Interview: Beautiful Boy's Michael Sheen And Maria Bello
After a school shooting, like those at Virginia Tech or Columbine High School, itís common place for some people to blame the killerís parents for what has happened. Those in grief believe that there must have been something wrong with the killer or killersí upbringing that led to them committing such a tragedy. These people, however, never seem to take into account what the parents are actually going through. What do you do after you find out the child youíve raised from birth has become a monster? In Beautiful Boy thatís exactly what happens to Michael Sheen and Maria Bello.
With their film set to come out this Friday, the two stars were kind enough to sit down with reporters in a roundtable interview to discuss the making of the film and I was lucky enough to take part. Check out the interview below in which Sheen and Bello discuss not taking the work home with them, the pressure that comes with single-take scenes and the research that went into the parts.
You know, being a parent, thatís the baggage that I brought to watching this film and I canít imagine what itís like to put yourself in the skin of somebody going through what these parents are. I mean, talk about a parentís worst nightmare only amplified. Do you draw on your own emotions or is that a dangerous thing to do in this case when youíre treading into territory that every parent fears?
MICHAEL: Thatís a good question, yeah. Itís a good question because it goes to the kind of heart of a fundamental problem for actors and acting is that if you draw on your own experiences, certainly when it comes to being a parent, if you get, if you kind of go, ďRight, in this scene Iím gonna deal with my child dying or my child doing this or that or whatever,Ē and you go, ďWell I have a child and I have to imagine my child doing that,Ē the danger is that you get to the end of the day and thatís not working anymore. Iím thinking about the death of my own child and thatís not really doing it because Iíve gotten too used to thinking about it. Thereís a cost to that as a person, to go, Iíve been imagining the death of my own child, and thatís not really where you want to go into. At the same time, youíve got to kind of, youíve got to deal with it because otherwise itís just acting, and then itís sort of meaningless. So itís a tricky area that I think it factors into. We talked about that when we were doing it.
MARIA: Yeah I know, you know, when I had my son it was the worst day and the best day of my life because I realized I will never love someone so much but Iíll never be able to keep them from the lessons heís meant to learn in his lifetime, right? So I agree with Michael, I couldnít put myself in that situation about my son dying, itís just too much to bare for any parent to hold onto that for weeks at the time, so I was drawing on other stuff, really. And mostly I think you and I work in a similar way where we knew our characters and trusted each other enough to work off of each other, to find that sort of emotion together.
MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah. Rather than trying to drag it out on your own. Which can have an, if youíre doing something where thereís a lot of scenes between just two actors and if for whatever reason itís not really happening or youíre not really connecting that well, then you do have to kind of, I found you do have to draw on stuff yourself and kind of make it happen for yourself. But in the case of something where the two actors really do connect with each other and trust each other, then I think you rely on a kind of, I think our bodies have memories without us having to consciously thing about it so rather than think hard about my daughter dying, or whatever, you just let that go and trust that thatís, that you have all the emotions you need in there, and by losing yourself in the scene that stuff kicks in without you having to spend the day thinking about horrific things happening to your child.
MARIA: And I think that has a lot to do with script and how well itís written and how much it captures the emotion and takes you organically into those feelings.
MICHAEL: And how much, I guess, the director allows you to do that. Thatís why if youíve got a director who keeps jumping in and going, ďUh, could you not do that? Could you do this?Ē it stops that process from happening. And on this it felt like we were given just the right amount of freedom and the right amount of guidance.
MARIA: Yeah, he really trusted us to find it.
MARIA: Thank you very much. You know I got this script probably a year before we made the movie and just got a gut feeling, and it was so well written that I wanted and needed to do that to explore that. I like the levels of grief, which I studied a bit before we did the movie. Usually a parent who loses a child goes through those levels of grief over years. We had to smash it into a week or two weeks of their lives and to make sure we sort of werenít at the same level in every single scene. Usually a parent would just be in shock or grief for those two weeks, but I had to make it a little bit more interesting.
Did you talk to any parents that maybe were connected to maybe like Columbine or some other major, Virginia Tech or something?
MICHAEL: Well I think, honestly this film is about the most specific set of parents, itís the parents of the person who perpetrates it. So even though any parents who are going through dealing with the loss of a child, there are certain things that are obviously the same about that experience, the parents of the child who does it, I think there are a lot of big differences as well. I know personally I felt very uncomfortable about the idea of trying to get in touch with the parents of someone who got through a similar experience. I didnít really feel, I sort of asked myself, what do I stand to gain? Is that worse? What is there to be possibly lost? And ultimately I felt like our characters have no idea what theyíre supposed to feel and no idea what the rules are and thatís part of their difficulty. There is no material about it out there really, thereís no real films made about it. Then part of that feeling of not quite knowing what the rules are, I thought would be quite useful, personally, rather than sort of talking to someone and ďNow I know what happens.Ē So that feeling of being a bit not sure.
MARIA: You understand it more organically. Itís not like something you study and do research on, I think. But synchronicity, bizarrely, a week before we started shooting, Susan Klebold came out with her first interview ever in O Magazine, and it was funny because of what she said about blaming herself and not knowing and the process she went through, and it was, I found I really interesting that that was reflected in our script.
MICHAEL: Well I thought that the second part first. In a way you have to do all the work beforehand. In a way it doesnít matter what the subject matter is, I donít know if you agree with this, but no matter what the subject matter is, when you come to actually act itís a game. It may be a very serious game, but itís still a game, and if you lose that sense of play then I think the work suffers. The danger can be, because itís very heavy subject matter, then you sort of feel like you have to come at it in a very heavy way and it just dies somehow. Itís just not quite right. It doesnít live. In order for it to be alive when youíre doing it, you have to approach it as play, and so thatís nice about being in the right place, the right state of mind. I found that trying to keep, just stay present and open in between takes and we would chat, and I think we would, we never lost sight of what it was we were trying to do and the seriousness of what we were trying to do. It felt like, I think it can often be the way when you speak to actors, the biggest, heaviest things they work on are actually sometimes the most enjoyable experiences and I certainly felt that on this.
MARIA: There was a real sense of fun and play between us and a real curiosity about the work.
MICHAEL: Yeah, and exhilaration. Itís not often you kind of are in a situation where you go, I totally trust this person, I totally feel at ease with this person, I feel at ease in this situation, and thereís no other agenda or ego. All weíre doing is both wanting, or not just both, everyone, wanting to do the best we can on this, and it matters to us and we care about it, and nothing else is getting in the way. And thatís quite exhilarating and thereís a joy to that. Thatís really important. You donít want to sort of mess that up by going, ďBut I mustnít enjoy this too much because itís very heavy and serious.Ē
MARIA: And how fun was it, the hotel room scene? I mean that was really something. Thereís only one cutaway. We did it four or five times before we were about to blow our brains out, but it was so fun it was like doing a play. It was eight minutes long and was really technical with the camera, you know we had to figure out movements and figured out how to film all of that. But boy that was an exhilarating day, that scene.
MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. The first part of the question, being the camera, that scene obviously was one long take and so it was a dance, really, between Maria and myself and the camera operator. Heís the other character in the scene. There are mirrors up and thereís a TV and you donít want to catch reflections, and so in a way we had to work out, just very loosely where positions might be. But then you sort of work around it. I remember when we were shooting, not just that scene, but the whole thing to begin with, Iíd be like, because we didnít work out set positions for the camera, I was doing marvelous work then and didnít know if the camera was on me. Because weíd be doing it and it would be very docu-style and you wouldnít know when the camera was on you, but what was wonderful about that as well was you just, in a way it was more like doing a play then because youíd just have to inhabit everything all the time and you donít go, ďOh this is my bit now. I have to pop more into this now because this is my bit.Ē You just have to do the whole thing. It certainly gives it a freshness and a spontaneity and a life that you wouldnít normally have, but it took a little while for me to get used that, Maria being the professional, she had no problem with that at all.
MARIA: I think that always happens, for me anyway, when Iím acting and creating with a group of people, you know, you have that moment where youíre like, ďI forgot my line.Ē Iím more forgiving of myself now, as I get older I donít apologize for it anymore, which I used to do, like, ďOh, sorry, I forgot my line.Ē Iím just like, ďOkay, gotta go back and start again.Ē
MICHAEL: And also, thereís still moments where you get something really interesting, like you get to the moment where you go, ďOh I canít remember what Iím saying,Ē or you say the wrong thing or whatever, and those, when people talk about happy accidents, thatís when they are. Now you can choose to do one of two things. When you get to that moment, youíre in it, and itís all going well, and then suddenly, something goes wrong.
You can go, and I think Mariaís talking about when we were younger, you kind of go, ďOh! Iím sorry! I messed up. Sorry! Sorry everyone, sorry.Ē Or, now I think we probably have gotten to the point where we go, ďAh, this is good. Whatís gonna happen now?Ē and how do we, rather than cutting out of it and stopping it, cause you actually, what happens is itís a little herald, a little messenger saying, ďYouíre in an interesting area here.Ē And I think we tend to go, ďOh, I feel really vulnerable, stop stop stop.Ē And then when you get a bit braver I think, a bit more experienced, you go, ďOh Iím feeling really vulnerable, oh, whatís, letís go with it. This is another way to write and letís see what happens with it.Ē And then you get those potentially really great accidents that happen with it.
MARIA: Iíve often said to directors, ďPlease donít stop the scene.Ē Right? Let us go and donít call cut every time we forget a line or something. You know, whatís the line, give me the line, and just continue to force through it, because it puts you, in a way, more in the moment, more in the truth.
MICHAEL: Exactly, exactly.
MICHAEL: Well I thought it was really interesting that the film doesnít begin with a couple who are, on the surface, happy and everythingís going well, and then tragedy strikes, and then it all goes. I thought it was really interesting choice to start the film with a couple whoíve sort of come to the end of the road, they think, and then the story, I guess for me the story was much much more about, is it possible for two people to kind of find each other again? And the journey that they go on to do that in this is a very extreme journey and they go into some very dark places, but ultimately thatís why I felt like it was a very hopeful, positive story, because itís about, this is an extreme act of tragedy that happens, but stuff happens all the time thatís difficult and painful and puts a lot of pressure on a couple. Ultimately itís about whether you can find each other again. So I thought that was really, a really interesting start for it, and that theyíre forced to be together. When one thing they want to do at the beginning of the film is sort of get away from each other, theyíre forced to be together and that forces certain things to happen that maybe couldnít happen in the relationship beforehand.
MARIA: It seems to me that from what people say, friends say about being in long term relationships, and what you read, I donít do those so Iíve never had one so I wouldnít know, but people say that you start lying, in a way, to yourself and each other, to make each other feel safe in some way, to show up the way the person things you should show up and this sort of dishonesty with yourself and the other person I think breeds a resemblance and a contempt which you see in these two people. They become so disparate and canít be vulnerable with each other and really share their truth, and this tragedy blows that up and makes them confront each other.
Now one thing that really fuels whatís going on around you, the people around you, is the suicide manifesto that the two of you, on camera you never see that actual video. Was a complete video done with Kyleís character, Sammy, giving his explanation, and did you get to see it if it was done? And it was just left out of the film?
MICHAEL: I didnít see it if it was done.
MARIA: I didnít see it either.
MICHAEL: Iím not sure, I think he did do, Iím fairly certain he did a whole thing. I only want to see what my character sees, really and so Iím not sure if we were given the opportunity, Iím pretty sure he did do one though.
MICHAEL: Well itís interesting that we see death constantly on film. Like, constantly. Next time you watch a film, have a look, in the back of your mind spend a day going, ďLet me see how many times I see people die today.Ē Because you will see hundreds upon hundreds of people dying. And then how much you actually see the grief process and the consequences and ramifications of death being played out in front of you, and itís not much. Thereís something wrong there, and for a culture that has such a problem with death, we seem to deal with it in a quite bizarre way, where we see people being shot and killed and blown up. And we find it funny and we find in sexy and we find it all those sort of things, but the reality of it is that every day people are dying, people are really sad, and they grieve and they go through a really difficult process.
So I think as uncomfortable as it is and as uncommercial as it may be, or whatever, that as a society I think itís really important that we look at that and we look at the reality of it given that we surround ourselves with the fantasy of it constantly. We live in a bubble of the fantasy of death, but the reality of it, and itís something that we obviously all face, and have to deal with at some point. Itís sort of scary, I think to, in a way this is an extreme version of what happens to everybody when they actually experience death in some way where you suddenly feel alone, you suddenly feel like ďThere are still people walking around in the street outside, Iím going through the worst experience of my life, and the world is carrying on.Ē And the awfulness of that and the feeling of, ďI donít know what to do, whereís the rule book for how you deal with this sort of stuff?Ē I mean not everybody has to painfully deal with that child having done something that theyíve done, but everyone has to go through that and thatís frightening. So I think itís really important that we look at this kind of stuff.
MARIA: I do too.
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