Interview: Martin Sheen on his family and career

The West Wing star talks about new film The Way and his relationship with sons Emilio and Charlie

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We are in Santiago, Spain, sitting in a former monastery. Martin Sheen and his son, actor, writer and director Emilio Estevez, have returned to Spain, to the location where they shot their latest movie, The Way (opening in cinemas on Friday 13 May).

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El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) is an 800-kilometre journey taken by thousands of Catholic pilgrims. Sheen took that journey several years ago, and it became the inspiration for this film about the resolution of a fractured father-son relationship.

In the movie the resolution comes only after the son’s death. But in life Sheen and Estevez have been able to find their own harmony. Estevez was beaten up by a drunken, angry Sheen many years ago, but Sheen has been sober now for 20 years and credits his return to Catholicism for helping him with that struggle.

One feels that there is not the same resolution with his other son, Charlie Sheen, constantly in the news in recent months for crazy behaviour: trashing hotel rooms with a porn actress hidden in the closet; insulting Chuck Lorre, the creator of mega-hit series Two and a Half Men (for which he was earning £20 million a year), resulting in him getting sacked and production of the sitcom being put on hold; jetting off with his ex-wife, a porn star and his nanny girlfriend for a holiday in the Bahamas; and most recently losing a legal battle with his ex-wife over custody of their twin sons.

This is a family with many complications and contradictions. Martin Sheen looks more Irish than Spanish. He is actually half of each. His real name is Ramon Estevez and he’s surprisingly small with a Celtic complexion.

He takes his shoes off for the interview, which is only alarming if you think of him as President Bartlet, who he was for several years on the wonderful Aaron Sorkin-scripted West Wing.

His eyes are bright and piercing and dart around the room. Santiago itself, with its unforgiving hills and heavy skies, has been integral to Sheen of late.

“I first came here in the summer of 2003. I invited lots of relatives to see if we could walk the Camino and no one was interested except my grandson Taylor, Emilio’s son, and my oldest friend in the world who played the rabbi in the movie.”

Taylor I’d met earlier in the hotel lobby. He’s leaner and darker than the rest of his family, but has those same intense piercing eyes. They covered the whole of the Camino. They thought about doing it on horseback, but you have to take pack mules, so that was complex.

“So we did what any American would do, we rented a car and drove. We covered the whole of the Camino in that sense. One of us would walk while the other two stayed in the car. We were known as the Americans with the big red Mercedes. But there were some miracles nonetheless.” It’s traditional that people who walk the 800 kilometres, do so to find themselves or to find miracles.

“The most important one was that my grandson met his wife at a refuge on the Camino and now he lives here married to her. That intrigued his father and he began to think of a scenario for a movie. I thought two old guys who are like brothers and a young kid who falls in love, because that’s what really happened. But Emilio felt that was too sentimental and he devised a father-son thing.

“My relationship with Emilio is quite different to the fictional one. It is more similar to my relationship with my father. I didn’t realise how proud he was of me until after he was dead. He was a very shy man and rarely spoke in public because he had a thick Galician accent and there were no other Spaniards to relate to. He was isolated and he never liked to give that fact away.

“He wasn’t nuts about me being an actor, but when I committed to it he blessed me and was really disappointed that I didn’t use my real name. I didn’t change my name, it’s still Ramon Estevez, but I chose Sheen as an acting name. It came from the first televangelist in the United States. His name was Fulton J Sheen and he used to have a primetime half hour lecture show that had the biggest ratings.”

You chose him because of spiritual reasons? “No, because he was an extraordinary actor. He had this powerful face. I didn’t understand half of what he was talking about but I couldn’t stop listening to him.”

Although he always felt destined to act, the beginning was a struggle and the family was very poor. But his break came when he was cast as a naive killer in Terrence

Malick’s Badlands and then in Francis Ford Coppola’s existential Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. 

As Captain Willard he cracked up, but the scene, he revealed years later, was not acting. He simply let the cameras roll on one of his crazed rages. He was 36. He now seems sprightly for 70.

“That was me in the worst part of my psychotic alcoholism. That’s the darkness I was dealing with – the fear, the anger, the resentment, the insecurity – that’s me, and I saw it. And when you finally see it, everything changes. That scene in Apocalypse was filmed on my birthday in 1976, August, and the heart attack happened March 1977.

“I would say unbridled fear was the cause. Francis tried to stop it, but I wasn’t going to hide it and it wasn’t acting, but it did help me to change. I stopped drinking alcohol in 1989. I didn’t enjoy it any more. It fed my own anger, disappointment and resentment. It was a reflection of how I was feeling at the time. Most addiction is based on fear – the fear of facing reality.”

Does he think that’s what Charlie is going through? “Charlie lives in a very different world and I know what hell he deals with because I was there. You can see it when I put that rage on film in Apocalypse Now. I know what it means to take private pain public.”

Does he believe that alcoholism is inherited? “It could be, we don’t know. Emilio never had any problem, thank God. To an extent saying it’s hereditary takes the responsibility out but it’s much more complex than that. If we really knew what it was we could find a way to cut it out.

“A lot of things still get me angry, but I have other ways of dealing with it. Anger can be good if it’s an energy that motivates you towards action to right the thing that is angering you. But it is your own ego that is just objecting to something… I think people with addictions are all about the ego.”

Because of what he went through, he can be completely compassionate about what Charlie is going through, but at the same time must feel helpless. The first time Charlie started using drugs while on parole he reported him.

The tough love meant that Charlie credited him on radio with saving his life. Sheen doesn’t know how to save him now, but says, “All we can do is pray for him, every day.”

He is extremely close to his other children. Ramon worked as his assistant on The West Wing, and his daughter Renee had a role in the series but has since given up acting and is now a pastry chef.

“Emilio and I are very close. I’ve never thought of him like a son. I think of him like a brother. He was the first one so he went through the most difficult time with us. He remembers going to school in New York. The others were born there but he went to school there and was mugged in front of our building.

“I wasn’t working and we couldn’t afford to live in decent housing. We didn’t have a car, enough food, clothing. We struggled for a lot of years and he has memories of that. The others don’t. I always appreciated his sense of contribution. I could count on him to look after the others, do this, do that. He is so responsible.”

Estevez says, “I don’t have an addictive personality. I do believe it’s a malfunctioning gene. My mother doesn’t drink and my other brother doesn’t and the other one shouldn’t, so we pray for him. That’s all we can do. 

“We are a real family with real problems. What we are going through is what millions of other families worldwide have gone through, except we are doing it on a very different level where everything is public.”

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You can’t help but wonder if Charlie has been haunted all his life by never matching up to his older brother, who does everything right.