To go along with my post on Amy Adams for last week, I thought I'd look at another actor with a similar career arc - Michael Sheen, a Welsh actor best known for portraying Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Deal" and "The Queen," and the David Frost to Frank Langella's Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." What struck me about his recent film roles is the clear divide between his work in British and independent films, and his work in mainstream American films. Watching only one or the other would give viewers completely different impressions of Michael Sheen.
On the one hand, there's the Michael Sheen who's been doing films like "The Damned United," where he played famed football manager Brian Clough, and showed up in the ensemble of "My Last Five Girlfriends," a romantic comedy. He'll be returning to the role of Tony Blair later this year for "The Special Relationship," the third of Peter Morgan's films on the former Prime Minister, and also make an appearance as a terrorist villain in "Unthinkable," an indie suspense thriller. These are all fairly typical parts that we might expect to see for any up-and-coming leading man or character actor.
On the other hand, you have the Michael Sheen who starred in "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" as a werewolf freedom fighter, and popped up in "New Moon" as a decadent vampire elder. Both were broad, larger-than-life performances that were a lot of fun, but you'd never guess that this was the same actor who racked up awards for his nuanced portrayals of real-life politicians and media figures. Sheen is also set to play a flamboyant nightclub owner in the "Tron Legacy" at the end of the year, though no one has yet explained what a nightclub is doing in the computer innerspace of "Tron."
Despite the prevalence of big, loud action-adventure films on Hollywood studio slates, they're not the only kind of film being made these days. So, it stands to reason that Michael Sheen should be showing up in the crime thrillers and mid-range dramas like Gerard Butler, another relative newcomer, has been. My guess is that these are the same kinds of films that Sheen is already doing in the UK and in smaller productions, so there's no danger of him being pigeonholed for the wacky blockbuster roles. And there's no indication that he has any interest in crossing over to become an American star, and giving up the visibility he already enjoys in the UK film industry. So while he and Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman will occasionally make appearances in high-profile films like "Alice in Wonderland," for the most part they seem content to make more modest pictures outside of Hollywood.
Lots of other international film stars have the same sort of bifurcated filmographies. Jackie Chan, for example, is primarily known for action comedies like "The Spy Next Door" in the US while doing more interesting, serious films at home in Hong Kong like "The Shinjuku Incident." Gerard Depardieu made a bid for American stardom after the success of "Green Card" in the early 90s, but his subsequent American films were mostly badly-conceived comedies like the awful "My Father the Hero" and "Bogus." He still pops up occasionally for minor supporting roles in films like "The Last Holiday," but enjoys a far more prolific career in France.
What's nice about many major studios productions is that they're increasingly global enterprises, and draw not just from American talent, but from other countries' film industries and their talent from around the world. These days an overseas actor who wants global visibility doesn't have to abandon their local film scene and head for Hollywood in order to maintain their standing with Hollywood filmmakers and casting directors. Many do, of course, in order to cash in on more lucrative US-based productions, but it's nice to know that for others, it's no longer a necessity.
And while it's good to have Michael Sheen, the over-the-top genre actor who's always good for a chortle, it's good to have Michael Sheen the dependable British dramatic actor too.