Award-winning actor, political activist and family man Martin Sheen speaks to Paula Fleri-Soler about humanity and his way in his latest film.
US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec introduced Martin Sheen to the 200-odd moviegoers who packed the Embassy cinema in Valletta as a “fellow parishioner, neighbour from California and distinguished actor”.
He added that many Americans call him President Bartlet, referring to Sheen’s acclaimed role in The West Wing, the hugely successful award-winning drama which ran for seven seasons on NBC between 1999 and 2006.
But during a flying visit to Malta last week, on the initiative of the US Ambassador and KRS Film Distributors to promote his new film The Way, the 70-year-old actor also came across as the Good Samaritan.
Born Ramon Estevez in 1940, Sheen launched his eclectic career in the late 1960s, working in television and on Broadway before making his debut on the big screen.
He has worked in a number of highly-acclaimed films, making his mark in director Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and going on to play numerous roles with many directors of note.
One of his most widely-known performances, of course, was as Captain Benjamin J. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s searing 1979 Vietnam drama Apocalypse Now, during which the actor notoriously suffered a heart attack.
Sheen has also worked with most of the legendary directors, including Richard Attenborough, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
Sheen is also a devout Catholic and dedicated family man, breaking the template of many of his Hollywood contemporaries.
He has been married to Janet Templeton for almost 50 years, and they have four children; all of whom have followed in their father’s footsteps – Emilio Estevez, Ramon Estevez, Renee Estevez, and of course Charlie Sheen who recently made the headlines for the wrong reasons and whom his father is reluctant to talk about.
Martin Sheen is also well-known for his political activism, and has supported many social and liberal causes; often going on the front line to defend those issues he believes in, especially matters of poverty and homelessness.
It was this cause that prompted Sheen to visit Malta for the charity premier of The Way, since proceeds from the film are to be donated to the John XXIII Peace Laboratory of Malta.
Fr Dionysius Mintoff’s Peace Lab provides shelter for up to 50 individuals and the centre offers an internet café, a clinic, a theatre and dedicated space for prayer and reflection and a mosque.
It offers an open and unrestricted meeting place where people of all backgrounds and attitudes can mix together in peace. The stated goal is to foster solidarity and moral values based on Christian beliefs; though not excluding any other idea or person.
The funds raised from the premiere of The Way will provide a new gym for the many who seek some respite from the burdens of poverty or the fears and anxiety felt by refugees.
Touring the Peace Lab with Mintoff and Kmiec, Sheen has no qualms about displaying his faith, yet does so in a quiet and simple way. Three men in the centre’s chapel are huddled together, talking in hushed whispers as Sheen admires the various icons and relics on display.
Dressed casually, the actor radiates vibrancy, warmth and charm in person, the same way he has come across on screen for decades.
The actor listens carefully to what Mintoff says, admiring a framed photo of Mother Teresa and examining in detail a painting depicting the Transfiguration. When Mintoff shows him a statue of Gandhi, he recalls how honoured he felt to be in the epic film depicting the Indian spiritual leader, which went on to scoop eight Oscars.
Sheen displays a genuine desire to meet the refugee residents, as he hears about the plight of the many immigrants who seek refuge at the centre.
He shakes their hands robustly, offering a kind word or cracking a joke or two, his bright blue eyes twinkling as he smiles widely.
The Ħal Far centre is as far away as anyone can imagine from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood; and yet Sheen is clearly at home; even stopping at the miniature grotto dedicated to Our Lady where he says a small prayer. A visibly shy resident presents Sheen with a memento of his visit which he graciously accepts with profuse thanks.
Sitting at the canteen, he is gregarious in company, regaling those present with anecdotes, including the time his wife Janet left her prayer intentions in the supplication box in Lourdes, only to realise with horror that she may have inadvertently thrown in her grocery list instead.
“We’ve been well-provided for ever since,” he says, deadpan.
But turning to more serious matters, I ask about his thoughts about the violence enveloping different parts of the world, especially in nearby Libya.
He replies: “Look where we’re sitting,” gesturing to his surroundings and Mintoff in particular.
“The corporal works of mercy are very much alive here, and I just can’t begin to imagine the work that is done here daily with Fr Mintoff. There is a powerful spirit at work here that has attracted so many people to serve and build this place. It’s a breathing, living monument to our humanity and God among us. We are commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless and this embodies the Christian faith. It is a magnificent reflection of what we are supposed to be doing if we call ourselves Christians.”
He says he heard about the work carried out at the Peace Lab through the US Ambassador and wanted to see it for himself, prompting a visibly moved and slightly embarrassed Mintoff to thank the actor.
The interview takes place a day after Aaron Sorkin walked off with an Oscar for the Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network. Sheen had worked closely with the writer on The West Wing.
“For my money he’s the best screenwriter in Hollywood. He is truly extraordinary. I had met him for the first time on The American President (the film written by Sorkin and released in 1995); and was so pleased to be involved in The West Wing.
“When I started, my role was very small and was asked to do just four episodes. And when the pilot aired, it was clear that people were interested in the Oval Office and whoever works there so I was offered a regular contract and I was delighted.”
He speaks with genuine love for the show, saying he and his fellow actors in the impressive ensemble cast “were very liberal Democrats and very active people in their middle age”.
“We all realised this was a very special opportunity but the one thing we all agreed on was that we did not think the show would air on commercial TV. We had no clue that you could sell products with American politics. Who was going to be interested in that? Boy were we surprised!”
I ask Sheen about The Way and his involvement in what is very much a family affair since the film was written and directed by his son, Emilio.
It’s a father-son story based on a pilgrimage, the ‘Camino de Santiago de Compostella’ in Spain, a landmark since before the Middle Ages. It used to run from Paris through France all the way across the Pyrenees to northern Spain. But in the last century or so, it covers 800 kilometres from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees to Santiago.
Sheen explains that he was always curious about this pilgrimage, ever since he had heard about it from his father, a Galician.
“The older I got, the more I realised I’d better do this soon because I won’t be strong enough to do it if I wait much longer!”
He made plans to do the pilgrimage in the summer of 2003 with his grandson Taylor and his oldest friend (fellow actor Matt Clark who appears in The Way).
The three of them set out to see how much of the journey they could do, but Sheen had to return to the US within a few weeks to film the new season of The West Wing, so they were limited for time but, after eliminating the idea of doing it by bike or on horseback, they did what “every American tourist would do and rented a car and drove the Camino,” he says with a laugh.
He avidly describes the journey; exclaiming the beauty of the place and the hospitality of the people he met along the way, especially in El Mulino, where Sheen said the first miracle happened because it was there that Taylor met the woman who would become his wife.
Sheen acknowledged there was something so powerful about the place that he longed to return. He spoke to his son Emilio, an acclaimed actor and director in his own right, telling him “you must investigate the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, there is something magical about it”.
His enthusiasm was infectious, saying that “Emilio started reading about the place and he got transfixed by it and we started writing scenarios, and finally came up with this father-son story”.
Warming to the subject of the film, Sheen explains that the father, Tom Avery, is a doctor, a conservative man, and a widower whose only son Daniel quits his doctorate to go out into the world.
Tom isn’t happy about this: he wants Daniel to finish his studies. One day Tom receives a phone call that his son has been killed in the Pyrenees. He’s distraught and goes to France to bring the body home and discovers that Daniel died on the pilgrimage.
Tom decides to cremate the body and take the ashes on the journey for the boy. As he makes the journey, Tom discovers it is his journey and he becomes the son.
“Usually, father-son stories are about sons becoming fathers. This is the reverse. His experiences along the Camino are really extraordinary,” he says, “because they say you walk the Camino alone but you cannot do it without community. And this is very clear in the story as Tom hooks up with various people along the way, with their own problems and foibles and in a way it becomes like the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz”.
Sheen describes the film passionately, pointing out that despite its deep subject matter there are more than a few laughs. He talks about the plot to the extent he feels he’s given away too much.
“Now I’ve spoiled it for you,” he laughs.
Sheen talks about his long and varied career and about his future projects, striking me as the sort who does not sit around doing nothing for long.
“I’m in the middle of playing a part in the next Spiderman movie,” he says, confessing he watched the first one only recently.
As with everything else, Sheen talks about the film with great enthusiasm.
“I’ve filmed all my scenes in California and will film more in New York in April,” he continues, breaking off to ask Mintoff if he knows what he is talking about - the priest nods enthusiastically.
Sheen plays the part of Peter Parker’s uncle Ben – all his scenes take place before he becomes Spiderman – and goes on to describe the intricate and amazing stunt work carried out on the film.
He talks about the young up-and-coming Andrew Garfield, recently seen in The Social Network and Never Let Me Go, who has taken over the role from Tobey Maguire. “He’s a wonderful actor”, remarks Sheen “and great fun to work with.”
The interview draws to a close, as Sheen is keen to walk out to the tent city at Ħal Far to meet more refugees, and be on time for the film’s premiere.
At the Embassy cinema that evening, Sheen was the same affable man seen earlier, signing autographs, shaking hands and happily mingling with the crowd.
He addressed the audience before the film, ending his speech with a heartfelt “Buen Camino”; a blessing that no doubt all those present wished upon this charismatic man in return.
Born Ramon Estevez on August 3, 1940, in Ohio, US, to parents of Irish and Galician origin.
Winner of one Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild and one Emmy Award.
Sheen has also lent his voice to numerous documentaries featuring social, political and historical subjects.
During the filming of Apocalypse Now, he had a heart attack and crawled out to a road for help.
After his heart attack, his younger brother Joe Estevez stood in for him in a number of long shots.
In 2004, Sheen campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Classic screen roles:
• Capt Benjamin J Willard in Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
• Vince Walker in Gandhi (dir. Richard Attenborough – 1982)
• Carl Fox in Wall Street (dir. Oliver Stone – 1987)
• Narrator in JFK (dir. Oliver Stone – 1991)
• A.J. McInnerney in The American President (dir. Robert Reiner – 1995)
• Roger Stone in Catch Me If you Can (dir. Steven Spielberg – 2002)
• Captain Oliver Queenan in The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese - 2006)
• President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006)
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