Martin Sheen on playing gay, sobriety and son Charlie’s “desperate situation”

The West Wing veteran opens up about his Netflix show, and the pain of watching his son repeat his mistakes

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On paper at least, Grace and Frankie, a new TV comedy starring Martin Sheen and Jane Fonda, didn’t look like much of a project when Sheen was first approached. The show’s premise – two men in their 70s leave their wives for each other – sounded as contrived as the worst 1980s sitcom; there was a script for only one episode available; and, biggest stumbling block of all for Sheen, Grace and Frankie wasn’t even going to air on television.

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“I don’t even know anyone who has Netflix,” says the 74-year-old, in the manner of a man who gets a kick out of admitting to his own shortcomings. “This is all new to me. I became aware of Netflix because of a show called House of Cards, which I understand is about a president.” He looks off vaguely into the distance. “But I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never seen it.”

What one wants from Sheen is The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet, standing behind a desk in the Oval Office making a thunderous speech about Iran. What one gets is the large, affable face, prominent teeth and abundant hair of the fictional US president, but with the florid speech of the actor. Sheen pads about a New York hotel room in double denim and bare feet, espousing his causes and quoting the gospel. “That’s really the vigour of Christ on Earth, to be that human,” he says, of Pope Francis. “Man, this guy, Francis. Give thanks and praise.”

Oh, boy. Grace and Frankie has been largely well reviewed and it’s an interesting show, illuminating as it does the gap between the depiction of young gay life in HBO’s Looking and the terrible old-queen clichés of ITV’s Vicious, with a little examined in-between: that is, men in their 70s who are only now coming out after a lifetime spent in heterosexual drag. It is poignant and insightful and the best lines are real zingers. When Robert, Sheen’s character, and Sol, played by Sam Waterston, announce to their wives that they’re leaving them to marry each other because “we can now”, Sol’s wife Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin, says, “I know. I hosted that fundraiser.” It is also a little stagey and over-produced, a little too pleased with its own conceit.

But while Fonda mugs furiously, the two men play their roles with a necessary understatement. Anything too camp and Sheen and Waterston risked doing the sexual equivalent of blacking up. “Robert is a conservative,” says Sheen. “He’s probably a Republican, which I certainly am not – I’m an extremely liberal Catholic. But I’m also a husband and a father, and a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and I have great love and affection for people in the gay community.

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So I had a real sense that it was important to get this right. Don’t fool around with this. There’s no camping here. No flashy stuff.” He told the show’s creators as much – “no fishnet stockings, no parading about” – and the script is more or less true to his wish. “This was a sincere relationship – these men have fallen in love with each other. But they don’t have any image of what they should act like. It’s just that they have chosen to live an honest life.”