Father-son actors discuss their latest collaboration, The Way, and Estevez shares what it was like to write a role for his dad.
Martin Sheen and Emilio EstevezOriginally aired on October 19, 2011
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez to this program. The talented and popular father and son have teamed up for a much-talked-about new project called “The Way.” The movie, written and directed by Emilio, explores the issues of faith and spirituality. So here now, some scenes from “The Way.”
Tavis: So Emilio, take me off whenever it was a few years ago and you sit down to start writing a project, and you know you’re writing this specifically for your father.
Emilio Estevez: Right.
Tavis: What’s that process like, when you’re writing it for this guy?
Estevez: I wanted to write something for him that explored who he is as a man, as an actor. I grew up watching him work. He would throw all of us kids in the back of a Country Squire station wagon and off we’d go, we’d drive across the country and we’d land in some location and we’d set up tents.
For every “Badlands” or for every “Apocalypse Now” that we had to travel to, there were 10 or 15 not-so-good movies that no one has seen. (Laughter) And I mean that with all due respect.
But for me – and we knew when he was gigging. We knew when it was – he had four kids and a wife to feed, and a mortgage to pay, and I knew when he was not working in a film that was up to his standards.
So I wanted to write something for him that would remind us all what an extraordinary talent this man is. He’s my hero, and I just as I sat down to write, I said, “Would he do this? Can he -” the only thing he objected to was I said, “Well, I think he’s going to be a lapsed Catholic.” (Laughter) It was like that stillness, and then the roof came up, boom.
Tavis: Because he’s so devout, yeah.
Estevez: What do you mean? Well, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Martin Sheen: Well, I’m practicing. I keep practicing till I get it right. (Laughter)
Tavis: I want to go back to Martin Sheen in a second, though, but I want to unpack something you said, or get you to unpack something you just said, Emilio, which is you want to remind us of how great an actor he really is.
What is that thing, then, about his gift that you wanted to tap into?
Estevez: Well, when you look at his filmography, if you will, he’s not a military assassin like he was in “Apocalypse Now,” he’s not the president of the United States, although he would like to sometimes think that he is.
He is this extraordinary, gifted, talented, sensitive guy who is – my father does things for other people, reaches out to people when there are no cameras, and that is a measure of how big his heart is. He is the most generous man, almost generous to a fault, that I’ve ever known in my life, and this film is an expression of that, his heart, his generosity.
Tavis: I teased – I didn’t tease; I said a moment ago and you teased, Martin, when I said that you are a devout Catholic. You said you’re practicing at it, working at it, trying to get it right. (Laughter) But you are a man of faith, to be sure. How is it that you put a project on the screen about faith, about spirituality, and let that message get through without proselytizing?
Sheen: Well, that’s a credit to Emilio. He composed it so that we were never hitting anyone over the head with what we believed. It was more of an invitation. If you want to take this journey, come join us. It’s uplifting and healing and is an awful lot of fun along the way.
But never, ever hitting anyone over the head about religiosity or spirituality. It’s a deeply personal thing and it’s part of the great mystery that all of us are connected with.
Tavis: Martin, when you read what Emilio put in front of you, were you okay with every single thing that you read? I assume not – you tell me. (Laughter) If you weren’t, how do you say to your son, “Son, thank you for writing this for me, but I need to tweak this, some cosmetic changes here.” (Laughter) “But Dad, I wrote this for you.” “Yes, I know, but I want to change this.” How did that conversation go?
Sheen: I tell you frankly, when I read it I wept with joy and I was so deeply grateful. It’s like a love letter. It’s the best part I’ve had in 30 years, frankly, and it’s the first role I’ve had in that long as well that I had to carry the picture. So the only anxiety I had was that I would not live up to his expectations, because it was so beautifully written and I was –
Estevez: And my mother said she has not seen him as disciplined or worked as hard since he was a struggling actor in the early ’60s in New York.
Sheen: Or worked for as little money. (Laughter)
Estevez: That is true. That is absolutely true.
Tavis: But to Martin’s point, Emilio, I wonder whether or not you processed it in the way that your dad did, which is that dad’s got to carry this. It’s one thing to write something for your father. It is, as Martin said, a wonderful love letter, but you did put some pressure on your dad. Dad, you’ve got to carry this film.
Estevez: That’s right. That’s right.
Tavis: Is that too much pressure?
Estevez: I knew he had it in him. Growing up, watching him work, I just knew that he had it in him and he just hadn’t been given the shot. So it was time.
Tavis: I don’t want to give too much away, which is always the hard part about talking about movies, so I’ll let you do this. How would you describe what – we’ve jumped into talking about the film without describing what it really is.
Estevez: Right, right, right. Well, it’s really a road movie, and it pays homage to, whether it’s Homer’s “Odyssey” or “The Canterbury Tales” or “The Wizard of Oz.” Our film is a road movie. We travel with these five or four pilgrims. I’m sort of the fifth pilgrim; I’m in the box, if you will. And it’s this journey across the north of Spain, along what’s called The Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago.
It starts in the French Pyrenees and goes 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, across the north, and it ends in Santiago de Compostela, where the pilgrims believe that the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried.
So pilgrims have been making this journey for, what, since the ninth century?
Sheen: Almost a thousand years, yeah.
Tavis: Filmed on location?
Estevez: Entirely on location in Spain.
Tavis: For both of you, you first, Emilio, what is it like to be making a movie about faith, about spirituality, and to do it in that space?
Estevez: Right, right.
Tavis: You follow me?
Estevez: I do. There were moments and miracles that happened throughout our journey. We shot the film in 40 days, and that was the time we had with the money we had, and that’s how we – to stretch it over that period of time, this was a 40-day shoot.
We show very low-impact, super 16. We were all dressed as pilgrims, we all kind of moved like a group of pilgrims ourselves. So I like to say that – and my mom likes to say this – I’m sort of a work in progress in terms of my spiritual path. She was raised a Southern Baptist and left her church and her faith when she went to New York, met this guy, and he was raised devout Catholic.
So I heard a lot of arguments – I heard nothing but arguments, frankly, about religious and very little spirituality. So as a young kid you get very confused about it.
But I think I’m figuring out my path. I think the film – I like to say that the proof is not just in the pudding but it’s in the eating of the pudding, and if you see the film I think you get an idea of where I’m at in terms of my path.
Tavis: To your point now, before I go back to your dad, did anything – I don’t mean to get you to be too open if you don’t want to be –
Estevez: No, hey, man, I’m –
Tavis: – given that you’re on a journey, did anything happen to you, were there any revelations, any experiences that in any way advanced you on your personal faith journey?
Estevez: Sure, sure. Yeah, every day there was some measure of a miracle that would present itself to us, and so we stopped calling them coincidences. I think you have to.
Estevez: You have to just be open and say okay, we’re on a – we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.
Tavis: So when you’re filming, Martin Sheen, and you’re doing a project about spirituality and about faith and you are literally taking a journey that persons of faith take for thousands of years, what’s that experience like filming on location?
Sheen: Well, it was – the whole experience was a reflection of who we were and where we were headed in our own lives. I think that all of us are trying to, if we’re leading an honest life, trying to unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh, so that we’re equally balanced. Pilgrimage gives a person an opportunity to explore the possibility of transcend, and so you’re taken out of your comfort zone, you’ve got to pack all your stuff and you begin your journey.
You have a destination, and the reason you start off is not always the reason you end. Everything changes along the way. You start getting rid of so many of the things you’ve overpacked, and as you go along then you start unpacking so many of the things you’ve packed all your life. You begin to open up the cells and let things go that you’ve been hanging on to, people and events that you’ve been blaming for holding you back.
And that’s the true pilgrimage. That happens if you’re willing to accept the transcendence, and then you’re free to become yourself and that’s the real memory of a pilgrimage.
Tavis: To the point that Emilio raised a moment ago, Martin, how is it that you have remained such a person of faith through these years? You’ve been through a lot, you’ve seen a lot and again, if I were a cynic – I am not – I could suggest to you, just what I know of your life, I could suggest to you that there are moments along the way, I would think, where your faith was tested, and yet you have, for all these years, to your son’s point, remained a person of faith. Tell me more about how you’ve navigated that journey.
Sheen: Well, I sincerely believe that everything – everything – is grace, and you have to stick around long enough to see it through. I’m a very optimistic person. If I were told you’re out of here tomorrow, this is the last day, I would still give thanks and praise. It’s been wonderful. I couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t have asked for more, for more love or support or compassion or humanity.
It’s just been an extraordinary life, and I give thanks and praise every day when I remember to. But it’s still a great mystery that I embrace. If you want to talk about God, we don’t know what God is, do we? It’s a question which just invites the mystery.
We don’t know, and the more explanations we get the more we realize how little we know, and that we identify what is not God because we’re limited, we’re so finite. So what I embrace is the magnificent miracle, the mystery of just being alive every single day. Everything is truly grace.
Tavis: I’m not being comical in the asking of this question (laughter), I’m really serious about this.
Sheen: Something funny’s coming.
Tavis: No, no, no, no. (Laughter) I’m not – I want to preface it, I’m not trying to be funny, but I’m very serious about the business that you are in. How has being in this business, being a long-distance runner, you, in this business, how has that emboldened your faith, enhanced your faith or challenged your faith?
Sheen: Well, the only way that I got healed when I fell or was lifted up was with my faith, and so the business, if you will, was not there to lift me up, but my faith always was. I was lucky enough to be married to this young man’s mother for 50 years and she was the one person in my life who told me the truth and nothing but the truth, and she told it to me all the time.
It took me a long time to catch up to that and to be comfortable with it, but she made it possible for me to live an honest life.
Tavis: And yet, Emilio, a lot of people, to your father’s point, have a difficult time, if ever, getting to that place, where they’re willing to hear the truth from their family, from their friends, from their coworkers.
Estevez: Right, yeah, that’s true, and he digs in and he always says, “Go higher, brother. Go higher.” That’s really what the movie celebrates. The low-hanging fruit is cynicism and pessimism, and it’s there if you want it. You can reach out and you can grab it, you don’t even have to make any effort.
But if you want to go a little higher on the tree, the fruit is a lot sweeter and the view is certainly a lot better. So I’m with him. In this pessimistic and cynical culture, I’m more interested in pushing back against that.
Tavis: Is the film, to your mind, a push-back on that?
Estevez: It is indeed.
Estevez: Yeah, yeah, it’s a reflection of where we’re at, not only in our faith but just in – the sort of films we’d like to see more often.
Tavis: Would you describe this as – because this would be a tricky term in this business – is this a message movie, a message film, or do you think you’ve struck upon something that is both empowering and entertaining?
Estevez: I think it’s entertaining. There’s a lot of laughs in this film, and the people in this film, the characters, are wonderfully broken, and I think if – I prefer to say “themes” rather than “message,” because I don’t think anybody wants to hear a message.
So I think the themes that this movie embraces are at the end of the day how about being okay with exactly who you are? How about stop trying to change yourself? This culture that we live in, it says take this pill and you’ll be happy, and go on this diet, you’ll be thinner, and get your teeth whitened and people will love you more, but there’s nothing that says, or there’s no message out there to say hey, you’re okay being exactly who you are.
Tavis: I’ve said many times, Martin Sheen, that people, to Emilio’s brilliant analysis, I do think brilliant analysis of what’s wrong with our culture today, the devolution of our culture, the decay of our civilization, so much of it I think is tied to just what Emilio has laid out now.
What I’ve said consistently for years is that people would rather see a sermon than hear a sermon. They’d rather see one than hear one. When I think of you I think of that because whatever struggles you have had or we all have in our faith walk, in our spiritual journey, you have always been the kind of humanist that I think we should aspire to be.
Tell me about the journey that you’ve had to walk through these years where you have been a humanist, you have been on the front lines of protest, you’ve been arrested more times than I can count. (Laughter) My friend Dr. West just got out, thank God, from being arrested the other day, protesting. He was just arrested.
Sheen: He was, yeah, I saw him in New York.
Tavis: Yeah. But you’ve been such a soldier in that way. Where did that come from?
Sheen: Well, I’d have to say it came from my faith, my Catholic faith. I was away from it for a while and then came back to it 30 years ago, and what I came back to was a much different faith than what I was raised in. Since Vatican II the church had opted for the poor, and they had taken a stand with the marginalized and the voiceless, and so it was about compassion, it was about the (sounds like) corporate works of mercy, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and to house the homeless.
So that made great sense to me, and that was – by their fruits, you will know them. So do these (sounds like) corporate works of mercy – and it’s going to cost you something. If it doesn’t, you’re left to question its value. But the old Irish tale about the guy who comes to the gates of Heaven is one I dearly love.
This guy shows up and he asks St. Peter to let him in, and St. Peter says, “Of course. Just show us your scars.” The man said, “I have no scars,” and St. Peter says, “What a pity? Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
Tavis: I love this story, yeah.
Sheen: Yeah. We have to fight for something. It has to cost us. Our lives, our faith, have to cost us something; otherwise we’re left to question its value.
Tavis: Has it cost you inside Hollywood over the years?
Sheen: Well, Hollywood would have to answer that. I’ve been asked that before, have you lost jobs because of your commitment. I don’t know and I couldn’t evaluate it one way or another.
If it’s true, I’m sure it’s equally true that there are those that reached out to me because of where I stood.
Estevez: My mom would call and she’d say, “Hey, are you watching TV?” I’d say, “No.” “Turn on channel four, turn on channel seven. He got arrested again.” (Laughter) “You want to go down? Are you going to bail him out this time, or am I?” I said, “You know what? Someone’ll get him.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. You’re being funny about this now –
Estevez: But it’s true. (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s true and it is funny, and yet you have been raised in a house with a guy who you admire and revere as your father, admire and revere as a great thespian, a great actor; hence your writing this piece for him, reminding us of how good this guy really is.
But also a guy who – again, my word, not yours – but put some pressure on you and your siblings for the way you should go about trying to live your life.
Estevez: Big shoes. Big shoes.
Tavis: Talk to me about that. Tell me about that part.
Estevez: Well, the first real sort of confrontation that we got into was about my name and not changing my name. It was 1979, 1980, when I decided that this was something I wanted to do, and I got my first head shot done and I used Emilio Sheen, and we both kind of looked at it.
It looked terrible, it looked stupid. (Laughter) He said – he railed. He said, “Don’t do it. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Honor your name, honor our heritage, honor where we came from,” so that was a big lesson for me. That was sort of you talk about the shoes to fill – that was the beginning of it.
Tavis: Have you ever regretted that decision?
Estevez: Never. No.
Sheen: I regretted mine.
Tavis: You did?
Sheen: Deeply, yeah, all my life. It was my father’s one disappointment in me. Mind you, I’d never changed my name. Official Ramon Estevez. All my official documents, they were all born and baptized under that name, we’re married under that, my passport, driver’s license.
But I invented this character because I didn’t want to deal with the prejudice that I felt when I first went to New York against the Puerto Rican community, and so opted for a smoother way, if you will. I had enough problems trying to get a job as an actor, I thought, so I’ll just Scott around this issue. They said, “Oh, you look Irish,” so okay, fine.
Tavis: How do you process, though, Martin, living a life where by your own admission that is the one thing that you sorely disappointed your father in and you had to live with that for all of your life?
Sheen: Yeah, it’s true.
Tavis: How do you process your way through that?
Sheen: Well, I just had to accept it as a mistake of youth. It was like a choice that I made and I was a young adult at the time. If I had had some consul I maybe would have thought different about it.
I did it solely on my own. It wasn’t the advice of an agent or manager. I didn’t even have either at the time. I just faced where I was against who I was, and I opted for as smooth, I thought, a path.
Tavis: Your father, Emilio, had his own pressures, as he’s just described now, that led him to make a decision to come up with the name Martin Sheen. You took your father’s great advice and stayed true to your roots, and yet you have your own pressure that you have to live under, because you come out the gate, you come out the blocks fast, man.
Estevez: Right, right.
Tavis: You come out the blocks fast; you’re a star when you’re just a kid, basically.
Estevez: That’s right.
Tavis: How have you navigated past that kind of expectation?
Estevez: Well, it’s a very different world in terms of the media now. I don’t know if I would have survived the kind of scrutiny that a lot of young actors are under now. It was a very different time. There were far fewer outlets, and frankly, I look at some of these kids that are coming up through the ranks, and it’s scary. You don’t know if they’re going to make it. You don’t know if they’re going to be able to handle that kind of pressure.
Fortunately, I always had my family to be there and certainly the many years that he had spent in the business, he was always a voice that I could go back to and say, hey, this is what’s going on and this is the film I’ve been offered or this is the agent I’m thinking about going with, and I was able to bounce a lot of stuff off of him. That was a great advantage that a lot of my contemporaries did not have.
Tavis: So it’s clear that acting is the family business now. But since we’re talking about roots, what was the family business before you changed direction?
Sheen: (Laughs) Well, my father was a (speaks in Spanish). He had his own vineyard as a young man in Spain and he grew his own vegetables and had his own animals there, and so it kind of skipped a generation.
Now this guy is living that same kind of (speaks in Spanish) life, where he’s very self-sufficient –
Estevez: More Spanish than I ever imagined I would be. (Laughter) It’s very strange.
Tavis: You have a farm and a vineyard?
Sheen: He does, yeah.
Estevez: I do, I have my own microfarm and I raise chickens and bees and worms.
Estevez: Oh, yeah.
Sheen: He has his own vineyard and (unintelligible).
Tavis: In Beverly Hills?
Estevez: No, no out –
Tavis: That’d be (unintelligible). (Laughter)
Estevez: North Malibu. It’s a one-acre plot and we’re pretty much using all of it to grow food.
Estevez: It’s something else. Yeah, I’m definitely tapped into that whole Spanish vibe.
Tavis: What’s it feel like, Emilio, when your life, your heritage, comes full circle?
Estevez: Well, it’s made more extraordinary by the fact that my son lives in Spain. He’s 27 years old; he met a girl there in 2003 when he was there with my father. He was working as my dad’s assistant on “The West Wing” and the summer between season three and four they went off to Spain to check it out, because he’s always wanted to do the Camino.
Off they went, my son and he and a fellow actor, Matt Clark. They go to Burgos, which is a town on the Camino about two hours north of Madrid, and my son meets this beautiful girl named Julia. Her mother’s name Milagros, which means “miracle” in Spanish.
He has been living there ever since, eight and a half years. They’ve been married a couple years. So we like to say that’s the first miracle –
Sheen: That’s the first miracle.
Estevez: – on this journey. But it’s interesting, the movie is inspired by a grandson and dedicated to a grandfather, and somewhere, we’re in between all of that. (Laughter) We’re doing all the work.
Tavis: Let me close on this note – why – I think I get it, but I’m just curious from your perspective why you called this “The Way.”
Estevez: Well, it’s short for The Way of St. James. We had thought about calling it “El Camino,” but that may have caused some confusion as to what it was about, so –
Tavis: Plus I couldn’t have pronounced it tonight if that had been the name of the movie. (Laughter) I’d be like, “Yeah, that. Go see it.”
Estevez: Right, right.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you both on.
Estevez: Thank you.
Sheen: We’re honored to be on. Thank you, Tavis.
Estevez: Thank you. Big, longtime fans.
Tavis: No, and it’s special to see this kind of father-son relationship. Every father-son should want this kind of bond, so I’m glad to have you here.
Estevez: Thank you.
Tavis: The project, directed by, written by and he’s got some acting in it himself, Emilio Estevez, written for his father, the very talented and iconic Martin Sheen. Honored to have them both on the program. Again, the project is called “The Way.” Be sure to check it out.
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