After great acclaim for the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, director Thomas Vinterberg turned to screenwriter David Nicholls’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd for his next project. Set in 19th-century Wessex, Hardy’s idealized version of the British West Country, the film tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) coming into property and dealing with three very persistent suitors: steadfast farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), and wealthy landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). On paper, the middle-aged, anxiety-ridden Boldwood is the least attractive romantic prospect, but Sheen brings such remarkable empathy to the role, such devotion to etching out the man’s attempted reach toward the light of romantic and moral salvation, that the character’s melancholy is understood to be irresistible. On the eve of Far from the Madding Crowd’s theatrical release, I sat down with Sheen to discuss what drew him to the period piece, as well as Vinterberg’s illuminating approach to improvisation and the humanity that the actor felt was crucial to fleshing out Boldwood’s complex trajectory.
To begin at the beginning, what drew you to this project?
The idea of doing a British period drama in itself wasn’t particularly interesting to me. But reading the novel, it made me realize how specific Hardy was about this world, and about capturing the rhythms of farming and rural living. And because it’s an extraordinary story with a complex woman at the center of it—flawed, brilliant, law-breaking, transgressive, and who’s an employer, a boss. I asked David Nicholls earlier, “Can you think of any other story, any other classic literature story, where there’s a woman who’s the main character and an employer?” And it’s almost impossible to think of one. Even today, in films where there’s a woman as an employer and a boss, she’s usually written as bad, or as a sort of caricature. But I suppose one of the other main things was that Thomas Vinterberg was directing it.
So you have a Danish director helming a classic British story?
Less the fact that he’s a Danish director and more that this is the man who did The Celebration, which I think is such an extraordinary film, and, more recently, The Hunt. So, thinking about what he would bring to this was really intriguing. I knew it would be something very different and fresh. And to have Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba, Matthias as Gabriel, and David doing the adaptation, I thought it was something I’d want to hook my wagon to.
I read that you had done some improvisation exercises to get into character. What sort of preparation did that entail?
One of the exciting things about working with Thomas was that he uses improvisation a lot. Not on the set, but before you start working. We had a week of rehearsals with the four of us together, not only improvising around the scenes that were in the film, but improvising things from my character’s past, what I felt were the events in his life that had a real effect on him. So that made a massive difference to me. I can’t imagine what I would have done in the film if I hadn’t done such improvisation. It was very impactful.
You mentioned that Carey Mulligan was a large component in you joining the project. You two share such great chemistry on screen. How much was informed by preparation and improvisation between you two?
Well, when you’re shooting, the script is the script. That was decided and that’s what we do. But the scenes with Carey had a sense of play in them. The improvisatory nature of the scenes wasn’t in what we said, but in the dynamic between us. Working with an actress like Carey—she’s so responsive to your craft. The process feels very alive. And the scenes that are so complicated, with so much going on under the surface, all the awkwardness and difficulty and vulnerability, to be able to play with someone like Carey is great because you feel like you’re really working with each other, rather than, like, “I’m going to come here and do my bit and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.” We were very, very connected, and that’s something you only get with very special people.
For a feature in the Telegraph, you said that working with Vinterberg wasn’t quite a “Mike Leigh thing,” but that there was, again, a focus on improvisatory exercises.
We improvised a scene where I was a young man after my heart had been broken by this woman, and I holed myself up in the house, with Carey, playing my sister, trying to get me to leave the house, and I have a big argument with her and, in that moment, I shut the door on the rest of the world. Carey also did an improvisation where she was Bathsheba applying for a job as a governess, because we know that she’s done that in the past, and I played the boss, not Boldwood, but a man who was giving her an interview. Thomas really brought that history into the heart of everything, which really stops you from playing into clichés. You have to make very specific choices when you’re improvising like that. And then that followed on into the piece itself. Thomas allows his actors to have a lot of input into what they’re doing, but he also has a very strong vision himself. It’s a really great combination for a director to have a sense of what they want to do and how they’re going to do it, but at the same time, not be kind of micromanaging everyone.
Is it true that you hadn’t read the novel until preparing for the film?
Yeah, it was my first time reading the novel. We had never studied Hardy when I was at school. I was able to come to it fresh. Again, he has such a brilliant way of describing this other world—this farming community, this rural world, its rhythms and the cycles and the connection to the land and the seasons. He sort of gives you everything. So the combination of the novel and a little bit of research about the society of the time, where someone like Boldwood would fit into that, and the improvisation, that did a lot of it.
Did you watch any of the other screen adaptations?
No. I think I saw the John Schlesinger version when I was much younger, but I don’t have much of a memory of that. And I haven’t seen any other versions, so I decided to keep away from that really and just focus on what we were doing.
While doing research, did you think of Boldwood’s gentry status in relation to your more liberal politics? Your interpretation of Boldwood seems so heart-wrenching, so humanist.
I hope I have a humanist perspective to everything I do. I just humanize the character I’m playing as much as I can. I suppose your personal politics will always inform how you do that, but I wasn’t leading with that sense. I guess inevitably it does creep into everything you do. My take on this character was that this was a man who, because of his wealth, because of his social position and so forth, he was able to withdraw into a world and still be able to survive without necessarily being in connection with people. When he does come out of that sort of seclusion, when he gets that invitation back into the world from Bathsheba, then the difficulty he has with that, I found that very interesting. He has a very different social situation than the people he’s around, and he’s kind of envious of Gabriel. Maybe he would like to have his life, at least in the way he imagines it in his head—this simpler life where he doesn’t have any duty or responsibility to people, where he’s not burdened with social standing, and can live very simply and on the land. It’s an idealized view of what life might be like for him. He crosses boundaries a lot, I think, throughout. Knowing what that meant at the time, socioeconomically and politically, it just helps to inform the character emotionally and psychologically without making any kind of point politically.
In the film, you captured such a vulnerability in Boldwood. Compared to Peter Finch’s performance in the Schlesinger film, yours has such a subtlety and he becomes such a tragic figure.
The key to that, for me, was finding out, as you hear early on in the story, that Mr. Boldwood had his heart broken. This is a man who had been really hurt and wounded and spent the rest of his life protecting that. “I’m never going to let that happen to me again.” Of course, he has wealth, so he’s able to withdraw from the world and protect himself, but my theory was that by the time the film begins, when the story begins, he’s already starting to unravel because of his seclusion, because of his sympathy, because of being holed up in this huge house, he knows that he needs to save himself. When Bathsheba’s valentine comes, that’s what he holds onto. That’s what’s going to save him. He really needs her, and he’s prepared to give all of himself away. There’s the awful sadness of the scene where he says, “If you marry me just out of pity, that’s fine. I’m okay with that.” His vulnerability is revealed in that scene. It’s not that he discovers the vulnerability. It’s that the layers that have been put on top of it are peeled away as the story moves on, and as a result he becomes a tragic figure.
Not to be a bit of a spoiler, but that last pivotal scene is so devastating, with Boldwood on his final string. How did you approach that?
It’s all to do with what he’s experienced before. Before the film begins, when he was younger, the fact that he lost someone, and is constantly on the verge of losing someone else again with Bathsheba all the way throughout. He proposed to her early on and she says no. But there’s hope, just a glimmer of hope, and so by the time he gets to the end of the story and he’s unraveled already and he’s become so vulnerable, and the fear of losing someone again because of how much pain he felt the first time, he’s just not going to let that happen again. It was all about charting that journey. It’s shocking, but hopefully, to the audience, it’s totally believable how he got that point. Creating that inevitability, that tragic aspect, is all about charting from the beginning and starting from the right place.