Michael Sheen's The Way echoes Tata steelworks reality

When Michael Sheen was filming clashes between steelworkers and riot police in his home town Port Talbot, little did he know 2,000 jobs at its steelworks would be at risk by the time it premiered.

"We had no idea when we were developing the story what would be happening at the steelworks when this came out," he said.

"It's incredibly unfortunate that the story we've written has come bizarrely very close to the truth."

Speaking ahead of The Way's premiere at Port Talbot's Reel Cinema, he insisted the three-part BBC drama - originally conceived in 2016 - was a fictional story and not about the Tata steelworks.

"But obviously, knowing the town, knowing the relationship the town has with the steelworks, knowing the insecurities and the anxieties that have always been there in my lifetime around employment and work there - that was part of what drew us to setting the story in this town," said Sheen, 55, who both directed and starred in the drama.

Callum Scott Howells as Owen
Callum Scott Howells plays Owen, a young man who feels powerless and forgotten, in The Way

He said Port Talbot's steelworks was the "spiritual centre of the town" and "part of our DNA" and the news of job losses had been "devastating".

The Way is written by James Graham, created by Sheen, Graham and documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis and stars a number of Welsh actors.

The cast includes Steffan Rhodri (Steeltown Murders and Gavin & Stacey), Mali Harries (Hinterland), Sophie Melville (The Pact), Callum Scott Howells (It's a Sin) and Mark Lewis Jones (Men Up and Keeping Faith).

Episode one sees growing concern over the future of the steelworks, leading to protests, which later turn to riots.

Some take to the streets to join the fight, others frantically try to escape or hide in their homes as helicopters fly overhead.

The streets become a warzone and the town is locked down by armed police.

A protest turns into a riot on the streets of Port Talbot in The Way
The Way is filmed in Port Talbot and sees rioting break out when steelworkers become concerned over the future of their jobs

With Port Talbot facing an uncertain future, could life imitate art?

"It's not like we're saying 'this is what you should do as a result of what's going on' by any means, but obviously I have huge sympathy for the steelworkers," said Sheen.

"In no way is this a blueprint to how people should react, but you don't know do you? I have no idea how people are going to react.

"People will try and be as resourceful and as positive about it as they possibly can I'd imagine because that is the spirit of the people in this place - but at the same time you don't know and people are very angry as well."

For Sheen, "everything" is political.

A long-term champion of the NHS, in 2015 he was applauded for delivering a passionate speech to a pro-NHS march in Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent, and he is currently in rehearsal for a National Theatre production about NHS founder Aneurin Bevan.

In 2019, he sold property to bankroll the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff when funding for the £2m project fell through at the last moment.

Michael Sheen at the The Way premiere in Port Talbot with his parents
Michael Sheen at the premiere in Port Talbot with his parents Meyrick and Irene

In 2020, the actor, who was born in Newport and raised in Port Talbot, said he had handed back his OBE so he could air his views about the monarchy without being a "hypocrite".

In 2021, he said he had turned himself into a "not-for-profit" actor, using the money he earned from acting to fund projects.

He has been vocal on a range of issues from children in care to Welsh independence.

Was he trying to make a political statement in The Way?

"Everything is connected, everything happens for a reason, things are the way they are in this town and any town not just by chance, it's because of choices and various things... I think inevitably this was going to be a political story," he said.

"Part of the reason why we wanted to set it here... we needed to feel there was a great sense of discontent amongst a lot of people in the place, a lot of anxiety, a lot of feeling of not having their voices heard."

He said when people were made to feel that they were not being listened to and did not matter "that sense of frustration and anger can boil over".

Sheen made his name as an actor initially in the theatre before winning acclaim as a screen actor playing real people from Tony Blair, David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Chris Tarrant to lead roles in series including Good Omens, Masters of Sex and Staged.

In 2011, he directed and starred in a 72-hour epic theatrical production of The Passion, which moved around different locations across Port Talbot drawing huge crowds and critical acclaim.

Actors Mark Lewis Jones (left) and Callum Scott Howells (right) at the The Way premiere in Port Talbot
Mark Lewis Jones (left) and Callum Scott Howells (right) both star in The Way

It is perhaps unsurprising that he would choose to make his TV directorial debut in the town too.

"[The Way] was definitely very personal," he said.

"I feel like I knew what I was filming and I felt anchored and connected to what was going on."

Sheen now lives near Port Talbot with his partner Anna Lundberg and their two children Lyra and Mabli.

"It's somewhere I inevitably keep coming back to and it's an endless source of inspiration," he said of the town.

"It's the source of all my imaginative explorations really because it's my home.

"It's where I grew up, it's where all the most important things happened to me, it's where my family still lives, it's where I now live again and as I've got older I've realised more and more how important the beginning of my life was and all the opportunities people gave to me."

Michael Sheen on set
Filmed in his home town Port Talbot, Michael Sheen both starred in and directed new BBC drama The Way

One of those people who gave him opportunities was Godfrey Evans, a drama teacher who helped shaped generations of actors through the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre and died in November, aged 82.

At the premiere across the road from the town's Aberavon Beach, Sheen dedicated the screening to both his former teacher and Port Talbot's steelworkers.

What are his hopes for those in his home town currently fearing for their jobs?

"Particularly at a time like this when there's so much anxiety and so much concern about the future it is so important to feel like you're supported and you can talk about what's going on and to find connection with other people who are maybe going through the same things," he said.

"We wish everyone the best and hope there's plenty of support for people in the future."

The Way will be available in full on BBC iPlayer from 06:00 GMT on Monday 19 February, and airs on BBC One at 21:00 with episodes airing weekly

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