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Michael Sheen: ‘I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor’

How Michael Sheen was liberated by giving everything away for a cause close to his heart

Michael Sheen is one of the most beloved actors in Britain. And it’s easy to see why in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, where he tells The Big Issue‘s Jane Graham about why he made a decision to invest in causes that mean a lot to him.

When the Homeless World Cup was struggling for funding, Michael Sheen stepped in. “I realised I could do this kind of thing and, if I can keep earning money, it’s not going to ruin me,” he said.

His latest film, Last Train to Christmas, premieres later this month, in which he plays a character with a fantastic 1980’s mullet who finds they are travelling through time as they walk the different train carriages. But until that’s out, let Michael Sheen transport you back to his own younger days…

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The thing I enjoyed most in my late teens was youth theatre. By 16, I was starting to really take it seriously. I’d been obsessed with football when I was younger. Every waking hour I was playing or watching or reading about it. And when I was about 12, I had an opportunity to go to the next stage and play for the youth team [at Arsenal]. My life could have gone a very different way.

But I didn’t go down that path because my mum and dad didn’t want to move the family to London. So over the next few years, I started to transfer that passion into acting. By 16, I was starting to really come into my own and thinking, maybe this is something I’m actually going to do seriously, rather than just something I enjoy.

I think I was a pretty ebullient 16-year-old. I’d had a real horrible heartbreak by that point but I was coming out of that, though I was a bit wary about getting my heart broken. I’d gone the other way, never getting too serious about anything. I wasn’t great with processing emotion or talking about emotion, I was just getting on with stuff.

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I was doing pretty well with the girls at that point. I was trying to make my curly hair look like John Taylor’s hair in Duran Duran but it wasn’t working for me. Still, I was fighting the good fight with a lot of hairspray. I mean, I think you could have your own climate change conference about my teenage years.

I had a big extended family in Port Talbot in South Wales. I grew up with lot of cousins and uncles and aunties and grandparents around me. I really liked that. Over the last couple of years I’ve had a greater appreciation of family get-togethers. I completely took them for granted when I was young.

I loved growing up in Port Talbot. It’s known for being a not particularly beautiful place, with a lot of heavy industry, the steelworks and a chemical plant when I was growing up as well. But it’s by the sea and there’s a lot of countryside nearby, and I loved it there. I just thought it was the most beautiful, wonderful place.

I don’t think the teenage me would be surprised that I’ve had the life of an actor. By the time I was 17
I was really enjoying acting and I was very calm. I was starting to become confident about my ability. What would surprise him would be to say, you’ll leave, but you’ll come back and live here again. I loved the place, but I never questioned the fact that I was going to leave and go off into the world. The idea that I would choose to come back and live in the same area again – and not at retirement age but at the height of what I’m doing – I don’t think I would be able to explain to the 17-year-old what that’s about.

I’ve realised in the last few years that I want to be one of those people who help other people the way so many people helped me. I don’t want to just be someone who enjoys the fruits of what other people have done and then pull the drawbridge up and go, well I’m alright Jack, I’ve had a nice time. I’m at the stage of my life and career where I have a window of opportunity that will probably never be this good again. I’m able to get people in a room, I can open doors. I don’t want to look back and think, I could have done something with that platform. I could have done something with that money.

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Doing The Passion in 2011 [a 72- hour National Theatre Wales production through the streets of Port Talbot] was a turning point in my life. That project involved the entire town and it was a big awakening for me. I got to know people and organisations within my hometown that I didn’t know existed. Little groups who were trying to help young carers, who had just enough funding to make a tiny difference to a kid’s life by putting on one night a week where they could get out and go bowling or watch a film and just be a kid.

I would come back to visit three or four months later, and find out that funding had gone and that organisation didn’t exist any more. That stuff doesn’t make the news but it makes a massive difference to kids’ lives. I realised the difference between that child’s life being a little bit better or not was ultimately a small amount of funding. And I wanted to help those people. I didn’t just want to be a patron or a supportive voice, I wanted to actually do more than that. That’s when I thought, I need to go back and live in Wales again.

Sheen at the football Homeless World Cup opening ceremony at Cardiff’s Bute Park in 2019 Photo: Tracey Paddison / Alamy Stock Photo

The other big thing that changed my thinking was the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff in 2019. I had committed to helping to organise that and then suddenly, with not long to go, there was no money. I had to make a decision – I could walk away from it, and it wouldn’t happen. And all those people from all around the world who were banking on coming to have this extraordinary experience, maybe a life-changing experience, wouldn’t have it. I thought, I’m not going to let that happen.

So I put all my money into keeping it going. I had a house in America and a house here and I put those up and just did whatever it took. It was scary and incredibly stressful. And I’ll be paying for it for a long time. But when I came out the other side I realised I could do this kind of thing and, if I can keep earning money it’s not going to ruin me. There was something quite liberating about going, alright, I’ll put large amounts of money into this or that, because I’ll be able to earn it back again. I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor.

Choo choo choose to watch Michael Sheen’s new film Last Train to Christmas

If I could have one more conversation with anyone it would be my childhood friend Stephen. There was a period in my life between the age of five and eight when we moved from Wales to Liverpool because of my dad’s work. Then my dad got another job and we moved back to Wales.

There’s this period of three years when I had a best friend and his name was Stephen. He lived a couple of streets away and we did everything together. Then my mum and dad suddenly told me we were leaving Liverpool. So the next day I had to say to Stephen, right, I’m moving away. I didn’t take on board what that meant at the time. But we moved and I never saw him again. So if I could, I’d like to have a conversation with him, to be able to remember things I must have forgotten. The world of a seven-year-old… we used to go off on our bikes and play all day and I have very little memory of it. I’d love to be able to talk to him and ask him, what do you remember?

If I could go back and live one moment again… well, there’s the births of my children. And meeting every single woman I’ve loved in my life – the moment when you go, oh my god; I’ve been very fortunate to have had that with a few wonderful women. No matter what came afterwards, that moment is amazing.

But I would say the single moment would be in 2006. I had performed Frost/Nixon in the Donmar Theatre in London, then I got straight on a plane to fly to Venice for a press conference about The Queen, which had been a massive hit at the Venice Film Festival. I was travelling with Peter Morgan who had written Frost/Nixon and The Queen; we went on a flight and then got on a speedboat to the press conference. There was already talk of turning Frost /Nixon into a film and on the flight Peter said, I’ve found the next one for you; it’s going to be Brian Clough. I’m going to adapt The Damned United.

There was a moment when we were on this speedboat and roaring through the Venice canals, my long hair flying behind me, and Peter looked up at me and shouted: ‘Remember this moment!’ And I always will.

Michael Sheen stars in Last Train to Christmas. Premieres December 18 on Sky Cinema; available to stream on NOW.

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