with Martin Sheen
Up Close and Personal
Intimate Talk on The Way, Career,
Family, and James Dean
By Beverly Cohn
artin Sheen is one of Americas most talented and revered treasures
who moves seamlessly from film, to television, to stage. As a young
actor he appeared on Broadway in The Subject Was Roses,
for which he received a Tony nomination. He had roles in two seminal
war films Mike Nichols Catch 22 and was spotlighted
in Francis Ford Coppolas Apocalypse Now. Sheen has
had leading and supporting roles in dozens of television programs, including
the highly acclaimed television series The West Wing. He
starred as General Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg, and guest
starred on Two and a Half Men with his son Charlie Sheen,
and had key roles in Oliver Stones Wall Street, Catch
Me If You Can, played Jack Kennedy in Bobby, written
and directed by his son Emilio Estevez, and Martin Scorseses The
Departed. He can be seen on the big screen in two films running
concurrently: The Double, with Richard Gere, and one most
special to his heart, The Way, written and directed by his
son, Emilio Estevez.
Exquisitely written and directed, The Way,
is a poignant, character-driven, meticulously-shot film which centers
around Sheens character of Tom, a no-nonsense affluent California
ophthalmologist who receives tragic news that his son has been killed
in a storm while trekking on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a
famous pilgrimage people have been doing for a thousand years. He goes
to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to collect the remains of his son,
played by Emilio, but instead of returning home, decides to honor his
memory by making the historical pilgrimage himself. His journey becomes
a profound, life-changing experience as he meets other trekkers who
individually and collectively impact on his life. Sheen is surrounded
by a wonderful supporting cast, which includes Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick
van Wageningen, and James Nesbitt.
The following exclusive interview was conducted in the
Tavis Smiley Green Room and has been edited for print purposes.
Cohn: What inspired you to become an actor?
Martin: I dont have any conscious memory of wanting
to be an actor, but early on, there was something in my makeup that
I felt comfortable with. Then when I was around five or six, I started
going to the movies and gradually it dawned on me that I was like one
of those people on the screen. And that was it. There was never any
question or doubt about what I was going to do for a living. When I
was 15 and a sophomore in high school in Dayton, Ohio, I was doing plays
and was in love with theatre. I was working with an amateur company
called the Black Friars and knew I was getting ready to hit New York
after I graduated. Then someone told me about a movie, which starred
this young actor by the name of James Dean. So, I went to see East
of Eden and witnessed something so extraordinary that it had a
powerful effect on me. This guy wasnt acting as he
transcended the craft into behavior.
Cohn: What happened as a result of seeing that film?
Martin: That changed the direction of the kind of actor
I was going to be. The first time I went in front of a camera, I really
appreciated how good he was because he made it look as though he just
showed up and they happened to catch him doing things, but every move
was blocked, lit, and photographed. Thats the epitome of an artist
to make it look so easy, so comfortable, so natural, that everybody
would think they could do it too.
L-R: Martin Sheen takes direction from his son,
Emilio Estevez, writer/director of "The Way." Courtesy
Cohn: The Way is the story about a man
who loses his son. What drew you to the part of Tom?
Martin: Frankly, I havent been offered this good
a part or a lead role that carries the picture in 30 years. Ive
been in some good films, but Emilio wrote this film for me. I think
most actors rarely get the opportunity to play something really close
to you and speaks to something you deeply believe. This was a gift,
a love letter. We worked closely throughout the writing process and
it was like he was writing a symphony and asked me to play first violin.
He assured me there was a crescendo here and there, but it wasnt
the climax yet. It would be a finished symphony, but I would have to
be ruled by his conducting.
Martin Sheen as Tom on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage
walk in "The Way." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: During the filming did you experience a change
Martin: It was an opportunity and an experience beyond
anything I had anticipated. I decided not to train for the role because
Tom doesnt know hes going to Spain to do the journey. Its
an impromptu decision he makes at a moment of inspiration. I thought
what would it really be like for someone to carry that heavy backpack
and to do that journey without training. Emilio agreed and said that
I was quite right and that the character would display that old American
can-do attitude to the point where he damn near drowns and
almost loses the bag containing his sons ashes. I would say that
the film was more about who we were and what we discover about ourselves
along The Way.
Cohn: Do you have a personal connection to Spain?
Martin: My father was a Gallego from Salceda de Caselas,
a little village in Galicia near the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela
in Northern Spain. I grew up having this romantic image about the Camino
de Santiago pilgrimage and thought that some day I would make that journey.
So between the season in 2003 and 2004 of The West Wing
I said, Were going! I was ill prepared and didnt
have a clue. We had no backpacks or other necessary equipment. All I
had was information on this sacred road that I wanted to experience.
Cohn: Any relatives living in Spain?
Martin: My sister lives in Madrid. She said, Youre
not going to finish in two weeks; you wont even make it from here
to Burgos. She said we should drive and research it for future
reference, which we did.
Cohn: Emilio commented on the lack of studio support
and your decision to go independent. Can you talk about how youre
marketing the film?
Martin: A couple of studios and distributors said yes,
but added that if it didnt work, wed go right to DVD. We
felt those guys didnt have the passion we had and decided that
we would take the film to that part of the country referred to as fly
over states the land between New York and Los Angeles.
We were certain that if we could reach people with this wonderful, very
deeply human adventure, this road picture would be successful. So, we
made a seven-week journey in a bus across the country covering 27 cities,
plus Virginia Tech University. Our film is about healing and that community
has done more healing than any center in the country.
Cohn: Did you encounter any problems during the shoot?
Martin: There was never a problem. We were on a limited
budget and time and had to shoot in sequence, which was the only way
we could do it. We used whatever happened along the way. For example,
if someone got hurt, they would carry that injury to the next village
because we couldnt jump ahead since we didnt know what awaited
us. We had to trust the script and each other. All of those wonderful
things that happened, we call them miracles, did really happen.
Cohn: Did you meet a lot of trekkers along the way?
Martin: Oh yes. All of the people you see in the film
(except for the actors) are pilgrims. We had release forms in
about twelve languages that they signed. (laughing) People were
getting off trains and would walk in front of the camera. The AD (assistant
director) was going crazy, but Emilio would say, Would you
mind going back and being in our film? Oh we will,
they said. We were passing trekkers on the road who wanted to be in
the film. Emilio tells me that many of them are asking if their scenes
are in the final cut. (laughs)
Cohn: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Martin: Getting permission to film inside the church.
We knew with absolutely certainty that even though we had done something
very special, that no one had ever done before, no one was ever allowed
to film inside the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela. There was newsreel
footage and an occasional documentary, but they would never allow anyone
inside with a crew. So, 48 hours before we arrived, we had no approval
to film inside the church. Its like getting to Oz and the door
is shut and there is no Oz. But it was truly about trusting that there
was something more powerful than we were. We understood their reticence
because they didnt know us, and didnt know what our intent
was. Little did they know that we came with every due respect. We offered
to alter the script and remove anything that they disapproved of. Then
they discovered that I am a Gallego and that my father and our producing
partners were from there and finally said ok, making us the first ones
to be so honored.
Cohn: The last sequence in the church was incredibly
moving. What kind of audience reaction did you get at screenings?
Martin: Q & As followed the screenings so
we would go into the theatres during the cathedral scene. It was stone
silence and some people would burst into tears as they watched the huge
Botafumeiro (incense burner) swinging back and forth dispensing
puffs of incense, a ritual going back to the Middle Ages. They were
not tears of sorrow they were tears of joy because people were
Sheen's character of Tom meets other pilgrims along
"The Way" wonderfully played by (L-R) James Nesbitt, Deborah
Kara Unger, and Yorick van Wageningen.
Cohn: Was it the intention to have people experience
a deep emotion?
Martin: No. We did it with the intention of the characters
exploring where they were and embracing their brokenness and humanity
in a joyful way. The characters conversions were really a discovery
of being loved and you cant lose that love through anything you
do, and you cant gain it through anything you dont do. A
famous prophet once said, When we discover that love, we have
discovered fire for the second time. Isnt that a great image?
We begin to have compassion in ways that we never had before.
Cohn: Youve worked with all your children.
Whats that like?
Martin: In 1989 I directed Charlie in a little film
called Cadence. It was released during the height of the
Gulf War so no one ever saw it. Charlie was quite wonderful. My other
son, Ramon, was in the film as well. I also directed a television show
with my daughter, Renée. Frankly, its the most fun because
we all know the machine and know all the buttons to push, or not to
push because we helped build the machine. We have great fun and celebrate
each other and pull for each other. The most satisfying thing in my
life and my career is to work with my children. It doesnt get
any better than working with Emilio on this film.
Cohn: Ive conducted over 100 high-profile celebrity
interviews and when I mentioned that I was going to be interviewing
you, people almost wanted to genuflect. You are held in the highest
Martin: (Laughs) Oh for heaven sakes. They must
have confused me with Bishop Fulton Sheen. (Note: Thats where
Martin came up with his last name.)
In Part 2, Martin Sheen talks about his marriage,
faith, his political and social activism, and Frank Sinatra.