Michael Sheen has played an in-over-his-head talk show host in Frost/Nixon, a powerful and villainous vampire in The Twilight Saga, and a hilariously cantankerous Englishman in 30 Rock. But there is perhaps no role more perfect for him than his current one: the closed-off and confounding sex researcher Bill Masters on Showtime's series Masters of Sex, entering its third season in July.
The character, a real-life figure, plays into Sheen's unique desire to question and probe every character flaw and motivation. And on Masters of Sex, that's encouraged.
"I suppose I took a risk in Season 1, which was to not reveal too much about him and just present him as what he is on the surface whilst I already knew what was going on underneath," Sheen told BuzzFeed News, seated at a booth in the back of The Six restaurant in Studio City, California. "It ran the risk of alienating people and people not liking the character, because very damaged people tend to not be people that you warm to in life immediately; but the more you find out about them, maybe the more you are able to have a reciprocal relationship."
The character of Bill Masters could have easily become a more traditional protagonist with someone other than Sheen in the role, but one of the actor's primary goals is to make Bill's behavior comprehensible, never simply excusing it. Whether he's softening toward his partner — both in sexual research and in bed — Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), or reverting to his bad habits, Sheen grounds the character in reality.
Of course, showrunner Michelle Ashford and the Masters of Sex writing staff had their own goals for Bill's arc, but it was Sheen who insisted on making the character, especially during the first season, a frustratingly hard nut to crack.
The complicated, flawed antihero is not new: It has, in fact, become a staple of many recent cable dramas. But Sheen wanted Bill to be distinct from Mad Men's Don Draper, Breaking Bad's Walter White, and House of Cards' Frank Underwood.
"All these characters have something that sugars that pill, and I point-blank refused to have anything that sugars the pill," Sheen said. "I wanted to make it difficult for the audience."
The pill, in this case, was Bill's backstory, but Sheen felt like revealing too much in the first season — the specter of Bill's abusive father looms much larger in Season 2 — would play right into viewer expectations.
"What I love about the form of multi-episodic storytelling on TV at the moment is that you can really take your time with revealing character, and revealing the story of this person, contextualizing them," Sheen said. "There are more shorthand ways of doing things. We get so used to them. We're so sophisticated as an audience now, we see through it."
Those who have stuck with Masters of Sex have been able to see Bill evolve — slowly, for the most part, but with a boost thanks to Season 2's time jump. For each season, Sheen finds an existing story that will give him context with which to explore Bill's journey. And Season 2, which tracked the shifting power dynamics between Masters and Ginny, was steeped in Minos, the Minotaur, and the labyrinth.
"This became the myth, for me, of Bill Masters in Season 2, a man who was turned into a monster by his father and ended up trapped in a maze, and anyone who had the misfortune to wander into that maze and meet him would be kind of punished by him," Sheen said. "That becomes the kind of guiding, underlying, unconscious part of who that character is.
If it sounds pretentious, Sheen is well aware. He even recalled Ashford delicately reminding him, "You know, other actors don't really look at where their characters sit in terms of mythology and Jungian archetypes."
"I can bore myself talking about this sort of stuff, so I know how it comes across," he said. "But ultimately for me it's a balance between this kind of work, this kind of exploration of ideas and analyzing things and that kind of stuff, and then just absolutely, in the moment, being open to something. The best work that I've done, I think, is when there's a balance between those two aspects."
Sheen's study of his characters hardly begins and ends with Masters of Sex. But while it may seem obvious that he would delve deep into the psyche of Tony Blair — whom he has played in the film The Queen and two TV movies (The Deal and The Special Relationship), all written by Peter Morgan — he applied the same philosophy to his role as Aro, a member of vampire royalty the Volturi in three Twilight films.
"If I'm playing a character like the character I played in Twilight, where there is the opportunity to do something quite disturbing, that's what I decided to do. I decided I wanted to use this as an opportunity to do something that might get under younger people's skin a little bit in the way that characters had when I was young," Sheen said. To prepare for the films, he rewatched the vampire classics as well as his personal sources of childhood trauma, including Yellow Submarine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "I didn't do any less work."
Yes, Sheen's desire to engage with his characters on a deeper level than what's on the page applies to big-budget franchises like Twilight and the Underworld movies, as well as blockbusters like Tron: Legacy. "I'm still trying to take as many risks as I can and push things as much as I can, and really try to work the text, and all those sort of things that I would do," Sheen said. "It's just, you've got different goal posts."
Sheen's upcoming projects embrace his lighter side and his interest in absurdist comedy: He plays a pedophilic talk show host on HBO's mockumentary 7 Days of Hell, which premieres July 11, and he'll be returning in IFC's follow-up to the soapy and satirical The Spoils Before Dying, a thematic sequel to last year's The Spoils of Babylon.
Luckily, comedy has its share of truth to uncover as well.
"We will laugh at something because it seems absurd and totally unreal, but it literally would not make sense to us — and therefore we wouldn't find it funny — if it wasn't real. It's a different version of reality," Sheen said. "It's a different kind of way of doing it. I think partly why I enjoy doing that kind of thing is that it exercises a different version of what is real and it's more intuitive and you have to let go of certain ways of relating to things."
Sheen may not be using Greek mythology to get at the reality behind these sorts of characters, but he still looks for relatability, both for help in articulating the character and in sharing it with the audience. The challenge of playing more off-the-wall characters is finding the part of himself that best matches the roles. While he's not the boy-crazy talk show host of 7 Days in Hell, he believes the performance only works when he finds certain aspects of his own personality that match the character's.
Sheen repeated a phrase he said he returns to often: "I can only play me."
"If I play a character who seems so different from me, the only way I can play that character — because the way I like to work is I have to ultimately be playing myself — it has to be absolutely invested in me and my experiences and who I think I am and what I'm capable of. So by going as far away from home as possible, the question is, is my sense of who I am able to fill that? And I love that. That's why I do this."
Sheen knows that his approach to acting isn't for everyone. When pressed about his need to identify with a mostly one-joke character who barely appears in 7 Days in Hell, Sheen is honest in his assessment of the work.
"I know this is a very intellectual way of talking about something that is ultimately very, very stupid and silly. But I think in order to really do it well, I think on some level you have to be all right with that [identification]," he said. "Not all right with what the character's doing, but all right with the idea that you might have the capacity or have similar urges at times. And I enjoyed lap-dancing Kit Harrington, I have to say. As a heterosexual male, I got a lot of pleasure out of that."
And if he's lucky, those he's working with will understand: like in Season 2 of Masters of Sex, the season in which Sheen had decided Bill's arc mirrored the myth of Minos, the writers named an episode "Asterion" after Minos' father in Greek mythology.
"The writers don't necessarily think of it like [I do]," Sheen said, "but they humor me by engaging with that a bit, and stuff comes out of it, which is great."
And despite how seriously Sheen takes his work, he stresses the need for a certain looseness when it comes to acting. There's the theory, and then there's the practice.
"The best work, I think, is when you have an actor who is prepared to do a ton of work beforehand, but is also in the moment able to just let go of it and be spontaneous," Sheen said. "You can be spontaneous, but you trust and have faith that that spontaneity is actually being informed by something. But it's only if you're prepared to let go of it. And that's difficult."
He paused to reflect on his assessment for a moment.
"People find that hard," he continued. "I find that hard."