8 Nov 2010

How faith showed Martin Sheen ‘The Way’

The actor Martin Sheen speaks to Stephanie West about how his faith helped him on his latest film ‘The Way’ and about his relationships with his sons: Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

Martin Sheen has worked with both his sons, but for his latest picture, ‘The Way’, he asked Emilio Estevez to help him to make a movie about the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Every year, around a hundred thousand modern-day pilgrims still travel parts or all of the 800 km trail from the French Pyrenees, through Northern Spain, to their final destination, the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela, where the remains of St James, an apostle, are buried.

A practising Catholic, Sheen had heard about the trail from his father who was originally from this region of Spain but emigrated to America.

“If the Vatican ran out of dough and had to close up shop tomorrow, I’d still be a Catholic. Because I love the faith.” Martin Sheen

And so the 70-year-old asked his son, the actor and director Emilio Estevez, to help him film it. While Sheen had originally envisaged it as a documentary, Estevez decided it had to be a movie, with a tale of a father and son who have chosen different paths in life, who both set out on the Camino for different reasons at different times.

It took a couple of years, but they filmed it last year, all along the 800 km trail. And tonight they will finally screen it in Santiago de Compostela.

In ‘The Way,’ Sheen plays a California doctor who struggles with the fact that his son has thrown in his studies to go off to travel the world. But after his son dies in a storm in the Pyrenees, Sheen flies to France and once there, decides to do the pilgrimage in his son’s honour, scattering his ashes along the way.

When I met Sheen, it was in Compostela De Santiago this weekend, where the two filmmakers were in town to see the Pope take mass in the main square.

U.S. actor Martin Sheen reacts during a news conference to promote the film 'The Way' in Santiago de Compostela (Reuters)

Devout Catholic

The elder, now most famous for playing the President in The West Wing, is a devout Catholic. He gave up his faith during the early days of his acting career, but after Apocalypse Now, he went off the rails, and during rehab, became a devout Catholic again.

But while the crowds turned out to see the Pope take mass here, Spain is now a country where only 14 per cent of people still regularly go to mass each Sunday. And Sheen says that the Church still has to restore confidence after the many child abuse scandals that have come to light in recent times.

However Sheen has no intention of giving up on his faith.

“If the Vatican ran out of dough and had to close up shop tomorrow, I’d still be a Catholic. Because I love the faith,” he said.

“The institution has a presence in the world but it’s human and it’s flawed and it’s all-male, so it’s bound to make some mistakes.

“But the faith is something different. The faith is what the whole Church is about.”

Martin Sheen: the actor and activist
Veteran American actor Martin Sheen, 70, has played US Presidents four times - most notably as the fictional Jed Bartlett in The West Wing - which earned him a slew of awards including six Golden Globes, an ALMA, two SAGs and six nominations for Emmy Awards.

The seventh of ten children, Sheen was born Ramon Antonio Gerard Estevez of immigrant parents - his father was a Spaniard and his mother hailed from Ireland, where Sheen retains citizenship.

Brought up in Dayton, Ohio, the devout Roman Catholic has appeared in more than 65 films and is perhaps most famous for his role as Army Captain Benjamin L Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979). Aged 36 at the time, Sheen was director Francis Ford Coppola's second choice for the now iconic role - after Coppola realised he had miscast Harvey Keitel. Sheen has admitted since he was drinking heavily while on location - during which he famously suffered a heart attack.

Sheen, who has been married to his artist wife Janet since 1961, has four children - Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Renee Estevez and Ramon Estevez. All four are actors, with the eldest Emilio following his father on to the set of Apocalypse Now as a messenger boy before leaving high school. Sheen has starred alongside his son Charlie numerous times, including playing his on-screen father in Wall Street, No Code of Conduct and in a couple of episodes of the TV series Spin City.

He is also well known for starring in the Academy Award-winning Gandhi in 1982; Catch Me If You Can in 2002 and The Departed in 2006.

As a political activist, Sheen has been arrested more than 70 times - mainly for liberal protests. His last arrest was in 2007 for trespassing at the Nevada Test Site. He has most recently supported Help Darfur Now, Earth First!

In 2008 he appeared on Washington TV and radio stations urging people to vote against Initiative 1000 - the Death with Dignity Act.

Sheen supported Barack Obama in America's last Presidential election, but - despite his political activism and penchant for Presidential roles - the actor insists he has no heady dreams of running for office.

"There's no way that I could be the President," he told the US media during the filming of The West Wing. "You can't have a pacifist in the White House, and you can't have one in a White House on TV either. I'm an actor. This is what I do for a living."

Actor sons

Of course Martin Sheen has two famous actor sons. While Emilio chose to take the name that his father was born with – Estevez – his other son, Charlie, goes by his father’s stage name – Sheen.

Acting has been a family affair, and Martin Sheen has made films with both his sons. But currently, he’s struggling with the fact Charlie is in the headlines for his own battles with drink, after being arrested in a New York hotel. Having faced down his own problems, at around the same age as Charlie is now, Sheen is keen to get his son help.

“He’s an extraordinary guy. And he’s going through a very difficult addiction.

“Whenever private pain goes public, it’s a very obvious cry for help. And we have to be present to him and understand where he’s coming from and be ready to supply the help.”