David Tennant And Michael Sheen have been chatting to The Times about their new lockdown comedy, Staged.
Read their interview below:
Well, this is unsettling. I’ve just watched the first episode of Staged, an enjoyable new BBC comedy series in which the actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen spend lockdown staring into their laptops as they talk to each other on Zoom. And now, minutes later, here I am on a Zoom call with David Tennant and Michael Sheen.
More than that, Sheen, 51, is sitting in the same position in his kitchen in south Wales as he does throughout the series. Behind him is a stone fireplace and a sign with the full name and birthdate of his new baby daughter, Lyra, written on it. His beard is as generous as his manner. Meanwhile, Tennant, 49, is unshaven, lank-haired, looming over his laptop. He apologises for his “ludicrous” hair: blame his role as Phileas Fogg in the BBC’s new version of Around the World in 80 Days. He had just come home from doing some filming for it in Cape Town when lockdown began. Had the pandemic kept its filthy paws off us, he would be shooting it in Romania today.
Instead he is at home in west London. He has chosen the room to talk from on the basis that it is the only one that doesn’t have one of his five children in it. It has been the same making Staged, he says; we get to see all over his house because he’s forever trying to keep Ty, 18, Olive, 9, Wilfred, 7, Doris, 5, or Birdie, 8 months, out of shot. “The house is full of children home schooling or practising drums or whatever it might be,” he says, “so you just have to go to wherever the pocket of least resistance is at any given moment.”
Sheen laughs at this. “I keep having this image that literally on either side of David’s frame as we’re filming are bundles of children being forced to stay out of the picture.”
“If only we could corral them to such an extent,” Tennant says. “You just have to hide from them and hope they don’t know you’re there. Because they love wandering up going, ‘What are you doing? What are you filming? Who’s this?’ ”
And if Sheen’s baby daughter proved easier to keep out of shot, she still made her presence felt. “Most of the technical achievement of this whole series is getting rid of Lyra crying in the background of almost every shot,” he says cheerfully.
Their partners do make it into the show, however. Tennant’s wife, Georgia, the daughter of the former Doctor in Doctor Who Peter Davison, co-produces and plays herself. Sheen’s girlfriend, Anna Lundberg, also plays herself. “Luckily they are both actresses, so they didn’t get to say no,” Tennant says. “It just arose from the story we were going to tell . . .”
Story? While Staged sometimes looks like two famous blokes just teasing each other — and we’ll get to any resemblance to The Trip in a moment — it’s all, suitably enough, more staged than that. The conceit is that Sheen and Tennant were about to start rehearsals for a West End play when lockdown started. So their director, Simon Evans — who writes, directs and appears as himself here — suggests that they continue rehearsals on Zoom. We see him talking to his cast, trying to use the personable Tennant to persuade the imposing Sheen that working on Zoom is a good idea.
Which, it turns out, is roughly how Staged really began. Evans and his co-creator, Phin Glynn, suggested the series to Tennant, whom Glynn had worked with before. They hoped that Tennant would suggest Sheen as the other half of the double act. After all, they had just formed a wildly successful partnership in Neil Gaiman’s fantasy comedy Good Omens. And that, happily, is exactly what happened.
Is this why the on-screen Tennant seems like a relatively ordinary bloke, expansive yet vulnerable in the way we imagine him to be from his parts from Doctor Who to Broadchurch? Whereas Sheen, whose roles have involved him sinking into real-life roles including Tony Blair, David Frost, Brian Clough and, most recently, Chris Tarrant in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? drama Quiz, is a more outlandish character?
“It was interesting to read the early scripts in which I am this slightly terrifying figure,” Sheen says. “I mean, I can be an arsehole — there’s your headline, ‘Michael Sheen: I can be a nightmare’ — so it’s not coming from nowhere. But it’s an amped-up version of me.”
The director Sam Mendes once described Sheen as the quintessential Welsh actor, “fiery, mercurial and unpredictable”. Sheen chuckles. “That was a very long time ago,” he says. “A lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges since then.”
“Yeah, but those are good things to be described as by Sam Mendes,” Tennant says.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Tennant bristles good-humouredly at the idea that we might think we know him. “I keep hoping that I am quite well buried in this creature who shambles across the stage and screen who I am thinking is nothing like the real me. But it is interesting when you are at least called your real name . . . I saw one cut of the show and I was worried we were just coming across as f***ing horrible monsters.”
Sheen quotes Oscar Wilde: “‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ So a very thin veneer of character is actually just covering the seething egotistical mass that is me.”
If you have seen The Trip, in which the comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel from one restaurant meal to another as brutally bantering versions of themselves, you will notice a kinship with Staged. Sheen, by coincidence, had just caught up with The Trip’s previous two seasons at the start of lockdown.
“I think The Trip is one of the things that was mentioned as a sort of touchstone of what’s possible,” Tennant says. “The idea that two people just talking shit can be entertaining. I mean, you know, we can only aspire to be as entertaining as Steve and Rob, and we have our own plot, our own structure, but it’s true, it’s also about two people passing the time, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Sheen says, “and I suppose it gives you a context to think about how you can play a different version of yourself. How you can take risks in terms of what people might think you are like. Because I don’t think Steve or Rob are actually like that. There’s bits of Steve and Rob in there, definitely, but I know they are not actually like that. And so that did help. And we know what not to do: if you suddenly find yourself wanting to do a Michael Caine impersonation, that is absolutely off-limits.”
Tennant and Sheen spent two weeks making the first episode, on spec, without pay. After everyone involved decided they had something worth doing, they sold the BBC the series of six 15-minute episodes. It’s meant that, against the odds, over the past month they have been as busy as ever.
“We’ve done the last five episodes in about three weeks,” Tennant says.
“And it does sort of overlap with what lockdown life is like in that, who knows what day it is?” Sheen says. “It’s like some strange dream, isn’t it?”
And huge fun, they say. “I mean, I get to work from home,” Sheen says. “Who wants to go back to doing things the way they were before? To be honest, I don’t really like to be around other actors anyway. I get to be in my kitchen. I can have coffee whenever I want. It’s great.”
The other upside of the pandemic has been more time with their families. Granted, Sheen was planning to be at home in south Wales anyway, having been in New York for a while filming the crime series Prodigal Son. Tennant has been glad to be home more than usual, but home schooling has not been easy. “I have always valued the teachers of my children, but, oh my God, that’s been challenging. It brings out the worst in your children and in yourself.” So he and Georgia have not, he says, had time to catch up with great box sets or novels like everyone else appears to have been doing.
“Whereas we spend our time mainly feeling inadequate next to the Tennants,” Sheen says. “Any time we complain about having an eight-month-old baby to deal with we keep reminding ourselves that David and Georgia have that plus about 20 other kids to deal with.” Sheen, it should be said, has also been zooming his older daughter, Lily, 20, who lives in America, and calling his parents, both in high-risk groups, who live near by.
Sometimes when you see Tennant and Sheen joshing, it’s easy to forget how recent their friendship is. They hadn’t acted together before playing the double act of the demon Crowley (Tennant) and the angel Aziraphale (Sheen), facing down the Apocalypse together in Good Omens. It took a while to film, they say, but it felt as if it took even longer to promote when it came out last summer.
“That period was longer than anything I’ve done before in my life,” Sheen says. “That’s when David and I really got to know each other.”
“Yes, yes, that’s true,” Tennant says. “There were a lot of dinners in hotels all over the world.” Has that fed into Staged? “Yes, I think it’s allowed us to know each other enough to take the piss out of each other.”
They have both had a few other shards of work over the past few months: a short Doctor Who animation for Tennant, a short online play for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff for Sheen. Both are quick to point out that, as famous names, they have those sorts of opportunities where most actors have none. “Our industry is about people in rooms together and telling stories, but it’s tough,” Tennant says. “It’s going to take a real hit, the theatre world particularly.”
Now that Staged is done, do they have anything else definite arranged? “Well, nothing is definite now, that’s the point . . .” Tennant says. He hopes to return to Around the World in 80 Days at some point. He was due to appear in the West End this autumn in a revival of CP Taylor’s play Good. “As the months tick by there’s not an obvious solution as to how we will do a play in September, but I don’t think we’ve quite given up yet.”
Sheen is contracted to return to New York for the second series of Prodigal Son, possibly as early as September. “I am a little concerned that that may be when there’s the next wave of this. To be in New York at that point is a little unnerving.”
And Sheen, as he notes with a mixture of pride and guilt, has had a hit during lockdown. Quiz was a success in April, even if he had the indignity of being referred to as “Martin Sheen” by ITV’s continuity announcer. A reference to that makes its way into Staged. “I suppose it benefited from everyone being at home, but it was extraordinary there being so much focus on something you’ve done, all watching the thing at the same time. And it being on for three consecutive nights made it even more intense and focused,” he says.
Upsides to the lockdown are otherwise, they suggest, in short supply. The interview ending, I start to say how nice it was to meet them before remembering that, no, we haven’t met at all. “Well, yes,” Tennant says, “we need a whole new vocabulary for this.” Has the pandemic changed them? “I think it will change everybody,” Sheen says. Any feelings of mortality creeping in? “Oh, it smacks of mortality this whole thing,” Tennant says. “We suddenly feel frail. I suddenly feel we can be undermined by something that we have absolutely no control over. And it’s unnerving, it’s unsettling.”
Staged starts on BBC One at 10.45pm on June 10; the whole series will be available on iPlayer from June 11