Hot off his starring role opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen, Michael Sheen takes on the role of Art Honneyman, an intelligent, charismatic, and funny man who has cerebral palsy in Music Within, based on a true story and directed by Steven Sawalich. Honneyman befriended Richard Pimentel (played by Ron Livingston) after Pimentel lost his hearing during a tour of duty in Vietnam. Richard's friendship with Art was one of the main catalysts in Richard becoming a civil rights activist and a campaigner for people with disabilities.
The Appeal of Music Within: Sheen said it was both the role and the story that grabbed his attention. “I remember getting the script and taking it out of the envelope. I always look at the first couple of pages just to get a sense of what it’s like, and maybe read the introduction to your character so you get an idea of what the character’s like. And then two hours later I’d finished reading the whole thing. I just read it straight through and I always think that’s a good sign. If it kind of keeps you reading, then you know it’s got something. Then I realized that that character had all the best lines.
But it obviously was going to be a huge challenge to try to do that and get the physicality of the character. I always thought the biggest challenge would be trying to portray Cerebral Palsy, but actually as time went on I realized that the biggest challenge was actually to express who this man is through the C.P., and not let the C.P. become the main thing. Hopefully, coming away from the film if you think about that character you think about, obviously, the C.P. but you think about the qualities that he has as a person, as a human being, rather than the C.P. So it’s not just any old person with C.P. It’s him and he’s a very unique particular man, so I knew that was going to be the big challenge.”
The Special Challenges of Playing a Real Person: Sheen tackled the role of Prime Minister Tony Blair, a political figure most people are familiar with, in the critically acclaimed drama The Queen. But in Music Within, Sheen took on the role of a real man who’s not famous and therefore not recognizable to the average moviegoer. Sheen says the recognition factor doesn’t play into how he approaches a character.
“It’s interesting because you’re playing a real person, just because nobody outside of his immediate circle of family and friends knows who he is, in a way that doesn’t affect the process at all,” explained Sheen. “It’s exactly the same process as playing someone who everybody is familiar with, because I’m not trying to do an imitation of the person, I’m trying to work out who they are underneath, and the way the express themselves and the way they move. All the external things are an expression of what’s going on underneath. So if I want to get to the heart of the character, then it doesn’t matter whether people are familiar with those mannerisms or the voice, or whatever. It’s still my way to get to what I’m interested in, which is what’s underneath.
It was exactly the same process working on Art as it was working on Tony Blair. And also, it’s a double responsibility when you’re playing someone like Art where, on the one hand, you’ve got the responsibility of playing a real person, but on the other hand you’re also playing someone with a disability that a lot of people have and doesn’t get shown that often on film. So there’s a responsibility of trying to be true to that, especially as someone who doesn’t have C.P. Actors with C.P. auditioned for the part and Steve felt that I was the person who was able to portray Art the best, as opposed to portray someone with C.P. But there is a responsibility knowing that actors are going to be going, or other people are going to say, ‘That should be someone with C.P. doing that.’ I want people to think I do have C.P. I don’t want them to be aware it’s me.”
There were specific mannerisms of the real Art that had to be changed in order to tell the story on film. “The reality of speaking or having a conversation with Art is that to get one word out takes about a minute, so to get a sentence takes a long time,” said Sheen. “Sometimes you see the struggle it is to get one word out and you have to really focus on his mouth and what his lips are doing, because when the word comes it’s really indistinct as well. Sometimes you have to go, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.’ And after you just watched a man take two minutes trying to get his tongue to get a word out, and then you don’t understand what that word is when it comes out and you have to go, ‘Can you do that again, Art?’ It’s a long process.
To actually, realistically, represent that in the film it would take 12 hours of film. I brought that up with Steve when we first started talking about it. I said, ‘Well look, how’s that going to work?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think for the purposes of the film the audience will see Art as Richard sees him, as Richard hears him.’ So because Richard can understand what Art is saying, then you sort of see it through his eyes. But then there are a few moments in the film where you see it sort of for real.
In the scene in the pancake house, the first scene in the pancake house, when the waitress calls the police and all that, and eventually we get chucked out because the waitress and everyone in the restaurant are so sort of disgusted and offended by Art being there, we sort of thought it was important that the audience see what they see at that point. So in that bit you can’t understand what Art is saying. I do realistically show what it’s like to get one word out takes a long time, but you can’t do that for the whole film."