Michael Sheen interview: on the set of Passengers

Michael Sheen on Passengers, being a digital barkeeper and more...

Towards the end of last year, we were lucky enough to head to the set of Passengers, the incoming science fiction drama starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s clearly a wildly ambitious production, and one we’re very much looking forward to. In the latest of our interviews from the set, we chatted to the film’s head barman, Mr Michael Sheen…

This is not the first time you’ve played a digital barkeep…

No, I was a club owner who was a programme, so I guess there’s similarities…

When you take on a role like this are there certain disciplines you’ve developed to help you?

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Well there’s the obvious thing that’s there’s his job as a bartender, so I have to be able to do that. So for instance today I’ve just been making a Manhattan, over and over and over and over again. I’m pretty good at that now! So you have to get that right. But I suppose with something like this you’re aware that there are precedents for it, the idea of an English accented android on a spaceship so there’s a riff on that obviously.

It’s like when you’re playing a vampire or a Nazi, you’re aware that you’re taking your place in the cinematic tradition of those characters so just the role itself brings certain kinds of baggage to it, and the fun of it is that the audience is also bringing that baggage too, so you can play around with that a little bit. Just playing around with the idea of what constitutes a robot at this point in the future? How robotic is he? How human is he? How does that work?

What did you decide on how robotic he was?

Well I think you have to assume that if they can make this spaceship (gestures to the luxury space liner set all around us) that they can make a robot that’s pretty convincing. So then the fun of it is to play around with the idea that he is learning as the film goes on. There’s something quite childlike about him, and he’s never had to just deal with one person for a long time, rather than thousands for a short time. So the complexities of the relationship between them is totally new for him. So that’s interesting to come into scenes and play with that.

How difficult was it to get you into this contraption you kneel on?

Ah well, I think you should all have a go on it! It’s an interesting thing. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would have to do that. But then they were like, ‘now you have to sit in this machine for every scene you’re in in the film’. I was actually a bit nervous about it. But even though it’s not the most comfortable thing, it actually becomes part of the character. For instance in that last take I didn’t actually have to be in the machine, I could stand. But now I actually don’t like standing. You symbiotically incorporate everything in a scene into your character, so I am now part-machine. My consciousness as the character includes that machine now! Even the movements, and it moves very fast, become part of how I physically deal with the character, to make it look like I’ve not been bumping around.

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How much can it move? It’s obviously on a track, but can it move 360 degrees?

It can go really fast! I have to wear brace thing so I don’t go flying around when it’s really moving. But I try not to wear it as it impedes what I can actually do in a scene. It moves, shifts and spins around. It all has to be programmed by computer beforehand though.

It seems to have behaved very well today. Has it gone wrong at all?

If it goes wrong I’m dead! So I’m hoping it won’t go wrong. It’s moving at a swift rate of knots, and there’s a camera right there. A cameraman said to me, ‘if it does head for the camera we’ll just move the camera’. But I hope we don’t have to put that to the test!

Will we be seeing you only behind the bar?

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Yeah, he can only exist behind the bar so he won’t be going anywhere else… we think.

So how would you describe your role? Is it a robot third wheel?

Well given that it’s a story of a man alone in this place, when he meets me I become someone he can talk to. But obviously the problem is that I’m an android, and although he thinks he’s found another person to talk to, he hasn’t. The limits of what that relationship can be push him towards doing certain other things.

How much is he programmed to be like other bartenders?

Well there are elements of him and and his bar that may remind you of certain other bartenders in other films perhaps… but I keep thinking what would he actually be programmed for? He’d be programmed to serve people of different nationalities, in various states of drunkenness. What makes the ultimate bartender? Being a confidante, knowing when to engage people, how sympathetic to be, how funny to be. He’s been programmed with all of that. But how does he react when he gets to the point where he’s not programmed to deal with certain things? Does he have to learn how to deal with it?

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Have you ever been a bartender?

No I’ve never been a bartender. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in bars, but never actually been a bartender. I find that role they play interesting. What makes for a good bartender? When people go to bars on their own you notice that they want to engage with the bartender. They want to engage and have a friend to talk to.

Do you tip a robot?

Maybe you give a little bit of WD40? Bit of oil.

Everyone has said how much they love the script. Was that a major reason for you to do the film?

Yes I thought it was the most fantastic story. It’s got an epic scope to it, but it’s got a real sense of intimacy and accessibility. I still thought it would be difficult to pull off, but then knowing it would be Chris and Jen doing it I could see how it would work. Now doing the scenes its very clear that in other people’s hands it might not work as well. The main character does something that’s potentially not very likeable, and I think Chris makes it incredibly understandable and you can’t help but emphasise with him. You warm to both him and Jennifer in whatever they do, and so I think they make it work incredibly well. They’re just such great characters, in both the film and real life.

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Given that the bar takes several visual cues from The Shining, did you take any inspiration from what was a questionably healthy relationship between bartender and customer in that movie?

Yes as you say there is precedent for this type of character, and when you throw in The Shining references as well the audience can’t help but be, ‘no don’t talk to him!’ So that’s quite fun to see.

But it’s largely a visual thing?

Yeah, it’s part of the baggage you can riff on. So I’m not being Lloyd-ish, although I might look in some ways like him, it’s more of a subconscious thing to make you think certain things.

You mentioned that you’d spent the day making Manhattans, have you ever made one before?

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Nope, I had no idea at all. But I will be taking you all to the bar later and giving you all a Manhattan. There are 50 million of them I’ve made today! But the character of Jim only drinks whisky so that’s easy to do.

Yeah we saw you pouring a few of them today…

Did it look convincing?


Well that’s why I get paid the big bucks! Any character you play you have to look like you know what you’re doing. But also in a scene like that it’s all about the other characters, so I don’t want to be fucking it up for them and making a mess, spilling it. And as an android there can’t be any wasted movements, he’s programmed by computer. So without doing Mr Roboto movements I do want to bring an elegance and fluidity of motion. So then when you do see moments where it’s not pre-programmed you can see he’s actually learning and becoming slightly more human, so it’s not as fluid, slightly more jagged.

Was he written as English, or was that your choice?

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I never asked Morten (Tyldum) the first time I met him, so I went away thinking should he be British or American? It’s never stated in the script. Lloyd is American in The Shining. Funnily enough the actor who plays Lloyd I met in Izzy’s diner in Los Angeles.

By chance?

Completely by chance! He was sitting next to me and said, ‘you’re an actor aren’t you? I’m an actor as well.’ And it was him. You’re in The Shining and Blade Runner. You’re amazing! So if I bump into him again I’ll have to say ‘I’ve sort of played you now’.

Michael Sheen, thank you very much!

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