Making Apocalypse Now pulled Martin Sheen into the heart of his own personal darkness. His latest project, The Way, the story of a bereaved father making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, stirs memories of his countermarch back toward the light. If the film turns out to be half as moving as this interview with National Catholic Reporter’s Sr. Rose Pacette, Sheen, along with son Emilio Estevez, The Way’s writer and director, ought to line up for their Oscars now.
Initially uncertain how to play Captain Willard, Apocalypse’s hero, Sheen asked for input from Francis Ford Copolla. The director told him:“It’s you. Whoever wants to arrive at any kind of certainty as an actor brings themselves.” Sheen realized: “I could wrestle this demon. There’s an old saying that an artist gets a license to play this part. I used the license to go to a place that was both cathartic and terrifying. My poor wife, Janet, got a glimpse of this poor devil in that sequence, the anger, fear, resentment, disappointment that had built up over 36 years.”
After filming wrapped up, Sheen found a “life coach” in director Terence Malick, who gave him a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. After finishing it, Sheen walked to St. Joseph’s, an English-speaking church in Paris, and asked to be confessed and re-admitted tot h Sacraments. The Brothers Karamazov remains Sheen’s favorite book to this day.
Sheen calls the decades since his reversion “by far the most difficult and the happiest” of his life. He says: “Life has to cost you; if something of value costs you, then it is of inestimable value.” If he expresses his faith through political activism, he keeps his goals modest. From the Berrigan Brothers he learned: “You are not going to change the world, and maybe not even the person next to you. The only person you can change is you.”
On the unavoidable subject of his other son, Sheen speaks both protectively, though not always optimistically. “Charlie [Sheen] has practical experience about trust and when betrayed he rages. He is a loving, deeply sensitive man trying to find his way in a very dark corridor and he is running out of candles.” He adds: “He is going through what I went through in my journey. We will be waiting at the end of that corridor with a lit candle.”
From time to time, I’ve toyed with the idea of making a pilgrimage, but was never able to settle on a destination. Whatever might happen to my right hand, I’d rather forget Jerusalem — I’m sorry to say I can’t even think of the place without obsessing over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe for some people anxiety and ambivalence over ethnic and sectarian feuds is valuable baggage to carry on a spiritual journey, but I’d rather leave it home, thanks. With its art and history and architecture, and with my own memories of La Dolce Vita, Rome would ravish my senses to the point where my soul would go on sabbatical. Assisi? Same thing –it’s Italy, for Pete’s sake, the country that owes its tourist industry to its reputation for being the land of culturally enriching hookups. What is Capri if not South Padre Island for poets? That anyone thought to base a Church on that peninsula makes no sense, except as a cruel joke.
But I’m a walker. Growing up in New York made me one. My hopelessness at choosing and repairnig used cars has ensured I’ve stayed one. El Camino might be just the thing for your humble narrator. I’ll wear shoes with good ankle support and try not to think of Paz Vega.