TORONTO — Michael Sheen offers up a slightly mischievous grin as he recalls a scene in The Damned United in which he takes a soccer lord’s name in vain while standing on what many fans would consider sacred ground.
Sheen plays controversial English soccer manager Brian Clough, a man obsessed with washing clean the legacy of longtime rival Don Revie when he assumes the reins of Leeds United in 1974.
Under Revie, Leeds dominated the pitch for years and brought home championship after championship.
Things aren’t going as well for Clough.
“There’s a scene in the film where a couple of the Leeds United players in the tunnel come walking up to me and they start complaining about the way I’m running Leeds and they say ‘Don Revie,’ ” Sheen said during an interview last month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The scene was being shot at Elland Road, Leeds United’s actual playing ground, and Sheen’s line was “Bollocks to Don Revie.”
“I’m standing there with the Leeds United stadium behind me, and the stand that’s behind me is the Don Revie stand and it’s got Don Revie’s name on it,” Sheen said.
“I decided that I wanted to shout it out, ‘Bollocks to Don Revie,’ and to hear that sound resounding, echoing through the grounds.
“It felt like sacrilege to shout that out in Elland Road. It was really weird to say that.”
The film, which was released in Britain earlier this year, chronicles not only Clough’s ill-fated 44-day run heading up Leeds but also the successful managing career that landed him there.
Clough and his assistant manager, Peter Taylor, had taken the struggling second division side Derby County and made them champions. Along the way, Clough nurtures an all-encompassing hatred of Revie and his team, based on an unintentional snub on the pitch from Revie, and embarks on an unrelenting quest to defeat Leeds.
When he becomes manager of Leeds it’s without Taylor at his side — the result of a falling out fuelled by Clough’s obsession.
“It’s almost a Shakespearean story of hubris and ego and the perils of ego,” said director Tom Hooper.
“It’s a film about love, friendship, betrayal, competitive rivalry, competitive jealously and, at the centre of it, it’s almost a kind of marriage story, a love story if you will between these two men, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.”
The film depicts an extremely strong bond between the two, so much so that Hooper had been told it was the best bromance movie of the festival.
As Clough, Sheen gives a riveting performance on the heels of two other critically acclaimed portrayals of real-life characters — former British prime minister Tony Blair in “The Queen” and TV interviewer David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.”
Those role choices weren’t so much about a desire to play real people as they were about working with screenwriter Peter Morgan, Sheen said.
“We’ve developed this sort of working partnership. It’s not like I go off looking for real people to play, it’s just the best scripts that I’ve been sent and offered have been those,” he said.
“If the man who’s written two films that you’ve been in — and they’ve ended up at the Academy Awards for best film — writes another one, you’re not going to say ’no’ really.”
While ostensibly the subject matter of “The Damned United” is soccer, Sheen said it’s as “much about football as ’Frost/Nixon’ was about politics and ’The Queen’ was about politics and the Royal Family.”
“It’s more just a really good story and great characters, entertaining and funny and dramatic and all those things. Peter just has a really good eye for that.”
“The Damned United” opens Friday in Toronto and Montreal, and on Oct. 30 in Vancouver, with other Canadian cities to follow.