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Michael Sheen On The 'Accuracy And Invention' Of Real-Life Roles

Sheen has made a name for himself playing real historical figures, including Mozart, Caligula, Prime Minister Tony Blair and British TV host David Frost. Now, in the Showtime drama Masters of Sex, he plays the part of groundbreaking sex researcher William Masters.

35:30

Other segments from the episode on December 11, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 11, 2013: Interview with Michael Sheen; Review of a box set of Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recordings; Review of the best books of 2013.

Transcript

December 11, 2013

Guest: Michael Sheen

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX)

MICHAEL SHEEN: (As William Masters) Why would a woman fake an orgasm?

LIZZY CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Usually so the woman can get back to whatever it is she'd rather be doing.

DAVIES: My guest, British actor, Michael Sheen, is currently starring in the Showtime series "Masters of Sex," in which he plays the groundbreaking sex researcher, William Masters. Some of Sheen's most memorable roles have been playing real people. He was a highly regarded theater actor in England where he played Mozart and Caligula among others.

He got into movies and earned good review playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in "The Queen," and two other films. And he played the late British journalist David Frost in the stage and screen versions of "Frost/Nixon." Sheen's also had his share of fictional roles including a funny guest appearance on several episodes of the TV series "30 Rock."

When I spoke to Michael Sheen, we began with the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex" about the collaboration between Dr. William Masters and his associate, Virginia Johnson. Starting in the 1950s, they researched the physiological impact of sex by observing men and women having intercourse with electrodes attached to capture physical changes.

In this scene, Masters and Johnson have decided to participate in the study by having sex with each other. And beforehand, they're asking each other the background questions every participant has to answer. Johnson, played by Lizzy Caplan, speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) I was 15.

SHEEN: (As William Masters) Where did it take place?

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) In the back of a Plymouth. And how old were you when you first had sexual intercourse?

SHEEN: (As William Masters) Twenty in a cabin on Rainbow Lake.

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Did you have sexual intercourse with your spouse before marriage?

SHEEN: (As William Masters) I did not. Did you?

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Yes, with both marriages. I suppose it never occurred to me to wait until marriage. If currently married, how frequently do you have coitus with your spouse?

SHEEN: (As William Masters) Uh, we're not having coitus presently.

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Because of the miscarriage. I should have skipped that question.

SHEEN: (As William Masters) That's all right. Uh, how frequently do you have coitus with a partner?

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) I don't have a partner at present.

SHEEN: (As William Masters) Meaning you're not having coitus?

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Meaning, no not right now. Last question before we start. Does emotional attachment play a significant role in your ability to enjoy sex?

SHEEN: (As William Masters) Significant role. Hard to say, but yes I suppose so. A qualified yes. And you?

CAPLAN: (As Virginia Johnson) Not really. I mean, it can, but it's a curious thing. I've always felt different from other women. Most women, they want love when they sleep with a man, but I've always been able to separate sex from love.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Michael Sheen, and Lizzy Caplan in the Showtime series, "Masters of Sex." Well Michael Sheen, welcome to FRESH AIR. So much is going on there as we listen to your voice. I mean, this guy is detached. He's threatened. He's trying to be honest. It's also the kind of conversation people have before they're about to become physically intimate, which is, you know, kind of fraught with tension, anyway.

SHEEN: Yes, exactly. I mean, incredibly vulnerable and exposing and intimate, and that's a big part of what the show is about, you know. I think the thing that makes people ear's prick up is that it's a show about sex and the study about sex, but it's, you know, ultimately it's the study of intimacy, of how do we deal with being vulnerable with each other; how do we deal with the challenges of intimacy and the kind of games we play and the defenses we have.

And you can sort of hear it in that, coaching phases around very technical terms or scientific terms when in fact what's actually going on is something much more naked and raw and vulnerable.

DAVIES: Yeah. I guess what I find fascinating, and I remember these scenes where you and Lizzy Caplan are looking at each other and you're supposed to be these two professionals engaging in an act of research, but in fact you're engaging in this very intimate act of physical intercourse and there are moments where you're looking into each other's eyes and I see this, like am I going to express love here. I start to, and then I catch myself because no, I can't be doing that. This is all about science.

SHEEN: Yeah, well yes. I mean, specifically scenes where, for instance, you're describing, where we are having sex but because the whole idea is that it's separate of emotion and attraction and all those kind of things, that it's just scientific. You know, of course it can't be. It's impossible for it to be like that, but you have these two people, or certainly this one person, Bill Masters, who is, you know, leading the experiment and trying not to show any emotion.

And that is a very peculiar thing to play as an actor, to be doing something that is usually in a story the most intimate thing, where it becomes very, you know, you see desire, you see lust, you see attraction, you see all those things. You're kissing or whatever, and that sort of makes it easy. You lose yourself in it. And here's a scene where we're not even supposed to look at each other particularly as it's happening, and I'm supposed to say orgasm as I orgasm, plateau or whatever it might be.

And that is a very peculiar thing to act, but it's sort of brilliant, you know. It's a wonderful thing to act. It's great to be able to do it like that rather than the sort of usual boring way. Regular sex will always be just boring for me now.

DAVIES: How well does the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, as we see it in the series, do you know how closely that conforms to, you know, their actual lives and experiences, how much artistic license there is?

SHEEN: Well, Michelle Ashford, who created the series, based it on the book by Thomas Maier about Bill and Virginia. And so what's useful, in a way, is that you've got this kind of template, the actual events of their life, the facts of their life that we constantly, you know, draw on, that's absolutely the spine of what we're doing. But at the same time, they, as a relationship, and Bill Masters specifically as a man, it was very difficult to know what was going on.

They were very secretive and private and he was very, you know, he was very defended and guarded and it was very difficult to get to know him for real. So even though you can look at the facts of their life and you can see, oh this happened and that happened, that happened, that's so not the full story, which is great for us, you know, because then, by necessity, you have to explore, you have to invent within that framework.

So I think it's a kind of perfect combination of actual factual accuracy and invention.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Sheen. He stars in the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex." I'd like to talk about "The Queen," the 2006 film that you were in with - directed by Stephen Frears, in which you played Prime Minister Tony Blair and this is one of three films in which you've played Tony Blair.

This is the middle of the three. I guess there's a particular challenge to playing a real person who's still around and whom the audience has very clear images of.

SHEEN: Yes. I mean, a lot of it, apart from anything else, is about expectations, I suppose, and people's own, certainly in Britain particularly, people's own personal feelings about that person when it's a politician and a prime minister and by the point that we were making, the film's really a very controversial and political figure, then how people feel about him personally clearly plays into how they're going to react to what you're doing in the film. So that's, you know, a huge challenge.

DAVIES: Let's hear a clip from the film. It's about Queen Elizabeth and the royal family's reaction to the untimely death of Princess Diana, when Tony Blair was, I guess, relatively recently elected Prime Minister. And the problem was the queen was very remote and appeared to be uncaring to a grieving public, since Princess Diana was no longer a part of the royal family. And the result was horrifically negative. Media coverage, popular anger at the queen and even at the monarchy itself.

And Prime Minister Blair spends a lot of the film trying to advise the queen to come to London, make a public statement, show some sympathy, which eventually she does and that gesture is well received. In this scene we're going to hear, near the end of the film, months after that drama, when the prime minister has his regular meeting with the queen. She's played by Helen Mirren. And in this meeting you refer back to that tumultuous week that you experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE QUEEN")

SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) The circumstances were exceptional, Madam. And in the end you showed great personal strength, courage and humility.

HELEN MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth) You're confusing humility with humiliation.

SHEEN: (As Prime Minister Tony Blair) That's not true.

MIRREN: (As Queen Elizabeth) You didn't read the cards or the flowers outside the palace that Friday.

SHEEN: (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) I actually think history will show it was a good week for you.

MIRREN: (as Queen Elizabeth) And an even better one for you, Mr. Blair.

SHEEN: (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) But there are 52 weeks in the year, ma'am, and two and one half thousand in the times since you've been queen. And when people come to assess your legacy, they won't remember those few days.

MIRREN: (as Queen Elizabeth) Oh, really? You don't think that what affection people once had for this institution has been diminished?

SHEEN: (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) No. Not at all. You're more respected now than ever.

MIRREN: (as Queen Elizabeth) I gather some of your closest advisers were less fulsome in their support.

SHEEN: (as Prime Minister Tony Blair) One or two. But as a leader, I could never have added my voice to that chorus.

MIRREN: (as Queen Elizabeth) Because you saw those headlines and you thought one day that might happen to me. And it will, Mr. Blair, quite suddenly and without warning.

DAVIES: And that is Helen Mirren, as Queen Elizabeth and our guest, Michael Sheen in the film "The Queen."

And we should mention the other two times that you played Tony Blair was for the film "The Deal," which was about his conversation with Gordon Brown. And then the one after "The Queen" was "That Special Relationship," an HBO film about his relationship with, I guess, Bill Clinton and to some extent George W. Bush.

SHEEN: Yes.

DAVIES: When you made "The Queen" in 2006, you had played a lot of leading roles. And here you are playing the most powerful man in Britain, I suppose. But his role in this drama is to sort of react to the queen and maybe kind of express the country's reaction to the queen. And I wondered if it was hard to take on a role of this powerful man essentially supporting, you know, Helen Mirren's performance as her majesty?

SHEEN: Well, it's interesting because the role is I think in a lot of Peter Morgan's films - Peter Morgan is the writer of "The Queen." He also wrote "The Deal" and "Special Relationship." He also wrote "Frost/Nixon." He also wrote "The Damned United." So we've done a lot of projects together. And one of the things that is the case sort of repeatedly in a lot of his work is that there are often two characters pitted against each other, or certainly, you know, working with each other. One of them I always think of as being the kind of mythological hero going into the maze, you know, like Perseus or Odysseus or something. And the other character is the monster, is the thing at the heart of the labyrinth. And we follow the story of the hero. Of course we, you know, that's, as an audience, that's our point of contact and that's the main thrust of the story. But we're fascinated and compelled and drawn to the monster who we know less about, who is more enigmatic, who is more hidden. So, but often, and often the monster part is the supporting part and it's the hero who is the hero, literally. But our fascination with the monster is such that that's the character who looms largest in our consciousness, you know, or in our unconsciousness, I suppose.

So for instance, in "Frost/Nixon," it's Frost who is the character that we followed. It's his story that we're following. But it's Nixon who is the minotaur of the heart of the labyrinth, and the same with the queen. And that's a, you know, for a figure who, I think this is one of the things that Peter Morgan does brilliantly, is that taking figures who we're so familiar with and yet not. You know, figures who have become almost two-dimensional in our minds and have become huge in that sense and that Nixon had become a sort of a cardboard cutout figure, a sort of a bogeyman. And the queen had become a sort of iconic but very, you know, surface kind of understanding for us, and then fleshing them out, making them three-dimensional.

DAVIES: Well, I want to talk about "Frost/Nixon" in a moment. But, you know, since you played Tony Blair so much and so well, did you ever talk to him about your performances?

SHEEN: I tend to on the rare occasions when I played characters who are actually still alive and there is the possibility, I suppose, of meeting them, I have always shied away from that, certainly until a point where I feel confident in where I'm going with the character or what might, you know, what my take is, at least. Because I don't want to be thrown off. I don't want to feel compromised in how I approach the characters, and if you actually know the person than that can be a bit difficult. With Blair, in between "The Queen" and "The Special Relationship," where I felt like I sort of knew what I was doing a bit more, there was the opportunity came up to meet him, and so I did and it was very interesting. I knew that he had said that he'd never watched any of the films, which I think from a political point of view is the most appropriate response, because if he says he's seen them, then obviously people can say well, is that true and did that happen and did that happen? And, you know, I'm sure he doesn't want to get into those sort of conversations, so he certainly possessed a very good working knowledge of scenes from all three...

(LAUGHTER)

SHEEN: ...or all two at that point. And, in fact, when I was doing the research it was very interesting over the course of the three, that as I did research in between for each one, in preparation for each one, I would obviously look at any new footage that had come out since the last one. And in doing the preparation for "The Special Relationship," the third one, of course, in the documentaries - which there had been a lot made because Blair had, you know, was no longer prime minister, and then so there was a lot of, you know, his legacy and his, the overall thing. And obviously, the films like "The Deal" and "The Queen" became part of those documentaries. So my research included my own performance...

(LAUGHTER)

SHEEN: ...which was very peculiar.

DAVIES: But so, when you met, there was no pat on the shoulder, no atta-boy, no you didn't get this quite right, none of that?

SHEEN: Oh, goodness me, no. There was certainly no atta-boy. It was a very kind of, it was like to dogs sniffing each other a little bit. He was very qualified in his kind of reaction. He's someone who clearly is very charming, and is very easy to like and warm to when you meet them just as a human being. But I could see that his sort of senses were kind of going haywire, where he sort of wants to be lovely and nice to me, but also doesn't want to give anything away just in case I use it and all that kind of stuff. So it was very strange. And then essentially, he put his chief of staff and the lady who'd run his foundation on me and they kept me away from him all night.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Sheen. He stars in the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex." We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Michael Sheen. He stars with Lizzy Caplan in the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex."

I want to talk about "Frost/Nixon," the film that you made in 2008, also written by Peter Morgan, directed by Ron Howard. And I should explain a little bit. So we have - I'm sure we have some listeners who are a little too young to remember this. I mean President Nixon had resigned in 1974 after the Watergate scandal and was living in isolation in California, and this flashy English journalist and celebrity interviewer, David Frost, pulled off this deal paying Nixon for a series of interviews that got a huge audience. And there was a play and film, which you starred in, about the whole project, the preparation and how Frost pulls it off. And I wanted to play a clip from the film. And this is in the last of the interviews when David Frost finally gets down to a boring into Nixon about the Watergate scandal. And we're going to hear you, as David Frost speaking with Nixon, who is played by Frank Langella, talking about the details of the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FROST/NIXON")

SHEEN: (as David Frost) Now, you've always maintained that you knew nothing about any of this until March 21st. But in February, your personal lawyer came to Washington to start the raising of $219,000 of hush money to be paid to the burglars. Now do you seriously expect us to believe that you had no knowledge of that?

FRANK LANGELLA: (as Richard Nixon) None. I believed the money was for humanitarian purposes. To help disadvantaged people with their defenses.

SHEEN: (as David Frost) Well, it was being delivered on the tops of phone booths with aliases, and at airports by people with gloves on. That's not normally the way lawyers' fees are delivered, is it?

LANGELLA: (as Richard Nixon) Look, I have made statements to this effect before. All that was Haldeman and Ehrlichman's business. I knew nothing. OK, fine. Fine. You made a conclusion there. I stated my view, now let's move on. Let's get on to the rest of it.

SHEEN: (as David Frost) No, hold on. No, hold on.

LANGELLA: (as Richard Nixon) No, I don't want to talk.

SHEEN: Haldeman and Ehrlichman...

DAVIES: And a crackling conversation there in the film "Frost/Nixon." That was our guest Michael Sheen and Frank Langella playing Nixon. Boy, it's fun to watch you play David Frost, kind of the special verbal tics. And I mean he's flashy, he's, you know, he's outspoken. Tell us a little bit about how you got David Frost. I heard you followed him once walking down the street.

SHEEN: Yeah. I was - when we were rehearsing for the play, I was invited to a party fairly early on in the rehearsals or something and I went to it. And just as I was about to walk in, I was crossing the road and I saw David Frost with someone walking down the street. I just thought this is clearly too serendipitous to ignore and so I just kind of just followed him for a bit, just sort of getting a sense of who he is, you know, in the flesh as a physical creature, just how he moves and that kind of stuff. And that was my first physical experience of him. But he, you know, it's interesting because the - again, he is someone who was so, so very familiar to a British audience. The problem you have when you're playing someone who is so familiar to an audience is that the first thing their expectation brings is oh, is he going to look like him, is he going to sound like him, you know, that kind of thing. And so you do have to meet that. You can't ignore that because ignoring it could be as detrimental as overly playing to that. The point is to try and take that out of the equation as soon as possible so that the audience can just focus on what's going on underneath.

DAVIES: And...

SHEEN: Because otherwise people might think it's a brilliant impersonation but they're not following the story in it.

DAVIES: And Frost is a guy who has a showman's, you know, kind of confidence. But there's an edge to him too in the film. He is unsettled, isn't he?

SHEEN: Hmm. Well, again, the engine of that character for me was the combination of that on the surface he seemed like, his reputation was of being a, you know, the sort of playboy. He had this kind of glamorous life and that he was quite superficial. That was one of the ways that people saw him, and that he was very much a sort of people-pleaser. He wanted people to like him. He was charming. He was - seemed very laid back. But underneath, he was, you know, he was a very driven, very ambitious, very hard-working man - in some ways, you could say ruthless as well. And, you know, it's the interplay of those two sides of him that are so interesting to explore.

DAVIES: Michael Sheen stars in the Showtime series "Masters of Sex." He'll be back in the second half the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with British actor Michael Sheen. He's currently starring in the Showtime series "Masters of Sex," about groundbreaking sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Among his other films are, "The Queen," in which he played Prime Minister Tony Blair and "Frost/Nixon," in which he plays journalist David Frost, confronting Richard Nixon about Watergate.

Well, I wanted to talk about the film "The Damned United," the 2009 film directed by Tom Hooper. I just love this film, and I wanted to bring it up partly so more American audiences will find it. It's about a British soccer figure. Explain to us who your character Brian Clough was. He's a real guy.

SHEEN: Well, similar to David Frost, in a way, they were contemporaries. When I was growing up, Brian Clough was one of the biggest larger-than-life characters in the whole of British culture. He was a soccer manager - or coach, I think people would refer to them over here. He, a number of times, worked with teams that were languishing at the bottom of the very minor divisions, and through sheer force of personality, would lead them into becoming championship-winning teams. And he had such an extraordinary personality and was so unpredictable and so controversy over ended such extraordinary things and had such massive contradictions within his character, that he exerted this kind of influence over a group of men. And the problem within our story comes when the other soccer coach, who's the biggest soccer coach in Britain at the time, with the most successful team - a man called Don Revie, leading a team called Leeds United - Clough has said such awful things about him and awful things about his team, for the main team. And then Clough gets offered the job of being the manager of that team after Don Revie leaves. And...

DAVIES: Well, let me break in right there, because that's a clip that we have, where...

SHEEN: Right.

DAVIES: ...you have just taken the job - you, as Brian Clough - as the manager of Leeds United, having proved yourself a remarkable manager, a coach elsewhere. And now you're taking over this group of stars who've had championships in their past. And let's listen to your first discussion with the players.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DAMNED UNITED")

SHEEN: (as Brian Clough) You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honors there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest (bleep) dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating.

(as Brian Clough) Mr. William Bremner, you're the captain, and a good one. But you're no good to the team and no good to me if you're suspended. I want you fit for every game. And I want good, clean, attractive football from my captain starting next week at the Charity Shield. And you, Irishman. God gave you skill, intelligence and the best passing ability in the game. What God did not give you was six studs to wrap around another player's knee.

(as Brian Clough) Now, things are gonna be a little different around here without Don. Might feel a little strange at first. Might pinch a little, like a new pair of shoes. But if you want your grandchildren to remember you as being something other than the dirty buggers you once were. If you wanna be loved as real champions, worthy champions, you're gonna have to work and improve and change.

DAVIES: Hello, coach.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: I just love that scene. That is our guest Michael Sheen in the film, "The Damned United." You know, I know from reading about you that you were quite the soccer player as a young man. In fact, at age 12, you had a shot at going to a professional team. And your dad said no, we're not going to move to London so you can do that.

SHEEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: And you went to acting, obviously, had great success at it. But you clearly were an athlete when you were younger, and there is a moment in this film, near this one, where you're standing in front of the new players at Leeds, and you do a little soccer stuff. Will you tell us about filming that, and the moves that you put on?

SHEEN: Yeah. Well, it's true. I was - that was my obsession, was soccer, when I was growing up. So I did a lot of it. And then, of course, when I started to get a modicum of success as an actor, everyone would always ask about it. And I suppose, in some ways made the mistake of saying that I was offered a place at a professional team and so this became part of, you know, the publicity about me. So then when I actually came to do a film about a soccer player, of course, everyone was just waiting to watch whether I could actually do it or not. And so the day that we did that scene that we heard the clip from, after he does that speech and he's just, you know, made these men just so angry at him and he's so cocky and he's so full of himself, and at the end of it, he just, he gets one of the players to kick the ball over to him and he sort of does keep up, where you sort of keep volleying and keeping it up on your head and your knee and your shoulders and all that kind of stuff, and then turns around and then kicks it and hits it into the top of the net. That's in the script. So the day we shot that film, the pressure was enormous. I couldn't believe it. I thought this is where it's all going to come tumbling down and people are going to go, you're a liar. You were never any good. First take, back in the net. Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SHEEN: And it's there as evidence on those film cameras.

DAVIES: I know that you grew up in Whales, a town called Port Talbot. Tell us a bit about growing up in Port Talbot. It was a coastal city in Whales. Tell us about what your parents did, what kind of childhood you had.

SHEEN: Well, it's not a city. It's a town. It has sort of between I guess about 35, 40,000 people. It's on the coast, yes. It's an old steel town. It's sort of built up around a steelworks, and there was also a chemical plant there for long time, growing up. So, the town itself is known in the area, really, for being sort of a joke. It was the dirty, sort of industrial smelly place in amongst quite beautiful rural areas on either side. So growing up in the town, it was a town that had very low self-esteem. It was high unemployment once the people started getting laid off at the steelworks, the chemical plant closed down. It's a working-class town. It was quite rough. I grew up in a sort of atmosphere of latent violence most of the time. But it was a place that, you know, my family had grown up in and come from for generations. And I sort of - I don't know. It sort of instilled a passionate love of this place, and partly and aesthetic, as well. I found out years and years later that a hero of mine, Terry Gilliam, got the ideal for the film "Brazil," from actually being on the beach in Port Talbert. He told me...

DAVIES: Wow.

SHEEN: ...that he was scouting for another somebody did, "Time Bandits," which he shot some of in Whales. But when he was scouting for it and he went down on to the beach, he was sitting there on the beach, in a deck chair with steelworks on one side with flames coming out and huge, monstrous kind of metal cylinders and things, and on the other side of him, this chemical plant with orange smoke belching out of cooling towers. And he said, in his head, he just heard (humming). And that was when he got the idea for "Brazil."

DAVIES: Wow.

SHEEN: So you get a sense of what the place looks like from that, really.

DAVIES: And, you know, your parents were not in show business, obviously. But did you have a grandmother who was a lion tamer? Did I read this...

(LAUGHTER)

SHEEN: Yes. Well, this was - yeah, this was a family folklore, and, you know, I think there's all kinds of myths that grow up within families. I'm not quite sure.

DAVIES: Well, mention that, and then your dad's work.

SHEEN: Well. Sure. Yeah. Well, yeah. I ended up doing one of those programs where they do your genealogy, you know, and look into your family history, and it turned out that it was actually true. My great, great, great grandmother was an elephant and lion tamer, and whose left breast was mauled off by one of the lions, and the claw from that lion is around a chain in my house as we speak, supposedly. And then - it takes a while before you find anything anywhere near as outlandish as that in the family. But then my father, who had had various sort of normal jobs for most of his life, at a certain point, became a Jack Nicholson look-alike and spent his happiest working years going all over the world being a Jack Nicholson look-alike.

DAVIES: And he does the voice and everything?

SHEEN: He has a go. I won't say - well, what I usually say is what he lacks in specificity, he makes up for in commitment.

DAVIES: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: I have to ask you about one other thing, an appearance you made in several episodes of the NBC comedy "30 Rock," where you play this character, is it Wesley Snipes? Do I have the right name?

SHEEN: It is the one and only, Wesley Snipes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And he and Liz Lemon, who is played by Tina Fey, have this recent to believe that they might be meant for one another, so they get together a few times, and it really goes badly and they don't particularly like each other. But they keep running into each other. And in the scene were about to hear, there this - another bizarre chance encounter where she's standing on the sidewalk and you, as Wesley Snipes, are on a bicycle about to - and you crash into a taxi, and then a conversation ensues. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

SHEEN: (as Wesley Snipes) Gangway for the foot cycle.

(as Wesley Snipes) Come on. I sat gangway for the - you witch.

TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) No. No. I am walking away.

DAVIES: (as Wesley Snipes) Wait, Liz. Wait. Look, I wasn't even supposed to ride my foot cycle home today.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Stop calling it that.

SHEEN: (as Wesley Snipes) Yeah, fine, my velocipede. But I did ride it, because the universe wanted me to run into you again, and I finally think I know why.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Commencing eye-roll sequence.

SHEEN: (as Wesley Snipes) The universe wants us to settle for one another. Well, there has to be a reason this keeps happening to us, Liz. I think fate is telling us this is the best were ever going to get. We're each other settling soul mates.

FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Settling soul mates. That is grim. And I've played Monopoly alone.

SHEEN: (as Wesley Snipes) Well, I know it's not ideal, but we both benefit. And I can open jars and kill bugs for you, and you could make me look less gay at work functions.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Michael Sheen and Tina Fey on "30 Rock." Do you want to just tell us a little bit about what it was like being on this American comedy, working with Tina Fey and that crew?

SHEEN: Well, it's, yeah, it's extraordinary. It's happened to me a couple of times, where I've been a huge fan of something, and then get the opportunity to actually be in it. It happened in a show in Britain, as well, called "The League of Gentlemen," which I was a huge fan of. And so, again, similar with "30 Rock," I was such a huge fan of it. I loved the show, and then suddenly found myself in it, talking to Liz Lemon and talking to these characters, which is a very peculiar experience - also quite intimidating, because, you know, talk about ensembles, they're a crack ensemble, you know, and...

DAVIES: Right.

SHEEN: ...so smart and so in the groove of what they're doing. So to walk into that was a little intimidating. But what was great is that Tina starts to kind of write for you as you start working with her, which was a little disturbing as my character got more and more bizarre and weird and outlandish the more she actually knew me. But it was just such great fun and so wonderful to do.

DAVIES: Michael Sheen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHEEN: Pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Michael Sheen stars in the Showtime series "Masters of Sex." The final episode airs Sunday night at 10.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews some early recordings of Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: In 1935, drummer Chick Webb was a Harlem bandleader, looking to make a bigger impact on recordings. And singer Ella Fitzgerald was a homeless teenager who had recently won an Apollo Theater talent contest. They were introduced and she joined his band.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead tells us about a new box set that showcases their work together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIZA")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chick Webb, taking a two rare drum feature, with his big band on Gershwin's "Liza." Webb's outfit terrorized competitors in band battles and sent dancers into orbit at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. On record, they were rarely that explosive. Early on, they did have some hot Edgar Sampson arrangements that would soon turn into hits, like "Blue Lou" and "Don't Be That Way." But the Webb band also had an old-school crooner, Charles Linton, with pre-jazz-age enunciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS")

CHARLES LINTON: (Singing) Night drew a curtain around us and the blossom was a do with the gleam. Romance and happiness found us and carried us off in a dream. Oh, moonlight light...

WHITEHEAD: Charles Linton helped draw a curtain over mannered singing like his when he brought scruffy 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald to Chick Webb's attention. Her sound was streamlined and modern, about melody and rhythm more than emoting. Fitzgerald was unformed, but could read music and learn a song in a second. This is it, Webb said. "I have a real singer now. That's what the public wants. Music publishers deluged the band with mostly forgettable medium-tempo swing tunes, but Fitzgerald could make something out of almost anything. Her articulation was always precise, but, as in later years, a New York accent might slip out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME A SWING SONG (AND LET ME DANCE")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Oh baby, I don't want any moon, bright and yellow. You can have your sweet romance, sing me a swing song and let me dance. Mr. Trombone, play some corn, I ain't carin' what notes. Mr. Trumpet, grab a horn Brother, give me hot notes.

(Singing) Oh baby, I don't want any tune, on a cello. Give the rhythm men a chance Sing me a swing song and let me dance.

WHITEHEAD: Contrary to press reports, Chick Webb never adopted Ella Fitzgerald, but there was some family feeling in the band, the belief that the success of one was good for all. Benny Goodman made some moves to steal her away, but Ella stayed put. She started writing a bit and had a hand in her mega hit "A Tisket, a Tasket," one of the band's several adapted children's songs. The first song Fitzgerald co-wrote, "You Showed Me the Way," could almost have been a love letter to Webb and the orchestra that gave her a home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SHOWED ME THE WAY")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) You showed me the way when I was someone in distress, a heart in search of happiness, you showed me the way. My skies were so gray, I never knew I'd feel a thrill. I couldn't dream a dream until you showed me the way.

Meanwhile, the band's soloists still got a few chances to strut on record. Chick Webb, like other leaders, had a little band drawn from the big one, his Little Chicks, with its intertwined clarinet and flute. Raymond Carver takes a rare-for-1937 flute solo on "Sweet Sue." Webb swings at a whisper, using wire brushes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUE")

WHITEHEAD: Chick Webb suffered from tuberculosis of the spine and other ailments, and died in a Baltimore hospital in 1939. His ultra-cool last words: I'm sorry, but I gotta go. The orchestra continued under Ella's name, losing steam even as she matured. The last of their juvenile tunes, 1941's "Melindy, the Mouse," had a grown-up subtext. You can hear how Ella Fitzgerald's light touch there showed the way to flip new singers like Anita O'Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MELINDY, THE MOUSE")

FITZGERALD: (Singing) Melindy was a mousy living in a little housy and her life was one of wonderful ease. On the sunny side of 20 with a poppa who had plenty, her life was just a bowl of cheese. One day a kitty said, my, but you're pretty. I love you. Mousey near died, but replied, why I know nothing of you. You're just a kitty cat.

WHITEHEAD: This music is from a typically mammoth, lovingly annotated 8-CD box from Mosaic, "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941." It actually warms up with a few earlier tracks. Various budget anthologies skim the vocal or instrumental cream from these four dozen sessions. The complete output shows how hits collections distort the historical record.

When the old days look rosier to us, we're usually remembering the highlight reel. There are hidden gems here, but they ain't all gems. By 1941, Ella had ripened enough to go solo and the orchestra folded. Before long, singers like Frank Sinatra were eclipsing big bands as popular attractions. Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald had already showed them the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THRILLED")

FITZGERALD: (Humming) (Singing) I'm thrilled just holding your hand or just standing beside you awhile. You look in my eyes and smile and, oh, but I'm thrilled. Gee, but I'm thrilled.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for A Point of Departure, Down Beat, and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)" on the Mosaic label. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan shares her picks for the best books of 2013. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Book critic Maureen Corrigan's best books of the year list takes readers from Calcutta to Las Vegas, from colonial Boston to America's futuristic suburbs. Here's her top, well, 11.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: First, a word about this list: It's honestly just a fluke that my best books rundown for 2013 is so gender-biased. I didn't deliberately set out this year to read so many terrific books by women. Let's start with Alice McDermott. Without ever hamming up the humility, McDermott's latest novel, "Someone," tells the life story of an ordinary woman named Marie who comes of age in mid-20th-century Brooklyn and works for a time in a funeral parlor.

McDermott reveals to readers what's distinct about people like Marie who don't have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special. Unlike McDermott's submissive Marie, the main character of "The Woman Upstairs," Claire Messud's latest novel, is like a dormant volcano getting ready to blow. Nora Eldridge is a single elementary school teacher in her 30s who's grimly disciplined herself to settling for less.

When a glamorous family enters her life and reignites her artistic and erotic energies, Nora, like Jane Eyre, gets in touch with her anger and her hunger. Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Lowland" is another stark novel that charts the fate of two brothers in Calcutta in the 1960s: one a political activist, the other a stick-in-the-mud academic.

"The Lowland" is an ambitious story about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living. Ambition is what makes Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" my novel of the year: Jumbo-sized, coincidence-laced, it's Dickensian in its cast of characters and range of emotions.

In fact, there's a lot of David Copperfield in the main character, Theo Decker, who's 13 when the sudden death of his mother propels him on a cross-country odyssey that includes a season in hell in Las Vegas and brushes with the Russian mob. Always yearning for his lost mother, Theo is like the goldfinch in the 17th century Dutch painting that gives this extraordinary novel its name: an alert yellow bird "chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle."

My debut novel of the year is Adelle Waldman's brilliant comedy of manners and ideas, "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." Waldman thoroughly inhabits the head of a sensitive cad named Nate Piven, a writer living in Brooklyn. There are many throwaway moments of hilarity here, such as when Nate endures his weekly telephone chat with his father, who asks him the question every aspiring writer is asked nowadays: "Have you given any thought to self-publishing?"

A boy-girl pair ties for my for best short-story collection nod: Karen Russell's "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" contains some genuine creepers, like "Proving Up," a tale of the American frontier that reads like a collaboration between Willa Cather and Emily Dickinson. The standout in George Saunders' collection, "The Tenth of December," is "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a story whose power could single-handedly change immigration policy.

In biography, the winner for me this year was Jill Lepore's "Book of Ages" about Jane Franklin, Ben's little sister. To excavate the remains of Jane's hidden story, Lepore augments her own training as a historian with literary criticism, sociology, archaeology and even some of the techniques of fiction.

Patricia Volk's boisterous memoir, "Shocked," also breaks traditional genre rules. "Shocked" explores the two titanic women who impressed their ideas of beauty and femaleness on Volk: her mother, Audrey, a famous beauty; and the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. In her writing and in her memoir's gorgeous illustrations, Volk has embraced something of Schiaparelli's surrealist approach to art.

Roger Rosenblatt's evocative memoir, "The Boy Detective," also challenges easy categorization. His book combines a walking tour around vanished Manhattan with a meditation, not only on the classic mystery fiction he loves, but also on those larger metaphysical mysteries that defy even the shrewdest detective's reasoning.

Speaking, at last, of mysteries, my best mystery of the year turns out to be yet another stunner from Scandinavia. "The Dinosaur Feather" is a debut novel by a Dane named S.J. Gazan, who takes us deep into the insular world of scientists investigating dinosaur evolution. I could be wrong (but I don't think I am) when I say that Gazan disposes of a murder victim here by an infernal means that no other mystery writer, not even the resourceful Dame Agatha, ever concocted.

And, yes, in case you're wondering, S.J. Gazan is a woman. Everybody knows the female of the species is deadlier than the male. Happy reading to one and all.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her best ten list at freshair.npr.org. You can also visit NPR's brand new book concierge where you can find Maureen's reviews and many more at NPR.org/bestbooks.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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