Sheen's just happy to be home
He's had his demons over the years, plenty of them, and he's never won an Oscar. How come? But charismatic Martin Sheen, zealous in his Catholic beliefs, has, slowly but surely, become a contented man. Emily Hourican hears about how it all came right
Martin Sheen swears he had no idea there was any kind of trick to winning an Oscar until last year, when he and his son Emilio were trying to promote The Way. "I just thought that if you did good work, you'd be recognised," he says with a laugh. "It's only this past year that I learned what that whole energy is about."
Given that he's now 71, and has been working consistently since the early Sixties, and that even I know there is a furious amount of careful lobbying that goes on around Hollywood's most prestigious awards ceremony, this seems almost alarming. But the facts would seem to bear him out -- Sheen is, to many, the Greatest Actor Never to Win an Oscar. In fact, he's never even been nominated.
Apocalypse Now, an undeniable masterpiece, was nominated in eight categories, and won in two (Best Cinematography, Best Sound); Sheen, who played one of the leads -- Army Captain Benjamin Willard -- is about the only person involved with the film not to get a pat on the back. Over the years, his many fine performances in films such as Badlands, Wall Street, Gandhi, Catch Me If You Can and The American President, not to mention seven seasons as President Bartlet in The West Wing, have been variously recognised and honoured -- most recently with a nomination for Best Actor at the IFTAs, for his role as Fr Barry in Stella Days, directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan -- but so far, Hollywood's most prestigious ceremony has eluded him, perhaps because he hasn't been playing the game.
Doesn't he have an agent who should be doing this for him? Or at least keeping him informed about such things? "I don't have an agent," he says with a smile. "I'm of an age now where I'm an afterthought in a lot of respects. I don't mean that in a bad way." Another smile. Martin Sheen does self-deprecating in a way that is almost completely convincing.
"I'm lucky enough to still work, but I don't have entree to ... I couldn't tell you who's running the studios, or who half of the directors are making films these days. I honestly couldn't tell you. I've been lucky enough to work with some of the top directors in the world, but not in significant roles, really, not so that I would have made a mark with them. And I have no relationships with people on that level, none. Except for Terrence Malick (who directed him in Badlands). I've maintained a relationship with him because I adore him and he was so important in my life, and my transition. But when we get together, we never talk about The Business. We talk about writers, family, spirituality, proper things. I never think to talk to him about film. I've always loved his work, but it would be the last thing I'd talk to him about."
There is no doubt, Martin Sheen comes across as an unlikely movie star, strangely approachable, and indifferent to The Business that is pure oxygen to most of his contemporaries. He's been married for 50 years to the same woman, Janet Templeton, an artist, who he met when he was barely 20. He maintains close friendships with some of the kids he grew up with, kids from the same working-class Ohio neighbourhood, whose fathers worked in the same factory as Sheen's. There's his activism -- he has been arrested nearly 70 times, protesting for liberal political causes, including the environment and US military curtailment.
And then there's his faith. Sheen's conversation is littered with references to St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, and "The Nazarene" (Jesus). There is nothing unusual about the shining-eyed enthusiasm with which he discusses his beliefs, but generally, these days, such vocal spirituality is directed towards the more media-friendly faiths -- Buddhism, Kabbalah, Vedic, even Scientology -- anything, in fact, except Catholicism. Sheen's Catholicism is zealous (he calls himself a 'reconvert'), correct -- "I still have a lot of problems with the institution, with the cultural choices the Church has made, but it's fine, I can take it" -- and vociferous. Given half a chance, he will talk, and talk, about The Mystery, the love of God, and the recognition of this as being like "fire for the second time," a quote from Peirre Teilhard De Chardin, the philosopher and Jesuit priest.
He describes his faith as becoming "stronger every day of my life, because I just give thanks and praise that I've got another one to live. Despite all of the difficulty of my life, I wouldn't change a single day of it. I'm grateful and I'm happy. And I just accept it, and go on. That's all you can do. The most important part of our lives is understanding that we are loved, and that it's all part of the Mystery. There's nothing we can do that will take that love away, and there's nothing we can do to earn it." There is more of this, much more. It is at once incredibly endearing, and slightly barmy. He's like a teenager in love for the first time, except that the object of his adoration is God.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote that "lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity", but in Sheen's case it seems to be an epilogue. There are two distinct phases to his faith, and a pivotal moment on which it all hinges -- the heart-attack he had aged 36 while filming Apocalypse Now, where the drinking and hard partying that went on around filming are as much the stuff of legend as the film itself.
In Stella Days, Sheen plays Fr Daniel Barry, who has returned from Rome, reluctantly, to become parish priest of Borrisokane in Co Tipperary, in the mid-Fifties, at a time when electricity was slowly starting to transform rural life. A man in love with learning, with the Italian language, Italian coffee, Gregorian chant and cinema, he is an unlikely but benign presence in small-town Ireland (he also has the finest clothes for a parish priest I've yet seen -- crisp, linen shirts, chunky gold cufflinks, a well-cut overcoat). Manoeuvred into raising money by the bishop to build bigger, more modern churches, in order to clearly demonstrate to the politicians where the real allegiance of the people lies, Fr Barry decides to start a cinema and begins a personal journey of discovery and recollection, at the same time as the town is making the first moves towards the modern world of electricity and personal freedom.
It is a careful, complex, subtle film about small-town life, love, power and politics, and Sheen, as Fr Barry, is remarkable -- for the economy of his acting, and his complete identification with the role.
And perhaps it should be no surprise. His mother, Mary-Ann Phelan, from a strong Irish Republican family, emigrated from Borrisokane (serendipitously for the filmmakers), to the States in 1921. She was meant to be kept safe there during the Civil War, then come home, but instead she met and married Francisco Estevez Martinez, a Spaniard from Galicia. Asked whether the somewhat notorious racism of the Irish meant the match was disapproved of, Sheen laughs and says, "No, he was Catholic, as poor as she was, from a very similar community. I visited his home country in 1969, and first came to Borrisokane in 1971. I thought, 'my God, it's Galicia, including the rain!' It was grey, the buildings were grey, I thought, 'my God, I'm home!'"
Sheen is the seventh son of 10 children, (actually, he and his brother dispute who exactly is the seventh, because an elder brother was stillborn. When I tell him that anyway, he needs to be the seventh son of a seventh son to really count, he laughs and says "they always move the goalposts!", and as a child was an altar boy, brought up in the "larger community of family, Church and school, all of which were Catholic. You couldn't go too far before someone in the neighbourhood reminded you of what your mother would have reminded you if she'd been there. You couldn't go anywhere, or do anything, and that was a good thing!"
Of his mother, who died when he was 11, he remembers mainly that, "she was very proud. There was a need to express pride. We were very working class, my father was a factory worker".
Sheen left home aged 18 and moved to New York, where he lived with Al Pacino for a time, and was so determined to act that he deliberately failed the entrance exams to Dayton University, much to his father's disappointment.
He married Janet Templeton, and had four children in quick succession, while establishing his career quickly and conclusively (having realised that the name Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez was gently closing doors before he even got to them, he changed it, though never officially, to Martin Sheen, something he once said he has always slightly regretted).
His faith lapsed -- "During my 20s, I abandoned any practice. I went through my 20s and early 30s, and faced a lot of deeply personal crises. And finally I realised I wasn't really functioning as an honest, whole person. I was all things to all different people, I would please whatever group I was in at the time. And be influenced equally by them. Then I had a near-death experience. Coming out of that, with Janet's help, I realised there was something missing ... " He had, he admits, been refusing to listen to his wife -- "she told me the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth, all the time. But for the first 20 years of our marriage, I would protect my territory.
"There were things I didn't want to hear, even from her. I began to listen to her when she leaned down into my face and said, 'it's only a movie, babe', as I was being wheeled down the emergency corridors having had a heart attack a few hours prior. That began a journey." That journey, he says, culminated in his formal return to Catholicism in 1981. "I had to accept that I had made a lot of bad choices, and that I was responsible for a lot of things." Pressed as to what these 'choices' and 'things' were, he reverts to St Terese of Avila; "we must release the prisoners in our heart. We have imprisoned people in the depths of our being who we feel have wronged us and must be punished. They aren't even aware of it, they're gone, most of them. But we hold them here, in the dungeons of our heart ... who's suffering from that? Not them. Free all of the prisoners, let them go. The only effect of all this resentment and hatred is making it impossible for you to become yourself."
However, he does credit Catholicism with saving him from alcohol- and drug-abuse, for giving him all the help he needed to kick those dependencies.
Some years ago, he told a US magazine that he only recently got involved with AA, in order to try and help his son, Charlie, rather than on his own account.
Ah yes, Charlie. He of the tiger blood and Adonis DNA; the public meltdowns and seemingly deliberately provocative behaviour. Sheen doesn't like to be asked about him, and will only say, "He's doing terrific, thanks for asking." Those close to the family say that he and Charlie share a particularly strong bond, and similar sense of humour. They have played father and son on screen several times, and apparently Charlie is currently developing a TV series in which Sheen will again play the father. Given that Charlie, for all his embarrassing carry-on, still seems to have considerable earning power, it'll be an interesting development to watch.
Sheen is in Dublin to throw his weight behind the promotion of Stella Days. At the film premiere, the day before I meet him, it is obvious that he is greatly loved by the cinema-going crowd, applauded to the roof-tops at every opportunity. And indeed he is charming, and remarkably generous in his praise for the other actors -- Stephen Rea, Marcella Plunkett, Amy Huberman, Trystan Gravelle -- for the director, producer and everyone else involved in Stella Days.
He is also vocal about his attachment to Ireland, graciously allowing Miriam O'Callaghan, in the post-screening interview, to prompt him into a bit of shameless flattery: "I love the country. I feel at home. It's the one place that I feel totally 100 per cent safe and comfortable. It's so ancient and so alive; it's the people of course." This goes down fantastically well, the crowd laughing and applauding enthusiastically.
Consummate actor, born-again Catholic, ideologically-sound activist, devoted father and husband, modest celebrity and all-round good guy -- somebody should make him a real president. Oh wait, they've already tried. At the time of our recent presidential election, there were the beginnings of a movement to encourage Sheen to stand for office, but he wasn't tempted. "It was very sweet, but I thought I'd better nip it quickly ... I said, 'the last two presidents of Ireland have been these extraordinary women who have set the bar so high, I could never reach. There's only one in the race who could possibly do that, Michael D'." Higgins is a friend from Sheen's days as an undergraduate at NUI Galway, and on the night of the premiere, he paid tribute to his choice, saying, "I was just a makey-uppy president, he's the real thing", to yet more enthusiastic cheering.
We aren't the first to try and match-make Sheen's charismatic social engagement with formal politics. In 2006 the Democrats approached him, informally, to see would he be interested in running for the Senate in his home state of Ohio. Sheen told them they were "mistaking celebrity for credibility". It's a mistake made by so many. In fact, it takes an honest man to confront that particular chasm, but then Sheen doesn't seem to be looking for easy answers.
"I didn't see it as an opportunity to effect change," he tells me. "Most of the change in societies around the world never comes from the top. It comes from the people who have suffered the most, and it grows until it forces the leadership to make changes." He's almost rubbing his hands at the prospect.
'Stella Days' will be in cinemas nationwide from Friday
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