Is this a dream, or am I really sitting in a wood-panelled library sipping tea out of a dainty china cup and saucer while politely discussing orgasms with actor Michael Sheen? Or am I in fact having this frank conversation about sex with David Frost or Tony Blair? Sheen has played both men with extraordinary realism in Frost/Nixon and The Queen. At the moment he’s playing another real person, the eminent American obstetrician Dr William Masters, who conducted the first scientific study into the physiology of sex, hence our rather intimate conversation.
Those following the series Masters of Sex on Channel 4 will know that Masters and research assistant Virginia Johnson spent years investigating the subject of sex, not through polls and surveys like Alfred Kinsey, but by direct observation. Their subsequent findings, on the subject of female sexual arousal, proved revolutionary when they were finally published in their 1966 bestseller, Human Sexual Response.
This impassive scientific approach allowed Masters and Johnson to wire up naked strangers with electrodes and take notes while the action unfolded. When I listen back to the tape of my interview with Sheen, I can hear the actor lifting the teapot to pour me another cup, while earnestly talking about “the refractory period that follows the male orgasm”.
He then goes into a long, almost scholarly explanation of how Masters and Johnson disproved Freud’s theory about the female orgasm. I start scribbling rather vigorously in my notebook at this point in order to avoid any embarrassing eye contact. Usually you build up to this kind of conversation after a lot of alcohol, but Sheen needs no encouragement.
I find it rather strange hearing Sheen’s real voice. He speaks with a softly accented Welsh lilt, having grown up in Port Talbot, the former coal and steel town that produced Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton, the latter a particular hero for the young Michael. Burton and Sheen took the same path from the Welsh valleys to Hollywood and Sheen has spoken of wanting to portray him in a biopic.
In fact, Burton was a very different type of actor. He had the same distinctive gravelly voice in whatever role he played, whereas Sheen is a chameleon who disappears into the skins of others. It clearly runs in the family: his father, Meyrick, a retired personnel officer, tops up his pension doing Jack Nicholson impersonations.
A lot of actors balk at the idea of playing real people, but Sheen seems to have made a career out of it. He’s played Tony Blair no fewer than three times as well as Frost, Brian Clough and Kenneth Williams. “I like having a real life to explore. You have to search for what connects you to them, whereas when you are dealing with a fictional character, the life you develop inevitably comes from within you.” He says one of the great things about playing Frost was how supportive the TV presenter was, describing places and people and how he felt at the time. “It can’t be easy watching the events of your life being changed for dramatic purposes,” says Sheen, “particularly since part of the story of Frost/Nixon was about people underestimating David, but he never dwelt on that, he was always incredibly positive.” Sheen had just stepped off a flight from LA to London when he heard the news of Frost’s death. “I felt very sad. I met David quite a few times both when I was doing the stage play and later the film, and he invited me to his house and his famous summer party. I’d also met his family and I felt for them. He was a lovely man.”
He looks a little more guarded when I ask about his relationship with Tony Blair. “I only met him once at a dinner party after I had done The Queen. His official line is that he has never seen any of the things I’ve done about him, but he seemed to have a fairly good working knowledge.” Dr William Masters, comedian Kenneth Williams and football manager Brian Clough were already dead when Sheen played them, which made it a little easier. He tells a funny story about searching YouTube for clips of Cloughie while preparing for the film The Damned United. The first clip that came up was him being interviewed by David Frost, so he found himself watching the man he was about to play being interviewed by the man he had just played.
Perhaps it’s the beard that Sheen is sporting at the moment or the green tweed suit, but there’s something quite serious, even earnest about him. He’s clearly an intelligent, well-read man who considers every question in an almost professorial manner. When I ask if he had trouble keeping a straight face during some of the sex scenes in Masters of Sex that take place in the consulting room, he looks slightly appalled and talks about “creating an environment in which actors can feel safe”.
Sheen was a successful stage actor before he moved into film, and was playing Hamlet at the Young Vic when he was first sent the script for Masters of Sex. He did have some doubts, but not because of the subject matter. “I had doubts, but not because of the subject matter. “I had doubts about signing a seven-year contract. “It’s a big commitment.” That length of contract is standard for most American TV series (it’s produced by the US cable channel Showtime, who make Homeland) although, as Sheen explains, very few of them make it to seven seasons.
Fortunately, Masters of Sex is shot in Los Angeles, where Sheen has been living for the past ten years. It meant he could be at home for a sustained period of time and see his 14-year-old daughter on a regular basis. Sheen moved to California in order to be close to his only child, the result of an eight-year relationship with former girlfriend, actress Kate Beckinsale.
We compare notes on parenting teenagers (I have a 15-year-old). “It’s an age where they don’t necessarily want you around but they do need you,” says Sheen, rather wisely.
After three cups of tea, our time together draws to a close. I’m still not sure I know who the real Michael Sheen is. As he leaves for Dorset, where he’s filming Far from the Madding Crowd, I’m left with a fleeting impression of a courteous, quite controlled man who can speak frankly about sex without chortling, but whether that’s Michael Sheen or Dr William Masters, I really don’t know.
See Masters of Sex, Tuesday 9:00pm, C4