Michael Sheen, activist and actor. It is in that order these days. And he’s doing rather well in both spheres. He has spent the last few years trying to find a way to balance his twin passions. And, he says, he is slowly getting there.
“A big part of it was shifting things in my head and knowing what the priorities were,” says the 51-year-old.
“I made the shift psychologically to go, right, the acting work and everything that comes with that is going to support the other stuff I’m doing.
“So even though to the outside world, maybe it wouldn’t seem like it – because I’ve been doing lots of acting work and things that have kept the profile up and all that – from my point of view, the priority has been different. Now the acting work fits in around the other stuff.”
That ‘other stuff’ involves supporting the Homeless World Cup and the fight to expand access to affordable credit, campaigning to get the right to a good home enshrined in law in Wales and combating loneliness with the Great Winter Get Together (an idea inspired by the late MP Jo Cox). Then there’s working with Social Enterprise UK, for whom he is a patron alongside The Big Issue’s Lord Bird, helping local journalism and communities get access to trustworthy information, publicising and supporting both food banks and theatres and fighting period poverty.
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It’s a heady and righteous cocktail of vital causes. And it takes up a lot of Sheen’s time. With the Covid pandemic of 2020, and Brexit around the corner, he feels his activism is going to be more important than ever in 2021.
“Everything that was happening before Covid came along which has been exacerbated,” says Sheen. “So it’s not like issues I was focused on beforehand – around homelessness and high-cost credit – are going away.
“We’re bracing ourselves for it getting a lot harder and more people being involved. The work that was going on pre–pandemic is going to get even more pressured. Because when you look into anything around poverty and inequality before the pandemic, the fallout from the way Universal Credit was being rolled out was having a massive effect. Well, there’s going to be a lot more people on Universal Credit now.”
But Sheen also sees this as a moment to seize, a chance to rebuild society anew, a period that is packed with potential.
“We saw what was possible around homelessness during the pandemic, where people were able to get off the streets and were put into accommodation and given support that wasn’t there before,” he says.
“That has made a lot of people think. If that’s possible during a pandemic when people are really motivated, then why can’t it happen afterwards as well? Why does it take a pandemic to do it? We have seen that the fact there are still people living on the street is a political choice.
“So while we are bracing ourselves for really challenging times, that’s balanced out by a sense that there’s the chance to build up from the ground again. How do we reimagine who we are and how we live and how we work together? The status quo wasn’t working. So we have to innovate, we have to reimagine, we have to reinvent – there is a moment of possibility to build back better.”
We have seen that the fact there are still people living on the street is a political choice
He is on a roll. He sounds like a politician. A good politician. With that rich, sonorous voice rising as he advocates a new way of living, a new vision for society. He compares the imminent, we hope, post-Covid moment to the situation facing the post-war Attlee government.
“When you go through a big, nation–changing event, which this has been, there’s the opportunity to reimagine a different relationship between the state and society and between us as a community,” he continues. “To see how communities have pulled together gives you a new awareness of who we are and what we can be. We can rebuild our nation in the light of that.
“There won’t always be that window of opportunity. We’ll go in a new direction and a new status quo will emerge. Let’s hope it can be a fairer one.”
But Sheen is not just about ideas for a brighter future for Wales, the UK, and beyond. He’s also at the top of the acting profession. And we’ve seen a lot of him in 2020.
There was his brilliant, uncanny, portrayal of Chris Tarrant in Quiz back in March – the memorable pop-cultural drama-doc which drew a massive lockdown audience to its exploration of the infamous, scandalous, did-they-didn’t-they ‘cheat’ storm on ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – shedding light on the inventive, pre-internet ways WWTBAM fans across the country hooked up to game their way onto the show.
Sheen was – not for the first time in a career that has seen him portray with such skill a diverse crowd of famous names, including Brian Clough (The Damned United), Kenneth Williams (Fantabulosa), Tony Blair (The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship), and David Frost (in Frost/Nixon) – utterly, bewilderingly believable as Tarrant and the three-part series, aired over consecutive nights, was genuine event television.
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— michael sheen (@michaelsheen) December 16, 2020
Then, when it became clear this pandemic and these lockdowns weren’t going anywhere fast, Sheen joined forces with his Good Omens co-star David Tennant to make Staged – the first, and perhaps only show to capture the tedium, the disconnectedness, the discombobulation of lockdown life.
With the big–name actors playing heightened versions of themselves – Sheen pompous, cultured, guzzling wine, Tennant eager to please, upbeat, hapless – it was a roaring success on iPlayer.
“David is very different to what you see in the series in real life,” says Sheen. “But although I’d like to say I’m different to the version of me in Staged, that’s pretty much what I’m like.”
The surprise second series of Staged catches up with Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen?) a few months down the line.
“We knew the series was very easy to do, filming it at home on a laptop – or that even if we went back to a more normal life again and were working elsewhere, we could film it anywhere,” says Sheen.
“And by the time we came to the second series, it was different. Even though we were still spending a lot of time at home, the second series was during a period where everybody, including David and I, were trying to go back to do things. Then the rules kept changing.
“So you never quite knew whether what was going to happen from day to day. The second series reflects that. But obviously, going back to work and trying to go back to normal is very different from me and David than they are for a lot of people – so we were aware that had to be dealt with as well, because never wanted it to be about two poncey actors and their lives. We wanted to find a way to do it so that people could still identify with it.”
This year, Sheen, like most of us, has spent more time at home. He has, he says, enjoyed catching fewer planes, appreciated his friends and extended family more than ever, raced through five series of Line of Duty and been wowed by Normal People, starting his way down Schitt’s Creek but still found little time to read novels (“I’ve asked for a few from Father Christmas”).
Because if he does find time to read, it is usually research on housing, on fighting poverty, on rebuilding the broken or the out-of-control housing market, alongside the occasional script.
But if 2020 has been about anything for Sheen, is has been about spending time with his baby daughter Lyra.
“When we went into that first lockdown in March, she was only five months old,” he says.
“So our focus has been her this whole time. Really our experiences wouldn’t have been massively different. The main overwhelming part of our experience of the last year has been having a baby, as opposed to Covid. And I know I’m very fortunate to be able to say that. But anyone who’s had a baby knows that that just takes up all your bandwidth.
“They give you structure, don’t they? A reason to get up in the morning. A lot of people have said it is difficult getting motivated to do stuff – but that’s not an issue when you’ve got a little one, is it? So I have got very used to being in the house. I even got to do two seasons of a TV show from my kitchen, which is pretty nice…”
Staged returns to BBC One and iPlayer on January 4
Michael Sheen on the legacy of the Homeless World Cup in Wales
In the summer of 2019, Cardiff hosted the Homeless World Cup. As the football tournament, featuring players from around the world, all of whom were experiencing homelessness, kicked off, we knew Michael Sheen had played a huge role in bringing the event to Wales.
What didn’t emerge until later was that, when some promised funding failed to emerge, Sheen was faced with a choice between sinking more than £1m of his own money into making it happen or cancelling the event.
He paid. They played.
It was a triumph and will last long in the memory. So how does Sheen feel now about it?
“It is an extraordinary event that happens every year,” he says. “It was going to be in Finland this year, which I was really looking forward to – because Finland has been quite pioneering in the Housing First strategy and I was looking forward to being able to find out more about that. But I still feel the way I did before – and what motivated me to try and make it happen here in Wales is that it is life-changing for people and can be a transformative experience in all kinds of ways.
“For some people who take part in it, it has an immediate effect. And for others, it may be years later that the effects of it manifest in their life. But that was why I was so committed to being a part of making that happen.
“A lot of the motivation for us in Wales was about what it could act as a platform for afterwards. And that has been affected by the Covid crisis, because a lot of the legacy work we were doing was unable to move forward in the way we’d hoped because of all the restrictions. But what I learned and discovered during that period has made a massive difference to me and the work I’m doing around homelessness.
“The relationships we developed through that time with support service organisations, the people I met and the insights I got into what people are struggling with and what would help were invaluable. It’s been a huge thing for me. I’m still paying for it. So that still affects my life as well, obviously, and things that I’m doing.
“But my acting work is there to support the other stuff. I’m putting money into things constantly, even though I still owe money to do with the Homeless World Cup. So until the time comes when I’m not able to earn money in the same way, then I’ll keep on spending it on the things that matter to me.”