LOS ANGELES (KGET) – As part of ABC’s love of game shows, the network brought back “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to primetime with Jimmy Kimmel hosting instead of Regis Philbin. You might have had to phone a friend if asked in which country the series originated.
The answer is England. British contestants were trying to answer their way to wealth with the launch in 1998. The American version came along in 1999.
One thing the British series has that the American version has not had – so far – is a scandal. Contestant British Army Major Charles Ingram, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock and Ingram’s wife, Diana, were accused of using a series of coughs to cheat in 2001.
That scheme serves as the basis for the three-part drama, “Quiz,” to air on AMC.
Michael Sheen, who portrays “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” host, Chris Tarrant, recalls seeing the game show when it was airing in England. What struck him was how it became such a massive phenomenon.
Sheen says, “I remember it just kind of ripping through the fabric of reality into a new world. It really was like a whole new epoch of quiz shows and game shows, I guess. It was interesting on doing the research for this. I got to see sort of earlier versions of the show before it kind of found what it was, when people found its real kind of identity, and that music and the sound effects and the heartbeat, and the suspense of it.
“And when it first started off it didn’t have any of that, and it felt like a completely different show, and then when it actually found its kind of groove and its identity, you sort of kind of can’t imagine it being anything else.”
Being part of the AMC short-run series is part of the busy schedule for Sheen who also stars in the FOX series “Prodigal Son.” Over the years, Sheen has played mostly fictional roles but he has taken on parts based on real people including a turn as Dr. William Masters in the series “Masters of Sex.”
Sheen knew with Tarrant he would be taking on a role based on one of the most familiar faces – and voices – in the United Kingdom. That would create a big challenge. And, Sheen had started turning down chances to play real people because he felt like he was become too closely associated with those types of roles.
Sheen decided to be part of “Quiz” because it was being directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) and written by playwright James Graham (“Brexit: An Uncivil War”).
“People do impersonations of him, and that kind of stuff. But I didn’t want to. When I played real people, characters based on real people, I’ve never wanted to kind of get into the sticking things on your face, and all that kind of stuff,” Sheen says. “I tried to do as little of that as possible because, on the one hand, it tends to draw attention to how much you don’t look like the person if it looks like you’re making too much effort to look like them. And I just find it restrictive.
“We just went with a wig, and I had my hair bleached blonde for ‘Good Omens’ for six months. I wasn’t going down that road again. So, we went with a wig, and the wig does all the heavy lifting, really, to be honest. It’s always the hair that does all the work. And then just, you know, basic makeup.”
The quiz show element was easy for Sheen to handle both because of his research and because he has been a game show contestant on both the British shows “Pointless Celebrities” and “The Chase.” What he learned from that experiences is that being a game show contestant is a weird experience.
“You forget how to be yourself. You forget how to be genuine. I’m an actor. I’m used to being in front of a camera and I forgot how to be me. And you sort of, you do act weirdly,” Sheen says.
Along with Sheen, the cast of “Quiz” includes: Matthew Macfadyen as Major Ingram; Sian Clifford as his wife Diana; and Michael Jibson as accomplice Tecwen Whittock.
“Quiz” debuts at 10 p.m. May 31 on AMC. The second and third episodes will air at 9 p.m. June 7 and June 14. The full series will also be available to binge on AMC Premiere beginning May 31.