Sheen Family's Epic Journey

The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his dad, Martin Sheen, explores the family's Spanish roots. The two talk to Marlow Stern about Charlie Sheen, the religious right, and how President Josiah Bartlet would fix the U.S.

10.07.11 3:01 AM ET

The “Sheen” family’s road to stardom is a three-lane highway littered with car crashes and detours, yet they always seem to find their way to the other side.

Ramón Estévez, better known by his stage name, Martin Sheen, is the patriarch. He rose to stardom with mesmerizing performances in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. He had a resurgence in the latter part of his career, starring as Democratic President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s NBC drama The West Wing. His son Emilio, meanwhile, was part of the Brat Pack of the ‘80s, with roles in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, briefly segued into adult roles in the early ‘90s with The Mighty Ducks franchise, before recently emerging as a talented director with the 2006 film Bobby, about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and his most recent—and best—effort, The Way. And Charlie Sheen, well, that’s been well-documented.

Written, produced, and directed by Estevez, The Way follows the journey of Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), an insulated eye doctor whose adventurous son, played by Estevez, dies while hiking El Camino de Santiago—a Christian pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. To honor his son’s memory, Tom embarks on his own adventure across the Camino, scattering his son’s ashes along the way, and in the process, discovers vast truths about himself, and his son.

In an in-depth interview with The Daily Beast, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez opened up about why they chose the Sheen-Estevez names, what inspired them to make The Way, their own journeys to Hollywood, Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, the religious right in America, what President Josiah Bartlet would do to fix a struggling America, and much more.

This film is essentially about faith.

Estevez: It’s about being human. It’s less about religion and faith and more about spirituality and living life. I’ve been reading things online accusing us of being too religious and it’s kind of offensive.

Are you guys spiritual people?

Sheen: I’ve never met anyone that wasn’t! I think we believe in mystery. But religion, unfortunately, because of dogma, tends to divide us, and spirituality and humanity is what unites us.

Religion is, in a way, responsible for both of your careers. Mr. Sheen, I read that it was a Catholic priest who lent you the money to move to New York and pursue acting?

Sheen: That’s true. He was my first supporter. He gave me about $500 over a three-month period. That was big money in those days! You could buy a new Chevy for about $2,500, and he was a parish priest living off a stipend. My father did not want me to go to New York to be an actor, and Father Al had the authority to get between us and make the situation a little easier with my Dad.

And Emilio, your first film role was actually produced by the Catholic Paulist order?

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Estevez: That’s right. The first lead I had was a show called Insight, and it was an afterschool special.

The Way is very much a love letter to your Spanish heritage. And I’ve always been curious about why you changed your name to “Martin Sheen,” and Emilio, why you kept the “Estevez” name.

Sheen: My real name is Ramón Estévez, and I never changed it. I still am officially known as that. I changed it in the beginning because when I came to New York, it was difficult enough to become an actor, and this name, which I loved, became an impediment because New York at that time was blaming the Puerto Ricans for all the problems. And I love the Puerto Rican community, but they were the new immigrants and were getting blamed for a lot of stuff. I figured I’d have a hard enough time getting a job, so I used Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s last name as mine, and a guy named Robert Dale Martin, who was a casting director for CBS and was very encouraging to me, as my first name.

Do you have regrets about not keeping your real name?

Sheen: God, yes! When my father came to see me in this big Broadway play in 1965 called The Subject Was Roses—he was about to retire and go to Spain—he went and looked at the marquee to find my name and couldn’t see it. That was a big one.

And Emilio, you kept your father’s last name and didn’t go the “Sheen” route. Why?

Estevez: My agents and managers were telling me at the time, “You’ve got to change your name. Don’t make it harder on yourself, ride on your Dad’s coattails and use the ‘Sheen’ name because the brand has already been created for you to step into.” And I said, “Well how about creating a new path and doing my own thing?” [Me and my father] had a discussion about it, and the first headshot I ever had printed out had “Emilio Sheen” on it, and it looked totally lame. I thought, “That’s not me!” It turned out that being Latino is pretty popular now.

Sheen: I was so proud of him, man. I begged him not to change it. I thought, “We’re coming into our own now!”

Did you also beg Charlie not to change his name?

Sheen: I did!

Mr. Sheen, your character in The Way is lost in life, and experiences this crisis of faith after his son dies hiking on El Camino de Santiago. I read that you famously lost your Catholic faith, and Terrence Malick pulled you back in when you two met in Paris in 1981.

Sheen: He helped me to see everything more clearly. I was going through a very difficult time during that period, and I ran into him in Paris and he was an expat at the time. I was delighted that he was so helpful. He was like a spiritual adviser. He gave me a lot of literature to read, and the last thing he gave me was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and then sent me in the direction I had to go, and I converted back to Catholicism.

Emilio, how did your love of filmmaking begin?

Estevez: [My father] bought a very odd-looking Super 8 camera to document the kids growing up, and I said, “Let me see that!” and he never saw it again. The first footage I ever shot had to be inspired by Malick because I shot eight or nine rolls of film in Ireland shooting seagulls! Total disaster! My mom said, “What are you doing? Where are the people?”

And you also made home movies with your brother, Charlie, and friends: Sean Penn, Chris Penn, Rob and Chad Lowe.

Estevez: War movies, Mafia movies. It was all derivative of other stuff that had been done, and they were all so lame! My mom came across them all recently and told me, “They’re so bad, it’s astonishing that any of you have careers!”

This film is really a testament to Mr. Sheen’s eminent likeability, because his performance really anchors the film and he’s the vessel through which the audience experiences this journey.

Estevez: He’s not a military assassin or the president of the United States—

Sheen: I used to be! [Laughs]

Estevez: —But he is this extraordinary cat, and I wanted to celebrate that on film and create a role for him that’s close to who he is. I don’t think he’s been as good in a motion picture since Apocalypse Now as he is in this film.

Sheen: It’s the best part I’ve had in 30 years, and he wrote it for me.

The film was inspired by a trip Mr. Sheen and your son took on the Camino.

Sheen: [Me and Estevez’s son Taylor] drove across it. I was on break from [The West Wing] in ’03, and we went to Ireland and did a family reunion, and by the time we got to Spain we had two weeks left so we rented a car and drove it. [Taylor] met his future wife in Burgos at supper one night, and that was it! I was enthralled by the Camino. My dad was a Gallego, and we grew up about 80 kilometers (49 miles) from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The Way has a refreshing universality. In our culture, faith—especially religion—has really been co-opted by people who aren’t very accepting, and promote exclusivity.

Estevez: We’re not trying to change anybody. You see all these Quentin Tarantino wannabes, and all these people making movies that are steeped in darkness and they think it’s cool and hip and that’s what’s going to sell. I don’t know where these guys’ hearts are who put out this crap. We’ve been in enough crap to know when we see it! We’ve made terrible movies and made choices for economic reasons because you have kids and ex-wives. If I want a gig, I’ll direct an episode of CSI: Miami, or one of these shows that pays the bills.

Does it bother you the way the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Perrys of the world have co-opted religion to back their own political agendas?

Estevez: Yeah. That’s all they got!

Sheen: I used to feel very uncomfortable with that but I don’t anymore. They appeal to people who have been pretty much shut out of everything else. We’re all struggling to find our identity. You never know where God enters the picture. All these reverends with the hair and the begging and shouting “Hallelujahs”—I used to get furious at these people, but we’re all on the journey. We’re all on pilgrimage.

In addition to Emilio’s films, I also grew up with Charlie’s movies—Platoon, Major League, Hot Shots—and when all the s--t was going down with him, you two really didn’t make many statements to the media. Was that a conscious choice, to handle it behind closed doors?

Estevez: Essentially, we’re not really obligated to say anything. We were in the middle of doing press for the film in Europe, and we kind of walked off the plane and walked into it. We had to address it at that point, but it's been pretty public what he’s been going through. We’re a very close family and we don’t leave anybody on the beach, and we don’t leave anybody behind. We also don’t have to talk about it. We just do it. We just act.

And he seems to be doing much better now.

Sheen: He is. Very much so. Thank you for asking.

Estevez: He came to our screening in California a couple of weeks ago and surprised us on the red carpet. It was very lovely to see him.

Now, as a fan of The West Wing, I must ask: what would President Josiah Bartlet do to fix America?

Sheen: I would do exactly what President Obama is doing. He’s going after the fat cats who have abused their privilege.

Right. There are all the Occupy Wall Street protests going on as we speak.

Sheen: Yes. I hope to get down there when we finish. I have a lot of friends down there. But they have to step up and take responsibility for their greed. If corporate America were to pay its fair share, we’d be fine. They wrap themselves in the flag and pretend they’re patriotic, which is the biggest load of bulls--t going. They’re interested in profit, not patriotism. If the profit is overseas, that’s where the American dollar goes. These guys have never understood what makes America great: it’s the middle class, the people. Who is going to defend their position, their money, their banks, their foreign investments, but the middle-class soldier who’s giving his life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, wherever. We have become the policemen, and these people are not accepting their responsibility to reinvest in America, stop crushing the unions! Support the unions! The unions created the middle class and there would have never been victory in World War II without the middle class, and these bastards have got to understand that their position is tenuous. When they fall, who do they go crawling to? The one place they bitch about being too big: the government. And what’s the last thing they’re willing to support? The government that saved their ass. Now I’m getting vulgar and you got me going, but you asked about Jed Bartlet! [Laughs]

Mr. Sheen, you’ve been arrested for protesting 66 times. Emilio, as his son, have you ever been like, “Dad, you really need to stop getting arrested!”

Sheen: 67 times, but who’s counting! [Laughs]

Estevez: Nah. I get the calls from my mom: “He’s on TV again. He’s at it again, turn on Channel Four. He’s in jail again!”

Sheen: They never once asked me to stop. Ever.

Lastly, let’s talk about your upcoming projects. Mr. Sheen, you’re playing Uncle Ben in the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man film. That’s a big deal.

Sheen: I was delighted. We shot the final scenes here in New York in May. But let’s face it: I’m dead after the first reel!

Estevez: I’m working on creating another family film sports franchise. Get back into the whole Mighty Ducks thing. It’s going to be about harness racing.