You never know in this business here.
THE BEAT: Well, you do have Game of Thrones where they went off from the books some time ago and Watchmen also was its own new thing derived from the original comic series. What are you doing next or what are you working on?
Sheen: I do a show called Prodigal Son, which is ongoing, so I’ll be going back to New York next week to carry on with that, and then I go back to the UK to work on something. I have a show called Quiz that will be coming out, which is about the Who Wants to be a Millionaire scandal in Britain a while back. That was fun to do, so that will be coming out in a couple month’s time, so lots of good stuff.
THE BEAT: I saw you’re also doing a movie with Michelle Monaghan sometime soon? She’s a pretty amazing actor.
Sheen: Oh, those are the sort of projects that you get involved with and then they never happen, but they’re still on IMDB or something, I dunno. That was a long time ago, but there were a couple things that came up that she was involved with as well. I just think she’s terrific, so I hope that something one day works out for us to do together.
THE BEAT: You have a background in theater, television and more. Are you gravitating more towards TV as a steady gig that keeps you in the same place?
Sheen: The TV stuff that comes along, for me anyway, tends to be more interesting these days on the whole, certainly from an acting point of view. There’s so much scope out there and so many different kinds of things and great support for them as well. As an actor, you’re drawn to the material really, so there’s a lot of great stuff out there. I’ve also started a production company, so I’m developing my own stuff, and that’s exciting, as well. The more I’ve done – having done Masters of Sex for a long time and other TV shows now – it made me want to get more involved in it and develop my own stuff. That’s the next chapter I think for me.
Dolittle opens on Friday, January 17, with previews on Thursday night. Look for our interview with Craig Robinson in the next few days.