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The Hemi Q&A: Martin Sheen

He’s one of his generation’s greatest actors and arguably its most beloved fictional president, and he’ll soon be playing Spider-Man’s saintly Uncle Ben. But what Martin Sheen is happiest about is getting to work with his new favorite director: his son, Emilio.



MANY HOLLYWOOD MOVIES are built on some sort of cheesy quest in which the character goes through the crucible of: 1. the death of a loved one, 2. a trip to a faraway place and 3. an inner journey, often spiritual, that parallels the real one.

The Way has all of those things, but is not really one of Those Movies. A film about a father dealing with the death of a son, it was made by the father/son duo of Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen. In it, Sheen plays Tom, a crabbed, self-satisfied suburban doctor who gets a phone call that his free-spirited son, Daniel, has perished in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as the Way of St. James, a religious and personal pilgrimage in Spain.

When Tom goes to collect the remains of his son, he makes a sudden decision to complete the journey that his son couldn’t. Along the way, of course, Tom discovers new things about his son, himself and the world outside the bubble he has been living in. If that sounds a little cheesy, The Way is anything but. It’s a profoundly personal film about the bond between a father and his son, based on a trip that Sheen took with Taylor Estevez — his grandson and Emilio’s son.

Sheen, in addition to being one of the most celebrated actors of his generation (Apocalypse Now, The Departed, “The West Wing”), is a deeply religious man who has suffered his own trials, including those in the filial department (see his other son, Charlie Sheen). He’s rightfully proud of the film and the way it came together. As it happens, the 500-mile journey it pivots around, which so changed Tom, has left some marks on Martin as well.

HEMISPHERES: When did you and Emilio decide to do this film?
SHEEN: It goes back a ways. I started telling Emilio stories about the Camino when I was still doing “The West Wing.” I became very interested in it as a pilgrimage and in the summer of 2003, I decided to give it a try. I invited my grandson Taylor to walk with me. He had just graduated from high school. I had to get back to start shooting the next season of “The West Wing,” so we decided the best, quickest way to do it was by car.

SHEEN: We cheated. But on the first stop, Taylor met his future wife. Her parents own one of the refugios, the rural places you stay on the journey. That was the first of many miracles on the Camino.

HEMISPHERES: But the movie version of the journey begins with a death.
SHEEN: Emilio is the one who came up with that idea. It was actually based on a true story. A young man had come from Holland and died in the Pyrenees in a freak storm, and we met his parents on the Camino. That sort of solidified the idea of this journey.

HEMISPHERES: I’m impressed that you and your son were able to collaborate. How did you pull that off?
SHEEN: We had our moments, but it was a very loving collaboration. It involved three generations. Taylor was instrumental in helping us in Spain, because he’s lived there since 2003. He speaks the language and has a family there. He understands the culture. We couldn’t have done it without him.

HEMISPHERES: The making of this film must have been a trip unto itself.
SHEEN: We were just ruled by the Camino. Emilio shot it in sequence — we started in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port — so we couldn’t redo anything. If we missed something, we had to keep moving.

HEMISPHERES: How does Emilio rank as a director? Did he treat his talent well?
SHEEN: I would say he’s the best. There are two guys I look forward to working with again: Marty Scorsese and Emilio Estevez. They’re my favorite directors.

HEMISPHERES: That’s high praise, even if you’re clearly biased. As a Catholic, did you find yourself connecting in spiritual ways with what you were doing?
SHEEN: Yeah, very much so. It was an inner journey as well, and while I wasn’t able to really concentrate on the reality of doing the Camino, I felt a kind of higher calling about putting it on film — that it would have a big impact. I plan on going back and walking it.

HEMISPHERES: You’re going to have to quit working so much if you want to do that, Martin. How much time would it take if you did it properly?
SHEEN: On my own, just me, I would say about 10 weeks.

HEMISPHERES: You looked like a pretty decent walker in the movie.
SHEEN: I enjoyed it tremendously. I was kind of showing off in a lot of ways. I’m 71 years old now, and I feel like I could do it. I want to see it more clearly. I have all of these stored-up memories that I want to explore on my own.

HEMISPHERES: What are you up to next?
SHEEN: Since The Way I’ve done a movie in Ireland called Stella Days. It’s the story of this Catholic priest in a little village. He’s a kind of rural intellectual who loves film. He opened the first cinema in the Irish countryside, in 1957.

HEMISPHERES: You play the Irish priest. Can you keep the brogue going?
SHEEN: I can, though I start out sounding like a leprechaun. They had a guy who kept having to remind me of certain words. He would just say “Leprechaun!” and I got it.

HEMISPHERES: You’re part Irish, too. You’ve spent a great deal of time in Ireland, yes?
SHEEN: I have. I went to school in Galway, briefly. That was the extent of my higher education. I had always had a kind of romanticized image of higher education because I never went to college. After “The West Wing” ended, I was invited to take an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. I went for one semester in 2006.

HEMISPHERES: How would you judge yourself as a student?
SHEEN: I was too scattered. I was the oldest freshman of the group. I had to join a community called the Mature Students Society.

HEMISPHERES: That sounds awful.
SHEEN: It was awful. But you had to do it. There were certain advantages, because the group was made up of people who did not want to stagnate. They were fascinating people, but I was by far the oldest. It was a little disconcerting.

HEMISPHERES: If you do get some time off, what are you going to do, besides walk the Camino?
SHEEN: Right now I’m doing a part in the next Spider-Man movie.

HEMISPHERES: That sounds lucrative. Who are you playing?
SHEEN: I play Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben.

HEMISPHERES: Are you evil in the movie?
SHEEN: Oh God, no! Uncle Ben is the guy that inspired Spider-Man.

HEMISPHERES: So you’re nice?
SHEEN: Yes, I’m nice — at least in Spider-Man and The Way. I try to be nice in the rest of my life as well. It works most of the time.

DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for the New York Times, is practicing for his Camino pilgrimage by walking to his car most mornings.

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