The heralded actor discusses the current political climate and his latest roles in Grace and Frankie and Anne of Green Gables.
Decorated Actor Martin Sheen
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Martin Sheen. The veteran actor joins us to discuss his latest roles in Hollywood, but most importantly, his activism.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Martin Sheen coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Martin Sheen back to this program. The beloved actor of stage and screen is best known for his roles in “Apocalypse Now” and, of course, “The West Wing”.
But not one to rest on his laurels, he just finished shooting the new season of Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and will be seen on PBS starting this Thanksgiving in a reboot of “Anne of Green Gables”. What a great honor it always is to have Martin Sheen on this program, sir.
Martin Sheen: Thank you, Tavis. An honor.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. You been all right?
Sheen: Been fine, thank you.
Tavis: You been busy, it looks like.
Sheen: Been busy, always, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. You were born Ramon Estevez.
Sheen: And I still am.
Tavis: You still are [laugh].
Sheen: I never changed my name officially, no. I love my name. I couldn’t get beyond the Hispanic kind of prejudice in New York when I started, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, which I understand. That’s exactly why I’m asking this. Earlier this week, Donald Trump had his say on DACA and I want to start our conversation tonight asking you — since you once held that office [laugh] — what do you make of the man that holds it now and specifically what do you think of what he did this week on DACA?
Sheen: So deeply disappointed and I just hope, please God, he comes to his senses about this one. You remember, this is the one thing that President Obama really asked him personally not to change and, like with many of the things that Mr. Obama asked him to keep his hands off, he’s grabbed with both of them.
So we’re deeply disappointed, but we’re equally encouraged with the amount of support and we’re seeing it in the streets with these kids that are coming out. They’re not afraid of the consequences. They’ve lived through this for most of their lives and their lives are at stake. And I think the soul of our nation is really at stake.
Tavis: When the say the soul of our nation is at stake, I couldn’t agree more. But for those who would want me to ask you to unpack what you mean by that, I’m asking you now.
Sheen: I would say specifically that when we don’t stand taller than when we stoop to help someone in need and that unlocks the very best part of ourselves, our humanity, our compassion. When we look in the face of another person and have a deeper understanding than color or social status or success or failure, whatever it is, we see each other’s humanity and we are graced by that recognition.
I think, what I call, that’s the God spark in all of us, and it’s that sense of knowing that we are worthy just for being human and that we are loved and that, when we express that love and that compassion, nothing really nurtures us more as individuals or as a community than that kind of compassion.
And it’s got to cost you something. If it doesn’t cost you something, then you’re left to question its value. So it’s very valuable and it’s costly. So we have to step up, step out, speak up and defend these young people.
Tavis: Take me back — I want to juxtapose or have you juxtapose for me, Martin, the hatred that you had to endure when you were starting out as an actor all those years ago, and that name Ramon Estevez didn’t serve you so well. Juxtapose the hatred that you experienced then with the same kind of hatred that you’ve seen this week that’s being, you know, applied against the very same people.
Sheen: Yeah. My father came to this country as a young boy. He was 16 in 1914, so he arrived with his brother at the Port of New York, he and his brother, Alfonso. They were denied entry because there was still a quota on Spaniards because of the Spanish-American War which had been fought a decade earlier. But nonetheless, they was a very severe quota on Spaniards, but not Hispanics.
So they got on the next boat to Cuba. My father worked with his brother in the sugarcane fields in Cuba and he came in the Port of Miami as a Guano and he worked his way up to Dayton, Ohio and he started as a factory worker at the NCR and he worked there for almost 40 years. So we grew up in Dayton, Ohio.
I was the first generation American. My mother had 12 pregnancies. 10 survived. Nine boys and one girl and I’m the seventh son. So my mother died when I was young. I was almost 11 when she passed away. So my dad had enough burdens to begin with with all these children in still a foreign country on a factory salary, so we all had to pitch in.
We were caddies. All my brothers in front of me were caddies at a local golf club. I caddied there until I left home at the age of 18, from nine to 18. People don’t want to believe that I started caddying in 1949, but I did [laugh]. It was one of the longest jobs I ever had, yeah.
So at any rate, the interesting thing about my dad is he never spoke in public. If he did, it was always, “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir” or “Hello” or “Goodbye”. He rarely ever spoke more than that. We came to understand that it was because he was not comfortable with his accent. He had a very thick, Galithian accent. He spoke with the “th” sound.
You know, it was “Graciuth, Por Nada”, you know, and I loved him saying our names, my name in particular. “Ramon, ah, Ramon.” He talked like this. I love him. We would jack him up just to get him to talk because I loved his accent so much. But outside the home, he would rarely speak.
So when I went over to New York, you know, I was Ramon Gerard Antonio Estevez and I was going around at auditions. I worked for the American Express as a stock boy for almost a year when I first got there, but I would go looking for acting jobs all over and looking for an apartment and some extra jobs.
I’d get on the phone and say, particularly about housing, I’d say, “Well, I’m coming over to see that apartment you have.” “Okay, what time you coming?” I’d say, “Well, 2:00 I’m finished working.” “Yes, and what is your name?” “Ramon Estevez.” “Okay, well, yeah, why don’t you come around three or so?” [laugh].
I remember having to tell people that — they’d say, “What do you do for a living?” I remember pulling one out of the hat. I would say, “I’m a chemical engineer”, you know, anything but an actor or Hispanic.
So I invented this character, Martin Sheen, and I took the Martin from a guy who was very encouraging to me when I first came to New York named Robert Dale Martin. We stayed friends for the rest of his life, really. And I took the Sheen from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen because I thought of him as an actor.
When I was a kid, he was one of the biggest things in television every Tuesday night, you know. He hosted a lecture, basically, and he’s this very handsome, dramatic guy. I didn’t always understand what he was talking about. He was kind of conservative. But his performance per se was gripping and I’d say, “Okay, I’m gonna respond to that.” So I became Martin Sheen.
Tavis: Thank you for telling that story. I loved hearing that. So when you juxtapose, when you compare what you had to endure then with what these Dreamers, the pushback that they’re getting now, what does that say to you about your country, how far we have come or not come, as it were?
Sheen: Yeah. You know, for me, we were safe. You were American-born, first generation. So there was never any fear of deportation and my father and my mother both became naturalized citizens and that’s where they met. There were citizenship schools in those days and my father didn’t speak English. My mother from Ireland taught him English and they fell in love and got married in 1927 and stayed there and started raising a family.
So we didn’t know that kind of pressure or prejudice that these kids are feeling this day because the phraseology about the whole DACA thing does not include them in the conversation. They’re called Dreamers. They’re called undocumented. They’re called aliens. These people are Americans.
They have contributed and continue to contribute to a community. We all understand community, particularly Hispanic communities. I mean, all communities are integrated and very integral with each other. It’s not just a language or a culture, but it is a support system for each other.
They have a specific understanding of what it means to be vulnerable. This fellow that just got out here the other day here in Los Angeles who was arrested some months ago for — he dropped his daughter off at school and one of the kids filmed his arrest.
That’s caused such a stir. Wait a minute. This guy’s been here for 30 years and all these children are born here and now they’re gonna take their father away? Yeah, he spent a couple of months in prison and he just got released and his case is pending. Now are we gonna do that to every single one of these people?
That’s what’s a stake. And if we’re not willing to stand between this gross injustice and these people, then we’re losing our sense of what it means to be an American, what our culture is all about, because we’re still a nation of immigrants. How many people do we know that can trace their ancestry right here? Very few.
So most of us come from Europe and Asia and South America and Eastern Europe, all over the place. That’s what we are. We are the very best of the whole world because we got them all. You know, in the early part of the last century, the United States contributed much of its success to the immigrant population.
They poured in from everywhere. The U.S. held its gates open longer and kept them open wider than any other nation on earth, and that enabled them to have this workforce that built the nation, the railroads and the big cities and the minds and all the things that enriched the country was built on the backs of those immigrants.
Tavis: I gave a speech the other day. The title of the speech, “When You Can’t Change the Game, You Change the Rules”. When you can’t change the game, you change the rules. I went in to this talk with this audience about this the other day and we had a great time.
I raise that only because I want to ask you how you situate this moment in the story of what America is or will become. Put another way, if we are a nation of immigrants, what has happened that’s caused this to happen? What is it about the story that we’re writing at this moment that’s caused us to turn on immigrants if we are a nation of immigrants?
Sheen: Well, that’s the fundamental question, of course. Particularly let’s talk about the Hispanic community specifically. There is not a nation between Mexico and Panama that has not been affected by the United States, either militarily, economically or outright colonialized. You know, all of Central America.
So most of these people are coming from these countries. The war in El Salvador, for example, so many hundreds of thousands of Salvadorians fled that war. We were supporting this very conservative right wing basically military dictatorship all those years until finally a peace accord was achieved.
The same thing in Nicaragua. You know, we invaded that country how many times in the last century and in this century and controlled their governments, controlled their economy.
So all of the immigrants that are in the country from those countries and whose children came with them as tiny ones and some that have been born here probably would not be here in such numbers if it hadn’t been for our involvement in their country’s in this hemisphere. So we’re looking at what we have wrought.
You know, this horrible catastrophe going on as we speak in Houston, one of the largest immigrant populations in Houston is Vietnamese, over 250,000 Vietnamese that came into the United States, people most of which we abandoned when we left Vietnam. And, incidentally, that…
Tavis: Ken Burns.
Sheen: Series, Ken Burns series…
Tavis: Coming to PBS in a matter of days, as a matter of fact.
Sheen: 17th, I think, it starts. We just saw all of the episodes over the last…
Tavis: Oh, you previewed it already.
Sheen: We did, yes. Oh, my God.
Tavis: So you’re ahead of me. What’d you make of it?
Sheen: It is so powerful. It is so painful. You just weep at so many situations. I think it’s going to cause the country to pause and reflect, and it’s a very good time for it right now. I think it’s going to have the same effect that Ken Burns’ Civil War had on the country. We’re going to stop and reflect, and we’re going to see a reflection of ourselves that we don’t always want to embrace.
But so many of the people that were involved in it, that fought in it, that came back, so many of the people in the streets that protested, so many of the men that fled to Canada during it, all of the lives that were affected is coming home in deeply personal ways.
There’s one episode where this Vietnamese — it was a North Vietnamese soldier who witnessed this scene after a battle of these American GIs hugging the lads that were killed in the battle and wrapping them up and weeping and grieving with each other and carrying them out and putting them on the choppers.
He said, “We were astonished that they were just like us. They had the same feelings for their comrades. They hurt in the same way. They mourned like we did.” We’re hardly ever given a chance to think about the people that we’d been taught to slaughter, you know, that we made enemies out of. And now we’re made to see basically again the very best reflection of ourselves in our humanity, our compassion.
Tavis: Ken Burns is as good as they come. You already know that, of course, you PBS viewers. Now you got Martin Sheen endorsing the Vietnam series [laugh]. Just another reason to make sure you watch it September 17 when it premiers here on these PBS stations.
Sheen: It is so powerful.
Tavis: When you mention Vietnam, two things come to mind. I’m thinking Vietnam, I’m thinking of your first name, Martin, so I immediately go to Martin Luther King, Jr. who, of course, gave that powerful speech in 1967 called “Beyond Vietnam”…
Sheen: On April 4, exactly a year before he was murdered, yeah.
Tavis: You understand this. That’s why I love Martin Sheen. He knows this stuff so well [laugh].
Sheen: Incidentally, I didn’t think there was any footage of that speech. It’s in this documentary. It was recorded audio on the audio.
Tavis: There’s only a few minutes of television footage.
Sheen: There’s a few minutes of television…
Tavis: But the whole thing on audio, sure, sure.
Sheen: But it’s in this documentary, Riverside Church.
Tavis: Absolutely. Doesn’t surprise me that Ken Burns did that. He should have King in there. I raise that only because Martin King was willing to put his life on the line, willing to get arrested countless times for the things he believed in. That’s Martin King.
I come now to Martin Sheen who, at my last count, had been arrested 67 times. 67 times in your career, you’ve been arrested for those things that you believe in. Tell me about what started that and why you have continued to be so true to literally getting arrested for those causes that you believe in.
Sheen: Well, I supported the civil rights movement when we lived in New York in the 60s. So we went through the whole anti-war and pro civil rights movement and we saw all of our heroes murdered. It was quicker to make change with a bullet than the ballot.
We came out of the 60s still with that belief that lost causes were the only causes worth fighting for and the only weapon to use was nonviolence. We learned that from Reverend King and Bobby Kennedy.
And we carried that into the peace movement that continued after the Vietnam War because of the Cold War and the multiplication of all the nuclear weapons which all of the nuclear countries had, particularly the Soviet Union and the United States to blow each other up forever.
So this was a great concern of mine and I became involved with the peace movement on the East Coast and particularly with the Berrigan brothers, Dan and Phil Berrigan. Dan became a dear friend and an inspiration. So he led me to my first demonstration, a nonviolent civil disobedience against what was then called Star Wars, the Reagan idea of putting nuclear weapons in outer space…
Tavis: To shield us, yeah, yeah.
Sheen: To shield us. Well, I heard of this guy — like a guy going into a bank with a gun. He puts it to his head and says, “Give me all your money or I’ll shoot.” [laugh] It’s so absurd, you know. I mean, they never figured out how you’re gonna get the weapons up there. You know, how many delivery systems fell over on the pad, you know.
So I became deeply involved with the anti-nuclear movement and those were most of my arrests. But you can’t really separate any one social justice issue from another, whether it’s homelessness or the environment or women’s rights or civil rights or war in general. I mean, we had to come to an understanding that, again, it’s gonna cost you something because it’s worthy.
If it doesn’t cost you something, then you’re left to question its value. I think Reverend King was of that belief as well. So that was at the foundation of all the arrests I went through. It led from the nuclear issue to the war in Central America, very specific, because I went to Nicaragua and El Salvador and protested there the war and was involved with Witnesses for Peace when the disarmament came particularly in El Salvador.
Tavis: When you find yourself on the front line, Martin, so many times like that, fighting for so many causes, so many just causes, how do you sustain your hope?
Sheen: The fact that you’re not alone [laugh]. There’s always someone to the left and the right. Somebody has organized it and invited you to come. I never organized a single protest, but I was always invited. There are enough of them around. You don’t have to go far to find something you believe in [laugh].
Tavis: That’s true, yeah.
Sheen: Yeah. If you really want to get involved, you know, answer the phone. Return the call. Look at the paper or go down the street, you know. You’ll find something that’ll appeal to you that you can have a voice in and really believe in. That’s the bottom line. But you do it for yourself because you cannot not do it and be yourself.
In order to truly become yourself, to become free, you have to go outside yourself and you have to depend on the compassion and the humanity of all those around you, including the guys that are gonna arrest you, or women in some cases. You have to trust them and you never take it personal. And you never really believe you’re going to have an effect on the issue.
You may have an effect on one of the other individuals in the demonstration if you keep your humanity and your sense of humor, but you’re probably not going to change the issue. You really have to do it for yourself so when you walk away, you can say I did everything I possibly could about this issue that I believe in. I did it nonviolently and I did it with joy.
Tavis: I could talk to you for hours just about your work and your witness. But speaking of your work, since we’ve talked so much about your witness, I got three minutes to go.
Sheen: You didn’t realize I was such a windbag.
Tavis: Oh, no, no. Get out of here.
Sheen: That’s what you’re trying to say, Tavis [laugh].
Tavis: No. You’ve been here before and I enjoy every time you come. It’s just your witness is so powerful, I have trouble getting to the work sometime. In the three minutes I have left, though, now to the work.
Tavis: So you’re having fun hanging out with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin?
Sheen: I love it. We’re talking about “Grace & Frankie”.
Tavis: Absolutely [laugh].
Sheen: Yeah, that series. We just finished our fourth year last month. We’ll be on the air again in the spring and, hopefully, we’ll get picked up again. They say as long as the girls want to do it, Netflix will keep it going. So I hope that Jane and Lily will keep at it.
Tavis: They seem to be having fun.
Sheen: Oh, it’s great. They call us “the gang of four.” It’s Sam Waterston and myself, Jane and Lily, and I adore them. We have a great time. I shouldn’t be paid for having such fun. Don’t say…
Tavis: Don’t tell Netflix, yeah [laugh].
Sheen: They’ll be turned off by this. Don’t pay any attention to it.
Tavis: No, no, no, no. Netflix is honored to have four of your stature on one show. That’s a great honor for them to have you guys, so they should be paying you and paying you handsomely. I’ve been reading about — I haven’t seen it yet — but I’ve been reading about this project you’ve done called “Come Sunday” with Chiwetel Ejiofor, a great actor…
Sheen: Yes, yes.
Tavis: And you guys have worked together before in “Talk to Me”. I love that movie. Don Cheadle, Petey Greene, a great deejay in D.C.
Sheen: You’re one of the few that ever saw it [laugh].
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because sometimes you do a project and it doesn’t hit the way you think it should, but that movie was so — every time I see Cheadle, first thing I say to him is — he knows I love it. Just a great film.
Sheen: He was wonderful in that film.
Tavis: Yeah, he killed it. Well, all you guys were great. But tell me about “Come Sunday”.
Sheen: “Come Sunday” is a true story that Ira Glass did on “This American Life” a couple of years ago and he helped produce it. It’s a story of Bishop Carlton…
Tavis: Carlton Pearson.
Sheen: Pearson is his name. He’d received his education at Oral Roberts and Oral Roberts personally became his mentor. He left the college and started a ministry and he became a great success, and he was one of the few to unite the congregation black and white together in Tulsa.
And he had this great successful ministry and just started in television. And one day, he was watching the news from Rwanda about the horrible slaughter going on between the Tutsis and the Hutus. And he was thinking his theology and the Baptist theology fundamentally was, well, these people were not saved. Are they going to hell? And then he began to question that theology and thinking God doesn’t want us to go to hell.
So the next Sunday at his service, he questioned that and the congregation got a little testy and Oral Roberts stepped in and told him in no uncertain terms that he would lose his church if he didn’t get back on the straight and narrow about this hell thing. Carlton refused to do it and he kept on and finally the church dissolved and he lost everything.
Tavis: I know Carlton, yeah.
Sheen: You know him personally?
Tavis: I know him well.
Sheen: You know who I’m talking about, yeah.
Tavis: He’s in Chicago now, I think.
Sheen: We shot it in Atlanta. He came down to Atlanta. I met him, yes.
Tavis: You play Oral Roberts, though.
Sheen: I play Oral Roberts, yeah.
Tavis: And Chiwetel plays Carlton.
Sheen: He plays Carlton, yeah. And a brilliant young director, Joshua Marston, directed it. So I just got the news that Netflix picked it up…
Tavis: Cool. Netflix is loving Martin Sheen these days [laugh]!
Sheen: They’re everywhere. So they’re gonna have it at Sundance next year and then release it in the spring and then Netflix will take it from there.
Tavis: I am anxious to see that. Anything that you are in, I’m anxious to see. And I’m always honored to have you on this program.
Sheen: I’m delighted. Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: My great pleasure to have you back again.
Sheen: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Martin Sheen. Love this guy. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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