Michael Sheen seems to be drawn to the underdog. A quick glance of the British actor’s recent resume reveals roles like a newly-crowned PM Tony Blair in The Queen, an odds defying talk show host in Frost/Nixon and a werewolf revolution leader in Underworld 3.

So it’s no surprise that in his latest picture, Sheen once more essays a controversial individual who defied the odds, swam upstream and became a legend. The film in question is director Tom Hooper’s superlative impressionist biopic The Damned United, starring Sheen as iconic English football manager Brian Clough, a tough, no nonsense ex-player whose legacy still courts controversy.

“Clough is more of a folk hero,” says Sheen, in town recently for the films’ North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He came from the working class, he came from nowhere, really, and he took teams that were a mess and made them champions. He had this pure romantic vision for the game and the fact that he was ‘sticking it the man,’ so to speak, was appealing for me as an actor.”

The Damned United find Clough at the height of his infamy, when, after inking a contract to succeed rival Don Revie (here played by Colm Meaney) as coach for top team Leeds United, he was sacked after only 44 days. But instead of focusing the picture on the ins and outs of the game of football, the movie instead details Clough’s relationship with his partner Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) and the ups and downs the two experience within this world together.

“I think some sports films rely on the sport for drama,” says Sheen.

“But really, I think that undermines it. Sports are already inherently dramatic that’s why you watch them. Films should be about the characters.”

With such a highbrow, respected career that includes multiple award nominations and a successful run on Broadway in the stage incarnation of Frost/Nixon, some snobbier film journalists have criticized his occasional dips into pulpy, gory works like the Underworld pictures.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just pretend, it’s all just fantasy,” he says.

“I actually prefer science fiction to any sort of social realism pictures. Phillip K Dick is far more culturally relevant than some movie about a guy trying to feed his family. I mean the scene in Frost/Nixon where Frost calls Nixon in the middle of the night didn’t happen so does that negate its impact? Does that mean it’s rubbish? I think not.”

Want to see it?

The Damned United screens at the Scotiabank Theatre tomorrow at 9 a.m. It is being released in theatres later this year.

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