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Interview: Michael Sheen

16th October 2013

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Michael Sheen is one of Britain’s most accomplished and respected actors. Equally at home on stage or screen, he has played roles including Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Hamlet.

In his latest project, Masters of Sex, a twelve-part drama set in the 1950s Midwestern USA, he plays pioneering sex researcher Dr William Masters.

Here, he reveals more.

Could you give us a quick overview of the series?

It’s the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson who were pioneers in the field of sex research. It follows the struggle that Bill Masters had in trying to explore this subject, which was very controversial during the mid to late 50s. It also follows how the relationships, particularly between Masters and Johnson but also those around them, are all intertwined with the sex research itself.

What was it about the role that particularly attracted you to it?

Well, it’s about a subject that I think is fascinating to people. Regardless of whether it’s set in the 1950s or the present day, it’s something that everybody, in one way or another, has to deal with on a daily basis. I thought the character of Bill Masters was fascinating; very shut off, very difficult to read, and very difficult to know what’s going on in his mind. Underneath the surface there is a lot of roiling, churning emotion going on, but he’s very controlled on the surface, so I thought that’s an interesting character to explore. Also, exploring the life of a man who’s chosen to work in an area that inevitably leads to him having to reveal a lot of himself both physically and, more importantly, emotionally is an interesting challenge for a character.

Modern attitudes towards sex are arguably very different to attitudes towards sex during the 1950s. To what extent do you think these differences are due to the work of Masters and Johnson?

During the period of time that they were working in, the area of sex and sexuality wasn’t very talked about. Very little was open, there were a lot of myths, there was a lot of ignorance, people were in the dark, and it was a very dysfunctional relationship. Now, it could be said that today we have just as dysfunctional a relationship with sex, but just in a different way. The work that Masters and Johnson did definitely opened up the possibility to talk about sex, to see it in a new light and to have access to actual, factual, details to refer to. Suddenly there was a platform to be able to explore issues to do with sex and sexuality. It definitely changed things. But things have shifted since then. Now, we’re inundated with images of sexuality and information about sex. But we’re still just as much in the dark about it in lots of ways. Nowadays, I think one of the greatest dangers is that there appears to be some kind of sexual ideal which if somehow we don’t match up to then there’s something wrong. There’s just as much opportunity to feel shame and anxiety about your own sexuality as there was back then, it’s just for different reasons now.

What did you do by way of research for the role?

I actually became a doctor! That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I do have to explain that I was made a Doctor of Arts, but I was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales, and so I am officially Dr. Sheen. Of course, I also read the book that Thomas Maier wrote about them (also called Masters of Sex). I also met some OBGYN surgeons who were practicing at the time that Masters and Johnson released their work, so I got a sense of what it was like before their work was published and how things changed very quickly for people working in that field.

There have been a number of hit TV shows that have been set in the 1950s - what is it about that period that seems to resonate so strongly with audiences at the moment?

Well I think it’s a period of time that on one hand seems like a whole world away and yet, on the other hand, is actually very recent. I think it can be quite a useful way to comment on today’s world whilst having the fact that it feels like a very long time ago acting as a kind of buffer. I think we’re a lot closer to what was going on at that time, and we’re still very much affected by what was happening then, much more than I think we’re aware of.

There are some very funny scenes and some very unflinching scenes. What was it like, as an actor, dealing with those two ends of the spectrum?

You see everything through the prism of your character, really (well I certainly do) and so you want a very varied experience as you’re working on something. It becomes very useful to have humour in there and I think it makes it more accessible for an audience as well. Because of the subject matter, and the period of time that it’s set in, this secret research that’s going on within a very repressed society and in a culture that is very much about how things appear and being proper, there are inevitably going to be some humorous situations that arise quite naturally. Put a character like Beau Bridges’ (Barton Scully) in a situation where you’ve got a prostitute masturbating with a glass dildo, there is going to be a certain amount of humour that is there to be mined, and that’s great for the audience and it allows for a more varied experience for the characters as well.

What do you like to watch on TV?

I have really enjoyed shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. I love Nurse Jackie as well; I think Edie Falco is extraordinary in that. I’ve been watching Dexter recently, Mad Men and Girls. House of Cards I watched recently as well and Homeland of course. I think it’s a really great time for TV drama at the moment.

Q: Wales has just produced the world’s most expensive footballer in Gareth Bale. You were offered a place on the Arsenal Juniors team in your youth, is that something you’re slightly regretting now given Gareth Bale’s recent pay rise…?

M: No, no! My career as a footballer would’ve been (if I’d ever even had one as it’s so difficult to even get into first team in a Premier League club and to then have a career, at that level…) over just around the time that it was really taking off for me as an actor I suppose. Plus I get to play at Old Trafford every two years anyway with the Soccer Aid charity so I’ve still managed to play with Giggs and the rest of them. I’ve even played with Gordon Ramsey!

Masters of Sex is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 9pm.

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