Michael Sheen’s research for ‘Wonderland’? ‘I lived with a family of rabbits.’
“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 3 DAYS
Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’ve been counting down to the film’s release with a month of daily coverage.
Michael Sheen has proved himself especially adept at portraying historically prominent figures — Emperor Nero, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and David Frost, for instance — but has plenty of experience in films of the fantastic after his fanged role as Aro in “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and three tours of duty as a werewolf for the “Underworld” franchise.
For the new film “Alice in Wonderland,” though, he had to do a bit of both. Giving voice to the White Rabbit meant bringing one of the more iconic characters of British literature to the screen but it was also, well, a job as a cotton-tailed rabbit.
“I lived with a family of rabbits,” Sheen deadpanned when asked about his preparation for the role. “It was a very grueling process. All that nibbling.”
But really, he said, there was very minimal preparation for the role.
“In a way, the good thing about something like this is that you don’t have to do a huge amount of research for it,” Sheen said. “Not for me, anyway. The research is the relationship you’ve had with the story all your life. And it’s probably the most famous story in the world … next to the Bible. I think I knew the characters well before I knew they were in a book.”
The 41-year-old actor couldn’t exactly recall the first time he read Lewis Carroll’s surreal adventure, but whenever it was, the tale made a lasting impression.
“‘It’s just one of those things where it’s sort of ingrained in your consciousness,” Sheen said. “It’s so much a part of the fabric of our culture. And then there are the films. I think the first full-length version of the story I saw was the  Disney film. And as lovely as that was, there was something sort of disturbing about it. I think that was sort of the appeal of it. You can’t categorize it. You can never quite sort of feel the edge of it … that’s sort of what drew me back to it again and again.”
He’s well aware of the story’s iconic legacy in the narrative — and pop culture — world, so when it came time to finally voice the White Rabbit, you’d think his first thoughts would be “Oh dear! Oh dear!” Not exactly.
“After so many versions and portrayals, I just tried to check and listen to what the character sounded like in my head,” Sheen said. “I tried not to give him too many embellishments. I just tried to be simple with him.”
Sheen spent hours behind the mike, careful to deliver his lines with spunk and precision. That meant not only being expressive with his voice, but with his body, too … just as his fellow cast mates did on set.
“Talking to the actors, it was like there was no set for them either,” Sheen said. “I don’t think anyone really had a sense of what it was going to be like; how it would all come together. It was just a real journey of imagination for everyone.”
But he does admit it would have been fun to experience that journey on set with director Tim Burton, rather than in a sound booth.
“I would have given anything to put on a rabbit suit and go out there with the rest of them,” he said. “But that’s just not what was needed. Plus, I would have looked rather silly … still, anything is possible with Tim.”
Which brings up the question, what was it really like working with Burton?
“I sort of expected him to have an axe flying around his head or something … maybe some lightning and strange creatures floating around,” Sheen said. “But he was disappointingly and reassuringly normal.”
Burton, meanwhile, said the quality he wanted most in his clock-watching bunny was a twitchiness. “In any incarnation of the [White Rabbit] through the years, there’s that sort of nervousness of a rabbit,” the filmmaker said. “All of these animal characters have humanistic traits, of course, since they’re talking, but we wanted the animal traits to stay in there. Michael is a great actor and he also brought that accent, which I really wanted since ‘Alice’ is British in its roots.”
With the magical adventure on screen an expansion of the classic tale, not a carbon copy of the original, Sheen said fans will be able to take more lessons away from it — even see it’s similarities to other classic tales.
“When I did read the script, I thought there was a fascinating take on it,” Sheen said. “It brought it slightly closer to another classic: Peter Pan. The events of Peter Pan take place on the night that Wendy is supposed to leave the nursery. The point in which she’s about to become a woman or that in-between place where she’s not a child anymore. And she sort of finds herself in this fantastical world in Neverland. And Alice, in this movie, is sort of at the point. She’s about to move into maturity and then the White Rabbit appears and takes her back as if the world of her childhood is in some way in peril. It’s really gonna make fans of the story think.”
As the countdown to the film’s opening comes to a close, Sheen says he’s excited for those fans to finally see the film in its entirety.
“It’s just really lovely to be a part of something like this. Normally, about seven people come out to see the things that I do. This is epic.”
RECENT AND RELATED
PHOTOS: Top and bottom, the White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” (Disney). Second, Michael Sheen in “New Moon” (Summit Entertainment); Third, Sheen in Santa Monica on Oct. 19, 2009. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)