Moviebill Exclusive: Michael Sheen on playing the arch foe of 'Dolittle'
From his acclaimed performance as David Frost in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon to the angel Aziraphale on the recent Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett adaptation Good Omens, Michael Sheen had consistently proved himself to be a true chameleon of stage and screen. This weekend, audiences will have a chance to catch him as Dr. Blair Müdfly, the arch nemesis of Robert Downey Jr.’s Dr. John Dolittle. Moviebill had the privilege of sitting down with Sheen to discuss his turn as Müdfly and his approach to acting in a such a VFX heavy adventure.
Moviebill: How familiar were you with the story of Doctor Dolittle before signing on for the film?
Michael Sheen: I was thinking the other day about the original film with Rex Harrison. I remember when I was at school — I must have been about eight or nine – and the school had a trip to go to the local cinema to watch the film. I remember going to see it and loving it. It’s a very fond memory for me, watching that film. There is something very magical about animals talking and walking and those extraordinary pushmi-pullyu in the original film. All those kinds of crazy animals. I loved it. There was a real magic to it for me. So when the idea of doing this film came up and there was the idea of Robert [Downey Jr.] playing that character, I thought it was fantastic. I was really intrigued to see how you would approach it and what that character would be like with him in the role. Of course, with the way effects are done now and the amazing work that people can do visually, animals really can come alive in a way that they couldn’t before. I was really excited about it.
Moviebill: What are you interacting with on set before the animal visuals are added in?
Michael Sheen: That’s the strange thing. The first scene that we did on this film was with the Queen. Queen Victoria is ill in bed and all the courtiers are there. I’m doing this stuff with the leeches when all the animals come in and it’s chaos. That was the first thing we shot. I remember Robert came in and there were no animals, obviously. It’s just a guy with a stick with a tennis ball on the end of it. I think that the duck was a little wooden duck on wheels. Someone was just pushing it along the floor. There was, for the gorilla, someone in a green suit. There was no Jip. The dog was jus tnothing. You had to imagine. We were told, “At this point, Jip will run in and jump onto the bed.” It was really was playing pretend. Of course, all acting is pretending, but when something is like this, it really feel like a kid again. You just sort of make believe. There’s a kind of a liberation in that because, of course, your imagination has to work a lot harder. At first, it seems like it’s going to be quite hard to have to imagine these major elements of the film, which is the animals, with nothing, really. It actually becomes quite freeing, because you just see them in your head. In fact, I remember Steven [Gaghan], the director saying, “Oh, you did a reaction to that, which I really liked! We’ll add an animal doing this or that to match your reaction.” So it was kind of a two-way process, really. It wasn’t just us having to react to what they were going to do. They also reacted to what we did as well.
Moviebill: Dr. Müdfly is a character created specifically for the film and who didn’t appear in any of the books. What was the first thing you learned about him?
Michael Sheen: I suppose that he was someone who had known Doolittle from when they were at university together. He’s sort of his nemesis, you know? That was the kind of starting point, someone who had grown up with Dolittle and who, on the surface, seems to hate everything about him. Underneath this, though, he really admires Dolittle and wishes he was more like him. That has kind of now turned into a jealousy and a desire to kind of stop him. I liked that. That was a good way to be able to get into the character
Moviebill: The story sort of hits the ground running with Doctor Dolittle having already been established and having gone on prior adventures. How important is it for you to work out Müdfly’s backstory?
Michael Sheen: It definitely helps having some backstory worked in. For instance, that whole thing about them being at university together makes a massive difference. Otherwise, you’re just sort of playing a generalized “I hate this person and must stop them.” Whereas, if you know where he’s actually coming from, that really helps acting the part. Hopefullym it brings a bit more nuance, a bit more depth. It opens up the options for what you can do with that character as well because then you have the chance for redemption for the character as well. If, underneath, he actually wishes that he could be more like Dolittle, then you’ve got the chance of being able to play with that trait later on. So it makes a massive difference.
Moviebill: Is it fun getting to play the bad guy?
Michael Sheen: It can be. It depends on the kind of film. With a film like this, which has a sort of playful exuberance about it, the bad guy is still to be enjoyed rather than just to be frightened of or disliked. There’s a kind of colorfulness to it and that’s enjoyable to be able to play. It’s also fun to be able to play off another actor like Robert when you have that sort of protagonist/antagonist relationship. If the other actor is very playful and is up for exploring things, as Robert is, does make it a really enjoyable experience.
Moviebill: So there was room for you to improvise?
Michael Sheen: Oh my goodness, yes. I mean, one of the things that I think is very important to Robert is to keep things very fresh and alive in the moment when you’re doing it. Every day, you’d come in and there would be different stuff. Even though you’ve worked from the script and that is the basis, you get together and you sort of talk about the scene and rehearse the scene a little bit for the camera. It would be what came out of that session that would dictate what you did for the rest of the day. Even then, you would keep changing it as you’re filming. Maybe something would happen. We would try something different we would bounce off each other. There was always room for that and, hopefully, that means that you get little special moments beyond what was on the page.