For its 10th edition, the Dubai International Film Festival awarded its Lifetime Achievement Award to Martin Sheen, and the one-time “Apocalypse Now” and “The West Wing” star turned up over the festival’s first weekend to give a career talk that was scheduled to last an hour but extended to 90 minutes as the actor, still robustly energetic at 73, encouraged further questions from the audience. When a career montage was presented before Sheen came up on stage, the selected clips were heavily loaded with highlights from “Badlands” and “Apocalypse Now”. But Kit and Captain Willard are undoubtedly the two film roles that define Sheen’s career to this day (joined latterly by his popular small-screen turn as President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing”), and if some of his on-stage remembrances sounded familiar, it’s only because Terrence Malick’s lovers-on-the-lam drama and Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic war epic have become such hallowed cinematic landmarks and been pored over with Biblical reverence.
When the scene in “Badlands” where Kit finally surrenders was shown, it served as a reminder that Sheen had leading-man looks and charisma to spare when Malick cast him as his sociopathic outlaw lead – not a million miles away, in fact, from the actor’s own idol James Dean. It prompted an obvious question from the on-stage interrogator, DIFF programmer Nashen Moodley: why hadn’t Sheen become a bigger star in the 1970s? Had he avoided the mainstream roles after “Badlands”? To which Sheen, who has always nipped back and forth between TV and film, replied, “I followed the recipe that if you did good work, the offers would come. But I didn’t get a whole lot of offers for major films after ‘Badlands’. I chose to do a lot of TV through the ’70s because I needed to make a living and they were the best offers I was getting. I didn’t understand that you could organise your career better, that you could go out of your way to meet people in the business. I was always very shy about that, and still am to a great measure. I didn’t know how to sell myself beyond doing the best job I could in a film and trusting that that would bring other offers. And a lot of times it didn’t.”
But lighting did strike again in the late 1970s, when Sheen famously replaced Harvey Keitel a week into the “Apocalypse Now” shoot (he’d been Coppola’s top choice but unavailable at first due to a prior commitment). “Apocalypse Now”‘s powerful opening sequence was also shown, revealing Willard in a Saigon hotel room behaving like a coiled, deranged panther (“I can’t watch,” joked Sheen, shielding his eyes). Coppola shot that scene on Sheen’s 36th birthday and, following a day of celebratory boozing, the actor was hugely inebriated by the time the cameras began rolling. When Sheen started tapping into an internal reservoir of anguish and self-loathing, Coppola wanted to stop filming, particularly after his star cut his hand breaking mirror. “I said, ‘Don’t stop, I want to wrestle this demon on camera. Please let me have it’,” Sheen said. “And so I did. I just showed a completely broken, desperate guy, which was a reflection of who I was at the time. That’s not who I am now, but that was a revelation for me… I got through it but something was never the same, in my life or in my character, after that. Something happened that I knew I had to come to grips with.”
Unsurprisingly, given the fact that it’s his own nervous breakdown, Sheen didn’t want the scene in the final cut, refusing Coppola’s pleas to watch it in the editing suite. And, in fact, it wasn’t in the “work-in-progress” version Coppola screened at Cannes in 1979, before the director added it back in for the film’s theatrical release. “I finally saw it on my own months after the film opened in the US,” Sheen said. “I was shocked. It had been a little over two years since we’d shot it, so I was beginning to come to grips with my life in a lot of different ways.”
Further topics broached were Sheen’s deep and unstinting commitment to human rights, social justice and environmental causes; his devout Catholicism, a faith he returned to in his 40s following several theological discussions with “my spiritual director” Malick in Paris in 1981; and the revelation that he wrote Robert De Niro a gushing fan letter after he’d been to see “Raging Bull” in a Paris cinema. Years later, when Sheen had the opportunity to meet him, De Niro’s first words were, “Thanks for the letter.”
Sheen also imparted that Martin Scorsese, who he finally got to work with on “The Departed”, is the director he’d most like to work with again, while the Coen brothers are the filmmakers he’d love the chance to work with at all. Taking questions from the audience, Sheen obliged when asked to demonstrate Jed Bartlet’s nifty jacket maneouvre, where he tosses it over his head and slips his arms in the sleeves in the blink of an eye, explaining it’s something he learned to do thanks to a birth defect (forceps crushed his left shoulder as he was being born, leaving his left arm practically useless). He also expressed a degree of career frustration. Asked if there were roles he’s still sorry he didn’t get, Sheen laughed, “Only about a hundred of them! Every time I go to the movies, I say, ‘Oh jeez… Is Al Pacino the only actor?’ I say that with a great deal of affection. Al and I are great friends, we started out together.”
Having been cast as Uncle Ben in Marc Webb’s 2012 franchise reboot “The Amazing Spider-Man”, Sheen won’t be appearing in the sequel, even though he was approached about returning for a flashback scene. “I said I’d be delighted to do it and then they decided they didn’t need it,” he said, adding with a wry smile, “My agent asked for about $10 million. That may have had something to do with it. Frankly, I was disappointed. I had a great time on the first one and I love that young man [Andrew Garfield], he’s a brilliant actor.”
Sheen concluded his career talk with a fitting summation of what being an actor means to him: “Acting is deeply personal but it’s equally sacred, I think, and it has purpose. The older I get, the more sensitive I get and I realise that sometimes you do have to explore parts of yourself that are very revealing and painful for a higher purpose. But you always get a reward for that. You get a confirmation of your humanity. No matter how much fame you get, you’re always linked to the brokenness – in the sense that we’re all vulnerable – of all mankind.”
Earlier the same day, I also sat down with Sheen for a brief chat, with a few highlights below:
On plans for a sequel to “The Way”, the 2010 comedy-drama directed by son Emilio Estevez about an eye doctor who embarks on a life-changing pilgrimage when he journeys to Spain to collect the ashes of his estranged son.
“Emilio’s son Taylor and I were trying to do the Camino [the 1000-year old pilgrimage across northern Spain] in a car in 2003 and we were in Burgos at a refugio, where the pilgrims stopped along the camino, and he met his future wife there. In the second one, Tom [Sheen’s character] has joined Doctors Without Borders and he is in a very isolated part of Afghanistan. They get mail dropped in once a month and one day the mail comes and the Irishman’s book [Jack, played by James Nesbitt] is in there. Tom reads it and is furious so he goes after him and they all hook up again and have another adventure. The script is very good.”
On shooting “Trash” in Brazil for director Stephen Daldry earlier this year.
“That’s based on a very sophisticated children’s book about three boys that live on a trash heap. It was written by an Englishman teaching school in Manila and I knew the trash heap he wrote about because we had a project there, in a place just outside Manila. It was called the worst trash heap in the Third World; it was horrible. I visited there a couple of times and we started this water project so people that lived there could take a bath. It went on for years until the government threw us out. Although the book does not specify that it’s the Phillipines, I knew it was and when I met the writer I said, ‘I’ve been to Payatas.’ At any rate, they chose to do it in Rio and Stephen asked me to play the priest, Father Juilliard, who runs the mission on the trash heap. It was a great experience. I hear that the editing of the film is going very well.”
On rejecting overtures from the Ohio Democratic Party to run for US Senate in his home state.
“I don’t really have a great interest in politics per se, I have a great interest in peace and social justice issues. I don’t believe that politics really addresses the problems because they come at it from the top and they have special interests and constituencies. The real change comes from people on the bottom who have suffered the most, who oppression has affected the most, and these great leaders have transcended the oppression and the pain. They’re the only ones that make a difference. We just lost maybe the greatest one of the 20th century in Nelson Mandela. He suffered the most and rather than becoming his enemy, he transcended the pain. He understood what he could do because he had suffered so much. He made a profound difference and the whole 20th century is filled with people who made a difference like that, starting with Gandhi, who inspired all of them: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X and Aung San Suu Kyi.”
On passing up the chance to meet Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s one of my regrets. I was offered the chance to meet Elvis and I turned it down. We had a mutual friend and I was in Vegas doing this television show where celebrities learned circus acts, a silly thing, and this friend said that he wanted to meet me. He was at the Hilton and I could have gone and met him but I just got nervous. I would be a blithering idiot: what do you say to Elvis? I couldn’t deal with it so I passed on meeting him. Same thing with Sinatra, same thing with Martin Luther King Jr. I was standing as close as you and me here and he was alone. It was backstage at a benefit and I just did not have the courage. I was so shy. I was just stunned to see him and stunned that he was so small. I remember crouching down because I didn’t want to look over the top of his head. I was having a dialogue to myself saying, ‘Just go and get the blessing’ but I couldn’t do it. I let him go.”