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Interview
November 01, 2011
Actor Martin Sheen discusses faith and film
Martin Sheen in a scene from "The Way." (CNS)
Once again a pro-Catholic movie has been produced without Hollywood backing, following the independently produced path pioneered by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. This new movie, The Way, stars another Catholic, Martin Sheen.

Sheen prides himself on being a family man, with four children and seven grandchildren. And although never awarded an Oscar, he holds an even higher—and far rarer—honor among Hollywood screen legends: this year Sheen, 71, celebrated 50 years of marriage to his one and only wife.

The Way is a family affair, too: Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, wrote and directed it. Together father and son created something beautiful for God: a sensitively crafted, visually stunning, and deeply human work that treats the Church respectfully, appealing to Catholics as well as all men of good will journeying toward the truth.

It tells the story of a father, played by Sheen, who takes the Camino de Santiago (the “Way of St. James”), the famous 500-mile walking pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He does so in honor of his estranged son, played by Estevez, who stumbled to his death along the way. It is also a journey of faith, with the father, an emotionally distant and lapsed Catholic, returning to the faith with the help of three pilgrims he grudgingly befriends. Shot on location with the cooperation of local and Church authorities, The Way also marks a movie milestone: never before was a movie crew allowed to film inside the resting place of the Apostle James, the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela—let alone film during Mass there.

This writer saw a screening of the film in Chicago and later spoke with Sheen over the phone when the movie’s promotional tour was in Miami.

Why did Hollywood turn you down, leading you to produce The Way independently?

Martin Sheen: They couldn’t see producing a movie with four people walking across Spain. There was no car chase, no overt sexuality, no foul language. It didn’t appeal to their sense of business. When Hollywood makes a film today, they have to have certain assurances that they’ll get their money back. So our film and the whole story really did not offer what they thought would be a sure-fire hit at the box office.

We understood that. If we wanted to make that kind of movie, we would have done it. But you know, the Camino has been there for a thousand years and Hollywood has been there for a hundred years, and it’s had that long to make a picture about [the Camino] and it’s never done it. We realized very quickly that we were wasting our time trying to get anybody in Hollywood interested in it. So we went to Spain and got a Spanish partner.

Who financed the movie, and how much did it cost to make?

Sheen: It was financed in Spain by a film-making company in Galicia [a region in the country’s northwest], where we were welcomed as Gallegos because my father was a Gallego. This small company in Galicia kind of wanted to trust one of their own. We also had various other investors in the United States.

Did you put any of your own money into it?

Sheen: Yes, some of it was. But as for the cost, I guess if we’d been charged full-price for all the talent that we used, it would have cost at least 15 million euros [back when the euro was one-and-a-half times the dollar]. But most of the people realized that we were doing something very special and money was not our greatest interest. So they gave us a break, including the actors and the crew, and all of the locations—the hotels, the wineries. All the people that helped make the film contributed by giving us a small bottom line.

Is Hollywood only concerned about movies that make money, or is there a culture there opposed to films that are respectful of, let alone promote, Christianity in general, Catholicism in particular?

Sheen: I can’t really address that. I have never been part of the Hollywood community per se. I started out in New York, where I was in the theater for 10 years. I met my wife in New York, we started our family there, and then we moved to California. I never had a contract with a studio, and I didn’t have a social life with the Hollywood crowd, frankly. So I don’t feel any affinity for Hollywood per se. I honestly just do not know that culture, and I’ve never felt invited to be a part of it.

According to reports, Jim Caviezel has found it hard to find work ever since depicting our Lord in The Passion of the Christ. Can a Christian suffer professional martyrdom in Hollywood?

Sheen: I’m sure that some people have suffered, and maybe Jim has. I honestly don’t know. But I’d like to believe that there are as many people there who would hire you because of your beliefs than not because of your beliefs. Jim has a really big career. And he’s a wonderful actor as well as a Catholic. I don’t think he separates his private life from his professional life, and so people know who he is, where he comes from, and what he stands for, but hire him in large measure because he’s a wonderful actor.

What do you think about The Passion, incidentally?

Sheen: I’m going to be the only person that you’re going to talk to who has never seen it. I’ve seen a couple scenes when it’s been on one of the religious channels. But I’ve never managed to see the whole film. But I have a great deal of admiration for Mel for making it.

How does your faith inform your work?

Sheen: I couldn’t separate it, not just from my work but from any part of my life. It’s a reflection of my journey. I could never have done The Way if I wasn’t a believer. I just don’t know myself as a non-believer. I came to know my true self through my faith. You know, it’s a deeply personal gift, a grace: nothing I can brag about having or take any credit for. I came back to Catholicism in 1981 after a very difficult time in my life.

Would you call The Way a Catholic film?

Sheen: Well, Spain is a Catholic country, and the Camino is a very sacred and ancient pilgrimage site. The pilgrimage is certainly Catholic in its nature and in its form, but it’s—how shall I put this?—also spiritual in that it invites all of us—not just Christians, not even believers, believe it or not—to become ourselves.

The pilgrimage is a physical journey to begin with. It invites you to leave your comfort zone. You have to endure some uncomfortable situations. But along the way, you begin to leave behind a lot of the stuff that you packed, because your pack is heavy and not everything is necessary.

Then something else begins to happen, which is far more important and far more the reality of pilgrimage. And that is the transcendence, the inner journey. That is where we are forced to listen to our own footbeat and heartbeat, that inner voice, and we become attentive to who we really are. As we begin to shed the material stuff, we begin to shed the stuff that we’ve been carrying—our guilts and our false judgments, our resentments—and we begin to release people from the dungeon of our hearts. We begin to forgive people and forgive ourselves. The real pilgrimage is the inward journey. We come to our true selves. Pilgrimage says that you cannot ask anyone to carry your bag and no one can walk in your shoes. You have to do that yourself. Yet at the same time you cannot walk that path alone. You cannot do it without community. God didn’t make us to walk alone. We need friends along the way.

You screened the film for test audiences which were specifically religious as well as randomly selected, right?

Sheen: Yes, that’s right.

Did they receive The Way differently?

Sheen: The overall reception has been most gratifying, because people have responded to it in a deeply personal way. And a lot of young people have been encouraged to actually go and do the Camino. [The Way premiered overseas before being released in America.] That’s been the most satisfying reaction we’ve had.

You have often portrayed characters on a quest: in Catholics, Apocalypse Now, and The Fourth Wise Man. What does Tom Avery, the character you portray in The Way, discover on his quest? Like the Fourth Wise Man, does he literally discover Christ?

Sheen: Tom really discovers his true self and he becomes the father that he was never capable of being to his son. He becomes that father to his fellow pilgrims. If you go on a quest and it’s honest, your quest is an effort to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh. And that cannot be limited to any culture or religion or any other definition. It’s human. God doesn’t separate himself from any aspect of our humanity.

Except sin.

Sheen: Well, God came because of that. We might not know God if we had not sinned. We wouldn’t know God in the same way, that is. Would God have become man otherwise?

Our first parents knew God in a pure and simple way. But if repenting of our sins can bring us back to virtue and the rediscovery of our true selves, I guess that’s a backdoor benefit of being a sinner.

Sheen: That’s true.

To return to Tom. He’s a lapsed Catholic at the beginning of the movie. Can one surmise that he’ll return to the Church in spirit, not just bodily by having gone into the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela?

Sheen: He did more than go into the cathedral. He attended Mass, and I assume he received. Emilio is very clear that Tom returned to the faith.

Along the way, Tom meets an Irish priest who gives him a Rosary. Tom demurs. The priest encourages him to take it, chuckling that Rosaries do come in handy. He also notes that there are a lot of lapsed Catholics on the Camino. Why do you think that’s the case?

Sheen: Because they’re looking for something. We’re all looking for something, whether we’re on pilgrimage or not. You don’t have to go to Rome or Jerusalem. You go inside yourself. It’s easier to get inside yourself when you’re away from your comfort zone, so that you’re not distracted by your daily comforts.

There’s one other scene that really sticks in my mind. One of your fellow travelers avers that the real reason she is taking the pilgrimage is not to liberate herself from her smoking habit, but to heal the pain from her abortion. “Sometimes I hear the voice of my baby. Sometimes I hear her talk,” she confesses to your character. It’s a simple but profound pro-life statement. Why was it included?

Sheen: My son wrote that scene with that message in mind: that there was deep regret and brokenness because of that woman’s decision. She was really on the Camino to find healing for that. She wasn’t really concerned about giving up smoking. That was her cover story. It was about healing, and it was very specific.

You are pro-life.

Sheen: It’s a matter of record with me. It’s a part of my faith. I’m a father, you know. When three of our grandchildren were young, a long time ago—I became a grandfather at age 42—and we didn’t have any in-laws, we supported these children who had come into our lives. We didn’t consider them any less welcome or ourselves any less blessed. That’s who we are. We know what a child can bring, no matter the circumstances. So [being pro-life] is both natural for us and a practical acceptance. My wife is not Catholic, but she is very pro-life. She’s a mother and a grandmother. She knows what it means. There’s just never any question—ever.

Off-topic: is it true you asked Archbishop Fulton Sheen permission to take his name for your stage name?

Sheen: No, I did it before I met him in ’65. I had changed my name in ’59. But I really didn’t change it, Matt. It’s still Ramon Estevez. But back in ’59 I was having enough trouble getting work as an actor without having to contend with the prejudice against the Hispanic community. I took “Sheen” because I thought of the bishop as an actor, if you will. Besides being the first televangelist, he was a magnificent public speaker. He had a very dynamic personality, and I was inspired by him.

What do you think about his cause for canonization?

Sheen: I don’t know if he would care one way or another. He was truly a saintly man, but then again, most saints never thought of themselves as such. So if he were here, he’d probably say, don’t bother.

Fulton Sheen was pioneering the New Evangelization before it even had a name: that is, using modern technology to communicate the Gospel message, especially in order to reach the young. What do you think about the New Evangelization, and would you say that The Way could serve it by bringing people closer to God and discovering what’s true and right in life?

Sheen: This is the first I’ve heard about the New Evangelization. If The Way serves as an instrument to bring people closer to a realization of our Lord in their lives, I’d be delighted.
 
About the Author
Matthew A. Rarey 

Matthew A. Rarey, a journalist and education consultant, knows the stakes in Croatia’s culture wars. He has spent considerable time there at the invitation of the Catholic University of Croatia. He writes from Chicago.
 

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