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The Way - Martin Sheen interview

The Way, Martin Sheen

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MARTIN Sheen talks about making The Way with his son, Emilio Estevez, and why it represents a personal journey for him.

He also contemplates the place of pilgrimage in the modern world and compares making this film to playing Uncle Ben in the new Spider-Man.

Q. What do you think the place of pilgrimage is in the modern world?
Martin Sheen: Long before I came to the Camino, the idea of pilgrimage, because of my Catholic background, was something I’d been familiar with since I was a child. But it is an effort, it seems to me, to touch the sacred. By doing it in a public demonstration, it’s like you’re given a safe place to explore the journey. It seems to be all pilgrimages are a metaphor for our lives… which are, I believe, an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh and that’s how we’re made whole. Everyone’s seeking a transcendent experience. I think we all, for our own health, need to explore our inner journey and our inner life and we ask those questions: who am I? Why am I here?

And that’s why we go on pilgrimage. And as we do, we find other people who are equally interested in the journey and equally broken and in need of all things that are human: we all need food, clothing and housed. But there are deeper meanings, which are even more necessary. We need to know that we’re loved, it seems to me. Teilhard de Chardin says that ‘when we discover we are loved, we have discovered fire for the second time’ and that’s the thing that engulfs us. Our lives are never, ever the same once we discover that we’re loved.

Christians and many other beliefs as well believe that God became human. That’s the meaning of Christianity – that God transcended and became human. Wow, what a concept. The genius of God, to choose to dwell where we would least likely find him… within ourselves. It’s the first step towards embracing ourselves and we begin to understand that, through no fault of our own, we’re loved and, through no fault of our own, we’re broken. It means we’re human and we’re put on this Earth to engage in this journey. I heard it said once: “We don’t go to heaven, we become heaven. It’s something we choose to do. And it begins with our understanding that we are loved.”

Q. Have you experienced that fire?
Martin Sheen: Well, you look at Mother Theresa and you begin to weep. Why? I’ve been in her company several times and you just weep because it’s a confirmation of the transcendence of being human it seems to me. She just radiates that thing. She doesn’t ask for anything, she just gives because she’s on fire and the light from her fire just includes everybody and everything. Everything is a reflection of that divine presence. We all yearn for the divine, whether we’re conscious or unconscious. People that take drugs and alcohol, and abuse them… how often have you met someone who says they saw God. I don’t doubt it for a moment… they did. But it doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to the substance and so they need to take it again and again to get back to that apparition. It’s not there’s.

But when they come to the programme, which they realise is a spiritual programme and I know personally because I’m an old drunk and I’m in it myself… I was astonished that it’s a spiritual programme – not religious, spiritual and that makes it international. But the reason that they take to it and get well is because they realise: “Oh, I can have that transcendence on my own. I can make that journey and own that experience and realise I’m loved.” So, when you begin to explore that journey, whenever that happens in your life – whether you’re a child or a young adult or an old guy or when you get sick or lose a loved one or something – then your pilgrimage begins in earnest, it seems to me.

Q. So, where do you see The Way fitting in with that?
Martin Sheen: Our film is really about a guy who has lived a very isolated, very conservative existence. He belongs to a private country club, he’s a doctor who has a private practice and he’s not into Third World doctors. He’s not giving anything to anybody. He is a widower, he lives by himself, he has a son who is very near his PhD who suddenly disappears. He’s an anthropologist who has gone out into the world and disappointed his father because his father wanted him to get his PhD from Berkeley.

The Way

So, they’ve become somewhat estranged. But suddenly he doesn’t have a son anymore, so he goes overseas to collect the lad and bring him home for burial and he learns that the boy was on this journey. So, what’s this journey all about? And he decides that he will take him on the journey… that he will try and make up his life for him. And in the process his [dead] son leads him on the Camino and the man becomes himself. He becomes the son, really, and he’s freed. He becomes a citizen of the world. He embraces that he’s loved and he becomes the father of that little group.

They look up to him and he leads them to themselves. So, the idea of pilgrimage is that we go it alone, we must and it’s a long and arduous journey… it must be because anything worthwhile has to cost you something, otherwise you question its value. But in the process he becomes part of a community and that’s the only way we heal, through each other. So, that’s what the story is about.

Q. Where did the idea of being a citizen of the world come from?
Martin Sheen: Basically, you don’t have to leave your own country or your own neighbourhood, but it’s a consciousness. You have an awareness of the rest of the world and you breathe with it. You have compassion. We all do what we’re led to do and what we can physically do, but we learn that we do it for ourselves because we cannot not do it and be ourselves. It’s an expression of who we are and where we are on our journey when we become aware that we’re no different than people on the other side of the world in a totally different culture and a totally different skin colour.

The Way

Q. How special is it for you to be able to work so closely with your son, Emilio, firstly on Bobby and now The Way?
Martin Sheen: [Smiles] Oh I adore him. This is the best, honest to God. Someone once asked me: “How did you get that part? You know, a guy your age! [laughs]” But the truth of it is, if this had been a Hollywood company making this film I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of getting that part! Can you imagine how many guys would have loved to have played that part? And rightly so! Look at the Oscar nominees this year and look at the actors who went up for the awards. I’ve heard it said that some actors of my age do small parts in big pictures to make a living and do big parts in small pictures to stay alive [laughs]. And that’s a very good description of where I’m at! But I never would have gotten this part if it hadn’t been written for me and if he hadn’t directed it. There’s no way! But I’m playing Uncle Ben [in the new Spider-Man movie] so that’s OK.

Q. How different an experience is working on something like Spider-Man compared to The Way?
Martin Sheen: Well, The Way was a personal family thing and deeply personal. Did you know how the whole thing started? Did I mention about my grandson? I went there in 2003 with Matt Clarke, the guy who plays the Rabbi/priest in the movie, and three of us were on pilgrimage in a car because I didn’t have enough time to complete it on foot. I had to get back for the new season of West Wing. We stopped in Burgos, the city where the little gypsy boy steals my bag in the film, and my grandson met his future wife there. It was just a miracle but he’s been in Spain ever since; they’ve been together ever since, happy as Larry.

So, I was filled with enthusiasm to do something about the Camino and came home and bothered Emilio. He was on another project, but I told him: “Oh no, man, you’ve got to hear this!” And he kind of lost his son to the Camino, because his boy lived in LA and they’d see each other all the time. So what happened to him? The Camino took him – hence, the concept. So, he began writing scenarios and we finally decided that it would be this father-son thing and that it would be the inner journey of a man becoming himself. And forgive me, I’ve forgotten your question [laughs]!

The Way

Q. How did that compare to Spider-Man?
Martin Sheen: [Laughs] I’m not in any of the scenes where he’s Spider-Man. He’s still a little boy. I’m Uncle Ben, so he’s a teenager when it starts and I’m his surrogate father, really, and so all of our scenes are just like you and I are talking now. I’m being with this adolescent as his hormones are changing and he’s getting out of hand. I have to give him the marching orders and so forth. So, it’s all very normal. But the guy playing it is wonderful… this kid named Andrew Garfield. He called me and said: “I’d like to meet you.” I said: “Well, who are you?” And he said: “I’m playing your nephew.” He started with that statement and I thought: “Oh my God!”

So, we met for lunch and he was delightful. But he wanted to see who I was and whether I was open to changes and improv. And we’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve never seen him in the uniform, I’ve never seen any of the stunts or the special effects… all my stuff is just like normal acting. And I don’t do anything with him otherwise. I’m dead in reel one. But the difference in the scope of the filming is that, honestly, their budget for food and beverage would have made our film [laughs]. There’s no question or doubt… they have quite a huge crew and they feed them every day a gourmet meal. I mean, it’s like 200 people and they have constant coffee, tea, fruits and vegetables and sandwiches throughout the day. Wow! And it’s not cheap stuff… it’s top of the line stuff. So, that’s the basic difference.

Q. How physically demanding was shooting The Way?
Martin Sheen: Well, the one thing that we don’t show in the film is what happens to your feet! The blisters are just awful, no matter what you do. But if you’re going to take one thing on the Camino, take a jar of Vaseline! That’s the only thing that works. Every day, keep them oiled with Vaseline so that they slide around. When they start rubbing, oh Jesus did I have trouble. But it was an Englishman that told me!

Q. So, how would you like people to feel when they come out of The Way?
Martin Sheen: We’ve had test audiences and mostly with young people because we think that may be the target audience. Americans are not familiar with pilgrimage at all. Our sacred images are the Lincoln Memorial, Graceland, The Vietnam Memorial, Niagara Falls, which is really Canadian, the Grand Canyon, which is really God’s, you know! But that’s our idea of pilgrimage. The monuments in Mount Rushmore… yeah, a lot of people journey there. It is quite remarkable. But we’re not old enough to have pilgrimage. The Santiago is like 1,000-years-old… St Francis did this pilgrimage, you know! It is a cultural phenomenon and it is, for Spain, a holy site.

The Way, Emilio Estevez

They don’t make a big fuss about it because it’s so well known in Europe. They have statistics in Santiago when you go and get your diploma after you’re finished… they keep records, not of the people but of the numbers that have come and where they come from. And the least number of pilgrims are from the United States and Canada, of all the countries that visit them. The highest, of course, are Ireland, France, Spain and South American countries. A big crowd from Seoul have done it. There are also a lot of Germans and Italians and British. But Americans don’t have a sense of pilgrimage.

I always ask people [at test screenings] how many of them have ever been on pilgrimage. And it’s very rare that they have. So, then I ask: “How many of you are intrigued or think you might want to investigate it?” And all the hands go up because they’re absolutely intrigued by it. It had never occurred to them, so they begin to ask questions such as cost, how long it takes, what you need and where do you stay. So, we then give them information about groups and websites to visit.

Read our review of The Way

Read our interview with Emilio Estevez