How did actor Michael Sheen prepare for his role as the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland?
“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 went on to say how Lewis Carroll's story left an impression on him.“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.”
“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.”
To deliver his lines with enough spunk and neurotic quivering, Sheen was highly expressive in both his vocal performance and physical mannerisms behind the microphone.
“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 Sheen said he would've enjoyed working on the set with Tim Burton, too.
“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.”
Sheen went on to explain what working with the director was like.
“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."Burton's film is not a direct adaptation of the original books. Rather, it is inspired by the stories by Carroll, in the form of a pseudo-sequel. But Sheen said die-hard fans don't need to worry -- in fact, there's more to the film because it's an expansion, and has similarities to other fantasy epics.
“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.”
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.”