Wonders of the underland
Like his latest character of the White Rabbit in Tim Burton's new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, Michael Sheen is a man in a terrible hurry. The 41-year-old Welshman has 20 minutes to chat with Day & Night in Dublin's Gresham Hotel, along with his Alice co-star and friend Timothy Spall, before he has to dash off to catch a flight to London and onwards to Los Angeles.
Happily, Sheen isn't as flustered as the iconic McTwisp and there's ne'er a hint of fretful pocket-watch checking. Instead, he and Spall are relaxed and chatty, cracking jokes and exchanging stories about the best places to live and socialise in LA.
Both men are in town for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, which held the Irish premiere of this much-anticipated updating of Lewis Carroll's classic fairytale. In typical Tim Burton fashion, this version of Alice is a visually sumptuous feast, shot in 3D, and starring Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska as a now grown-up Alice, alongside Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, all of whom seem to be having a ball as the Mad Hatter, the divinely evil Red Queen and the dementedly saintly White Queen respectively.
Elsewhere, half of the card-carrying members of Equity provide voices for animal characters, including Sheen and Spall (as bloodhound Bayard), as well as Stephen Fry, Barbara Windsor, Alan Rickman and Christopher Lee.
It's an extraordinary cast by anyone's standard, but the slightly less glamorous reality for Sheen and 53-year-old Londoner Spall consisted of sitting in a recording studio laying down the voices for their characters.
"I only met Johnny Depp on the red carpet," laughs Sheen. "In fact, the first time all of us got together was at the premiere, so I didn't get the 'full' Tim Burton experience. What was nice, though, is that when I did my work, it was just the two of us, so in a way there was more time for chit-chat and small talk. So I did feel like I got to know him a little bit. We're talking about hopefully doing something together again.
"What's amazing is that Tim had to keep this whole movie in his head. I remember after doing my last voice session asking him, 'So, how's the film looking? And he replied, 'I have absolutely no idea. I haven't seen a single frame of it yet'. You really have to trust his vision."
"Tim is incredibly inclusive," adds Spall, who previously worked with both Burton and Depp on Sweeney Todd. "He makes you feel like you're involved in his dream. He doesn't dictate to you and you feel like a complete equal to him. He has the enthusiasm and energy to get a movie right."
Acting against -- and reacting to -- blue-screens and sticks representing other characters was a refreshing change of tack for these two character actors. "It's just like acting when you're a kid," says Sheen. "We don't call it acting then -- we call it pretending. You could be playing a pirate or a soldier, and you don't need a set or a script for that. It's just the power of belief."
"Acting in a film is always a leap of faith anyway," continues Spall. "To be honest, I got so lost in the visuals that I forgot I was in it. I was watching it thinking, 'God, that dog sounds a lot like me'."
Both men signed up for the project without seeing the finished script. "I'd only do that with Tim and Mike Leigh," says Spall. Sheen reveals that this is one of three movies he agreed to before reading the final draft. "The others were New Moon because my daughter loves Twilight so much, and Tron Legacy [out later this year] because I was a huge fan of the original as a kid. But my agents hate me doing that. The whole point is to go, 'Hmm I'm not sure, it all depends on how much money you give me', whereas in all those cases I was like, 'Yes, absolutely, I'll do it!'"
Acting is in the blood for these actors and flowed down to the next generation. Spall's own son Rafe is an established actor in his own right, starring in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Green Street. His dad had mixed feelings about him going into the business.
"When Rafe told me he wanted to be an actor at the age of 15, I was both flattered and horrified in equal measure because a) he wanted to do what his old dad does, and b) I knew he was going to get some stinking rotten knocks," explains Spall. "Everyone gets kicked in the balls no matter how successful they are. But he's doing really well and he's his own man. I still do deals with God, though. I say, 'Let Rafe get that part he wants; in exchange, I don't need this part'."
Sheen, meanwhile, has an 11-year-old daughter, Lily, with his ex-partner Kate Beckinsale, and both mother and daughter can be currently seen in the movie Everybody's Fine (Lily plays her mum as a child). "Yes, Lily was acting with Robert de Niro, no less," Sheen says proudly. "It gave her a taste for the business, frighteningly. But I don't think she'll want to carry on doing it."
As it turns out, Sheen's own dad is something of an actor too, and is a famed Jack Nicholson impersonator at home in Newport. "There's a strange symmetry to it, because it was after Tim Burton made the first Batman that, overnight, people started coming up to my dad saying he looked like Jack Nicholson. All of the first jobs he did were as the Joker.
"Dad loves it. He was a frustrated actor: he loves performing but he's not a very good actor, so this was the perfect thing for him. He lives vicariously through me now!"
Oddly enough, both actors will soon be seen on screen playing British prime ministers: Spall as Churchill in The King's Speech, while Sheen reprises his role as Tony Blair (opposite Dennis Quaid's Bill Clinton) in The Special Relationship. "The last film I've ever going to make about Blair," Sheen says with a smile.
Has he ever met the man himself? "I met him last year actually," Sheen replies, pausing momentarily, face set in neutral. "He was very charming. Perfectly lovely."