As one of the cinema’s most chameleon-like actors, the Wales-born Michael Sheen has the rare gift to play both charismatic leading men and eccentric, almost unrecognizable character parts. He’s a glad-handing Tony Blair and David Frost on one hand, and two homicidal vampires on the other. Sheen can become a legendarily in-your-face soccer coach and an unctuous expert of all things Europe, or take on the flamboyant fantasy forms of an officious white rabbit and a white-haired conniver of the game grid. Yet, among such impressive credits as The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Underworld, New Moon, The Damned United, Midnight in Paris, Alice in Wonderland, and Tron: Legacy, perhaps none of Michael Sheen’s stunningly versatile characters has touched a universal level of shock or unimaginable grief that befalls a seemingly obvious American dad whose neatly kept suburban world is shattered when his only son turns out to be anything but a Beautiful Boy.
With nothing but concern for Sam (Kyle Gallner) to hold the shards of his marriage with the overprotective Kate (Maria Bello), the couple are forced together in a way they never imagined when their son instigates the bloodiest shooting rampage in college history. Fleeing from the relentless media that seeks answers for an act they can’t begin to explain, Sam and Kate must cope with unimaginable guilt, and confront long-buried feelings toward each other. In the process, Sheen gives a devastating performance as a man whose tight-lipped façade crumbles to the emotional core, giving an uncommon display of grief allowed for any leading actor. But it’s this ability to reveal himself that makes Michael Sheen one of the most charismatic yet unassuming actors on either side of the Atlantic. He’s a performer whose greatness comes naturally -- no more so than with the heart-rending poignancy he gives to every parent’s worst nightmare in Beautiful Boy.
Daniel Schweiger: Most performers like to research their roles. But how do you do character work for a film like Beautiful Boy? I can’t imagine any parent who’s gone through something like this wanting to volunteer personal information about how they coped with a homicidal child to an actor...
Michael Sheen: On any film, you need to figure out the areas that are appropriate to research. To be honest, the area of parents who’ve had a child do this wasn’t useful because what this film's parents go through doesn’t have a rulebook. They’re completely at a loss as to how to deal with this situation or what to feel about it. There’s such a disconnect. On the one hand, you’re dealing with the grief of losing a child. But on the other, you’re trying to wrap your head around what your child has done. It complicates the grieving process. So the most important thing for me to research in Beautiful Boy was the relationship between his parents. All the work I did was between Maria and me as we worked out the back-story and trajectory of Bill and Kate’s relationship. We asked what was it like when their marriage was good, healthy, and things were enjoyable. How did having a child affect that? How does it end up at the place where we start the film? So it was very important for me and Maria to create a good relationship between ourselves as actors, because we knew we were going to spend three very intense weeks together.
DS: I was in Germany when Columbine happened. News of the massacre was reported live on television all over the world. It was something to see European reporters make sense of this horrific act, let alone American ones. When you first saw the Columbine footage, what were your first thoughts about these teenagers’ parents?
MS: I don’t think most people really thought about the parents of the people who did this. Obviously, you first become drawn to the parents of the kids who are being killed and what the horror it must have been like for the kids in that school. The last thing you think about is the parents of the shooter. Beautiful Boy is about the mysterious area of what happens to these people after they’ve been interviewed by the police. What do they do? It’s this mysterious area that drew me to the script, because I never really thought about this conflicting combination of things they now have to try to cope with -- that their son or daughter has done this hugely destructive, evil act. Yet, presumably, they love their child, and react to their loss like they would any child’s. In the back of my head, I felt like these parents would be these messed up, dysfunctional, and awful people who’ve raised these monsters or something. But it’s not as easy as that.
DS: Bill and Kate really have no clue that Sam is doing anything unusual at home, unlike what we’ve heard about the Columbine shooters. Do you think the parents are ever partially or wholly to blame when their child goes ballistic?
MS: The opportunity to portion blame on Bill and Kate is there, if that’s what people want to do. We look for reasons all the time when children act like this, because it’s too frightening to think that life is random and chaos, and there’s no cause and effect. On the one hand, we want to see that things happen for a reason. On the other hand, when the answer to that lies at our own responsibility, we try to avoid that as well. So there’s a constant battle between the idea of portioning blame and resisting it when that blame is on us. That’s certainly the case when it comes to parenting and children. On the one hand, we take too much onto our shoulders. We say, “Oh, it’s all my fault that my child’s doing this, that, and the other thing." On the other hand, we can say, “Oh, that has nothing to do with me! You didn’t get that from me!” That’s taken to an extreme when a child does something like what we’re talking about in Beautiful Boy. I’m sure there are plenty of parents who display a lot of the same qualities as Bill and Kate do in this film. That’s because we, as a culture, want to portion blame very quickly and easily because it keeps the fear of the chaos of life at bay. It sort of makes sense out of senseless acts. Yet I think there is a middle ground to be had. There may be answers as to why children like Sam act like this. But we’re probably not at a point that we can really find those answers. Our understanding of human nature, and of ourselves, is to still look through a glass darkly. When we do have perfect knowledge, then maybe we’ll be able to portion answers about these kinds of acts that are responsible and compassionate. The point of Beautiful Boy is to start getting there.
DS: Does doing a film like this make you want to be a better parent?
MS: Hopefully you don’t need to watch a film to want to be a better parent. It’s sort of Greek in a way -- the Sisyphean idea that the more you try to run away from your fate, the more you’ll run into its hands. I want my child to have a different experience than I had because I don’t want to make the same mistakes my parents did. Yet, the more you do that, there’s more chance that you’re giving your child exactly the same experience you had. So there’s a kind of blindness that’s not just about life but about parenting as well. I think you have to be careful about that, to be aware that you are obviously handing things on to your children who are trying to make their own way in life. Finding that balance is difficult.
DS: What’s so interesting about Bill is that he starts out as the “strong” one but then ends up reversing emotional roles with Kate by the end of the film...
MS: Bill is in limbo at the beginning of the film, so it’s interesting you describe that as being “strong.” Somehow we consider someone who doesn’t show emotion as being “strong.” Look at the majority of role models we’re given in action films. Their heroes tend to be people that don’t cry or show much emotion. When they do show emotion, it’s usually anger. They do things instead of feeling things. But another way of looking at that is to see a dysfunctional human being who has no access to their own emotions and who is totally disconnected from the people around them. So yes, in a way, Bill, at the beginning of this film, is doing what we see as being strong. But what he’s really doing is showing that he’s unable to feel. And the emotions that he does have frighten him. So he’s cut himself off. Consequently, he can’t really make decisions about anything. He’s sort of looking at moving out, but he can’t really make that decision. He’s so disconnected from himself that he can’t even decide which side of the bed to sleep on. He’s stayed in a relationship he didn’t want to be in for the sake of his son. These are all things that scare Bill when he feels. So when these murders happen, Bill has to reconnect with these horrendous feelings that all come out in this motel room with Kate. It’s awful, but at least it clears the way for him to find who he is again, and perhaps reconnects him with his wife.
DS: You have these really interesting films about dealing with familial guilt and grief, like Rabbit Hole and We Need To Talk About Kevin. What does this says about independent cinema that we’re seeing a “wave” of films that deal with these really dark subjects, let alone movies that end up being entertaining about them, like Beautiful Boy?
MS: There’s the desire for mainstream movies to constantly go over old ground because it works and it has an audience. There’s another desire to look for films for the new and unexplored. In our culture, we watch death all day, constantly. We’re flooded with images of death and killing in movies where hundreds of people get killed. It’s the fantasy of death, really -- death without consequences. People simply get shot and they don’t get up again. So the idea of death doesn’t register. It’s just a thrill, in some way. I think it’s important that we explore the real issues about death as a society, because we all deal with it. We all have to face it at some point, whether it’s our own or the loved ones around us. Death can become a very isolating and frightening experience. What makes that even more complicated in Beautiful Boy is that Bill and Kate are dealing with grief on the one hand and culpability on the other hand. How do you feel about someone you love that does something awful, and what does that mean? What does that say about you and your child? It’s all quite new territory for movies to explore. The fact that there are a few films that are doing it in the same areas as Beautiful Boy is good. It’s just sort of weird that they all are arriving at same time. But while smaller films like ours might not be as commercial, I think they fulfill a very important function in terms of art and the way movies works in our culture.
Anchor Bay Films' 'Beautiful Boy' opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 3, 2011.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman