Though his recent roles have plunged him into the worlds of angels and serial killers, Michael Sheen is aware that many people are most familiar with him playing roles based on real-life individuals.
Speaking via satellite at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Sheen explained why the upcoming AMC drama “Quiz” was the project that lured him back into that territory once again. In “Quiz,” Sheen plays legendary British presenter Chris Tarrant, who was host of the original British incarnation of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
“I’ve been more resistant to playing real people for a while now, because I sort of became so known for it. But this project, I just loved the story. It was so extraordinary. With Stephen [Frears] directing it and James [Graham] having written it, it was just something I really wanted to be involved in,” Sheen said.
Tarrant’s ubiquitous status in the U.K. made it a tricky challenge for Sheen, who didn’t want his performance to be just an impersonation. As far as the physical part of Tarrant, he wanted to let one key part guide the visuals.
“When I’ve played characters based on real people, I’ve never wanted to get into the sticking things on your face and all that stuff. I try to do as little of that as possible. On the one hand, it tends to draw attention to how much you don’t look like the person,” Sheen said. “We just went with the wig. Having had my hair bleached blond for ‘Good Omens’ for six months, I wasn’t going down that road again. So the wig does all the heavy lifting, really.”
The idea of stepping into the spirit of a real person also became a key process for series star Sian Clifford, who plays Diana Ingram, whose husband Charles (Matthew Macfadyen) took home the top “Millionaire” prize. In the aftermath of Charles’ victory, accusations of cheating led to a highly publicized trial that caught the couple at the center of it. Though the show has that recognizable legal element, Clifford said there’s another subgenre that she felt “Quiz” connects with.
“We wanted to make it feel like a heist. We really build to that point,” Clifford said. “Matthew and I watched hours and hours of footage, as much material as we could get. More to absorb something of them rather than an impersonation.”
Series writer James Graham described the real-life inspiration for the story as “one of the first big media trials of the 21st century,” one where the truth is still in dispute, depending on who in the story you believe. In dramatizing the story, Graham didn’t want to tip the scales too much one way or another.
“We present both sides and we do the classic ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ ask the audience. We ask the audience to make up their minds whether they’re innocent or guilty. Ultimately, I think it’s meant to be an entertaining forensic analysis of the criminal justice system, where the guilt was so laced into the popular imagination way before they went on trial.”
“Quiz” will air in a three-night special event, beginning Monday May 25, on AMC.