Sheen's way: "I love the journey…"

Sheen's way: "I love the journey…" October 11, 2011

Sr. Rose Pacatte has a terrific and inspiring interview with Martin Sheen, tied to his new movie “The Way,” over at National Catholic Reporter.  He talks about his faith, his family, his film career, and much more.

I feel that your opening performance in “Apocalypse Now” (1979) has something to do with your new film, “The Way,” because, to me, that performance reveals the sacramentality of film because it outwardly manifests the inner reality of a man’s darkness and despair. Thoughts?

I was 36 years old and I was an alcoholic at that time. That sequence was in large part a reflection of my own personal brokenness. I was not a practicing Catholic at the time, and I had no clue as to what I was getting into with the film. I was called in to replace someone [Harvey Keitel] and I came into a volatile situation in the spring of 1976. Six weeks after I arrived [in the Philippines] Typhoon Olga hit and the film was delayed. A year later, I had a heart attack, a really close call.

In film, if something is impersonal, no one cares. Things that last are things that cost people and the actors that portray them. I had an instinct that I could endure this role if I could be honest. I was playing a frightened, confused professional killer [Capt. Benjamin Willard], an unstable frightened alcoholic. I didn’t have a clue who this character was supposed to be and the director [Francis Ford Coppola] said to me: “It’s you. Whoever wants to arrive at any kind of certainty as an actor brings themselves.” I 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. It was filmed on my 36th birthday, you know.

What came next for you spiritually?

“Apocalypse Now” began a journey for me that culminated in Paris in 1981. This is when I was able to bring it all together — my life, my family, my career, my brokenness. I was doing this little film in Paris and the family couldn’t come because of school and things. I had time to walk around and reflect on all that had gone down before, and I ran into Terrence Malick. I had known him from the early ’70s, since “Badlands.” At that time he was living under the radar. He is an articulate and spiritual man and he became a kind of spiritual adviser for me. We would talk endlessly when I wasn’t working. We would talk about spirituality and philosophy and the journey. He’s an Episcopalian.

That’s interesting. Because the Catholic News Service review of Malick’s latest film, “The Tree of Life,” says that “Malick’s agnosticism seems to win out.” It sounds like you would not agree with that assessment.

He and his wife Jill Jakes divorced after “Badlands” [1973]. He was broken and went to a church in Paris and met Michelle Morette. They married in 1985 and he brought her to the States but they split up in 1998. Terrence married his childhood sweetheart, Alexandra “Ecky” Wallace, that same year in Texas. Ecky attended seminary and I believe she is ordained. Today they attend an Episcopal church. Malick went to St. Stephen’s, an Episcopal boarding school, in Austin, Texas, and he’s very connected to that school.

At any rate, Malick became a kind of life coach for me. He became a great anchor for me. The last book he gave me to read, and he had me read several times, was The Brothers Karamazov and it transformed my spirit. When I finished reading it I put it down and literally got up and walked to St. Joseph Church [the English-speaking parish in Paris]. It was May Day and I banged on the door and this Irish Redemptorist priest opened the door and said, “What’s going on?” I told him, “I have been away from the church for a long time and I’d like to go to confession.”

Then what?

I had dropped in at St. Joseph’s occasionally while in Paris, so I was not unfamiliar. And I was fascinated by the new Mass. I had been aware of changes but was not practicing for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to rejoin the church and come back to a sense of fear and condemnation that I had absorbed growing up, that God would strike me down. When I had the heart attack I got the last rites in the hospital. I had a great fear of dying and going to hell. And the thing is, I loved the church as a boy. We were 10 kids in an Irish Catholic family; we went to Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton [Ohio] where the Sisters of Notre Dame taught.

How had the church changed from the time you stopped practicing the faith until your return?

I came back to the church of compassion, love and service, not a church that had me waiting to be condemned for my sins. I found the church of Mother Teresa and Daniel Berrigan. Mother Teresa drove me back to Catholicism and Dan Berrigan keeps me here. I became very active at that time.

What have you learned since that day in 1981?

The last 30 years have been by far the most difficult and the happiest of my life. Life has to cost you; if something of value costs you, then it is of inestimable value.

The thing I learned from the Berrigans is that 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.

What’s the latest step in your spiritual journey?

I love the journey. I am always nervous on airplanes so when I was on a plane I’d bargain with God: Get us a safe landing, and I’ll do this or that. Even when I came back to the church I’d get my rosary out because I was afraid.

Once when I was on a plane leaving Washington, D.C., I was just exhausted. I was the first one on the plane and I fell fast asleep as soon as I took my seat. All of a sudden I was jolted awake. I had no time to get out my rosary, so I told God: Thank you for this life; it’s been wonderful. I could not have asked for anything better. If I don’t make it back, be with those I leave behind. If this is the end of the journey, it’s been wonderful and I am grateful.

Even this horrible time this year with our son [Charlie Sheen], it has made us, my wife and me and our family, pray more fervently. I love Julian of Norwich and St. Therese who said: “Everything is grace.” This is what my life is, through all the anger, everything: grace.

There’s much more.  Read it all.

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20 responses to “Sheen's way: "I love the journey…"”

  1. It’s quite amusing to see somebody praying the rosary then votes for a candidate for president who doesn’t think babies who survive abortions have a right to life.

  2. Robert:

    I have seen and read interviews in which Martin Sheen discusses his pro-life stance.

    He talks about the pregnancies of the unmarried mothers of three of his grandsons, how he and his wife encouraged the mothers to have the children, welcomed the children, and gave them support.

    He also mentions a time in his career when he was struggling and his wife was pregnant. She was considering abortion but was deterred when a therapist said to her: “Well, you have three very healthy children. How do you feel about them?” His wife responded, “ Oh, I love them to bits.” “Well then,” the therapist answered, “that’s your choice, isn’t it. You know what you’re giving up.” Sheen adds, “And that was all she needed. She knew, and she had the child.” That child, Renée, their youngest, is their only daughter.

    (He answers a question about the fact that his wife was conceived in a rape and could have been aborted, but he is obviously uncomfortable, so I will not belabor it.)

    Robert, while you may have some issue with Martin Sheen’s support for Obama, he does not have to answer to you or to me for his conscience.

  3. Robert #1:

    I still recall someone out in blog-land in 2008 said this: “Study the issues and candidates carefully; vote your beliefs; then — regardless which direction you voted in the Presidential race– go to confession afterwards because both sides promote political positions obnoxious to established Roman Catholic Church teachings.”

    Wise insight!

  4. Not quite. One party- Democrat, supports the legalized killing of approx~ 1million unborn children per year.

  5. I read that Martin Sheen changed his last name from Estevez to Sheen because the impact the late Fulton Sheen had on his earlier in his life. I think I also read that he comes from Spanish and Irish families (hence the name Estevez). I like Martin Sheen; it is very difficult to be a faithful Catholic in Hollywood today.

  6. Robert, you and our Popes are in clear alignment. I can’t think of any worse type of kabuki dance than voting for a party of abortion. Please note Robert, that some try the dance by saying that the other candidate was not in agreement with Church teaching either. None have yet offered a single point that comes close to what the Catholic Church calls for to allow one to vote for abortion candidate which is a proportionate reason faced with the fact that it would have to match up to 4,000 dead a day and 54 million killed since 1973.

    Fiergenholt, I fear you do not have a firm grasp on the sacrament of confession. You make it sound like you can knowingly commit murder based on your ability to go to confession and have the slate wiped clean. I do not sense profound sorrow or regret from those who constantly defend voting for abortion and plan on doing it again the next time. Jesus told the woman found in adultery to go forth and sin no more, not vote to add to the killing the next election cycle. And please name one proportiante reason to support abortion candidate in view of the daily killing in abortion?

    HMS, I suppose it is ok to be personally opposed, but vote to keep abortion going as you suggest here with Sheen. You seem to give him a pass for not killing his own kids or grandkids, but see nothing wrong with his supporting the legalized killing of 4,000 a day he does not know.

  7. Greta,

    To call voting for Obama or other Democrats “voting for abortion” misrepresents what is involved. It so oversimplifies the matter as to be a falsehood in many cases, while it is the truth in others. Many Catholics who voted for Obama and other Democrats did so on the basis of other issues, and despite those candidates’ positions on abortion, not because of them. I don’t know Martin Sheen anymore than I think you do, so I would not be so rash as to pretend to know that he wanted “to keep abortion going” (or that he didn’t). But I think his position with regard to abortion is more likely to be reflected in his family life than in an election where abortion was not the only issue.

    And I write this as one who always votes for pro-life candidates when they are available. In fact, even though I’m a Republican, I voted for a bribe-taking pro-life Democratic Congressman over an apparently honest pro-choice Republican opponent. (I didn’t know the Democrat was a crook at the time, but it would not have changed my vote.)

  8. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie, and I hope and pray it will lead many to faith, or to a rekindled faith, or to a deeper faith. I thank God for the grace which seems to have been operative in Martin Sheen’s life, making it possible for him to be God’s instrument, a channel of his grace to many; and I join him in praying for the conversion of his son Charlie.

  9. Naturegesetz, it seems as I have often disagreed with you in the past; that’s my recollection anyway.

    But I really love you (in that Christian, brotherly, cyber way) for what you wrote in #8. You have provided a wonderful example of Christian charity in your comments. Thank you for that.

  10. “Many Catholics who voted for Obama and other Democrats did so on the basis of other issues, and despite those candidates’ positions on abortion, not because of them.”

    Oh, I see, on the basis of ‘other’ issues. Do those other issues rise to the level of protecting millions of unborn babies from being killed?

    Makes perfect sense.

  11. Harold and Greta,

    I don’t presume to know why anyone votes the way they do, but perhaps it is because the other issues have a direct impact on their lives while abortion does not. After all, most of us probably have not intentionally terminated a pregnancy and may not even know anyone who has. I understand the vehemence with which you view this issue – in particular after reading some of Greta’s posts – but not everyone has had experiences such as yours and, for them, issues of economic fairness, poverty, healthcare and the war may carry more weight.

    If you are old enough to remember it, I would refer you to John F. Kennedy’s speech where he assured the American people that the Pope would not dictate American policy. We live in a represtative democracy and that means that we are all required to use our best judgement (taking into consideration the guidance of our Church) when choosing our elective officials.

    God Bless!

  12. harold,

    I completely agree that saving millions of lives is more important than the other issues which come before our government. But it could be that someone sees little prospect for a pro-life president to actually save those lives during his term of office. Presidents do not rule by decree. For example, George Bush was pro-life, but he was unable to stop abortion. So others may sincerely believe that justice for immigrants, educational opportunity for all, and the social safety net are areas where a president can actually make a significant difference, while abortion is not. I disagree with that view (for one thing, Supreme Court nominations are very important), but I can see how people can believe it sincerely.

  13. “But it could be that someone sees little prospect for a pro-life president to actually save those lives during his term of office.”

    I guess these issue are not important?:

    “So others may sincerely believe that justice for immigrants, educational opportunity for all, and the social safety net”

    Republicans are not for these things? Now, you’re reffering to illegal immigrants correct? People who broke the law?

    I know that the Democrats are most certainly for the legalized killing of unborns. Those ‘other’ issues debatable.

  14. “people who broke the law”

    So it’s okay to separate husbands from wives and parents from children, and dump the mother across the border in one place, the father in another and the children in another hundreds of miles apart from one another? It’s okay to punish children for the crimes of their parents by denying them the educational benefits the law gives to other residents — even though that is not the penalty prescribed by law for their parents’ crime and even though the parents have not been convicted? It’s okay for Sheriff Arpaio’s deputies to take a young hispanic-looking man who was part of a non-violent protest against Arizona’s law, drag him out of sight as he proclaimed, “I’m not resisting,” and beat him bloody?

    I know: you didn’t actually say any of those things; and I hope you are as revolted by this immorality and brutality as I am. But these are the sorts of things that are perpetrated by elements in our governments with the tacit approval of people who think that the word “illegal” means dispossessed of any and all rights and undeserving of any rights.

    This is getting off topic. In fact it got off topic when the issue of abortion was brought in and took center stage. Now it’s off off topic. And it’s partly my fault, but I couldn’t let the attempted character assassination of Martin Sheen go unanswered. He seems to be a man of deep faith, and if he still makes mistakes in judgment, his conversion story is admirable.

  15. naturgesetz,

    very nice posts and comments. thank you.

    I see nothing in your posts however that come up to what one might call proportionate reason that would equal the killing of 4,000 babies a day. What social issue has that type of impact? If we were losing 4,000 a day to poverty and the republicans were not willing to do anything about it while the democrat was, it might hold up. My point is that I never hear what they see as proportionate. If you answer is that some do not care what the USCCB or Pope say in regard to a major moral issue that they see as non negotiable, then I can accept that. But does that by admission question just how Catholic they are?

    I am glad to see that you say, “I disagree with that view (for one thing, Supreme Court nominations are very important), but I can see how people can believe it sincerely.” One thing voting for the Democratic Party does is to put a president in place who puts forth nominations to this important court.

    But beyond appts to the court, on the first day in office, Obama used executive order to impact abortion in this country and worldwide and also to push forward the destruction of life through embryo research. He has been a strong supporter of anything that would impact abortion mills like planned parenthood.

    On social issues, not sure what the democrats offer except big government programs most of which have done very little for those who had been targeted. I would love to hear more about those programs and just how they are doing. It would seem like many are putting our country on very dangerous grounds. In many cases, both parties are more interested in how they can use these programs to help themselves. I was a fan of the move to empower and fund many charitiable organizations who had demonstrated the ability to actually help people set in place by W. Bush.

    Many site wars, but if anything, Obama has proven more expansionist with his drone stricks in countries we are not at war with and even to targeting American citizens without trial. I was shocked at how little this issue raised with the left. If W. Bush had done the same thing, there would be calls for impeachment. Obama also got us involved in Libya’s civil war without bothering anyone in congress.

    Last time I looked, the democrats on gay issues were also at odds with Catcholic teaching. This was also one of the non negotiables per Pope Benedict…

    As to separating people from their families for breaking the law, isn’t this done every day when we send people to jail? If the democrats want to have open borders and not have any immigration policy, they should state that as their program. Failing to uphold the laws of the land and then when people break those laws, rewarding them does not seem to make sense if one wants to have respect for law and order. Are you saying that if a person breaks a law, we should not send them to jail becuse they would miss their kids or wife? I would have much more respect for the democrats if they would run on massive increases in the numbers of legal immigrants or open borders or rewarding those who break our immigration laws. The republicans run on controlling the border, and then having a discussion on immigration laws and how they should be updated. Seems like a good plan, especially in view of the numbers of unemployed. And do not even go there with the fact that Americans would not take those jobs. There is now a growing amount of documentation on jobs in construction, roofing, landscaping, and more where Americans have lost their jobs to illegal immigrants. that is why we have an immigration program, to allow new folks to assimilate into our system without damage to our country and its people.

    And you are right, I would support a pro life person running against a pro abortion independent of party. I can think of several senators in the republican party I would never vote for and also some in the house. It is hard to argue on life, but we can disagree on how social programs and solutions are handled most effectively.

  16. Katie Angel
    Harold and Greta,

    I don’t presume to know why anyone votes the way they do, but perhaps it is because the other issues have a direct impact on their lives while abortion does not.

    Mother Theresa spoke about our culture of death in the USA driven by abortion of thousands a day. You cannot have a country that is not impacted by this holocaust. It would be like saying just because of the death camps, many german people were not directly impacted.

    If we had any one thing killing 4,000 a day and it had been going on for decades until the death toll reached 54 million, no one can tell me it would not be a major discussion point and serious concern for every American. Many of the german people said they were not aware of the death camps. In a society like that of Nazi Germany, I can maybe accept that some might not have full knowledge, but many saw how Jews and many others were treated in every day life.

    “economic fairness, poverty, healthcare and the war” are issues which should always be considered. How do we do something on those issues for those killed in abortion? Our constitution guarantees life first and foremost for a very good reason. Nothing else matters if you are dead.

    Economic fairness can mean almost anything. Would you advocte that we change our entire system to communism where everyone has according to need as determined by the state? Is it fair if one percent of Americans pay 70% of all income taxes and 46% pay zero income taxes? Is it fair if the government takes this money and decides who should get it with ongoing clear evidence that it goes to cronies and donars? Is it fair if every time cuts come up, we hear about how much fraud and abuse are in each of the systems?

    The war on poverty since it started has spent more than twice the funding for income pased welfare programs than all the money for all the wars in US history? What do we have for our “investment” as the big spenders like to refer to spending now. Have we wiped out poverty or do we have more people in poverty today than before this war was started by LBJ? Do we have more single parents today as a result with the kids almost certainly doomed to poverty and or jail? When the Republicans pushed welfare reform through and Clinton signed it into law, what impact did that have as more went to work? I will give you a hint, it had a very positive impact. I would rather have Clinton any day over Obama and that includes Hilary.

    As to wars, which wars have ended and which ones have been expanded? Have we now got involved in Libya? do you support the use of drones and missles fired into countries we are not at war with and do you support the targetted killing of an American citizen without trail based on a hit squad selection team we know nothing about and who does not come under congress? The Patriot Act was not ended and in fact there is more invasion of privacy under Obama than ever under W. Bush because the left who fought every discussion by Bush has rolled over for Obama. Gitmo is still open despite the grandstand play on the first days in office promising it would be closed in a year. I am eager to hear of the massive social justice issues which are even close to the killing of 4,000 babies a day.

    And yes, I am mad and guilty of anger over abortion. I pray for God to end my bitterness but he seems to leave this thorn in my heal. Each night I awake to the site of my granddaughers body and sleep is no longer possible. I am sorry if my anger and bitterness come through on this issue. Nothing will ever measure up for me to this great evil we allow in the USA just as we once stood by on slavery. And yes, many did not keep slaves and were not involved, but it was an evil in our country that should never have happened. It makes me furious to know that FDR who so many love and respect made a political decision to not support anti lynching by the democrats in the south because he was more concerned about passing his social agenda, much of which was not constitutional and had little impact on ending the depression. sorry again, need to get my rosary out and try to end this bitterness. But please, think about the issue of abortion and what it is doing to this country.

  17. greta,

    Dumping kids miles away from either parent is nothing like putting one parent in jail. If I need to spell it out for you, when dad goes to jail, they don’t remove mom and the kids from there home and put mom on the side of the road a hundred miles away and kids by the side of the broad another hundred miles away. Can you say “family values?” The way we treat illegal aliens is the complete antithesis of family values.

  18. I think it would be very reasonable to send someone to jail, or maybe fine them, for breaking the law. Then, if they’ve managed to find a job while they were here, let them return to the job. But again, when there are benefits that all residents are entitled to and we deny them to people who have not been convicted of a crime which carries loss of those benefits as a penalty, it is unjust, it amounts to a denial of equal protection of the laws.

    IMO, the current immigration system needs fixing, and until we fix it, we are compounding the problem if we enforce it harshly.

    If the speed limit on all interstate highways were lowered to 25 mph to “save lives” and everybody caught going 26 were thrown in jail and any children who were with them were kicked out of school and placed in foster homes, people would say, “Stop enforcing this stupid law,” and “Don’t make the children pay for the ‘crime’ of a parent.”

    So, I think there are two problems. One is that our immigration laws are too restrictive. The other is that we have gone way overboard in trying to enforce them.

    And BTW, how much of the hysteria over illegal aliens do you suppose is based on ethnic, or even religious, prejudice? I won’t invent a statistic, but when you hear people profess to be afraid that Hispanic citizens will try to have the Southwest secede and join Mexico, it’s obvious that at least part of the immigration hysteria is driven by another of our recurring waves of nativism.

  19. Two things for you folks to consider.

    –A day or so ago, the City Commission of Dayton Ohio declared itself an “Immigrant Friendly” city. While it is hard to say what impact it will have now in the last months of 2011; that city has always been friendly to hard-working immigrants from anywhere regardless of their legal status. In fact, one of the most successful urban parishes currently in existence there is Sacred Heart — which was revived and adopted by the Vietnamese American Catholic Community.

    –The blog-line was supposed to be on Martin Sheen. In case you did not know this — or maybe do not even care — he is a native son of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Parish in Dayton and officially graduated from from both the parish grade school and from Chaminade High School in Dayton in 1962. He is known to very quietly visit family and friends and attend mass in his home parish as well.

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