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Michael Sheen Talks Voicing the White Rabbit for Alice in Wonderland

By B. Alan Orange — May 29th, 2010

Michael Sheen is the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's blockbuster rendition of the fairytale Alice in Wonderland is arriving on DVD, Blu-ray and three-disc Blu-ray June 1st, 2010. In the fourth of a seven-part interview series, we caught up with the actors and the filmmakers behind the movie to discuss the making of this billion dollar epic. Next, we talked to Michael Sheen, who stars as The White Rabbit. Here is our conversation with him:

How do you get under the skin of such an iconic character as The White Rabbit?

Michael Sheen: In a way because these characters are so familiar to us - I can't remember a time when I didn't know about The White Rabbit or The Cheshire Cat - so that makes it a bit easier. I have seen so many versions of Alice in Wonderland that it has seeped into popular cultural. I felt that there was an archetypal White Rabbit in there, somewhere and that I should not get in the way of that. It was more a case of trying not to be interesting. A lot of the time when you have a cameo you feel that you want to come in and make an impression but in a way that would have been a disservice to this story where there is so much going on. In the original story the White Rabbit keeps popping up. It's like Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead; you keep seeing things from the other side. I liked that ambiguity and I liked the fact that he could sometimes be quite brusque with Alice. So were all those things going on and Tim Burton had said that he didn't want me to be too cartoonish. He wanted it to be believable. Originally I was disappointed, I wanted to put on the ears and the tail and whiskers and jump around the set with all the others. But I realized when I watched the film, the wisdom of making the animal characters very realistic and not humanized at all. If the creatures did not look so animal-like then it wouldn't work so well.

What were the sessions like when you were recording the voice of The White Rabbit?

Michael Sheen: We did a few recording sessions in LA and London. There is a fantastic converted church in Hampstead in London that we used. But I didn't have to be in a little booth, I was in a big, open room. There was a camera and Tim Burton said they were going to film me as I performed the role. But I didn't think any of the moves or gestures that I did would make it into the film but then when I watched the film I was amazed to see that it is all my hand movements. They really had animated what I was doing, which was great. When I did the recordings there was someone there who came in and performed Alice but I didn't have the other characters there. So the first time that we were all together as a troupe was at the world premiere. It was lovely to see all that.

Why is Alice In Wonderland one of the stories that we never tire of?

Michael Sheen: People say there is nothing more boring than someone telling you their dream and there is nothing more fascinating for the person whose dream it is. I think that Alice in Wonderland is our collective dream and that some how Lewis Carroll was able to be the vessel for it. So we are collectively fascinated by it because it is our dream. In the same way as in a dream, the things in it Alice in Wonderland are very familiar and yet strange at the same time. You can never quite get your fingers round the edge of it; you can't find the borders of it. So you are constantly drawn to it because you cannot categorize it, you can't put it in a box. It fascinates us for that reason. The way that Alice experiences Wonderland is the same way that we experience the story; which is as soon as we think that we know where we are with it, suddenly it all changes. Also I think that it brilliantly illustrates what it is like to be a child in an adult world. On the one hand people are being very nice to you and keeping you safe and then suddenly they are shouting at you, for no reason. So it becomes this weird Kafka-esque place where you are not in control. And Alice is this very spirited young girl who seems to be the most together person in this adult world as she navigates her way through it. Children recognize it as being their experience of the adult world. For adults it somehow manages to express a truth about the world that can be glossed over. When you think about the time when it was written then there was a very civilized society with strict rules and etiquette. It also goes to a deeper truth that the world is a very dangerous and harsh, frightening and challenging place and yet we have the illusion that we are in control. And in fact we are not. So this upside down, topsy turvy world somehow expresses a deeper truth about our world. Again this is why we are drawn to the story.

Had you thought that every year Alice in Wonderland will be on release on Blu-ray and DVD?

Michael Sheen: That's true. I was very aware that for a whole generation this version of the characters will probably become the definitive version. There is a huge responsibility and honor in that. It's wonderful to think that for a whole generation they will associate my voice with The White Rabbit.

And I believe you are now part of the Disney family?

Michael Sheen: Yes, I'm in Tron Legacy and the latest Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue. So I have done my Disney trilogy!

Are you a collector of DVDs?

Michael Sheen: I am. I collect anything and everything. I have a huge collection. My girlfriend is always telling me off for buying so many DVDs. At the moment, having just visited Rome, I am working through all the Federico Fellini films.

Alice in Wonderland is Available on DVD, Blu-ray and three-disc Blu-ray June 1st, 2010.

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