Before the conferral of Martin Sheen’s Honorary Life Membership to LawSoc, Killian Woods caught up with the actor of West Wing fame
He walks into the room, extends his hand, and formally introduces himself as “Martin” out of pure and total modesty. Not even for an instant does the famous Hollywood star of such films as Apocalypse Now or television drama The West Wing hint towards a sense that his presence should be worshiped. Martin Sheen sees himself as a regular man and a changed man, who has found a sense of self-worth in this world.
Now 70 years old, Sheen still conveys the charismatic mannerisms and powerful imagery that distinguish him as a great public speaker and political activist. Sheen is a recognisable face to many, but his familiarity stems from playing numerous different roles across the film and television spectrum.
When challenged about his specific life-changing experiences, Sheen brought the discussion back to the filming of Apocalypse Now. After being drafted in as a replacement for the lead role, he never could have fathomed the impact filming on set in the Philippines would have on his personality and way of life.
Sheen describes how the heart attack he endured during filming of Apocalypse Now affected him. “I thought there was an elephant in the room sitting on my chest, in fact I was having a heart attack,” he says. “My arms froze up and I felt panicked because I knew how isolated I was and if I had fainted there they wouldn’t have found me until I was a goner.”
At the time, Sheen recalls attempting to crawl to safety and described this surreal experience. “It dawned on me that this isn’t a normal situation and that I’m probably dying. I didn’t know how close I was until I started to drift off and suddenly I felt no pain in my arms and my legs and then leaned against a tree and thought: ‘Hey, this is what it’s like to die, big deal’.”
It is remarkable the fine details that Sheen remembers from the situation, but it is these vivid memories that probably made the life-threatening situation hit home.
“That experience awakened a yearning in my spirit that continues to this day,” he says. “I decided to go on that journey when you ask those two questions: ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ When you start asking those questions, you’re never going to be satisfied until you start that inner journey.
“The heart attack was the wake-up call, but the journey had only begun. After another four years when I was in Paris doing a film, I realised I had to get this thing together and start living an honest life. I rejoined Catholicism. But I didn’t rejoin the old faith that was given to me as a child that was filled with foreboding, obedience and fear.
“The church that’s in the streets serving the poor and that’s serving human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, gay rights. All things human happened to me. So that was the start of my involvement in human rights and that led to a couple of jail cells, so the last 30 years have been by far the most difficult of my life, but by far the happiest, because I’ve managed to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh.”
The character of President Bartlet typifies the rejuvenated outlook of Sheen. A role where he truly commits himself personally to the role and mirrors the kind of man he is. However, when initially setting of on his West Wing journey, Sheen didn’t envisage that this would be a career-defining role. Nonetheless, he still realised that he was involved in something special.
“I knew Aaron Sorkin from The American President and I knew he was one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood, but I knew it was going to be a wonderful show. He was a political animal and as a liberal Democrat as well. He was connected to a lot of people in public life and he was deeply concerned about them and he had a great liberal conscience.”
Sheen continued and elaborated on the personal touches he tried to add to the character of Bartlet. “When we started, he was already a year and a half into his presidency and they did that very specifically so they could establish a staff and a movement and a message. As we went along, the character became more and more clear.
“One thing that I asked Sorkin just in passing: ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if the president was a Catholic because we’ve only had one Catholic president, John F Kennedy’. He said: ‘Why would you want this president to be Catholic?’ and I said ‘I wanted this president to make decisions in a moral frame of reference. I wanted to add to the level of consciousness’.”
Sheen was drawn to speak about his positive experiences on the show, but also references the shaky beginnings. “Everyone involved were at the peak of their careers. We’d all been beyond our addictions, our alcoholism, our divorces, our fights and so forth. Everyone knew this was something special.
“We all felt it belonged to a pay-for-TV audience, so to our surprise the show took off and became very popular with the reigning president, Mr Clinton, who loved the show. He came to visit us and we went to visit him, and we had carte blanche, because we used to go to Washington two-to-three times a year between seasons so you could see we were filming in the capital.”
Continuing to detail his time on The West Wing, Sheen spoke how the change in American politics when the Bush administration took office altered the course of the show and its perception of the American public. “The great adventure went on for seven seasons and when a certain president of another denomination went in, everything changed, and radically so.
“Suddenly we became the voice of the marginalised. The voice of the voiceless,” he says. “We were a parallel universe to this guy and that got very interesting because Bartlett began to arise in polls and out poll the real guy.
“While he was in office on one of our journeys to Washington to film, we got an invitation from the White House in which everybody could come and meet their counterparts except a certain you know who. It was the greatest relief that I didn’t have to turn that down.”
When alluding to The West Wing, Sheen speaks in a tone of awed respect. There is a sense of loss in his voice at times when referencing the end of the show after the untimely death of John Spencer. Sheen spoke of his death as a sign to bring the hit show to a natural end.
It would be unfair to pigeonhole Sheen into two roles and claim they define his career and personality. In recent years, his son, Emilio Estevez, has directed many of his performances. However, it is a give-and-take relationship where Estevez gladly still accepts the advice of his father and is willing of to drop everything he was doing to take heed of said advice.
Sheen, who describes Badlands as his best film, explains the origins of his new movie The Way, as a “story of fathers and sons” which reverses the typical plot of the son becoming the father and sees the father becoming the son after a Spanish pilgrimage.
Giving it modest praise, Sheen says: “It’s not like any of the movies you see these days. There are no car chases, there is no foul language, there is no overt sexuality, there is no violence, there is no vulgarity, and there is no green scenes or monsters. It’s just old-time storytelling in this medieval setting in Spain.”
Away from the screen, Sheen has dedicated large parts of his life to humanitarian work for numerous charities. Sheen’s work to this day sees him lending his financial and celebrity status towards the People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance (PREDA). Based in the Philippines, PREDA specifically aims to protect and defend the human rights of children who are sexually exploited due to the countries poor policing humanitarian rights.
Eager to explain his experiences of the third world, Sheen alluded to a heartbreaking experience that he nearly brings a tear to his eye. “We started a water project in an infamous garbage dump outside Manila in Quezon city. The third world poverty in Asia is life-affirming. If you go in there and are aware of it and you are touched by it, you will be a changed person.
Then one day, there was an explosion and a mountain of garbage came down and killed 600 people instantly because of the methane created by the dump. They had no names, [they were] just all lost.”
There is a spark in Sheen’s eyes, but also despair at how quickly it can all be taken away. Sheen is a firm advocate of improving world affairs by giving. He admires the Irish for this core aspect of our nature.
“Ireland is the most generous country in the world and the safest passport to hold, because you never sent anyone anywhere to take their lives, their land or their culture. You came and you gave. And that’s why the Irish people are beloved.”
Sheen struggles to verbalise his passion towards the end of the interview, but concludes with the most noble of remarks. It’s all about changing in his mind. Changing to be better people and developing a caring and non-apathetic view towards the turmoil in the third world.
“That experience of being up close to injustice changes you in ways that are so empowering,” he says. “People talk about power, but they don’t have any until they really accept the fact that you are powerless. Then you have grabbed the most powerful thing imaginable. You own yourself. You’re not depending on anybody else. And you only know now what it means to have power and what you’re going to do.”
Martin Sheen was in UCD to accept an Honorary Life Membership from LawSoc.