Martin Sheen in a scene from "The Way." (CNS)
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.
prides himself on being a family man, with four children and seven
grandchildren. And although never awarded an Oscar, he holds an even higherand
far rarerhonor 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.
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 Compostelalet alone
film during Mass there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 locationsthe
hotels, the wineries. All the people that helped make the film contributed by
giving us a small bottom line.
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.
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
do you think about The Passion,
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.
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.
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’show
shall I put this?also spiritual in that it invites all of usnot just
Christians, not even believers, believe it or notto become ourselves.
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.
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 carryingour guilts
and our false judgments, our resentmentsand 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.
screened the film for test audiences which were specifically religious as well
as randomly selected, right?
Sheen: Yes, that’s right.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 agoI became a grandfather at age 42and
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 questionever.
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.
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
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?
This is the first I’ve heard about the New
Evangelization. If The Way
an instrument to bring people closer to a realization of our Lord in their
lives, I’d be delighted.