Talking about God with Martin Sheen

Our fave TV president and his son Emilio Estevez talk about their moviemaking pilgrimage with "The Way"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 18, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen
Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen

TORONTO -- Martin Sheen is a very popular guy at the Royal York Hotel, a massive stone edifice overlooking Lake Ontario. Last week, unionized workers at the Toronto landmark went on a one-day strike, to call attention to what they view as unfair working conditions. Not coincidentally, it was also opening day for North America's most prestigious film festival, with hordes of celebrities and journalists descending on Canada's largest city.

Sheen himself was just off the plane from L.A., here to promote his son Emilio Estevez's new film "The Way," a lovely, leisurely and often highly moving odyssey in which he plays a bereaved dad walking a pilgrimage across northern Spain with his son's ashes in a metal box. (Estevez himself plays Sheen's dead son, seen only in flashbacks and visions.) But the 70-year-old actor is also a board member of the Screen Actors Guild and a lifelong labor activist. So out he went onto Front Street, amid the crowd of Latin American immigrants who work at the Royal York, to walk the picket line wearing a beautiful tailored suit and a "Unite Here" signboard.

When I show up for breakfast with Sheen and Estevez a few days later, the guy who delivers our coffee and pastries is clearly tickled to discover whose suite this is. Sheen takes a couple of minutes to chat with him, and ends up giving him a tip consisting of all the Canadian money he has on his person. (After all, he won't need it back in California.) It might be tempting to dismiss all this as limousine liberalism, but the only conclusion you can draw after meeting the guy is that Sheen is insatiably interested in people. In the course of a half-hour conversation supposedly about "The Way," he asks me about my parents, my ancestry, my hometown, my education and my attitudes about religion. (In between serving me coffee and orange juice.) I've never been so thoroughly interviewed by a new girlfriend's dad, let alone a movie star.

Estevez, who is now 48 but looks only slightly older (and a bit shaggier) than he did in "The Breakfast Club," is a more reserved character with a dry wit, content to let his dad do most of the talking before gently nudging the conversation back toward its subject. He's been working mainly as a director since the late '90s, but "The Way" is only his fifth feature, and the first since the sprawling, Altman-esque "Bobby" in 2006. It's unmistakably the result of Sheen and Estevez's intertwined sensibilities: the extroverted people-pleaser (and devout Catholic) on one hand, the more detached aloof observer (and agnostic) on the other.

This tale of a Southern California golf-playing ophthalmologist who takes the 500-mile pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in his dead son's place is an odd mixture of ingredients and characters. (Sheen's companions include Deborah Kara Unger as an enjoyably salty Canadian backpacker, and Irish actor James Nesbitt as a burned-out writer.) It's sometimes clumsy and naive, and flirts with sentimentality the whole way through -- but I found its dignity and sincerity, and the rough, rude, everyday magic of its journey, ultimately irresistible. (And that was before Estevez explained that in some sense it's a remake of "The Wizard of Oz." More on that below.)

"The Way" has no clear distribution plans at this writing, but based on the standing ovations it's been getting in Toronto, it has the potential to connect with soul-searching, recession-era audiences on an intimate level, something like a more relaxed, more guy-friendly and arguably more coherent "Eat, Pray, Love." As Estevez notes, it might also do wonders for the innkeepers and tavern owners along the Camino de Santiago (or Way of St. James), a series of linked pilgrimage routes, with origins deep in the Christian past, that had fallen into obscurity by the 1980s but is expected to attract 200,000 travelers this year.

This isn't the first time you guys have worked together on a movie. What's the relationship like on the set? Martin, when you're the actor and he's the director, do you have to stop being Dad?

Martin Sheen: I don't even know him on the set! [Laughter.] You know, our relationship is so cemented. I've never really thought of him as my son, I've always thought of him as my brother. I was 21 when he was born. He showed up and I was like, "OK, you're the guy." He got short shrift in the early years. He was born in the Bronx and we got evicted when he was a baby. We lived in every borough but Queens. He got mugged in front of our apartment building in Manhattan a few years later. The other kids have no memory of the hard times -- or maybe their hard times are a different story. But this guy knows me in ways I don't even know myself.

What happened with this character was -- you know, I've been doing this all my adult life. I got a lot of bits and faces I can do, I've got my bag of tricks. So it's like, which one do I do now? OK, number eight. I got it.

Emilio Estevez: Yeah. I know 'em all.

M.S.: Yeah, he ain't having it. We shot the film in sequence, so on the first day I'm out there speaking a little Spanish and talking to people. He took me aside and said, "This is Martin. He's not welcome here. You're Tom. Tom voted for Richard Nixon and George Bush twice. You belong to a country club and you think it's great! You don't do any charity work. You're not a nice guy! You're a moron! It hasn't happened for you yet! You don't even see these people! Dismiss them!" And that was it, man. Every time I was Martin ...

E.E.: Cut! Stop. You're wasting everybody's time.

M.S.: You know what he said the other day? I hesitated to agree although I thought so all along. He said it's the best thing I've done since "Apocalypse Now." And if that's true it belongs to him.

E.E.: No. That's yours. All I did was get out of your way. That's a director's main job after the casting, which is maybe 90 percent of it.

So talk to me about the Camino de Santiago. Have you guys known about it for a long time? What got you started on this road?

E.E.: Well, it really comes from Martin's background. He had known about the Camino his whole life.

M.S.: My father was a Gallego [native of Galicia, in northern Spain]. He grew up in a village very close to Santiago de Compostela.

E.E.: I'd never heard you talk about this until, like, seven years ago. You went to that reunion in Ireland.

M.S.: To my mother's village, in Tipperary. May 22, 2003. She would have been 100 years old. She died in 1951, she was only 48. By that time we were losing siblings by the score: My mother had 12 pregnancies, and 10 survived. When there were only five of us left, I said no more funerals before we have the celebration. So we gathered in this little village, we had this great celebration, and I said: "I'm going to Spain, and I'm inviting everybody to do the Camino."

It was Emilio's son [Taylor Estevez, an associate producer on "The Way"] who was kind of compelled to go. He was working as my assistant and he spoke Spanish, so he became my guide. And one of my oldest friends, Matt Clark, who plays the "rabbi priest" in the film, he went too. I had about 10 days until I had to get back and start filming for the new season on "The West Wing." We thought about doing it on horseback, but you've gotta take all your stuff and bring mules to carry it. We thought about renting bicycles. Finally we thought, hmm, we'll do it the all-American way. We rented a car. [Laughter.]

The miracles began to happen instantly. Emilio's son met his future wife at the first place we stayed, in Burgos. Where the little boy steals the backpack, in the film? That's where Taylor lives now. You can see his in-laws in the film. Julia was working that night, and she and Taylor hit it off. They've been together ever since.

E.E.: He's been living there for seven years. He's totally assimilated into the Spanish culture and lifestyle. They got married last August.

What an awesome story! But how did you get from Taylor falling in love with a Spanish girl to making a movie about the Camino?

M.S.: So originally we were thinking about a documentary tone. I was saying, "Emilio, man, this place is filled with miracles. It's just magical out there, you've got to write a story." He was doing another story, and I was bothering him. [Laughter.] I thought it was a story about two old guys out on the road, and a young girl who falls in love.

E.E.: I said his idea was too sentimental. So the conversation continues, and I said, "I think I've got it. It's about a father and son." Usually, the father-son dynamic in films, it's about the ghost of the father. It's "Hamlet." And the son becomes the father, or some reasonable facsimile. This is the reverse. By the end of the film, Tom [Sheen's character] has in fact become Daniel [Estevez's character], and become free.

Talk a little bit about how you assembled the group who travel with Tom on this journey. It's such a nice collection of characters.

E.E.: Well, I had a Dutch friend who lives down the street. He's big, larger than life, a wonderful drunk. So he was an inspiration for Joost [played by Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen]. And I met Deborah Kara Unger while I was writing the script, and I said OK, we're gonna make the female character Canadian.

She's a total pistol in that role. Just so completely angry at the world. I loved her.

E.E.: She's terrific. Really, really broken and terrific. And then I was in a bookstore in New Mexico, and I bumped into the Jack Hitt book, "Off the Road," which is different stories from the Camino. I read it, and I said, OK, here's our fourth character. [Meaning Jack, the Irish writer played by James Nesbitt.] Here's our Scarecrow. Because essentially -- I've sort of kept the lid on this, but it really is "The Wizard of Oz."

Whoa. You're kidding! I totally hadn't thought of that, but it's so true.

E.E.: Yorick is the Cowardly Lion. Deborah's the Tin Man with the broken heart. Martin is Dorothy. And I'm in the box. Daniel in the box is like Toto in the basket, because he keeps getting away. "Come back, Toto!" [Laughter.]

It's safe to say this was a different scale of production than "Wizard of Oz."

E.E.: Well, you saw the size of our crew. It was like doing a Wim Wenders film. We traveled 800 miles, shot on super 16. We shot the whole thing in sequence, using mainly available light. We were on the go the whole time. It allowed us to develop and discover things along the way, and have it happen organically.

M.S.: I think our crew was smaller than the one we had making "Badlands" with Terry Malick, or about the same size.

I think this story taps into something that's clearly out there in the culture right now, but can be difficult to put into words without sounding dumb. It seems like so many people in our culture are thinking about their lives in the context of all the stress and all the electronic gizmos, all the economic hardship, and looking for something more.

M.S.: Everything's being ripped away. You're losing the house, you're losing your job, and yeah, you're right, people are beginning to focus on what's really important.

I've joked with my friends and co-workers that unplugging is itself becoming a hot cultural trend. Everybody wants to get off the grid for a while, or they say they do. I feel like this movie is touching that nerve.

M.S.: Well, as Americans, we've been told, "You can do it." We're told to be macho and take responsibility and conquer the world and all this. We don't give any support to community. Community is an afterthought, but when we get in touch with our loneliness and our guilt and all of these things that are so human, we begin to realize that until you start relating to other people's brokenness, you can't heal your own. That's the beginning of community, I think.

Some people may go into this thinking that the Camino is only for the most intense kinds of Catholics, or anyway for believing Christians.

M.S.: Oh, no. We met maybe a half dozen of those, at most.

E.E. That doesn't describe anybody in our little group. Martin's character is lapsed, Jimmy's a nonbeliever, Deborah's character is out there hiding out, and Yorick is just a fat Dutchman trying to lose weight. A lot walk the Camino as a sport, or for exercise, or because their friends and family are doing it. There isn't necessarily any religious motivation at all.

M.S.: You know what's interesting about the Camino? Like the French guy says in the beginning, you go on your own. It's for yourself. And 90 percent of the time, you see us walking in single file. It's very rarely four abreast or all together. It's so deeply personal. Some people are praying, some people are reflecting. They're together for meals and sleeping, they aid each other. But when people are walking, they're alone and you don't bother them.

I really appreciate that you're trying to deal with religion and spirituality in this movie in an open-minded, non-cynical fashion, without totally embracing it or totally rejecting it. That's a difficult thing to do. Our country is so messed up around religion.

M.S.: No kidding! [Laughter.]

I know -- what a brilliant observation, right? But you guys call our attention here to a tradition of Western spirituality that runs deep in our European roots and has very little to do with organized religion. The Camino de Santiago is a perfect example. I feel like so many educated Westerners go toward the Eastern spiritual traditions partly because they don't see that or understand it.

E.E.: Sure, they want a response to the dogma of Christianity. They go to Hinduism, they go to Buddhism, just because it's something different than their parents. They want to get away from that. I think it's a knee-jerk reaction.

M.S.: Religions separate us, by their very nature. Spirituality unites us. That's the key, and if spirituality is not about humanity, it's not spiritual. I am a practicing Catholic. I love the faith. I'm not nuts about the institution, but the faith is mine, everywhere I go in the world. The belief that God became human -- that's genius, man. And that God would choose to dwell where we would least likely look, inside ourselves and each other. The genius of God in our humanity, I love that.

Every culture has that -- the Hindus, Muslims, all of them have it. That's the fundamental belief in all true believers, that God is present, God suffers and is broken with us. That's why the Catholics never removed the corpse from the cross. Our hero is a convicted criminal. He was tried and convicted in a kangaroo court and then he was murdered. That's God. We're embraced by that. The most fundamental, most basic, most sincere beliefs -- that's not religion. It's spirituality. It's transcendence. People are looking for transcendence now more than ever, I think. Sometimes our transcendence becomes drugs, alcohol, money, power, sex, and they're so shallow. It's we ourselves, we must surrender ourselves to our brokenness. That's the beginning of community, and that's what this film is all about.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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